Malapropism - Pledge

malapropism: ridiculous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance in sound.[1]

I have a peculiar love of malapropism. Anyone who has known me for long—anyone who has spoken in front of me long enough to misspeak—anyone who has gambled in knowing me long enough to have had the bad luck of misspeaking in front of me—knows the childish glee I get from any verbal flub or infelicity. Around most strangers and acquaintances I am respectfully silent. But should a close friend or relative make the slightest slip, I’ll flash on them and smile in their face with wide-eyed wonder. Of course, I have to be in a good mood to lower another’s.

Now, to some degree this linguistic schadenfreude is a familial trait. Should someone mispronounce a word or trip on their own tongue within our hearing, my family will rear every one of its grinning heads like a herd of velociraptors. And yet my particular delight in malapropism, in particular words misused or mingled (but not quite mangled), is a little more specifically mine. It has become a kind of hobby of memory to remember the specific solecisms I’ve heard. Many a simple misstep has become a special moment to me.

And yet, I consider myself a kind enough person. An empathetic, or at least empathetically educated, person. I consider myself a person.

Now, one of the reasons I love a good malapropism is because it often says more about its speaker than it does about itself. It is more an expression of personality—temperament, interests, experience, thought-process—than it is an error in language. I think of this as a more universally acceptable appreciation of malapropism—which therefore makes the appreciator more relatable.

At surface-hearing, a malapropism is funny because of its incongruity. It strikes the well-trained ear as off-key with the rest of the pitched world. It’s funny the way a bad tuba note used to be funny. The most civilized, language-conforming speakers will laugh at a malapropism mostly out of spite or embarrassment: as a way of shaking the filthy thing off. I will certainly admit to succumbing to the less superior superficial perception of malapropism. Once, shortly after the third and thankfully last “Star Wars” prequel came out, I watched a preschool boy menace another with the vicious proclamation, “I AM JENNIFER GRIEVOUS!” The comedy was not only in the child’s insistent reminders to his playmate that he had another but unseen set of arms—which presumably stopped flailing every time he paused to point them out to his playmate—but also his bombastic confidence that he knew, owned, and was the dreaded general: a ruthless, thick-voiced, armor-plated, brain-skinned, snake-eyed, four-armed, lightsaber-wheeling monster who goes by the name of Jennifer.

But I sincerely believe that when I laugh at a malapropism I am not merely laughing at the person who speaks it. I am laughing because of them. I would be more than happy to laugh with them, but I am usually the one to laugh first, and that seems to be enough in most cases. Anyway, a malapropism is one potential source of what I have elsewhere called the comedy of acceptance. With a malapropism, the acceptance is often very one-sided, at least if the laughing is out-loud. When someone misspeaks around me, I would rather not correct them, because I wouldn’t want them any other way. At this point in my growing up, I try my best not even to laugh, because I do not want that raw person-essence to flee. Everyday so many humans are hiding behind saved faces, and who they are is far more good-and-pleasant than good diction.

If, as Emerson claimed, each word is a fossil poem whose history of meanings lies buried within it, then a malapropism dates back to the speaker. It is often made of fragments of dead words reconstructed by chance and then filled with new life. I think this is why each one strikes me as an accidental original. It is, at first hearing, surprisingly fresh to the ears. It reminds me that the person I am hearing is still new to me, different from me, speaking in ways I could never imagine on my own.

Once, after helping my friend move out of his apartment, I heard him refer to his now-old neighborhood as a series of standard epithets for indigence. But then, as his anger grew ever higher, he began to build up his scorn to a greater intensity, and then mount even that to a point beyond words, I heard him finally stammer out in a fit of quavering rage: “F-f-f-fucking . . . scum-lords!” This new phrase flashed forth not only my friend’s heated anger, but also his limited experience with real slums and general urban living. It was a kind of ignorance-out-of-innocence, and a frantic, fierce, flapping self-defense. It was an Oklahoma boy kicking his heels off at Harlem.

Another time, while I was an undergrad also working at a daycare—the very same where I first met Jennifer Grievous—I overheard a table of three-year-olds debating the true name of the car from “Cars.” After many fervently proposed combinations of noun and proper name, the strongest voice claimed it to be “Roger Mc Squeak.” The table immediately agreed. To these just-post-toddling children, words were still purely words, perhaps most remarkable for syllable and sound. Thus the “Mc,” the thing with the least relevance to adults, was retained; the Queen was deposed with a squeak; and in the beginning, most miraculously, a Roger was made to dwell in the place of lightning. The children chattered their ascent, though they comprehended it not, nodding their round, wobbly heads on their tender little necks, because they were still very much learning to speak and to hear, and this was maybe their sixth time doing any agreeing in all of their lives.

