Jan/Feb 2024  •   Salon

The Divine Afflatus and the King's Bare Butt

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Rock art by Tim Christensen

Rock art by Tim Christensen

What is high epic in Genesis, Homer, and Shakespeare all too often is trauma or farce in real life. In real life a figure to pity or be ashamed of becomes in literature, if not a hero, then an anti-hero, an archetypal Adam or Karamazov, not an ordinary human being who suffers and sins like any other.

Likewise, what is plain speech in everyday life, ordinary people expressing themselves as best they can, becomes eloquent in the hands of a great poet or Biblical scribe. It's as if those authors were possessed by what the poet Samuel Loveman called "the divine afflatus," and in its thrall carry their readers along with them.

But who ever heard real people talk like the characters in Daniel Deronda or Anthony and Cleopatra? We all have our moments when we find the right phrase at the right time (rather than the day after), but we don't live our lives speaking and talking like that. Yet highfalutin, multi-syllabic speech is what we expect from the larger-than-life characters in our literature and drama. It's as much a convention as, to Western eyes, the robotic movements and whitened faces of Japanese Kabuki.

Shakespeare is a good example of this, which is odd because he seems to be well aware that plain speech is more effective than the pseudo-eloquence parodied by the nomad thespians in Huckleberry Finn. In an early version of Hamlet the famous soliloquy is rife with big words, falls flat and is unmoving. The text we are familiar with substitutes short, Anglo-Saxon words for the original's French and Latin derivatives. Voila! Immortal verse. (The original plot is also almost unrecognizable; Shakespeare sacrificed subtlety and truth to the box office. He also cut in half what was a four-hour version of the play to accommodate the short winter days that provided the only light available for outdoor theater.)

"To be or not to be, that is the question." Short, everyday words anyone can understand. "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them..." That's closer to the vocabulary of a construction worker than a college professor. It hits home, "hits the mark," as Will might say. There may be a better way to express the thoughts of someone contemplating suicide, but these succeed pretty well if the test of time is any indication.

Elsewhere, Shakespeare sometimes mocks the hollowness of fancy, learned speech, using unschooled characters to mangle the meanings in an attempt to sound like their betters. Did the playwright realize he was sometimes producing that same fancy-pants dialogue when his serious characters hold forth? He had learned his craft well enough, though, to revert to plain speech when the chips were down. "Out, out, damned spot." "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." Low marks for that "interred," but nobody's perfect.

The tolerance, even admiration, we have for stilted, overblown speech requires its own suspension of disbelief on our part. It's as artificial as the atonal turns of Asian music sound to Western ears. I know little about classical Asian art, but I do know what works in English and what is a willed hallucination of eloquence, not unlike the imagined clothes of Hans Christian Anderson's naked king.

Twain and then Hemingway are the poster children for plain speech in modern American writing, though Hemingway fell into the trap of parodying himself. Huckleberry Finn holds up so well (until the last few chapters when the introduction of Tom Sawyer diminishes it) because Twain has no choice but to have Huck, the narrator, speak in the fashion of a backwoods teenager. (The author's being a genius also helps.)

Salinger's Holden Caufield succeeds for the same reason. In fact, all good writing in the English language is plain speech, the plainer the better. Gerard Manley Hopkins made a conscious effort to write a modern idiom in imitation of pre-1066 bluntness. He overdoes it at times, but when it succeeds the effect is stunning. His "Spring and Fall: to a Young Child" and "Felix Randal" are about as good as it gets.

Of course, merely using simple language does not guarantee powerful writing. The absurdity of Hemingway's parodies of Hemingway shows what such a fetish can lead to. My friend Samuel Loveman's own genius (his work has recently been reissued by Hippocampus Press as Out of the Immortal Night: Selected Works of Samuel Loveman) is sometimes obscured by his fascination with $50 words. Sam was largely self-educated, and that education was in the inflated diction of 19th-century poets like Swinburne (with whom he corresponded).

Sam sometimes talked that way as well, under the spell of the narcotizing sound of words like "afflatus," "assignation," and "delivered himself of." He grew up at the tail-end of a fashion for endless, multi-phrase sentences filled with multisyllabic words like a confection overloaded with sugar and other non-nutritional ingredients. Sam was pushed aside by a younger generation of poets—his close friend Hart Crane, Eliot, Pound, and my own first choice for modern verse, W.H. Auden.

Sam nevertheless once said to me that the secret to Shakespeare's greatness was simplicity. The same is true for any great writing. The only purpose for the use of something other than plain English is obscurity. Medical doctors, lawyers, and academics lard their language with terms and phrases no layman can understand. Which is the point, of course—to cloak their ignorance and/or expertise behind a thick veil of Greek and Latin derivatives. When doctors don't have a clue to what is ailing someone, they use non-diagnoses like "irritable bowel syndrome" and "incompetent womb." Shakespeare sometimes used such technical terms for comic effect, referring to certain areas of the female anatomy as "the parts there adjacent." He knew most professional jargon is pretense.

Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the cultural victims of the French invasion of 1066. But, being the superb artist he was, he knew how to turn the invader's tongue to his advantage. "Whanne that April with his shoures sote, The droughte of March hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veine in swiche liquor, Of whiche virtue engendred is the flour," he begins The Canterbury Tales, pretending to be starting a romance in the courtly speech of the French occupier. But he concludes that prologue of flowery frog-talk with the blunt, "Than longen folk to gon on pilgrimages..." I doubt Chaucer had to go through numerous rewrites as Shakepeare did with Hamlet before realizing the superior power of plain English over the learned but flaccid import.

We can't of course go back to the language of Kind Alfred. Nor do we need to, as so many fine writers have proved. English not only can assimilate foreign words, it can render them unrecognizable as such. Table, a continental derivative, is now the common word for the old-English board. Bishop is from Latin episcopus, and even dish is from Latin discus. Discus also gives us disk and that thing athlete's try to throw as far as they can. It would be silly to try to weed out all the words in our language that can't trace their pedigree to sixth-century England.

I wish I were enough of a language scholar to say how many other languages make do with little more than the native material of their own native tongues. German seems to do be one, cobbling together long, sometimes very long, words to express a thought without reverting to foreign vocabulary. It does so with great ingenuity, most recently by coming up with a single word that means having a beer with someone while maintaining proper social distancing: abstandbier (standing-away-from beer). But even some German words are derivatives: handy for "cellphone," hobby (something you do when you are not working, should that unlikely circumstance ever arise). Viktor Klemperer in Language of the Third Reich describes how the Nazis enthusiastically adopted American expressions—organizieren for a perfectly adequate German word and made use of Yankee hyperbole: newspaper reports describing soldiers fighting "fanatically."

Ancient Greek and Latin provide an interesting example of a language's dependence on import words. Like German, classical Greek strings together simple familiar words to express new or complex ideas: [ana-lysis, "break up"; kata-lysis "break down")]. Latin imported Greek words to express new and abstract ideas. The Romans felt, as did the social climbers of 11-century England toward French, a sense of inferiority to Greek culture, much as Americans have felt themselves to live in the shade of a higher, European culture. Also like America, the Romans conquered civilizations they admired. But the conquerors never lost their awe of the conquered, much as the nations of Europe during the Enlightenment looked to France and Britain for new ideas and used French as their lingua franca (pun intended).

The use of foreign words betrays a sense of cultural inferiority while at the same time adding a veneer of sophistication. The recent import from the Greek, "trope," into ordinary speech is an example. In Greek, tropos means "turn, way, manner, style, figurative expression." We see it in English in words like heliotrope, "sun-turning" (what a sunflower does), and "negatively phototropic," a promiscuous mix of Latin and Greek to describe roaches' aversion to light. And yet we have the common English word at hand which means the same thing as "trope." You rarely come across it in this sense, though, except to describe a particular part of an entertainer's performance, "bit" meaning more or less the same thing. "He took that turn (or bit) out of his act." "Turn" works just as well as "trope," and better because there is no ready way of knowing what "trope" means, while the meaning of "turn" can be inferred from context. And "trope" has become so devalued by indiscriminate use that it means almost anything, like a currency inflated to the point that you need buckets of it to buy a loaf of bread.

American English is so creative in creating new ways of saying things, it can seem to consist entirely of what used to be called "slang." It must drive immigrants crazy trying to make sense of it if they have learned their English in a classroom. Textbook or standard English used to be the language spoken by newscasters—"correct" English. Now even the BBC uses American expressions in a way that must cause the old guard to wince and shout at their radios and TVs. Our American speech, even in official situations, has become indistinguishable from what school teachers used to berate their students for using. It has, in effect, become a dialect for those not familiar with anything other than textbook English, as unintelligible as Sicilian is to speakers of standard (i.e, Tuscan) Italian or Nigerian English is to a Scot.

A friend of mine who used to travel to the Netherlands for the dope and gay scene told me the Dutch learned English by watching "I Love Lucy" reruns. Nowadays it's probably Netflix. Not that they don't study standard English in school. But no amount of school-textbook English can prepare you for a conversation with Americans on their home turf. I'm told there's a similar disconnect between official French (they have a public authority to police their language) and street French. How could a foreigner know that when someone in Paris says vachement ("cow-ish") s/he means beaucoup ("most")? I imagine an immigrant from Ghana or Hungary who has not watched a lot of American TV or films must be similarly confused when they hear a native say, "Hang a left at the next corner," "That airhead is getting on my last nerve," or, "Man, that motherfucker was hammered last night."

