Category Archives: Language

My Girl A Superstar All From A Home Movie

So there I was, going through the education history of a special education child, trying to develop a case theory when suddenly, Kanye West bursts through the scene with this revelation:

“My Girl A Superstar All From A Home Movie”

No, seriously, sit with it for just a second. Let’s lift the negative connotations of a reductive approach for just a second and appreciate the purity of the this simple and clear truth.

All the complaints ever uttered about Kim Kardashian revolve around the utter nonsensical state of celebrity. Why is this broad famous?

And Kanye, just comes through, with that nugget of matter of fact. However negative the message or characterization, the moment is still poignant – she’s described in one line. Not even described, just she’s there in one moment. Everyone knows what and who he’s talking about through allusion even. I mean I am probably completely alone in this but I really have been appreciating that for the night.

I sat there, like wow, how many people can be referred to with such specificity and clarity in an one line allusion? If that line had to be about you, what would it be?

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Sentences

Have never read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, but this was magical and sums up how I feel about books and writing. A good sentence – like a really perfect combination of words – just makes me feel so good, and they can be found anywhere from blogs to judicial opinions. I savor a good sentence as a small piece of wisdom. Also, this should be read with this. (omg, it’s a reading pairing! Like wine and cheese!)

My Life’s Sentences

By JHUMPA LAHIRI

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.

When I am experiencing a complex story or novel, the broader planes, and also details, tend to fall away. Rereading them, certain sentences are what greet me as familiars. You have visited before, they say when I recognize them. We encounter books at different times in life, often appreciating them, apprehending them, in different ways. But their language is constant. The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.

They remain the test, whether or not to read something. The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold. In fiction, plenty do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.

Knowing — and learning to read in — a foreign tongue heightens and complicates my relationship to sentences. For some time now, I have been reading predominantly in Italian. I experience these novels and stories differently. I take no sentence for granted. I am more conscious of them. I work harder to know them. I pause to look something up, I puzzle over syntax I am still assimilating. Each sentence yields a twin, translated version of itself. When the filter of a second language falls away, my connection to these sentences, though more basic, feels purer, at times more intimate, than when I read in English.

The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life. It is a habit of antiphony: of call and response. Most days begin with sentences that are typed into a journal no one has ever seen. There is a freedom to this; freedom to write what I will not proceed to wrestle with. The entries are mostly quotidian, a warming up of the fingers and brain. On days when I am troubled, when I am grieved, when I am at a loss for words, the mechanics of formulating sentences, and of stockpiling them in a vault, is the only thing that centers me again.

Constructing a sentence is the equivalent of taking a Polaroid snapshot: pressing the button, and watching something emerge. To write one is to document and to develop at the same time. Not all sentences end up in novels or stories. But novels and stories consist of nothing but. Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.

My work accrues sentence by sentence. After an initial phase of sitting patiently, not so patiently, struggling to locate them, to pin them down, they begin arriving, fully formed in my brain. I tend to hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. They are spoken to me, I’m not sure by whom. By myself, I know, though the source feels independent, recondite, especially at the start. The light will be turned on, a sentence or two will be hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper, carried upstairs to the manuscript in the morning. I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone. They are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order, with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.

Over time, virtually each sentence I receive and record in this haphazard manner will be sorted, picked over, organized, changed. Most will be dispensed with. All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds. To work on them so compulsively, perhaps prematurely, is to see the trees before the forest. And yet I am incapable of conceiving the forest any other way.

As a book or story nears completion, I grow acutely, obsessively conscious of each sentence in the text. They enter into the blood. They seem to replace it, for a while. When something is in proofs I sit in solitary confinement with them. Each is confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Each is sentenced, literally, to be part of the text, or not. Such close scrutiny can lead to blindness. At times — and these times terrify — they cease to make sense. When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft. It is the absence of all those sentences that had circulated through me for a period of my life. A complex root system, extracted.

Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively. This is why I avoid reading the books I’ve written. Why, when I must, I approach the book as a stranger, and pretend the sentences were written by someone else.


Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of “Unaccustomed Earth,” “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies.”

