Measured Extravagance

2001-03-29 - 10:13 p.m.

A few more notes on semantics:

(1) Prufrock just posted some provocative observations on PC discourse worth perusing. Having spent a good chunk of my twenties in Ann Arbor, I can't concur with his perception that "everyone" agrees that "political correctness is bad, period": While I don't hold with the police mentality of some of its proponent-qua-enforcers, I do consider myself sympathetic to what I see as some of the movement's basic tenets - that words do matter, that one should strive to be sensitive to their nuances, etc. ...That aside, though, it's a fine rumination, especially since it articulates some of the things that have murked around in the back of my head when captive to middle-aged guys ranting against PC at cocktail parties.

(2) Another example of how beliefs are unconsciously telegraphed by careless language: some of my cubicle neighbors have been discussing the casting of Ricky Martin in the remake of Viva Las Vegas. I can understand the objection that "he just isn't Elvis"...but then they went on to say, "After all, he's gay. He's not a real man."

Now, in action, my cube-farm pals aren't homophobic: I've seen them treat our openly gay co-workers and their partners with affection. On the other hand, it burns me up when I hear the phrase "he's not a real man" - or "she's not a real woman" - in any context, because, like it or not, the word "real" contains an implicit value judgment: I don't know many people who prize being characterized as less "real" than their mainstream counterparts. Say that Ricky Martin doesn't have the acting chops. Insist that he's built a different fan base than Elvis. Object to the entire genre of concept-driven remakes. I wouldn't have a problem with any of those. You can even argue that he "isn't" a real person - after all, a good deal of celebrity perception is manufactured... but give me a good reason. There's plenty of language for the expression of skepticism without resorting to sexual stereotypes, so when someone elects to perpetuate those stereotypes, one can't help wondering how much their language reveals about their core beliefs.

And besides which, it's acting, dammit! It's insulting to imply that a gay actor would lack the technique to portray a straight man when it isn't questioned that a straight actor can carry off a friend-of-Dorothy role. It's stuff like this that make me sympathize with performers who don't want to dance out of the closet. It's challenging enough impersonating reality as it is - who needs the extra burden of proving a negative?

(3) I've encountered a number of people who are thoroughly appalled when they encounter old hymns and carols that have rewritten or refitted with more inclusive lyrics. I'm of two minds about this: I've sung a many hymns with the "original" lyrics, and it is somewhat disconcerting to sing what I knew as "Holy, Holy, Holy" or "We Gather Together" with contemporary lyrics. My first acquaintance with the Bible was via the King James Version, and that remains the translation that resonates in my bones - I want to prefer the more modern editions for their accessibility and their gestures towards inclusiveness, and if I had encountered the NSV or RSV first it probably wouldn't be a hangup at all, but as it stands, there's a grandeur to the cadences of the KJV that I miss when I attend a wedding or service using a more modern text.

And yet, I understand the importance of updating the language of hymns and texts used in worship. I adore Bach cantatas and Schubert masses, and sometimes belt out old 100 for the sheer pleasure of it, but I also greatly appreciate the fact that I am able to worship in a group setting with lyrics that aren't all Christ-centric - that I don't have to divorce the sensation of singing from the meaning of the words being sung to derive pleasure from the exercise (or, put another way, there's a different quality to singing for the fun of it when one sincerely believes in the words being sung) It pleases me that that there's good selection of non-Western European tunes in the mix, and I get a perverse kick out of knowing that "Bring Many Names" was originally rejected by the editorial committee of a Protestant hymnal for unacceptable content. (I must admit that neither the tune nor the lyrics float my boat either, but I also can't stand classics such as "Fairest Lord Jesus" or "How Great Thou Art" for purely aesthetic reasons - to my ears, they all plod and clunk...)

* * *

On a far more frivolous note, I snagged a copy of John Dickson Carr's The Lost Gallows (1931) last Saturday at the March gathering of The Nashville Scholars, there being a chap who regularly brings in a grocery bag full of books that no longer belong on his shelf. As could be expected, there were some "product of its time" wince-making phrases and attitudes in the book, but the very datedness of Carr's style was also why I enjoyed relaxing with it before the BYM and I headed over to Market Street for beer and burgers. I like the feel of yellowed paperbacks that cost 50 cents when new (1965 reprint). I'm diverted by the debonair sheen of the melodrama. In this particular book, I like the contrast between the English and French detectives:

[Bencolin/Mephisto:] "...your infernal fog is doing things to my nerves, I fear. Let's speak of something else entirely. The fog itself, for instance.... Don't you find it fascinating?"
"No," said Sir John.
Mephisto winced. "My friend," he said, "you are a tonic. You are a shower-bath. You are gifted with all the lyric charm of a load of bricks falling through a skylight. In brief, you are good for me."


[a secretary describing his employer's disdain for nightclubs:]"Nezam walked out [of the club]. He said: 'Pity William Wordsworth isn't alive today. He could make a fortune writing popular songs.' Night clubs. Really!"
"I see, murmured Bencolin. "Whatever El Moulk's other qualities may be, I have seldom heard sounder literary criticism."

And speaking of literary theory (Bencolin yet again):

"Tut, man! Don't look so furious. Besides, I can't think of anything that rhymes with 'desk.' Do you know the secret of being a poet? You always start out with some thought in mind, and the exigencies of rhyme force you to say something entirely different -- which is always much better than your original sentiment. This is called inspiration."

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