Rout of the Rebel Angels, by William Blake

A Dog Starv'd

A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
      -- William Blake,
     "Auguries of Innocence"

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Things that We Notice, The Things that We Don't

Mrs. FLJerseyBoy and I were watching some old "Seinfeld" reruns recently; these included the episode which ended Season 7 -- the episode entitled "The Invitations." This episode is famous, justifiably, as the one in which George's fiancee Susan dies from licking the flaps of the cheap wedding-invitation envelopes which George has insisted are "good enough." The envelopes, it so happens, are cheap because their glue tastes funny and isn't very strong, requiring lots of licking. That bad-tasting glue is also toxic, and hence Susan's demise. (Characteristically, George is nowhere in sight while Susan is working on the invitations.)

The audience reaction to the Big Event was so strong that it swamped attention to a Lesser But Still Notable Event, namely that Jerry had apparently found his perfect girlfriend. (This was something like the 135th episode of the show, with nearly as many girlfriends -- who almost never lasted for more than an episode -- so a perfect girlfriend was a big deal indeed.) The girlfriend in question, Jeannie, was played by actress/comedienne Janeane Garofalo. And what made the character perfect for Seinfeld's character, as he felt, was that they were so much alike.

Here's the scene where they meet. Jerry is absentmindedly walking in the street, when he is almost hit by a car; this stranger -- Jeannie -- pulls him to safety:
Jeannie: Hey! Hey! Look out. (She pulls him back.) OK! Are you okay?
Jerry: Yeah! Thanks. Oh! My God you saved my life!
Jeannie: Shouldn't there be some kind of reward for that?
Jerry: Oh! Thank you.
Jeannie: You know you should be a lot more careful crossing the street like that, otherwise you could die. If that bothers you.
Jerry: Well I...
Jeannie: You see (points to his collar)? To me this is a waste.
Jerry: What?
Jeannie: The shirt you got on under your sweater. It sits for three weeks in your drawer, waiting to come out. And when it finally does, it sticks up only half an inch out of your collar.
Jerry: I'm Jerry Seinfeld.
Jeannie: Jeannie Steinman.
Jerry: Hey! Same initials. How do you like that?
Jeannie: I like it.
As writing, this is great. It takes just a few seconds to establish that you could simply interchange the two characters' roles and even their lines. Not only can they complete each other's sentences -- they match each other's very personalities. Jeannie's abrupt dropping of the subject (that Jerry miraculously is alive and uninjured) for the sake of some trivial, superficial observation about human nature: that's classic "Jerry Seinfeld," the character.

A couple days later I came across this poem by Robert Frost, one with which I wasn't previously familiar:
A Considerable Speck

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink,
When something strange about it made me think.
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt—
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise.
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
That's the core of it, eh? "I have a mind myself and recognize / Mind when I meet with it in any guise. / No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind." It's not just encountering someone similar that speaks to us; it's encountering their words.

A college professor with whom I was close once counseled me, in a letter, about my stupid, self-absorbed concern that my younger brother might at some point grow up to outshine me in people's estimation -- that I would come to be known as his brother, rather than the other way around. Heck, I reasoned, he was not only smart as a whip but he was athletic to boot, and I'd never been seriously interested in participatory sports. Therefore, wasn't it obvious that people would come to---

My professor's exact words are long gone now but I never forgot the gist of them:
I know [she wrote], because I've been told, that the ability to run and jump and score goals is a sign of intelligence and character. But I know, because I've seen it and felt it and watched it happen, dozens of times over, that the ability to write proves it.
(My brother, by the way, is -- like most of us in our generation -- no longer an athlete. But he is still smart as a whip and every day shines in ways that I couldn't hope to, professionally and personally... just as I do in ways that he can't. We do love each other.)

And then, for some reason, having encountered both the "Seinfeld" episode and the Frost poem within a couple days, and having thought -- apparently at random -- of my professor's words, I started to think about (get ready for the thud of an anticlimax) right-wing broadcasters and columnists, who these days far out-shout the whimpers of the "biased mainstream liberal media." What makes these idiots so successful?

What makes them successful is two-fold:
  • They can honestly (much as I hate to admit it) write. Not only can they write "correctly," in complete sentences and with proper punctuation. But they're also skilled in manipulating the symbols of patriotism, of Old-Testament godliness and sanctity, of other virtues originating decades or even centuries and millennia ago. Thrift. Hard work. Ruggedness. And so on.
  • They employ that gift with language in ways that their audiences wish that they could, while asserting the substance that their audiences believe to their core. They are like their audiences (at least, their public faces are), but even better.
Ain't language a wonderful thing? I had this Big Idea for a novel, years and years ago. The Big Idea was that God turns out to be language. It's ubiquitous, we are not fully human without it (sorry, opposable thumb). And boy do we pay it tribute, every day, every waking (and nearly every sleeping) minute.

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