Wednesday, May 4, 2022

In the Garden of Nettles and Petals

This patch of land we call Planet Earth needs serious attention. As custodians we have neglected the air and the water so that doom may soon have it over bloom, and weeds over seeds. This state of affairs has its corollary in language itself.

Someday they’ll have a softball game between the Yeasayers and Naysayers to settle the matter. The two strains run through our national character as the punitive voice comes up against a more liberating one. Our enlightened deist founders had to contend with those anal Puritans. Maybe the differences go beyond theology or politics.

If language is any bellwether, it’s no contest. Negative words far outnumber the positives. Google, which tallies our every utterance in some grand ledger, has it that un words swamp their counterpart by huge numbers. The bad to good ratio is 5 to 1, unhappy to happy 260 to 1. The Thesaurus lists twice as many synonyms for unpleasant as for pleasant.

Are we a species of sour pusses? Do we see out of jaundiced eyes? Why do we get such kicks from bad news, and ads from candidates which smear and scandalize their opponents? Make a vampire movie and they will come. The  lost, aggrieved, and seething anti-hero is favored over the Boy Scouts of America model every time. Flawed characters feel like us, perhaps that’s why. The late-great curmudgeon Oscar Levant once quipped that he was so guilt-ridden, when watching courtroom dramas and the judge ordered the defendant to rise he’d get up from the couch.

Freud and Oprah have consorted to encourage us to spill our guts. Anyone without a deprived childhood has been deprived. We are all in recovery. When asked at random for the intersecting event in their lives most people single out a death or trauma that forced them to be the way there are. Victimization is our default position and a vocabulary has been amassed to describe it. Cynicism has become to many what daffodils were to Wordsworth to paraphrase Phillip Larkin.

Maybe our negativity is an antidote to those insufferable happy faces, good fellow, well-met, painted smiles and happy endings. Perhaps skepticism is a natural response in a consumerist society with a built-in sniffer for hype and the inauthentic. Pessimism might be well-aligned with the decline of the American empire.

On the other hand it could be just a lag in language. Words for community, for caring, and all the varieties of love seem to have been nearly taken out of public discourse. We speak of childhood scars more than the nourishment we received. We are more fluent in varieties of despondency, despair, dejection, deceit and depression than in varieties of affection or the transcendence offered by art.

Boys have trouble using the word, love. If everything is described as awesome or cool the language becomes impoverished. Unlike Eskimos relation to snow we seem to lack the words to express empathy and compassion without risking ridicule.

Hallmark cards have pillaged the warm and fuzzy words and sucked the life out of them. They have raided the common tongue and now we mistrust sentiment. Writers seem more inclined to prowl the darkness than shine a light and critics hone their barbs rather than their faculty for appreciation. In the end, of course, life is a tender and clumsy dance with both violins and kazoos. We swallow the outsized myth of the super hero but have a paucity of words to describe simple acts of daily heroism.  

In spite of our inattention to preserving democracy and neglect over our resources it is too easy to convert the music of the spheres into a dirge. Revitalizing the lament can be an Ode to Joy as we discover nuggets in the sludge.

Now I should follow these words and hold my vituperative tongue against the new Confederacy and their slate of mendacious fools. But it comes so easily and if I swallow my rage I may break out in a rash. Besides, there is so much malignant about them that has earned my scorn. Maybe it is enough to know when to scowl and when to sing.

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