My wife Jennifer and I were at dinner the other night with good friends, at their place, high on the hill (local mountain). Dinner was fine (organic chicken, roast veggies, creme brule). And the conversation, like the wine, did not stint.
We were talking about books, and our hosts asked what we thought was the theme of a book? Books in general? I inquired. Particular books?
They tend to read non-fiction, earnest non-fiction, I might say, and are practicing Christians, as Jen and I were once upon a time.
My first thought, as a creative writer, is that we don’t start with themes. Poets especially start with an image, a sound, a story — and go from there. We reason, if you call it reason, inductively, going from particular observations to ends, themes, ideas.
In fact, these ends or themes may not matter much at all to poets, especially if they’re writing short poems. They may be unconscious or semi-conscious at most, left to critics and other analysts to ponder. In my own practice, I think of only one long work, just completed, that might have started deductively: a 31-part poem about brain cancer, pain and suffering.
For the most part, even novels start, I suggest, with a story or a character, not a firm idea or theme. I affirm Mark Twain’s comic take, at the beginning of Huck Finn, on the business of sleuthing a work of art and being a critic:
Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
Acronyms are often not much more than signs of an insider’s knowledge, a way of knowing and understanding that invites the initiated and excludes the unwashed and ignorant. A way of suggesting who’s the in-crowd and who’s the out-.
Several years ago, I made up tee-shirts to score a point against the demeaning and diminishing influence of acronyms. I meant these HAA!, or Humanists Against Acronyms, tees to battle the forces of modern life (scientific, technical, institutional) that reduce and insult us both as individuals and as societies.
Other forms of language, like jargon, may be equally divisive. Today’s political language bristles with know-it-all and in-your-face jargon: politically correct, woke, RINO, fake news, and dog whistle.
Some of these terms are turned on their heads by political opponents, of course: politically correct, or PC, and woke are often used as terms of opprobrium. You might argue that sleepyheads of all persuasions — that is, ideologs — are fond of bending the language of the opposition to their own end. But any language, used too often to mean the one correct, permissible, and praiseworthy thing, without persuasion or support, becomes abusive.
I felt just so, I must admit, when I read the other day in an essay by bell hooks the label white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. Oof! what a mouthful! It’s not just that this phrase is long and ugly, it’s that it is ideology that piles up accusations and levels them against society as a whole, or white society as a whole. Ordinarily, I think hooks writes very well, gracefully and not didactically, so that the reader is persuaded to listen attentively and consider her arguments carefully. But this phrase is not an argument but an accusation, a clunker. It’s a clinker that won’t burn. A dog that won’t hunt. It’s preaching that won’t win over anyone who’s not already in the choir.
Of course, much of American society, in many ways, has elements of racial supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. (The white man still rules, decides wages, takes profits, throws his weight around, endorses hierarchy.) But hooks’ characterization is not the way that American society as a whole works. It’s not an accurate or adequate characterization of who we are and where we’re going as a people.
Not all of us fawn over Donald Trump, who’s innocent of all ideas except self-exaltation, or Ron DeSantis, who’s been busy indoctrinating his followers against forms of indoctrination other than his own.
Those who see the injustice in rigid political positions, and the ideologies that support them, will fight back against their excesses, whether these are left-wing or right-wing positions. In doing so, they might well feel they’ve earned some respect.
As an alternative to bell hooks’ white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, I suggest we resort to a less offensive, if more opaque, acronym. Something like WSCP (pronounced wusscup). I know, I know. Acronyms are ugly, but can occasionally afford comic relief.
And sometimes humor and humility are what we need a lot more than being correct, whether left or right, in whatever activity we’re active in. Let’s have a good laugh and return to illuminating discussions.