This is a response to – not a critique or attempted repudiation of – J. M. Smith’s two most recent postings.
One of my courses in the current semester is a course with the catalogue-name “Writing about Literature.” Like many college-level courses nowadays, “Writing about Literature” is an exercise in absurdity. Only those who have literature, and who have it massively, are ready to write about literature. My students have almost no literature. The men especially have never been readers. The women have read recent consumer-fictions in which young female protagonists singlehandedly overthrow murderous “patriarchal” dystopias with the same police-state resources at their disposal as the modern Federal Government of the USA, but they cannot name the authors of these fictions.
I agree with Smith that ninety-nine per cent of public words nowadays are otiose and fugacious when they are not cases of downright mendacity and meretriciousness. On the other hand, it is possible that in some venues there might be an unhealthy dearth of words. I cite my “Writing about Literature” class as an example.
We are five weeks into a fifteen-week semester. As my students have no literature, I have not worried about the writing element in the course-title; I have simply been giving them an essential minimum of literature – specifically the quaternity of English Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. I have been encouraging the students to speak coherently and systematically about the poems of these poets, beginning with the paraphrase, and proceeding to the interpretation that takes into account the web of connotations woven in the syntactic warp and dictional weft of the rhapsody.
If anyone ever designed to utter a single phrase – in a discursive context of other phrases – that might “work a miracle” in a responsive audience, let us say, of one, so that the singular utterance would elicit a correspondent testimony of many words, then any member of the aforementioned poetic quaternity would qualify. Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper” should provoke conversation, at least.
Alas! My students – whether out of timidity, alienation, vocabulary deficiency, or total inexperience with the connotative aspect of language, all of which are probable – have tended to respond to promptitude almost solely in the medium of monosyllabic utterances. If the question, intended to elicit the beginnings of a paraphrase, were: “Who is the ‘solitary reaper’ in the poem?” – the answer would be, with the lilting diffident uplift in tone that denotes questioning uncertainty, something like, a girl? – or nature? – or a peasant? There is never a sentence. And there is never much possibility of a discussion, which can only be conducted in sentences.
I had to say to my students last Friday, in a delicately worded appeal, that I wished them henceforth to speak to me as I speak to them – in sentences. Whether they will respond, I have no way of predicting although I am not sanguine about the likelihood.
My point is simply this: That while there can be too many words, useless words, meaningless words, there might also be too few, hence only a sub-minimum of meaning, and no possibility of a meaningful parliament. I daresay that we are afflicted, at this stage of American modernity, with both maladies: A surfeit of words and a poverty of them. I daresay that one way to die is to give up on language, to revert to speechlessness, so that, at first, one can only say yes or no, and finally only yes.