One time one of my friends, a pretty distractible, none-too-bookish, mostly lazy high school boy, had to give a talk at our church youth group. I still remember him sitting slouched on his high stool on the stage, soft chin tilted down to the mic, whose butt rested on his belly, confessing publicly that he had struggled with “sexual immortality.”

(It was this same friend who, after having studied for a whole handful of minutes beforehand, reportedly wrote on his economics text: “FUCC the economy!” His teacher and I must be of the same mind, because, as the story goes, he only laughed and gave my friend a free passing C.)

When my sister was a kid, she misheard, and subsequently mis-performed, a number of pop-song lyrics. One of her favorites was from Bananarama, that power-strutting anthem of feminine wiles, “I’m Your Penis.”

One time at breakfast, one of my relatives ordered “the Javieros Rancheros.”

There’s also that time in Great Expectations, where Joe Gargery humbly appraises the highly ornate and involved stone- and metalwork of London as being too “architectooralooral.” It is incongruous, yes, but only with the word we’ve been conditioned to hear. In the currency of common letters, the word is crowded out of proportion. It looks ignorant, like a child’s attempt. But in its particular original context the word happily expresses a truth of perception, in this case the imposing, crazy loopiness of florid external design—all the more accosting to someone from flat, marshy Kent. More importantly, in the mouth of Joe Gargery, the malapropism rings mellifluously of the warm, simple, solid tenor of the blacksmith’s character. It is his freedom from literacy that strikes me more than his unlettered mistake. The Pips of the world may chase their own golden inheritance up and down society, but the Joes will always hold fast and true as steel.

Indeed, it seems to me that Dickens knows great secrets about errant and wild words. As in Great Expectations, he can redeem his cold, gloomy, workaday worlds with a sanguine deviance. Maybe the best things come in the form of foolishness to the world. In hard, tangled, dehumanizing London, where both the rich and the poor are driven to forfeit their souls, a new and very human word is born. It is up to us to see it for what it is.

This brings me to what I think is the greatest pleasure of malapropism: the advent of a new word, and its event as the further incarnation of a human being. This all sounds so grand and lofty, full of so much heavy-handed high-mindedness that it threatens to sink its light subject, and indeed there is something of a distance, but hopefully not a disconnect, between my words and my memories, my memories and my experience, my experience and my moment, my moment and the person who made it. In reflecting on these things, I may be removing myself from them even further. But it is all I can do until I can find the next person and moment. Furthermore, I find certain words in me like fingers, which will do their fidgeting with or without my thinking. The sentence I have written down in my notebook is: “I like to think of it [malapropism] as a kind of special anthropological revelation.” This is my theological education pointing and poking—or rather, this is my playing around with its diction. But behind this diction is also an attempt, like any theologian, to describe the significance, the uniqueness, of the event I have witnessed. Here is the next scribbling I’ve made: “New words are angels (‘messengers’ originally) of the person they represent.” This is my will to meaning, or will to eloquence, turning a thing too rosy. It’s like a sentence from early Emerson (Nature to First and Second Series): depending on the day, I might worship it, or I might blow my nose in it, if it didn’t stink so much. Right now I can say that in this sentence I have forgotten the mischance of malapropism, that it comes not from the mystical logos of a person, but from the unwitting error of that person’s brain or tongue. A person cannot choose either one. It is who a person unwillingly is that I find my joy.

At least, this particular joy.

Now I have written a segue: “But in addition to this advent is the adventure each malapropism takes me on.” I do love the word adventure. We use it all the time—but mostly as sarcastic overstatement, as a means of parodying our errands and mishaps. It’s almost an unspoken rule, to my mind, that anyone who applies “adventure” even semi-seriously to their life ought to be on vacation, and at the very least talking to a child. But we misunderstand the word, or we misunderstand our lives: “Adventure is what advenes, that is, what is added on, what comes into the bargain, what you were not expecting, what you could have done without.”[2] To the casual, onlooking reader, my use of “adventure” for interpreting malapropism may seem pretty childish and silly—or, worst of all words for a seriously serious person, twee—and indeed, were I ever to call someone’s misspoken word an “adventure,” I would get such a look as would make my next voice crack. But my point is that, sometimes at least, I treat the word as if it were real, not as if it were a mistake. It is a recondite enjoyment in the new reality a malapropism might point to. It’s like boys’ talk, yes; it’s fantastical, yes; but to the boys it contains “the possibilities of existence.”[3] It would be a misprision of my character to think I was pretentiously laughing at you.

