“Everythin’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as fur as they can go!
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high,
About as high as a buildin’ oughta grow.
Everythin’s like a dream in Kansas City,
It’s better than a magic lantern show!”
…the poetry of Rodgers and Hammerstein in their very first collaboration, the musical Oklahoma, set in the Southern state in 1906 and opening on Broadway in 1943. Nevertheless, it sounds pretty familiar. For the past century we – to roll out another immortal truism, courtesy of Star Trek – have been taking steps to boldly go where ‘no man has gone before.’ We have our very own up-to-date ‘magic lantern show’ in the array of London light fixtures seen from the top of the Shard (or nearly the top – unless you’re a millionaire on a house hunt you only get as far as the Oblix restaurant.)
The idea that this is ‘as fur as we can go’ seems simultaneously captivating and obsolete. Every time something arresting happens, people seem eager to locate it within the context of comparable past events, in order to garner it’s historical significance and render it a part of a recognizable trope, so it can be neutralized or reviled accordingly: it’s either standard procedure or it’s an epidemic. Experts in foreign affairs, warfare and crime are constantly making these kinds of links; in an article for the Independent recently Peter Popham wrote: ‘The world stood by as the Holocaust began. Have we made the same mistake with Burma?’
At the same time, the more shocking an event is the more we, as a society, are drawn to statements of disbelief and extremism: the worst storm in years; unprecedented rises in crime and pollution; the most gruesome scenes ever witnessed; the first or biggest heist of its kind. Investigating the Ian Watkins baby rape case, DCI Peter Doyle said they had “uncovered the most shocking and harrowing child abuse evidence I’ve ever seen.” The constant message is that this is as bad, or as extreme, as it’s ever been and that we are seeing things we have never seen before, as well as discovering things we’ve never discovered, allowing things we’ve never allowed etcetera.
But how can this scale work, linguistically? When talking about the world and making these sorts of statements, how is it possible to continually eschew mundanity and a fearful feeling of Groundhog Day-esque immobility, while maintaining a sense of stable – if exponential – growth? Change, development and novelty are essential for our sense of progress and ‘meaning’ but total unfamiliarity, and the destruction of our past to make way for it, doesn’t appeal to us either. We are creatures of habitual novelty, which strikes me as an – if not untenable – at least pretty insatiable trait.
The Oxford Dictionaries website provides updates five times a year on new words they have assimilated, based on contemporary culture, social media and technology. Approximately one thousand new entries get added annually. The OED does the same, with quarterly updates under three headings: new words, new sub-entries and new senses. ‘Selfie,’ the recently named word of the year for 2013, has apparently seen a rise in usage of 17,000% (!) over twelve months. And yet, the other day, when explaining to an eight-year-old tutoring pupil why a dormouse is called a dormouse, I found myself referring her to the French ‘dormir,’ which in turn (I now know – thanks to her conscientious use of a dictionary app to check my sources) comes from the Latin ‘dormire.’ She responded, very sensibly, by asking: “Why does everything come from Latin?” and I said something along the lines of: “Because it’s old.”
Language has been pummeled and pushed to its limits over time and yet, by nature, it retains much of its essential quality or content even as it submits to each stage of evolution; its unchanging chemical formula is the basis for limitless word play. From Chaucer to John Donne to William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, poetry is all about wordplay and the interminable wrangling between the poet’s creation of new meaning and the ‘old’ meanings they are in dialogue with, particularly poetry engaged in subversion or upheaval – which is all poetry, to some extent. When Williams writes in his third Pastoral poem, “These things astonish me beyond words” he creates a link to the titular wordplay on ‘Past-oral’ and sets up a sort of semantic subtext that calls into question the basic veridicality of the solid-seeming, parochial images in the main body of the poem, of sparrows hopping on the pavement and a dignified old man.
The magic of language is that, however much it is overused or reinterpreted, it never loses any of the content of its meaning – like Mary Poppins’s handbag, you can keep adding bits but it never gets full. Even when meanings become obsolete over time, but they are still contained within a word’s historical make up. Furthermore, a word’s definition does not alter according to any quantitative standards; you could write “utterly horrendous,” for example, one hundred or one thousand times (The Sun probably has) and it would still mean completely, shockingly, dreadful. Even as it acknowledges its own significance, the reuse of language does not disable or ‘use up’ its meaning.
Writers have always played with this mysterious power of extreme language to locate things within the context of our understanding while also pointing outwards, towards something beyond it. An obvious example is religious language: the Bible and the Qur’an mix a sort of poeticism (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and “By the morning hours and by the night most still / Your Lord has neither forsaken you nor hates you”) with extreme language, whereby whole peoples are “utterly destroyed,” unbelievers prescribed “terrible agony” and sin reviled as an “abomination.”
In many ways, for writers responding to religion, this in turn becomes the ‘norm’ that they respond to or redact. James Joyce, surely one of the all-time connoisseurs of pushing linguistic play to its extremes of internal meaning and external signification, often takes religion as goalpost by which to mark out the boundaries he is pushing. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen listens to a preacher describe the “horror” of hell, with its “awful stench,” “prodigious” brimstone, “frightful torment” and so on – a diatribe that lasts nearly twenty pages. The extremity of the language draws attention not only to the height of the preacher’s feeling but to its impact on Stephen; depending on the reader’s beliefs it draws attention to the truth or the falsity of what is being said. You could see the hyperbole as straining towards a higher meaning that we can hardly express, or as lamely lambasting a hopeless untruth. You might see it as steeped in historicity and myth or as verifiable and pertaining to our future. It could elicit a “Yeh, yeh” or an “Oh, feck” and that is just the tandem that Joyce delights in manipulating: the synchronicity of the epic with the mundane.
Journalists have to tread the same line a little more carefully. The old trick of ‘habitual novelty’ means moderating one’s use of extremes. Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia commented on the style of journalist Rudolfo Walsh: “Clarity is a virtue, but not because things need to be simplified in order for people to understand… The virtue lies in confronting a deliberate darkness.” [1. Quoted in Michael Wood, ‘Living Dead Man’ in London Review of Books Vol. 32, No. 21, 7/11/13] Journalists are confronting a darkness that may be extreme, awe-inspiring, frightening and so must retain, “a sort of shock at behaviour that has become easy to take for granted, to be horrified by only as a sort of moral display put on for ourselves…We can hang on to our opposition to these practices but hardly to our old surprise.” Where necessary, extreme expression should be taken and used not as titillation but as a challenge to the content it describes.
Joyce is quoted as saying he wanted to “keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” That is what writing essentially comprises: an attempt to last. For newspapers pushing the boundaries of linguistic extremity now, making a lasting impression may only mean the thirty seconds it takes to click, buy, read and repeat; the disposable nature of journalism allows this cycle to continue at a faster pace than ever before… See what I did there? Than ‘ever before.’ That was probably just me making a last play for significance by pushing my expression to its extreme. The whole concept of ‘extreme’ language – maybe that counts too. This could go on forever (‘forever?!’) I expect, but as long as someone is listening and reacting, perhaps it doesn’t matter how long the feeling lasts.