Monthly Archives: July 2012

No one who has seen a steam locomotive in action can fail to be moved. The massive iron comes to life and breathes clouds of hissing steam and dribbles condensation like sweat. It is 200 tons of steel muscle and tendon grunting into motion with first one shoulder and then the other.

They were living, breathing beings in a way modern diesels can never approximate. Diesels just begin moving, dragging their mile of boxcars behind them. Steam showed the labor involved. You could empathize.

When I consider why trains fascinate so many people, I have to begin with that power. All trains are brawny. You can feel the earth hum under your shoe leather as a hundred coal-heavy hopper cars clank past a grade crossing. They are like thunder. They are like gods.

I am just old enough to recall steam. When I was an infant, trains spewed soot through the neighborhood along the New York Central line. Hanging laundry out to dry was an iffy affair. If the winds were wrong, my mother’s linens grayed.

As I grew up, the steam disappeared, replaced by bulbous but beautifully painted diesels: purple Erie-Lackawanna, Tuscan red Pennsy. We saw pictures of the red, yellow and silver Santa Fe and green and gold Southern railways.

Those wonderful, old Electromotive F-7s and E-9s, with their round fronts and Packard windshields also have disappeared, replaced by the box-on-a-raft road switchers that most railroads currently are painting soot-black.

Yet the fascination remains.

What is there about trains that keeps us hypnotized?

As best as I can parse it out, there are two important elements: The power is only the first. There are other powerful machines, and although they maintain their own hold on our imaginations – 18-wheelers and bulldozers, for instance – they don’t quite capture us like railroads.

The second element is the rails themselves. The raw power of a locomotive is channeled by the iron parameters it rides.

Unchained power is potentially destructive: Godzilla terrorizing the city. But the train is a dragon with a single-minded purpose. It has to move where the tracks will take it.

Perhaps it is mainly men who respond thus. We look to our fathers for strength when we are young and proudly declare our old man can beat up your old man. When we are young, the power alone is enough.

But as we grow older and presumably wiser, we come to suspect power. We see the destruction it can cause. Gang violence, battered wives, war and oppression.

And as we grow into our own adult bodies, we are both excited by the muscular potential and worried by the havoc we can cause.

The train then speaks to us on a mythic level. Its wheels grind the iron like geology, yet there is a course for it to take, a goal at the end, a purpose for such power.

Human beings can stray. The train’s every temptation is yanked back by steel to the straight and narrow.

We begin our lives with some idea of where we are going but soon are distracted by the happenstances of life. We have need of something track-like to wrench us back into focus and concentration.

The train’s life has purpose, defined by the twin iron lines coming to a point on the horizon. We gaze off and see where we are headed and know that we can use all the force we have, knowing it will be channeled and not dissipated.

There are other sources of this sense of enforced direction: It is one of the attractions of the playground slide or roller coaster. It is the emotion of driving through a tunnel. It is the river flowing inevitably in its bed.

I have ridden trains most of my life, from commuter trains going daily into Manhattan to transcontinental luxury trains – with panoramic domes cut into their roofs – curling past the Rocky Mountains. There have been subways and, lately, excursion trains that attempt to replicate the romance of the passenger trains that have disappeared as surely as brontosaurs and 5-cent hamburgers.

There is other poetry of the rails: the low decaying horn call of a distant train in the night, the sense of hundreds of people gathered in temporary community with common destination, the slow rocking clicketyclack that eases you to sleep in your compartment.

There are lights that scream past your window at midnight and clanging crossing-gate bells that change tone as you pass them.

There is scenery that morphs from flatland to mountain in a matter of hours.

But mostly there is the sense of immense, machine-thick metal power, heavy and headlong, hurling through the landscape along a course preset and immutable.

Sometime around 1515, the Venetian artist Titian painted a scene usually titled “Sacred and Profane Love.” In it, two women are seated at a marble well; one is nude, the other elaborately dressed. It comes as a shock to many Americans to find out that in this allegory, sacred love is represented by the naked lady.

And in general, Americans seem to have a difficult time with the nude in art. Maybe it is America’s Puritan heritage, maybe it is the low priority given art education in our schools.

Sometimes it’s just pig ignorance.

But to many Americans, the nude is something dirty, lewd and embarrassing. At the very least, nudity is equated with sexuality and eroticism.

As they said on “Seinfeld,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

We can laugh at the silliness of such a view, but it governs much of what Americans think about sexual morality, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spent $8,000 in 2002 on blue drapes to hide two giant Art Deco statues — “The Spirit of Justice” and “The Majesty of Law” — at the Great Hall of the Department of Justice in Washington.