Just think of my friend’s accidental notion of “sexual immortality.” Certainly it was funny to see him slumped and saying that, and knowing what I had known—I’d seen his many-windowed underwear. But the phrase itself. “Sexual immortality.” What on earth could that mean? Is it only for the gods to fucc forever?

One time, while we were still living in Manhattan, my wife was especially galled by the prospect of going out on New Years Eve. As she thought more and more about what it would really look like to go on the subway after the ball had dropped, growing already overwhelmed, she tried to see past the drunken swaying bodies and groped for the phrase she thought would best decry the idea: “It sounds like a fool’s proposition to me.” I have entertained myself on more than one occasion thinking of this archetypal fool, lifting his finger like Socrates and proposing things like, “Shall we light an M-80 in a beer bottle and see what happens?”

And Jennifer Grievous. She sounds like the deadliest girl on the block. Perhaps she serves eyeballs on her cupcakes.

Of course, the real test of my love of this humor is whether or not I love it even at the cost of my own dignity. Is the idea true enough to apply even to myself, my own words? One time I said the word “insanitary” to describe my friend’s spitting on the sidewalk. He began to call attention to it, but I cut him short. I drove aggressively home the point I had already made. I interrupted him badly, yes, but I didn’t trust him, he had a mean grin on his face, and joyful vengeance in his eye. I wouldn’t dare give him any quarter, and it’s only now, several years later, that I’ve come to notice that the word sounds like a Canadian metal album. There’s a crazed Mr. Clean on the cover.

* * *

malapropos: at an awkward or improper time or place; inopportune; inappropriate.[4]

So what’s my point behind all this riffing? It’s not so much to disabuse anybody of the notion that I am a jerk for laughing at someone’s mistake. I know that that is part of the whole of this pluralistic universe. But only part. I find that too often people cannot live with ambiguity in their heads. In intellectual circles anyway it’s called ambiguity. A far less pejorative word is variety. People are very various—each and every one of them. Though as a culture we seem to be trying our utmost to the contrary, we each of us have an individual democracy inside our general one. We are so many overlapping circles—each and every one of us. Today it might be a bad word, an abhorrent, anathemic word, to call a politician “complex.” Now, the problem here is not with the word or its user, but with the politician: the reality simply does not live up to the ascription. Indeed, I am in no way denying that politicians do everything they can to make themselves the opposite of fully layered human beings—despite the fact that they are. Still, in some circles, I would feel hesitant to say and even provisionally guilty for thinking that my own ideas on an issue are multifaceted and largely marked by ambivalence. But that is the truth in many cases. I am made up of many members, of ideas, experiences, books, birds, bodies, parts, villains and prophets, coffee and donuts (though nowadays the trend is pie), of people I’ve met and people I actually might know a little bit of, of memories and feelings flowing together, of versions of myself from years past and those of minutes to come. Sometimes I wonder at how I live with myself. It is truly a wonder we all made it this far. (Although, what does that all really mean?)

Another word that I think has a malignant taste to many Americans nowadays is “privacy.” At least, for some, the word and its variants have proven maladaptive to a certain consensus among us. To invoke one’s privacy nowadays may mean it has been hacked. Indeed, the most common connotation of privacy seems to be a negative one—a keeping out, not a dwelling inward. (According to Google, the use of “privacy” in the English speaking world rose significantly in the 60s and 70s, and only continued this upward trajectory into the late 90s and early 2000s. It is still climbing.) Or, as I have often used it, “private” is a door out from some public duty. To “privatize” something, to many, is to infect it with carnivorous capital. Again, these problems may have less to do with the word and its usage and more with the realities to which it is applied. And maybe the word is not all that acrid to most people. Nevertheless, I do think we have forgotten one of privacy’s old realities.

My point here lies in a very positive view of privacy. Perhaps it is because of my reading, perhaps it is because of my introversion (another contemporarily contested word), but I do believe that the majority—the utterly vast majority—of our lives is made up in private. For Kierkegaard, this is the great irony of the universe: the internal is far greater than the external. For Coleridge, memory itself might be infinite. For American writers like Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, reality occurs as possibility made actual in the mind: in thinking, in reading, in writing. In fact, as Americans, we have a long tradition of prizing our individual realities. Though this is obviously implicit in our founding Declaration—that “self-evident” equality and “pursuit of happiness” business—it is comes further fleshed-out to us from William James, whose work on the inner life of the individual had a dialectically democratic purpose.