On chasing perfection

This article is kind of pornographic good for the type A, OCD prone  among us. The titillating sensation of reaching “perfection” is truly exhilarating; it’s also universal beyond making an omelette.

Actually reading this reminded me of the first “essay” I had to write, in 3rd grade, in Chinese, in which I used a “chengyu” (set phrases from ancient Chinese) for the first time. Incidentally, it was an essay about making eggs. At the time, I didn’t even know it was a chengyu – until the sentence was read out loud in class (obviously setting off the worst narcissistic vain streak known to mankind, I think the self-deprecation is a conscious effort to offset it). It was perfect.

Shit, somebody call Freud, I think I just found the cause of my neurotic obsession with finding the mot just. Another reason why languages get me off sometimes; and the rare moments when I can almost understand the logic behind Ezra Pound’s cantos.

love language


An aspect of 2046 that’s always confounded and fascinated me is how Tony Leung spoke Cantonese while Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi spoke Mandarin. Or really just scenes where two parties in a conversation are speaking to each other in essentially different languages. I have always always wondered why or what the point of it is, because I’m sure it’s not just that that’s what the actors’ native dialects are (I am almost certain Tony Leung can manage the few lines of Mandarin his role would’ve required, however feeble the attempt might have been).

I never looked this up, of course, because, actually it never occurred to me that I could do that until just now when I thought about writing this post.

So, but, anyway, yesterday was a friend’s birthday and a guy from our section posted on her wall in Hebrew (birthday girl is Chinese, I assume he said something like happy birthday), and she replied thank you in Chinese. This made me think of this schema of communication which sounds so disjointed. Then it occurs to me that this may not even come up for a non-Chinese speaker, though, the dialects truly are so distinct that I think it should be fairly apparent to anyone watching Wong Kar Wai (assuming you’re not just a fetishist).

But so what if it’s not an issue for anyone else? What if people could really communicate like that? There is no language barriers, everyone just understands every nuance of every other language.

Although, the neutralizing effect of removing language barriers would probably also just remove these nuances. There would also be no native language, which I can’t even imagine. Man, is that how monolingual Americans feel? Native language and only language; ride or die.

So then, why 2046?

toska

Edit: apparently, there’s a similar term for this in Czech, per Kundera. Anglo emotions must not be that nuanced, because humina humina, anglo barbarians.

Vladmir Nabokov: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

On beauty

This is going to sound just a little pretentious, maybe a little arbitrary, therefore unnecessary in sum.

However:

Don’t you think the word “beauty” is so bastardized these days? I mean, listen, what do you think of when you hear the word beauty? It’s not the same as, say, Plato’s ideal of beauty. #amiright? So if I were to write, a la recherche – in search of truth, beauty and other intangibles, doesn’t it sound so cheap and tacky? Even though it’s not?

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper

Tweeted this earlier today. I’m realizing the concept is not only applicable to grand schemes, but to anything that meets an end. Isn’t it true, that most things end with a whimper. There isn’t much flair, drama or climax in life; mostly plateaus, melodrama and disenchantment.

libertinage du sentiment

came across this phrase earlier today in a marivaux play; this could make for an interesting post.

New favorite blog

Leisure class

He makes me feel like I’m pandering to the camp.

Essentially, I was writing about the romantic temperament. Jim Willard is so overwhelmed by a first love affair that he finds all other lovers wanting. He can only live in the past, as he imagined the past, or in the future as he hopes it will be when he finds Bob again. He has no present. So whether the first love object is a boy or girl is not really all that important. The novel was not about the city so much as about the pillar of salt, the looking back that destroys. Nabokov handled this same theme with infinitely greater elegance in Lolita. But I was only twenty when I made my attempt, while he was half as old as time. Anyway, my story could only have had a disastrous ending. Obviously, killing Bob was a bit much even though the original narrative was carefully vague on that point. Did he or didn’t he kill him? Actually, what was being killed was the idea of perfect love that had existed only in the romantic’s mind. The other person—the beloved object—had forgotten all about it.

– Gore Vidal, Paris Review