But those tame examples don't give a sense for the newest and most creative use of the language. Inner-city street talk changes so fast, you can find yourself at a loss if you lose touch with it for a few months, even if you grew up speaking it. It's constantly reinventing itself, just as marginal speech in other societies does, notably Cockney in England. The nature of a living language is change as much as it is for any other natural phenomenon. An unchanging language is a dead language, the ur-sprache of papal decrees and Mesopotamian tombs. And a language that depends on foreign loan words is no language worth the name. As Henry David Thoreau said, referring to life in general but equally applicable to good writing, "Simplify! Simplify!"

Much of what we deem literature and most of popular writing as well as film and other art also assumes convention—an agreed-upon "suspension of disbelief," a willingness to pretend what we are seeing on the screens of movie theaters or computers, but no less so in the pages of fiction we sometimes award prizes to, is real life. You have to step back and observe it as a foreigner would, a true foreigner, an alien, not just someone who speaks a different language, to appreciate its artificiality, the same way we ourselves experience other cultures. From that perspective it becomes not just the otherness of verbal expression that seems artificial, it's the entire disconnect between art and the real world, the world where we live our lives and observe things first-hand.

We will allow that much of genre fiction and most mass entertainment are "escapist." No adult will insist your gothic zombie romance novel or dystopic futuristic fantasy is an image of the real world. And mystery novels, as W.H. Auden pointed out, are as addictive if less immediately lethal than heroin. But many a young woman has come to grief who believed she too would one day meet a handsome pirate or rich count and be assumed into a life of eternal bliss. Older women who read those novels do so for release pure and simple, a temporary retreat from the drudgery of housework and a husband who resembles the Hulk more than he does the prince charming of the typical bodice ripper.

But is our "serious" literature any more real? The granddaddy of the so-called Realist movement (as if fiction writers or painters or composers, the good ones, ever think about what "movement" they will be assigned to by critics and academics) is Emile Zola. Though he may sometimes succumb to the demand for happy endings (Au Bonheur des Dames, The Ladies Paradise) he is, if not the first, certainly the most skillful of the authors who portrayed life as it is for working-class people. His novel L'Assemoir(The Bar or The Pub) is a powerful depiction of ordinary Parisians. I don't know how he came to know them so intimately, but they stand out as remarkably true-to-life, at least true to the lives of the working-class people I come from. In the US we have our own Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, by Stephen Crane, who also happens to have written our best war novel, though he never personally saw a shot fired in anger. The truth of art, if it is true, is the result of great creative imagination based on keen observation, not just personal experience, and one of the best of the lot is Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie.

Of course, true life is not just that of people who live in low-rent districts. The rest of us live lives just as rich and tragic. Only, it takes a special kind of talent to accurately portray those lives without falling into the conventions that have become so well-established ever since the first novel was published more than 2,000 years ago. The difficulty with writing about middle-class people is much the same as writing about their social inferiors: a dearth of well-articulated reflection. It's easy enough (if you're a genius like George Eliot or William Shakespeare) to reproduce a convincing dialogue of the better classes, at least the most self-reflective and supremely articulate members of them. But how do you write that kind of thing for people like my parents whose lives were no less worthy of representation, but who never spoke like an Anthony or a Cleopatra and probably never thought in terms anything like those expressed in George Eliot's dialogues? A dog leads an emotional life as rich and deep as I do, but how to represent that life without dog-thoughts couched in human words (actually, Tolstoy does a convincing job of doing just that in the hunting scene in Anna Karenina, as does Chekhov in his short story "A Day in the Life of a Dog")?

Because of its immediacy—no verbal translation required—musicians have a leg-up when it comes to the expression of the human soul, though convention is just as important there to our accessing it. And it's not just a matter of Western versus Eastern scales and tonalities. Most people never experience the deep, meaningful beauties of so-called classical music. That's not because they are incapable of doing so; it's because they have not been exposed in their formative years and have not been initiated into its conventions, for want of a better word. Think Hip Hop. How many older adults enjoy rap music, even adults who grew up in the same neighborhoods where Hip Hop was born? The same can be said for jazz or even rock 'n roll. I'm old enough to remember when "Rock around the Clock" sounded to most American ears as foreign as Indian raga. Grownups loved the popular music of the day, the Perry Comos and Nat King Coles, the Sarah Vaughns and Ella Fitzgeralds. They appreciated a domesticated, Benny Goodman-Louie Armstrong version of jazz. But post-war Bebop and what followed was beyond them, and Rock music was a totally foreign creature, primitive, even racially tainted.