Certainly, there is a good deal of eros in art history.

Take for instance, Francois Boucher’s “Reclining Nude” from the French 18th century.

There is not much about this luscious painting that is different from, say a photograph with a staple in the middle.

An in America, too often, this is all that a nude is.

A few years ago, a woman in Tucson demanded that art and art books be removed from a public school, calling works by established masters ”pornographic and morbid.”

She was talking about Michelangelo’s “David” and Picasso’s  “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

What is more astounding is that she managed, at least temporarily, to have 10 art books and four posters yanked from the school. The works in question were by Edouard Manet, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin, Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco.

She said she considered El Greco a ”pervert.”

”We left the art teacher with about five books,” she said, with some pride. ”I took out anything with nudity in it. There’s no difference between a nude (in an art book) and a ‘Playboy’ picture.”

I’m not interested so much in the question of what is appropriate for fifth- and sixth-graders; there may be some legitimate concern for their sensibilities. Although, in this case, I doubt the kids are getting anything from Gauguin they haven’t learned long ago from Aaron Spelling.

But, I am very much interested in the widespread belief that nudes are necessarily pornographic.

Such a view ignores the evidence of centuries of art that has portrayed the human body for other, more complex purposes.

Varieties of nudity 

So what are those purposes? In other words, what does the nude mean?

All but a few cultures in the history of the world have had a place in their art for the undressed human body. Although it is probably more developed in European art than elsewhere, the nude body appears prominently in African, Persian, Hindu, Tibetan and Japanese arts.

It occurs with different meanings in them: In Chinese art, the nude is rare; the most frequent nudes are not sleek ideals of human form but fat Buddhist monks, looking like the sileni of Greek art.

But you will see that these are not different merely in style, but in purpose: These are all different meanings for the nude and the human form.

Of course, in the geography in which humans evolved, there was less need of heat-conserving hair. And in those climes, nudity has different cultural meanings.

And titillation is rarely the primary factor involved.

Like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib — Surely being made to exhibit themselves naked means more to them than it would to us, even if we feel humiliation in our nudity, how much worse is it for these Arab men?

In the temple art of India, nudity and copulation are used as a metaphor for the Cosmos. There is not one single meaning for the nude, but rather a series of layers of meaning that can overlap. Those layers run from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. There are at least four distinct layers of meaning to be addressed:

–> Appetite;

–> Intellect;

–> Power;

–> and Spirituality.

The first layer is really that of plumbing.   At the level of appetite, we have the gaze of the voyeur.

It is here we find everything from men’s room drawings to “Debbie Does Dallas” to the pillow books created by Japanese artists in the 18th century.

The faces mean little, the beauty or fitness of the physiques mean little. There is nothing going on but what Joseph Campbell has called the ”zeal of the organs for each other.”

All true pornography stops at this basement level.

And it is this level that most of the moralizing critics of the nude are stuck in, unable to see any higher.

The rippling of silk 

The second layer is that of both eroticism and idealization.

In both cases, the mind takes over from the organs and imposes standards.

Eroticism is the level at which the rippling of a silk dress is more arousing than raw flesh, with all its hair, bruises and cellulite. Pornography is stunningly literal-minded; eroticism is imaginative.

And eroticism’s flip side is the idealized nude of ancient Greece or “Playboy” centerfolds. In each case, an ideal form is held in the mind – an ideal the real world cannot actually live up to; hence the canon of Polyclitus, which defined the proportions of the perfect body, and the airbrush of Hugh Hefner.

When Sir Kenneth Clark wrote his famous book about the nude, he focused almost exclusively on this aspect of the figure in Western art: The idealization of beauty.

Here we find the pneumatic Boucher cuties and the massive Classic Zeus in bronze throwing his thunderbolt.

If pornography is often physically repulsive, no matter how fascinating, the idealized nude is  intended to be attractive. The idea of beauty enters into the equation.

The so-called Venus of Willendorf, from at least 24,000 years ago, found in what is now Austria. Is this an ideal of beauty? It is certainly an image of fertility. And fertility and beauty are often the same thing, when you live in a time and place that survival depends on fertility.

In Ancient Greece, where we generally start our narrative of Western art, the earliest statues were an expression of human perfection. And for the Greeks, human perfection meant the male human form. They worshipped male beauty. Greek vases are full of nude male bodies — athletes in the Panathanaic Games, for instance.

