Saturday, October 27, 2012

Word Choice and the Plasticity of Language

There are those novels that one always comes back to: the ones that sit snugly on your shelf, time-mellowed, like a particularly fine wine: bindings worn, the pages softened and thinned with repeated readings, their edges yellowed. I have lately pulled an old copy of The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad from my bookshelf.

 I have always adored Conrad's haunting prose: his paragraphs have a reverberating resonance that linger in your mind like subsiding ripples in a pool. T.E Lawrence said of Conrad: his writings are not formulated with the usual rhythm, but "on something existing only in his head, and as he can never say what it is he wants to say, all his things end in a kind of hunger, a suggestion of something he can't say or do or think." Perhaps Conrad's unique style stems from his linguistic diversity: he spoke both his native Polish language as well as French fluently from childhood, and only acquired English in his twenties. When asked why it was as an 'Englishman' that he wanted to be a great writer, Conrad responded: "Ah… to write French you have to know it. English is so plastic — if you haven't got a word you need you can make it, but to write French you have to be an artist like Anatole France." English, Conrad wrote, was "the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships, of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours, too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions—of my very dreams!" Conrad, however, did not write merely to entertain, like so many great novelists he raised critical questions about loyalty, about the barriers we erect against nothingness, against corruption and his perception of evil.

Conrad's exquisite rendering of the English language (even more profound given it was not his native tongue) and his comments regarding the plasticity of English in particular made me think of Orwell and 1984 where language is systematically minimized via severe censorship in order to ideologically align thought and action with the political principals of the 'Party'. Insofar as Orwell was concerned it was the obliteration of words that would subsequently result in the loss of associated ideas: if the word 'revolution' and 'rebellion' are excised from the linguistic corpus, those individuals prone to political protest will have difficulty understanding and communicating those ideas if the words traditionally associated with them no longer exist. My question, however, is that given the plasticity of language that Conrad refers to above, given humanity's propensity for invention (writing itself having developed out of economic expediency in ancient Sumeria) and our constant linguistic evolution (from Shakespeare who contributed 1700 new words to the English language by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original to Dr. Suess' wonderful wordplay) do we not just invent new words when old ones don't quite meet muster? And don't we all infer meaning not only from the words themselves but also from the linguistic context in which they are found?

Words are carefully chosen by the writer for maximum effect, and are, ultimately the product of our particular intention: evoking a dynamic emotional response in our readers, examining the nature and pathos of humanity within the framework of our particular society. Orwell said that political prose was formed "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." A thought-provoking perspective in the midst of an election campaign in America. Joseph Conrad, like Orwell, was disillusioned with the practice of politics, and The Secret Agent depicts a corrupt society where there is less of a diametric moral opposition between 'police' and 'people' than one might suppose, or indeed, wish for. And isn't that the role of great literature: to raise the fundamental questions, to critically examine our ideological selves in the mirror? These best-loved books that sit on your bookshelves will similarly inhabit your children's and their children after that. Because they are timeless in their exquisitely unique examination of the human condition; unique because of the way a particular writer chooses their words and strings them together.

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