James wrote many of his best lectures (which turned into many of his best essays and books) on the redemption of certain malapropisms in his time. These were not actually slips of the tongue but rather terms rejected by consensus. They were words that pointed to realities that had become outmoded, marginalized, stigmatized, and therefore inappropriate to the highly commercial and “highly educated classes” of early 20th century America.[5] Certain appellations of identity had a bad name, as it were. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James more than defended, and indeed championed, the inner lives of faiths viewed as not only low and superstitious but also foreign and bizarre to the sensibilities of a feignedly aristocratic intelligentsia. Overseas, James’ lectures may have had a different affect, but it continues to be significant that at home he was speaking to superficially successful and self-professedly enlightened Americans about the actual psychological healthiness of loafers like Walt Whitman. Indeed, were it not for his undeniable eloquence and erudition, James might have flown right in the face of propriety itself by implying that the mystical transports of the medieval Muslim Al-Gahazzali were more than tantamount to the tycoon’s achievements.

But this is exactly what James claims. In his famous and still-very-relevant essay, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James argues that society is made up not of the normative and the deviant, of various notches in the three-class system, not even of members of different political parties or religious denominations, but of an indiscernible multitude of individually felt realities. Each person has some “vital secret” inside them that gives their life a particular sense of meaning:

But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons’ conditions or ideals.[6]

To his northeastern metropolitan audience at the time, many of whom were running hard with the pace of prosperity, the idea that one could be poor and happy did not equate. The idea that one could wander and still find personal success was an absurdity. All experience had to have something like “commercial value”: “you may be a prophet,” they might have said to such a dreamer, “but you cannot be a worldly success.”[7]

In place of this view, James calls his audience to a radically democratic dialectic—or should I call it a democratic psychological morality?—or should I just call it fairness? He challenges people to follow that good old Golden Rule, to treat others as they would want to be treated (in other words, to remember that they aren’t the only experiencer’s on the block), but with a new philosophical fullness. Suspend your judgment, and then go further by not going beyond your own self. He charges his audience to trust, through the index of their own experience, that the other person’s, as strange as it may seem on the outside, has on the inside of it that same “importance that unutterably vouches for itself”:

[This dialectic] absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.

James encourages Americans to grant the primacy of each individual’s privacy first and foremost in regards to their own particular self.[8] In other words, each individual is self-validating, by virtue of their ongoing vital secrets.

There is a certain democratic trust in James’ moral view of privacy. There is a positive in his negative. You trust that the person knows what they are doing, as you have known what you were doing—or at least, that they would insist on it, just as you would. You trust that the person understands themselves and where they’ve been and what has and will and might make them happy just as you have some comprehension of these things. You trust that the person is still in process of being a person just as you are. You trust that they, too, are human.

That’s what this is, this democracy. There are no other words for it. A belief in a common humanity. Today that phrase—“common humanity”—would start an acerbic reaction in many people who identify with embattled parties, threatened communities, and isolated identities. It would be rejected like bile the instant it was proposed. And I see why it would. Whether it be through a hermeneutic of suspicion, or a protectiveness of tried values, or whatever else, there are clear and sharp edges in common with all humanity. They lacerate almost every inch of history where people dissimilar and alike have tried or been forced to dwell together. Too often the wolf comes wrapped in the American flag. Too often the most American of us are the most overweening selves, proud and possessive to the point of enormity.

But this is what we are founded on. This is what so many people once believed in with such passion that they would have willingly died for it—and many did. Not a provisional idea, not an untested theory of self and world, but a passionate personal experience of what has happened, and what could happen, because of—the people.

This is not to tint our history in a golden cloud. Many people, many people, did not know what they were fighting for, and history remains a nightmare for unsummed millions never to get in the books. We have to read our Red Badge of Courage in our Leaves of Grass. But we have many great examples, too. Surely they were closer to the cost, and still they knew the value.