The early kouros was still rather stiff, by modern standards, but compared to what went before, in Egypt or Babylonia, it is a model of realism and accurate observation.

I don’t want to make this a chronological history. You have schools for that.

But you are familiar with lots of nudes in European art from the Renaissance to now.

Rather, I want to look at some thematic ideas, how the nude changes meaning.

The body still remains, however, essentially an object rather than a person.

How the world works 

We’ve seen the erotic nude, but that’s not all there is.

A third level, above the erotic and the idealized, is the level of power and the political, psychological and scientific.

What does the nakedness here tell us? It tells us these people are powerless, humiliated, tortured and suffering.

There is a famous picture by Imogen Cunningham of a young woman with her head and hair hanging off the edge of a bed. It is erotic.

But put it beside this and you see the similar pose with a completely different meaning.

No one who has seen pictures of naked Jews herded into the showers of Auschwitz can fail to recognize the political significance of nakedness. It functions to underline the powerlessness of the victims and their vulnerability.

Context makes a huge difference.

And in Manet’s famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” the message that comes through is ostensibly erotic, but in reality is political: Two fully clothed middle-class men are having a picnic with two nude women.

The ridiculousness of the scene makes fun of the traditional power relationship between men and women. The painting pointedly comments on such earlier paintings as Georgione’s “Fete Champetre,”   in which two Renaissance courtiers talk animatedly with each other while attended by two docile and idealized nude women.

And it comments on such popular paintings of Manet’s time as Gerome’s “Slave Market,” in which clothed men paw over a nude woman, checking her teeth before purchasing her.

Gerome’s painting is merely a salacious bit of kitsch; Manet’s is biting and political. (One shouldn’t discount the tacit political message in the Gerome, probably unnoticed by the painter: Who has the power here? It isn’t the woman.)

It’s no wonder that “Dejeuner” was declared indecent while such paintings as the “Slave Market” made Gerome a wealthy man: By making his figures  bourgeois, Manet was pointing a finger at his audience. It is political commentary.

Many left-wing feminist critics of the nude get just as stuck in this level as their Christian right-wing counterparts get stuck in the first.

But the power I’m talking about at this level isn’t only political power. It is the power of  humankind over itself and the power to understand the world it lives in.

For instance: If Renaissance artists hadn’t become obsessed with drawing the nude figure, modern life expectancy would likely still be short and brutal. Modern medicine could not have developed without such artists as Leonardo and Michelangelo taking an interest in how the human body looks and how it is put together.

Before the Renaissance, Gothic artists created the figures they used to decorate the cathedrals from their imagined forms. If a figure had a torso, two legs, two arms and a head, it was enough. The bones, muscles, tendons and sinews that lay underneath the surface might as well not have existed.

”It seems rather as if you were looking at a sack of nuts than a human form, or at a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of nudes,” wrote Leonardo of unobservant figure drawing.

But the Renaissance brought with it an interest in how the world works, how the parts of the body work.

Those artists studied the world around them intently. And to them, the most interesting thing in the universe was humankind. The human figure was to them the most perfect and beautiful form found below the level of the angels.

”Who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?” wrote Michelangelo.

In other words, clothes are trivial, the naked human body, essential.

But even at this level, so much more profound and moving, the figures still represent ideas and are not fully humanized, not fully individualized.

Empathetic encounters  

At its highest level, the nude represents spiritual virtues, unencumbered by fashion. The nude is universally true. That is why Titian’s sacred love must not wear the silks and finery of her earthly sister.

Angels are nude, and so are the putti, or cherubs, that flit around so many Baroque allegories.

Michelangelo’s designs for the Sistine Chapel are monumental nudes for that reason, and for another:

When art is most profound, it draws us out of  ourselves and forces us into an empathetic encounter with things and people who are radically different from us.

It is not possible to view the figures of the Sistine Chapel with any intensity and not feel your own body compared with them. Their sinews are your sinews; their contorted muscles are yours.

It is why the nude is used for the most profound tragedies in art: the nude Pieta and the Crucifixion, to name two very Christian uses of the nude.

Angels are often drawn as putti, or cupids, in part for their association with innocence.

We look at one of Matthias Grunewald’s tortured crucifixions and cannot help but feel the pain in our own flesh.

In all the greatest art, we are thus drawn out of ourselves and identify with the grace, power, suffering and love of others and come to escape   the isolation — and loneliness — of the ego. We recognize the similarities of all humanity and not its petty differences.

