Rhapsody in Blue
There’s a Word for It
Measures 24-41 of the Tenor line of Every valley shall be exalted Handel’s Messiah
Gershwin’s music captures the movement and the often fractious character of the American city. Woody Allen played this music under the opening sequences of his film Manhattan perhaps because New York City is among the most rambunctious and idiosyncratic of American cities, it often seems the city sees itself this way. Music can often tell stories, sometimes stories that language does not tell quite so well. Just as often, though, music is used in conjunction with language to tell stories more vividly than words or music alone could do.
I have always enjoyed the literary device of synesthesia. It is an under-noticed device I think, but it is used quite frequently. Whenever we refer to the clarity of sound as sound that is crystal clear we are using synesthesia, in that we are using a visual image, that of transparency, to describe an auditory image, a sound without distortion or interference. The image from the score of Handel’s Messiah captures another kind of synesthesia; it illustrates a kind of musical scoring that is called word painting. The music is sung to the words, “Every mountain and hill made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain.” When the mountains are being made low, the music starts low and ascends, imitating the shape of the mountain then ends on a low not suggesting the mountain has been brought “low”. Similarly when the lyric talks about a “crooked” place the melody goes one note up and one note down (alternating “B” and “C” notes I think), suggesting a rough edge. And when the rough places are made plain, a single note is sung throughout the phrase suggesting a level surface. Of course this painting is not done with colors, at least not literal colors, but with sound. I enjoy this flexibility of language that describes a thing by making it into something it is not.
Salman Rushdie wrote an article for the London Times Literary Supplement, “Salman Rushdie celebrates the Paris Review”, in which he praises the English language for its great flexibility. He asked a jeweler friend of his why she liked working in gold and she told it is because the metal is so malleable that you can do almost anything with it. Rushdie sees the English language as being like that, pliable like gold and that is what makes it such a marvelous language for telling stories. Old English has a dark guttural sound to it that makes comedy difficult, Middle English has a musicality that makes tragedy difficult (perhaps just for me) but English as it is spoken today has both Old and Middle English elements to it that give real breadth to the possibilities of story telling.
The picture is a self-portrait caricature of Thomas Nast, America’s first editorial cartoonist. He used pictures and words to tell stories, as comics do to this day. He gave an additional meaning to the word “nasty”, a word that is much older than he. In the picture, Nast is sharpening his “sword” preparing for another strike. Nast used ridicule to show things up for what they were, in his view. Sir Walter Scott once said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” This is the danger of ridicule and the editorial cartoon, I suppose. Nast’s targets were often folks like Boss Tweed and his corrupt cronies, but if he ever got it wrong, that satiric edge could do real harm, as it can to this day, whether employed in an editorial cartoon or some other venue.
In the case made against Socrates a reference was made to Aristophanes’ caricature of the philosopher to support their accusations. Aristophanes, in his play The Clouds, named his philosopher Socrates not because he was out to ridicule Socrates so much as philosophers in general and Socrates just happened to be the most visible philosopher of the day. The play is a great play, but it could be argued that if the ridicule it made of Socrates was undeserved than it is also a play that did some harm. Of course the same could be said of any work of art that was used for political purposes that had nothing to do with the real meaning of the work of art or the artist’s intent, at least to the degree that can be known. The artist is not always responsible for the way in which others misuse her or his work.
The cartoon relies almost exclusively on language, though the darkness and the candles make the joke work. You would have to know something about life in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s to understand what is going on. Con Ed was the local supplier of electricity. They had a reputation for frequent power outages and rate increases and many felt that as the cost of the service went up, the quality of the service went down. The cartoon, though, underscores how simplicity in both the image as it is drawn and the language as it is used can make the most effective commentary.
Lewis Carroll was an inventor of words, mostly nonsense words but he was also adept at capturing the absurd at its most comical. The images above and below come from his poem The Hunting of the Snark. The story is thought by some to have introduced the word “snark,” along with its cognates, to the language. The image is a map of the sea and it captures with some accuracy what you are likely to see on the open sea, though its usefulness for navigational purposes is at best dubious. The joke works perhaps because it does capture what we expect to see in the open ocean and to those that do not navigate the map is as useful as any other while at sea. The second image captures a scene and is intended to illustrate (some think anyway, because the image does not appear with these words) the lines that accompany it (added by me and not the illustrator or publisher of the book).