At a time of immense friction, Whitman saw potential mutual absorption. With the great Irish immigration, the increasing disenfranchisement of African Americans, the militant uprising of the Nativist and Know-Nothing parties, the greedy and brazen machinations of ever-prospering business owners, and the general burgeoning acrimony between various races, the city of New York thronged and roiled to the point of near-cataclysmic unrest. Democracy was fractured on a daily basis through overcrowding and privation, corruption and violence. For Whitman, however, the body, any body, was both a symbol and a literal manifestation of common humanity; each human being was a representative of the race. Daily democracy lay dead on doorsteps; it hung like a grim sign on lampposts. But in the face of this actual failure of democracy Whitman also felt and attempted to foment affection for the secret, vital, shared humanity. Somehow he saw nobility in the savagery.

Who need be afraid of the merge?

Undrape . . . . you are not guilty to me, nor stale, nor discarded,

I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no.

This is both figurative and physical. This is the shared body, individual and collective, private and public, that is the outward image of an inward truth: “Lack one lacks both . . . . and the unseen is proved by the seen.” If one body is not safe, the whole body is in danger.

Whitman strived for years to bring this body to the forefront of the people’s collective mind. Nobody noticed him. He lectured and advertised, and wrote glowing pseudonymous reviews of his own books. Nobody read him. In the Civil War, he tended this body as it mangled itself, dressing its self-inflicted wounds, and got to know its brave “spiritual character,” that which he believed was “genuine America.”[9] Nobody attended to him.

Still, at the latter half of his life, and with few worldly successes to his name, Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas, a hopeful tract about the genius of the American experiment and the greater genius to come. In it he certainly doesn’t shy away from America’s faults and future challenges: he not only discloses the greatest threats to the Union in his own time, but also foresees some of the baneful problems we still face today:

America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat hear down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.[10]

But time and again Whitman returns with a confidence in human ensemble and perfect equality. The view is not clear—the word “vista” is well chosen: he sees through a narrow gap in his crowded moment what might result from the free and mutual exchange of humanity. It will not be without its competition—he knew this from his very first self-introduction to the public—but it will be “hungry for equals.”[11] He sees something, as if from a mountaintop, a promontory, and he tries to point it out.

The phrase “democratic vistas” has a bizarre ring nowadays. At least to my ears, it sounds both archaic and idealistic. Were anyone actually to say it in front of me, I would think them some kind of affected romantic. They may have a point behind all that clunky contrivance, but right now they sound entirely out of place.

* * *

Pensive Fool in Chair

malapro: a person who professes love of errors and imperfections, perceived or real; especially, one who speaks or writes in support of these errors and imperfections; a person skilled at bad timing or poorly chosen words.

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

(Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate”)

Ever since I was a child, I have had a peculiar penchant for misspeaking. Specifically, it is a timing issue: the world within my head is in a different season from the world without. While other kids were speaking out of place or out of turn, I was speaking out of time—the time of the place, that is. I never interrupted, but what I said, when I happened to speak, made every grown-up in the room stare dumbfounded. I was always terribly quiet, to the point where any coaxing attempted with me proved a torture that could pain even the most skilled of child therapists—although most of the time they were teachers and family members, and on occasion those random strangers who in my memory stand out as smiley adepts of pop psychology. And so I lived inside my world and made it whatever cloudy curiosity shop I then fancied, and things I didn’t understand I kept like treasures on the nearby shelves. I mentally handled many words I did not understand in the least. I believe I stayed very late in those early auditory stages of language development. The words were sounds that meant something, but mainly through their music and their noise. Context, that setting so firmly compounded by hard experience, remained largely soft and distant to my mind. Words emanated free from the humans who said them, and from the situations in which they were said. And so, when I just so happened to speak—most often around those that I had known as long as my brain, I spoke out like a humanized Martian. What did he just say? With the parenthetical thought implied: What did he mean by that?

When I was in second grade, I had to have some blood drawn for tests. Not long after the episode, while the class was gathering on the carpet for a story, I noticed a similar bandage on my teacher’s arm. I am told that I informed the teacher, and by consequence the rest of the class, that I had recently undergone “blood surgery.”

I often extracted movie quotes from their original scenes, only to repeat them at odd times. Following our family viewing of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” Kirk’s vengeful curse of the Klingons after the killing of his son (that sentence later used as damning testimony against the Captain) was floating around in my head for days—not so much for its terrible grief as for its vague impressiveness, its wordly bigness. Maybe I was getting my first sense of slur, where a previously neutral term takes on the voice of hate; and maybe I knew through that sheer voice that the words I’d heard were swears and therefore thrilling: “Those bleeping bleepers killed my son!” Whatever the case, the words were dancing desultorily at forefront of my brain while my parents and sister and grandma talked about Lord only knew what in the car on the way to the Christmas Eve service, so that when my dad had to break suddenly to avoid rear-ending a careless merger, I happily piggybacked onto his hostile mutterings with “Those Klingon bastards cut us off!” I remember the car-wide thunderstruck silence in response to my joyful noise.