Whatever it means in religious dogma, the Christ is symbolic of our own mortality.

A lot of wind has been spent on the argument over whether there are any universal truths in the world. So many of the old Truths now seem mendacious. But there are two truths that are inescapable. We die, and people we love die. Loss is central to the human experience. It is why Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is meaningful, even for the atheist.

Our recognition of our humanity is one of the highest aims art can attempt.

It is why Rembrandt’s nude portraits of his two wives are so compelling, why Goya’s “Disasters of War” are so frightening.

And not only are the figures in the art thus humanized, but the viewers are as well.

I wanted to write something about the tree in my back yard.

It is a big red oak, growing on the hill that rises at the back of our house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It is an old tree, with wide-spreading branches that swoop out over us like wooden contrails against the sky. It is a sky tree, high up over us, elevated by hill and by tree trunk.

Its bark is shingled and cracked. Its leaves in summer are insect-eaten, dry and leathery. Moss grows on the north side of its lower stories.

It dominates the small hill like “Charlemagne among his peers.” All lesser vegetation remain vassals, and the lawn mere peonage.

One sees on its trunk the evidence of cities of insects, largely black ants, which use its bark for highways. At night in June, fireflies act as streetlamps.

One could look at the tree and think it is just an old-growth oak. There are many such trees in the mountains. They grew back after the farms that covered the area fell into disuse decades or centuries ago. Now that old growth has been parted again for housing developments, but my one old tree survives. It is hard not to think of it as an individual and not merely a Quercus rubra, something from a page in a Peterson Guide.

It seems to be a kind of spiritual umbrella, protecting this house from whatever ashfall of misfortune may drop from the heavens.

The back yard is full of vegetative growth, each shoot contending with the rest for sunlight and water. Grandfather oak watches over the welter.

It is a mythic tree.

The world is filled with such mythic trees, from Yggdrasil, the Viking “World Ash Tree” to the Boddhi tree of the Buddha. Most fall into one of two varieties of tree in myth: the fruit tree of paradise or the druidic oak that marks the axis of the world.

Of the first, the best known is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the Bible, although only close readers of Genesis may notice there is yet another fruit tree there, the tree of eternal life, which the god does not forbid Adam and Eve, although they never get to test it.

Such trees of fertility include the vines that Bacchus makes grow on the pirate ship and the trees of life in Mexican folk art.

But my tree is the other kind, like an Ent from Tolkein, or the so-called “Lawrence Tree” in New Mexico, painted by Georgia O’Keeffe.

This is not a tree of beginnings, not a tree of new fruit, but the kind of tree that functions as a “witness.” It sees all that happens. It cannot change what happens; it cannot interact. But it knows. What it knows, we mere humans can never fully know, but myth tells us over and over, it is not necessarily a happy knowledge. The Garden of Eden may have contained the tree of immortality, but my tree tells me of a longer time, when everything passes. It is a tree of the knowledge of death.

What makes such a tree notable is that it does not comment on this fact: It just is. That is its role as witness. It sees the suffering and knows it cannot be otherwise. It sees the long time, when whole empires are born and vanish. Perhaps even the time when the cosmos explodes into existence and then fades like a dying ember into a wash of undifferentiated particles, the ash of the burned out universe.

This is why that Odin chose Yggdrasil as the tree on which to hang himself as a sacrifice to himself, to gain wisdom. And it is perhaps why Odin is not portrayed as a happy god.

That is my tree in the back yard, today dripping with the sweat of rain in the summer heat, in a humidity so thick it is almost a mist.

As you read this, you think, but it’s just a tree. And so it is. All mythology comes not from the things themselves, but from our investing them with significance. They seem to have meaning.

It can be like a dream, which, when we wake we remember and feel was trying to tell us something important. We don’t know what, but we felt its meaning.

And myth is that state, in waking life. Things are what they are, but they are also what else they are.

This may be something like a schizoid state, but it is where art comes from, and after art, where myth, and later religion comes from. Myth is our sense of the importance of things. Not important, like the paying of monthly bills, or remembering a wedding anniversary, but important in and of itself. It is significance.

You can see it in the utter care and utter frenzy of the paintings and drawings of Vincent Van Gogh. (Really, in every artist, whether Titian or Joseph Beuys). Look at those lines of energy as Vincent draws cypress trees.

This is his recognition that every bush is the burning bush.

When I lived in Seattle, I often went to the Pike Place Market to buy bread. There was a small bakery whose only access to the public was a small sliding window behind which a wiry old woman with curly gray hair and skin an alligator would be proud of. She sat on a stool and would reach behind her to get what you asked for.