Yet, in those days Beethoven and even Stravinsky were more listened to than they are now. Music-appreciation classes and school bands were parts of an ordinary student's elementary and high school experience, just as Elvis Presley was their preferred party music. But without such exposure today both younger and now older people only relate to the music that was on the radio or Internet during their formative years. Most are stuck in one subgenre of it—Punk Rock, Techno—or, for the older generation, the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mack—while the youth are wrapped up in Taylor Swift and Beyonce´. Meanwhile, concert pianists, however talented, have to show up in Victoria's Secret negligees to draw an audience in classical-music halls.

Initiation and exposure are what determines our tastes as much as they do our politics and food preferences. And conventions—our expectations and the familiar turns that make artistic representation accessible, whether it's real or artificial—are the price of admission as much as they are to what we recognize as "news" or what is or is not funny (ask any stand-up comedian who has performed abroad).

Which is why when it comes to biography, whether the formal kind put into books or the casual interviews of celebrity artists, it's a good idea to distinguish the baby from the bath water. The product of a genius in any field should not be identified with his or her individual moral, social, or intellectual bent. Unless it mars their art or science—and it can, though we tend to leave out those awkward unpleasantries in our hagiographies—their bigotry, racism, and misogyny matters not at all and in fact should be treated as if those vices were the expressions of a different person entirely. If an artist or other genius happens to be a humanitarian like Chekhov or Einstein, the one because he went on doctoring the poor even after he was a famous short story writer and playwright, the other because of his pithy wisdom on social matters, should we dismiss their genius if we find out they could be morally tone deaf in their personal lives?

There's really nothing to be gained from documenting those blemishes or for that matter those admirable traits as human beings, because their creations and their individual personalities are not the same thing. The ancients' idea of creation as a visitation from a supernatural force, the Muses, is a more realistic way to treat genius. The ancients assumed the "divine afflatus" Sam Loveman talked about. We don't have to assign creativity to the visitation of a divinity, but it's a big mistake not to recognize that the vessel and what it contains are not of a piece. Even the prophets of the Bible claim to speak their truths not as their own but as inspiration, literally a "breathing in," from Yahweh.

No one knows the distinction between an original creation and the man or woman through whom it came to life better that the creators themselves. That's why they tend to have a maternal feeling for what they bring forth, a sense of having borne and given birth to something that is and is not theirs. They even experience a kind of post-partum depression after the critter is born and living a life on its own. For that reason alone we should resist the temptation to identify the soul-child with its incubator. The admirers of a Newton or a Dickens can be forgiven, though not excused, for mistaking the parent for the offspring, but the progenitors themselves should not cooperate with that mistake, however intoxicating such flattery may be. Talking to novelists in public forums about their work may sell books, but it's as far from illumination as are those on-field interviews in which the ballplayer who has just hit a game-winning home run is asked to explain how it happened (sometimes in his second language). Generations of young writers have assumed they had to emulate the he-man persona of Ernest Hemingway along with his writing style.

Canonization is bad for living writers because they start to believe what the critics say about them, but it's just as harmful to geniuses of the past. Hemingway himself said that in America we "do something" to our writers, meaning the culture of fame damages them so badly, their great promise rarely matures into great work. I would add that the writers we most lionize, even elevate as "greats," in retrospect produced their best fiction in their earliest efforts before they became famous. And the ones who are most favored among the lit-crit establishment are usually there for ideological or academic reasons.

The Noble Prize itself can be the kiss of death. The Committee, mere mortals lest we forget, have historically shown a clear bias toward writers whose politics are to the left of center (the European center). Inferior talents are frequently chosen on that basis over others who clearly deserve the recognition. James Joyce did not receive a Nobel, but Sinclair Lewis, his contemporary, did. Jorge Luis Borges, surely one of the greats, was ignored. It's not a coincidence Borges' perceived politics were not in line with left-wing European ideology. Borges himself, after receiving an award from a Swiss academy, said it is not impossible for a deserving writer to merit an international award, implying of course that most won't be. Plenty of laureates have merited the imprimatur of the Nobel Committee, but few could be counted as not falling within a favored ideological spectrum.

The conventions I speak of for what we expect in the arts may vary with time, but they never disappear. They may be literary conventions—journalistic versus Ciceronean prose—or political. We recognize them for what they are in other cultures—Nazi propaganda, Bolshevist realism—but we fail to see them at work in our own unofficially-censored literature. B. F. Myers' literary hand grenade (first published as an article in the Atlantic) A Readers Manifesto, exposes the lock-step mentality of the American literary establishment, exposing its princes' nakedness. After reading it, a friend of mine who owned copies of most of the authors Myers exposed but could never bring himself to read past the first pages, put the lot out on the sidewalk. Within a few hours they were gone.