Batman also had a hand in teaching me rudeness. I remember seeing “Batman Forever” and being impressed with the witticisms with which Dick Grayson mouthed off to Bruce Wayne. Certain expletives, not yet common obscenities to my mind, had the punchiness of come-backs. I was in fourth grade. And so, when my grandma and mom teased me cooingly about how sharp I was looking that moment, instead of crumpling up in embarrassment, I put a jaunty hand on my hip and shot back with a snappy “Screw you!” I learned a lot more about words from the gasping laughs they emitted—the laughs that were first gasps, which sounded in the first few seconds like sobs.

This off-beat tendency has stayed with me into adulthood.

Last year I happened to stumble into a colleague confessing to another that her pregnancy had been, in fact, a “surprise.” I came strutting in right when this very sensitive euphemism entered the air, appropriate in tone and use only for the closeness of two people. Even though my interruption was completely accidental, having merely walked through an open door in the shared workplace, and even though my colleague waved off my apology as unnecessary, I still felt the urge to affirm her and cleanse myself as completely as possible of any judgmental appearance in her eyes. And so I said that that was just the way Danielle and I were hoping to have a baby—well not hoping, exactly, but we wouldn’t think ourselves unlucky—not that anyone should—but it’s just that neither of us could decide anything for ourselves—and, heck, if it were entirely up to us, we might never actually get to having dinner, because we could never make up our minds, and that was why we always felt really lucky whenever we were given a gift card to some place, because it basically made the decision for us—not that I meant to equate her child with a gift card—or any child—all children were certainly better than gift cards.

Needless to say, my missteps in casual conversation have led me to an almost crippling caution in deeper matters. Even with my family and closest friends, I mostly stagger through the spiritual, if I ever hazard to approach it at all. If the above-mentioned foibles have haunted me, you can be sure that my unsaid theological blunders continue to rend my conscience. And yet, the things I read and hear and see still play upon my mind. Sometimes they really do seem to cast the shadow of past or possible error aside and show, as clear and magnified as light through a glass, the total shape of a many-sided thing in a kind of flat purity. It’s like finding a cell in a lens. Of course, these inward moments quickly fade, and by the time I have finished enjoying them in myself, the corresponding outward moment has long passed.

Is eligible within herself. For a few years now I have found this phrase humming in me. Do I understand its true meaning, or have I just tuned it to my own particularity?

Lately I have had a recurring thought. I continue to shelve it, but it keeps on coming back to me, as if of its own accord. It nags me not so much when I watch the news, as when I watch people watching the news—through their reactions online and in-person—and it comes with words already attached to it, as if it had a voice. Maybe it is from my reading. Maybe it is the melding of some people I have known. In my limited American life, I’ve seen the word “democracy” hoisted highest at times of war. The spread of it and the defense of it were, as I understand them, two of the biggest propounded reasons for our major military conflicts overseas. (Maybe these are actually clichés, but I know for a certainty that in my short lifetime I have heard at least one president espouse this view.) Indeed, I’ve sometimes heard a rhetoric that views—or at least seeks to get others to view—a foreign enemy in a foreign location of a foreign politics and culture as quasi-direct threat to our founding ideals. But what if we considered this word a value and a charge for all of us—and not just on election days? What if we used this word to commission us at home to engage with home? What if “freedom” was a thing we fought for when it was threatened where it was most eligible? What if we saw each other as so many million causes for the utmost courage and effort? What if “democracy” were something so overarching that we hazarded our lives if that meant it still held? What if we viewed the breaking of this trust as a greater threat than danger, than death?

But then I hear many other voices speak out in protest against this thought, and I know that I have said something bad, something that must not be said in certain people’s presence. The thought that I have had is out of place with where I am. And so I shelve it again.

[1] Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

[2] Jacques Riviere, quoted in Richard Pevear’s introduction to The Double and the Gambler

[3] Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern-Bearers”

[4] Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language.

[5] James, “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” in Pragmatism and Other Writings, 281

[6] James, 267.

[7] James, 276.

[8] James, 284-5.

[9] From Specimen Days in Poetry and Prose, Library of America, 762, 759

[10] 990

[11] From the introduction to Leaves of Grass (1855), Library of America, 15.


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