They had great rye bread, dark, yeasty, with a crust like a crustacean. We ate it with butter and chewed on it with gusto.

“What do you want?”

“I’m looking for the nastiest, darkest, heaviest, sourest, thing you’ve got.”

“You’re lookin’ at her,” she said.

I mention it because when I was growing up in New Jersey, the standard bread came wrapped in cellophane and had as much character as mattress stuffing.

Wretched stuff. Wonder Bread, Silvercup Bread, Merita Bread. “Builds strong bodies 12 ways.” I could never understand, as a kid, why people would call bread the “staff of life.”

And food writers wrote panegyrics to the stuff. But the bread I knew — and the only bread I had any experience of — was banal, pasty, tasteless, or when not completely devoid of flavor, redolent of the stale air of the grocery store.

I hated bread as a kid. I hated sandwiches, which only wasted good filling between insipid slices of inanity.

The greatest thing since sliced bread? I had to scratch my head. Bread wasn’t great; bread was boring.

Our neighbor, who was Italian, often praised bread. It was his favorite part of the meal.

“I always have to get another slice to wipe up the last of the spaghetti sauce,” he would say. “But then, I have to get some more sauce for the last bites of bread. It never comes out even.”

It was an idealistic quest for a universal balance to the universe.

But of course, it wasn’t Wonder Bread he was eating. Ethnic breads have always been available, to those who required them.

Things have gotten better in America. Baguettes – or something very like them – are available in many grocery stores, along with various ciabattas and focaccias, but the standard issue loaf of boredom is still the upholstery of the bread shelves in all the supermarkets of America. Bread with no crumb. How can you have bread with no crumb?

How different it was when I first went to France, a nation where the lack of decent bread could cause a revolution. Here was a people who valued the real thing. Whether it was a boule or a demi-baguette, a croissant or a brioche, the bread was full of character and taste.

But the real champ was the baguette. Who knew bread could taste this good. With a shattering crust and a light interior, it had a browned, crusty flavor.

Now, I’m not a complete tyro. Certainly in my adult years I got over my childish hate of bread. As a grown-up, I discovered New York bagels and bialys, and the real Kaiser roll, the kind that if you drop it, it can dent linoleum, and the perfect foil for piles of thin-sliced rare roast beef. And sour rye breads piled with pastrami.

America has its excellent breads.

I bake my own, which is wonderful hot out of the oven, with a melting square of ice-cold butter on it.

But I wasn’t prepared for the difference between even good American bread and plain, ordinary old French French bread. This was bread to give you orgasms. Flavor — no, flavors, plural — that range from lip to pharynx with a medley of sensations much as physical as they were chemical. The initial crunch led to a repertoire of smaller crunches inside the closed mouth, and then the teeth broke through the crust into the heart of the bread and felt the giving elasticity of the gluten. The aroma entered the back of your sinuses like the after-swallow of a good wine.

This was no bread to erase errant pencil lines with. This is bread to build an altar to.

Every morning, and every evening, you could see the lines of acolytes extending outside the boulangeries, waiting for their turn when the counter woman, or priestess, would give them their host.

And nothing in them but flour, water, yeast and salt.

One can float in rapture writing about the patisseries and boulangeries of Paris.

On one side of the door are shelves filled with some of the most scrumptious pastries: tart de framboises, tart de pomme, raisin horns, tiny chocolate tarts with a surface so deep and brown and so smooth you would swear they were varnished.

They pile high, with the more expensive and larger pies and cakes at the bottom, the slices of things for sale in the middle, and the individual pastries on the top: croissants, pain au chocolate, raisin pastry.

Behind the counter, baskets stuffed with baguettes, like arrows in a quiver.

You can see the process at the boulangerie at the south end of the Rue de Chaligny on the Right Bank. The bakers work behind glass, where you can see the boulangers themselves, working dough in 20-gallon bowls with industrial dough hooks. One pulls the dough out, cuts off a chunk with a kind of spatula, lifts it into a large plastic bowl on a scale, cutting off chunks or adding new to reach the proper weight, then hoisting the bowls onto a wheeled cart, stacked up, bowl on bowl, to take to the back for the rising.

Behind him another boulanger, a young man about 20, lines up the snakelike baguette dough on a large tray: 24 to a tray, eight snakes across, three lined longways. Then with a deftness of a samurai and the insouciance of a cabbie, he wields his knife and makes exactly eight diagonal cuts in each loaf.

