Friday, July 5, 2013

"Antique," "Literary," "Natural," and Other Subversive Terms in America

[Part of the series: 2013 = 1984?]

"It was a queer thing, even a compromising thing, for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect." (George Orwell, 1984 - p. 85)

Winston Smith writes on actual paper with -- gasp! -- an actual fountain pen.
"The pen was an archaic instrument, seldom used even for signatures, and he had procured one, furtively and with some difficulty, simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy paper deserved to be written on with a real nib instead of being scratched with an ink pencil. Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speakwrite, which was of course impossible for his present purpose." (p. 6)

Illumination: Medieval Scribe

Winston's pen "slid voluptuously over the smooth paper." (p. 16) Anyone who has read the book knows where that led.

Beauty You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

For me, the quintessence of the beautiful and the old and the memorious has been books made by traditional techniques, and the care that practitioners of the book arts lavish on them.

I once saw August Hechsher give a talk at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, and he talked about the words in books made by the letterpress technique as having a quality you could almost sink your teeth into.

Typecase with wooden display fonts

From the paper, and the typefaces, and the inks, the love of the beauty and antique quality extends inward to the subject matter -- not surprisingly, hand-printing is often used for special editions of poetry. -- and outward to the covers and bindings made of marbled paper and leather and other materials.

Precious: Marbled Paper and Leather Binding

It's not conventional. It's not practical. It's certainly not economical. But it's satisfying and liberating.

When did "beautiful" and "old" become dangerous qualities?

Scribes -- laboring in secret to preserve and propagate truth -- have long been cultural heroes. (See Thomas Cahill, "How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe".)

Winston, daring to jog his memory and his senses and get truth down on paper, certainly stands in this tradition. But Orwell makes a point that Winston's actions have layers of subversion. There are the actual words he writes (DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER . . .), the act of having a diary itself, and, finally, the very fact of possessing these beautiful, old objects.

Memories of Childhood: Home for a Bunny

Just as a few old words bring to mind a nursery rhyme, which in turn brings to mind the sound of bells, and that in turn stirs up memories of a long-forgotten London, almost any object -- through its oldness or its beauty or both -- can stir the conscience and take it in directions that no one can control.

Sensual, Liberating, Subversive

Once you begin to understand the liberating -- and thus subversive -- power of the beautiful and the old, you start to see implications in area after area of our lives.

Paper or plastic?

Ambient sound or piped-in music?

Grass or concrete?

Fresh air or chemicals?

Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know 
by Frederic William Stack

What We've Cut Ourselves Off From

It's important that we start to think about the way in which the daily details of contemporary life separate us from the beautiful and the old.

Obviously, there is our obsession with mass-produced stuff. And, of course, there is the way in which we limit what we see and touch to objects that are sold by mass merchandisers.

There is the tendency to sheath or envelope every product in a smooth, sleek exterior, so that we are protected from any sense of what is really going on inside.

Smooth: Infiniti

And, of course, there is the way in which all of these trends are combined in objects of mass worship that envelope all communication in a smooth sheath and invite us to seal ourselves off from the world around us.

Okay, okay -- so perhaps we're not completely sealed off yet. But consider these words from 1984: "It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you -- something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost to deny the evidence of your senses. . . . Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy."

"Wha? Did you say something?"

"Siri? What is a 'speakwrite'?"

Of course, all of the subtlety and variety of the beautiful and the old is brought to a fine point by language -- especially beautiful and old language.

In 1984, Orwell describes at length the effort to cleanse language of all complexity and nuance. Winston's co-worker, Syme, describes the work he is doing on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary. "You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words -- scores of them, hundreds of them, every day." (p. 45) Syme explains:

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other words? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take 'good,' for instance. If you have a word like 'good,' what need is there for a word like 'bad'? 'Ungood' will do just as well -- better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of 'good,' what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like 'excellent' and 'splendid' and all the rest of them? 'Plusgood' covers the meaning, or 'doubleplusgood' if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words -- in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.'s idea originally, of course . . . ." (p. 45)
I have to catch myself as I think, "Yes, quite precise, like good computer programming language!"

In fact, how much have we begun already to self-adjust our language as more and more of our daily activity is mediated by search algorithms? How much have we become speakers of "Google"?

Who's talking to whom?

And to what degree do we limit our expression so that Siri or some other speech recognition app can understand us?

Perhaps our beautiful, old objects are protecting us. Helping us maintain a bridge to our external reality, and to the past. (A bridge that is essential to experiencing any kind of liberty.)

Look around you today.  What beautiful, old objects guard your independence? Perhaps . . . a book?

Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell

(1984 page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.)

Related posts

If we are willing to see the beauty will it help us to overcome our fear?

(See Syria - Strange and Dangerous? or Familiar and Beautiful?)

 One minute people are stopping to notice the beautiful things . . . and the next they are thinking dangerous thoughts.

(See Read a Poem - or Eat a Peach - for Peace)

Sometimes a pack of cigarettes can be a thing of beauty.

(See Long Life, Connected Lives)

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )