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25 October 2008
The Awesomeness of Language
So, I must rant.

I know I should not be baffled (let alone outraged) by the fact that my AP students (some of whom may inevitably read this--but so be it) stand in judgement of Shakespeare's King Richard II for the sole reason that they don't believe it measures up to what, in their opinion, constitutes great storytelling. Never mind 400 years of respect accorded to this work, which constitutes part of the bloody canon of Western literature. Never mind that it possesses some of the most complexly wrought poetry and imagery the Bard himself ever composed--let alone anyone else in English literary history. Never mind that in six weeks of study, we actually were only really able to scratch the surface of this beautiful and challenging work. No, you see, it cannot possibly be worthwhile because, well, let's see: Richard's a big, selfish jerk, and it's boring. Oh, and it doesn't measure up to the greatness of the two (yes, two) other of his works they've read.

Sigh. Why are relevance and actiony plots so blasted essential to these kids? I know the science says they're too young for the depth of ideas and the true appreciation of poetry and rich symbolism, but by God and Saint George that seems to me such a cop-out. These are bright, bright kids. They know how to think--I've seen it. Goodness knows they've argued with me enough that I can see the thought happening. But on this sort of thing, there's such an intensely stubborn refusal to open up to what's there. And what is there? Staggering beauty. Richard II's a Michelangelo in words. Gorgeous language, rich, provocative imagery, and, my God, the pathos! Right to the heart, it goes! And relevant to anyone with a soul (or at least the ability to investigate honestly the yearnings of their souls).

Maybe it's just because I love language so very much. (Though I have entertained the thought that the fact that I'm more widely read--especially in the way of the Bard--has a little something to do with my appreciation of this play.) I mean, language is in my being. I like words. I like playing with them, saying them, hearing them, manipulating the meaning of them, composing them into poetry, picking them apart in others' poetry--words are what we are. They tell us where we're from and point us at where we're going. They're the links in the chain-link fence of our existence, the cherries in our cherry pie, the notes in our symphony, the tears in our sadness, the grounds in our coffee, the warmth in our love--the everything in our gorram everything. That they're not enough to express half what we know, or believe, or even what is, only makes them that much more a part of who we are. For to be human is to be incomplete, imperfect--yet exactly right for our design as humans. And what completes us? The Word--the divine one. You know, Logos--what was in the beginning, with God and was God? Funny, that. Again, sigh. How do you convey this to the young, cynical mind? The mind what is sure it knows everything. How did I get it (for, let's be honest here, that same young cynical mind was mine once upon a time--I've no delusions that I once thought the world ought revolve around my opinions)? Apparently, I can passionately blather at them all I want, and not a whit of difference shall it make. (Completely unrelated, it seems that G&Ts make my syntax even more pompous than usual.)

So, part of what sparked this post in the first place (in addition to the raging frustration, that is) was a small selection from Turgenev, writing about the violent reaction against Fathers and Sons (the next work I shall endeavour--fruitlessly though I fear it may be--to convince them is fabulous and brilliant). Mayhap I'm misconstruing what he's getting at here, but I find it terribly apropos to the current generation's view of literature and language, and therefore, as a way to end this rant, I offer it to you, ye silent viewing public. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

And my request consists of the following: guard our language, our splendid Russian language, transmitted to us by our predecessors, at whose head Pushkin again shines! Treat that powerful weapon respectfully; in able hands it can achieve marvels! Even those who don't care for "philosophical abstractions" and "poetic tenderness," practical people for whom language is only a means for expressing a thought, like a simple lever,--even to them I say: at least respect the laws of mechanics, extract the maximum use of everything. Or else, scanning some pale, confused, feebly long-winded verbiage, a reader involuntarily will think that you have exchanged a lever for some primitive props, that you are returning to the infancy of mechanics itself...

But enough, otherwise I too will become verbose.

Ivan Turgenev, from Apropos of Fathers and Sons
Jelly Pinched Wolf   11:10 PM
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