Behind him are three or four flat ovens, rather like pizza ovens, stacked up.

He opened up the lowest door, takes a long peel, slides it into the shimmering heat and pulls out four toasty baguettes at a time, resting the spade end of the peel on a ledge of the oven, and pulling the loaves off by hand, one or two at a time, and dumping them vertically into a large basket beside the oven. He pokes the peel back in, pulling out another load and repeating till the oven is empty. He then moves to the next highest oven and repeats same; then the third oven.

When they were all empty, he takes the large slate of dough snakes and with a single move, slides them all into the oven at once, leaving their palette in the oven with them.

After a few minutes, he opened the door once more and yanks the palette out, the way a performer whips a tablecloth out from under a table setting, without disturbing anything: He leaves the loaves behind to cook, sets the palette back on its stand and immediately begins unloading new raw baguette snakes onto the palette with a flat piece of wood.

It’s an industrial process, perfected through years of repetition, making the perfect baguette. You cannot duplicate it at home.

The finished bread, of course, looked better than any bread an American could possibly imagine.

The staff of life.


I am in love with words. I think anyone who has made a living as a writer must feel something of the same.

But for me, it is not just the filial love one has for the mother tongue, it is the Tristram and Isolt, Abelard and Heloise sort of thing. I feel passion for some words — words that break my tongue across them, fill my cheeks as I say them — like “a strenuous tongue bursting Joy’s grape against its palate fine.” Talking, like eating, can be an erotic experience.

English is so rich, with its multiple inheritance from Celtic, Germanic and Romance languages, it might as well be chocolate.

“Chocolate,” by the way, was originally an Aztec word. English picks up its sexiness partly through its exoticisms.

Take “sexagesimal” from the Latin, “ketchup” from Chinese, “pajama” from the Hindi, “kiosk” from Turkish, “yam” from Africa, “alcohol” from Arabic, “berserk” from Old Norse. The language is nothing if not promiscuous.

French is called the language of love, but I cannot warm up to the sound of it. It is too smooth, all its edges are worn off. Italian and Spanish come forth in a torrent. Some languages flow out of the mouth like spring water, but English is chunky style; its consonants give texture.


Inconsequential coruscations

I think you can tell the true word lover from the showoff by which kind of word he chooses.

Take the late William Buckley. His vocabulary was immense, but I cannot take him for a genuine lover of English. He larded his prose with sesquipedalian hendecasyllables — a propensity for latinate neologisms and lexicographic arcana so impenetrable you would swear you were translating Vergil.

He was pure showoff. He abused the language, even when his words were ineluctably precise. There were times you have to sit back and admire his hot-dogging, but I no more believe it is love of his art that moves him than the bravura virtuoso who can bang out all the notes of a Liszt concerto without ever finding the music in it.

Another showoff is Lawrence Durrell. His Alexandria Quartet is a great piece of fiction, but I have always been unsettled by his insistence on dredging up tenpenny words.

In the first chapter of Justine, you can find “aniline,” “etiolated,” “pegamoid,” “adventive,” “lambence,” “ululations,” “exiguous” and “exigent.” To this day, I have never found “pegamoid” — or anything close — in any dictionary, no matter how unabridged.

You get the feeling he expended many hours of lucubration in the accumulation and exhibition of his erudition.


Words full of bone and bite 

But take Shakespeare. He uses more words than any other English writer. His vocabulary is huge — more than 22,000 words — yet, even when he is showing off, he is likely to stick to short ones.

The “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet,” for instance, is 275 words long, out of which 222 are one-syllable. Whole lines go by with nothing but popping monosyllables:

“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come . . .”

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time . . .”

In the whole speech, only 18 words are more than two syllables long, and only five are four syllables. Nothing longer.

Certainly, the Bard can sling out a “multitudinous seas incarnadine” when he wants, but the power of his speech comes not from Rome, but from English soil, where the short word has deep roots in Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Celtic antiquity.

The language offers such baroque concretions as “borborygmus,” “tintinnabulation” and “hemidemisemiquaver,” but what greater effect have “gurgle,” “clang” and “blip.” The crunch of such words on the teeth is sybaritic, more sensuous than their length in flat ink on a flat page.

Perhaps that is what I am most excited about: that language be recited aloud, that its physical reality in the mouth be remembered. That is hard to do when storing your prose on a thumb drive.

Perhaps if more people read their words aloud — and had the ear to hear them — there would be less bad writing published, and less bilge spoken by public figures.