To illustrate the lines (maybe):
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They persued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
Two prominent figures in the picture are a “careworn” young woman and a “hopeful” looking young woman, the “care” and “hope” referred to in the lines of the verse. Most everyone else has a fork of one kind or another in his hand. Everyone looks very serious and intent, with the possible exception of Hope. The sounds of the words in the rhyme are very serious sounds, though the meaning is of the words is nonsensical. I think this is an aspect of English story telling (though I am sure it is not exclusively English) that I enjoy, the ability of language to sound like one thing when it means something very different and the absurdity of this juxtaposition is what often creates humor in a text, it certainly does in this one. As was pointed out in the Rushdie essay referred to earlier, the English language is malleable and can be shaped in many ways to do many different things, even at times, things that are mutually exclusive, like serious comedy.
In this film clip we see another attribute of language, its ability to create a kind of verbal slight of hand that the con man can use to manipulate others. I think in the transaction the quick talker, Ryan O’Neal, came away with five dollars, but he may have gotten more, it all takes place so quickly. He is well away before the shopkeeper realizes that something isn’t quite right and even then she is not sure. The dexterous use of language can often achieve unexpected results. Like with many skills, those that use language well often appear to be doing something that is very easy, that anyone can do that is in fact quite difficult. Often in order for this skill to be effective, the person practicing it depends on the appearance of “simplicity” to be successful. As soon as the language is seen to be polished and complex, it becomes suspect and the readers or audience put up their guard, especially when it is language used by those like the Ryan O’Neal character in the film clip.
Language is how we communicate and the better our vocabulary and the more skilled we are at putting words together, the more effective we are at communicating our ideas. However, language is also inherently ambiguous, it means different things to different people. Often it succeeds by using images that lend themselves easily to multiple interpretations so that each hearer or reader can get from the words the message she or he wants to hear. This is often how a political speech works. But it is also how the words of a story enable each of us to use our imaginations in ways that make a story personal. There was an article in the Guardian, “Do you know what today’s kids need? Thumb amputation, that’s what,” about Maurice Sendak and his story Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was asked what he would say to parents who were afraid their children would find the film version of his story “too scary”. Sendak replied, “I would tell them to go to hell.” For their children, he had the following message: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like.” Not a very sympathetic response from a writer of children’s stories.
The point of the article was that we need to be scared a little bit, especially if we are children. Sam Leith, suggests that the stories we most remember are the stories that frightened us. What makes these stories resonate is that they enable us to “leave home” without actually leaving home, to experience some of the dangers and “scariness” of the world while in a place of safety. We can experience danger without fear that we will actually be harmed by it. This serves a necessary purpose, in that it helps us as children to recognize danger before we actually have to experience it. We also learn how to respond to it after a fashion. We certainly learn that there are forces in the world that must be stood up to if the world is to spin merrily on its way through the universe.
Often we want to keep to children safe and this is a good thing, children by definition are probably not skilled enough to protect themselves in the “real world.” But if they are to ever be ready for the world they must learn what to expect and we always learn best from experience. Stories, especially scary stories, offer us a way to experience the dangers we might encounter in the world without actually experiencing them. They also force us to confront our courage, or sense of loyalty and friendship, or proper place in the world.
In the story Coraline, the central character experiences on the one hand a kind of abandonment by her parents, while at the same time she must accept the responsibility of rescuing them. There are two worlds in the story one safe, but indifferent to her, the other quite dangerous and desirous of her. Isn’t this how it often is in life, the people who seem to desire most our affection are the people that we can trust least with that affection and that the people that are most important to us, often take us the most for granted. Stories teach us that the most important people in our lives, those that we can most depend on, are often not the most exciting people. Because we know them well it is easy to take them for granted.
I enjoy the stories I read in English and I delight in the versatility of the language, but in part this is because English is the only language I know well. I suppose in part it is our familiarity with a language that makes it malleable, that makes it gold and that this quality of language is a product of being fluent in that language. All languages tell stories and they all work well in the cultures that these languages serve. But whatever malleable qualities other languages have I know and enjoy the malleable quality of the English language, that can terrify me in amusing ways and let me taste a sour expression.