Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Words--Not the Two You'd Think--That Have Messed up Culture and the Way We Write

Your job as a writer is to peel onions, remove each layer with care. Some onions are easy to peel; they produce none of the tears associated with onions.  Other onions require deliberation and patience to make sense of the resulting pile of onion peels.

Each layer represents an integral part of a story or essay, some aspect, some element that will send you off to the dictionary or library or perhaps off on some individual flight of fancy to a part of you well below your immediate awareness.  After all, if a story or essay holds no such challenges or questions for you, how can you expect readers to follow suit?

You'd not peeled too many layers off the onion of social strata before you became aware of the directions your preferences took you.  You were a child of your culture and time, after all, educated enough to have a sense of class distinction.

Now, as you write this, you are still of your culture and time, but you have managed to educate yourself to a perspective where you have in fact extended the horizon.  You can see more, have more serious conversations with your preferences and your prejudices.

Your preferences were formed in significant measure because of your growing distaste for and mistrust of those tiers referred to as "elite," "Upper-class," and, because you'd had enough reading of history, "ruling classes." To a large extent, you seethed distaste for these tiers.  Now, you have not grown fond of "them," instead, you observe with a cold eye, observing and, yes, truth to tell, watchful to see if any traces of "them" appear in the "you" that is you.

You are from yet another culture than mere "middle-class" or "working-class;" your "other" culture had you during those earlier years where there was a concentrated effort to cause your extinction.  This concentration reminds you of your frequent association with gophers and attempts to avoid them or remove them.  This same concentrated effort reminds you of times when you or someone close to you sought to remove populations variously of ants, fleas, and ticks.

To that effect, you can still recall the time and place of your best friend's mother, telling you how fortunate for you that you lived in Los Angeles as opposed to certain cities and countries in Europe.

This could well have been the genesis of the "them" and "they
 who were not so much out to get you as to exert authority over anyone not of their own kinship and turf configurations.

Soon, you made another discovery from a dictionary, when you sought clarity about the origins of the word chivalry.

"Does this mean," you asked a middle school teacher, "that chivalry is based on the class distinction between persons who have and ride horses and persons who do not have horses and must therefore walk?"

"I guess you could say that," the teacher responded.

"You guess?  Don't you know?"

"I'd never thought of it in those terms."

This was not the so-what approach you'd hoped for, which probably explains why you were soon in the outer office of Mr. Engberg, a bony, likable enough man who was Boy's Vice Principal.  You'd spent enough time there to know the drill; you'd be assigned a list of new vocabulary words to be learned and defined in a subsequent visit.

Mr. Engberg seemed intent on suggesting you not try to look at everything in terms of class struggles, although, because he impressed you as a decent and concerned person, you continued to question his line of thinking without appearing your usual, querulous self.  Years after the  fact, you do tend to see things in terms of class struggles, which has made you appear to be a Communist, which you are not, although in a realistic sense a Marxist, which approaches a description for you.

The most recent word with which you fell into a confrontation is "villain," long associated in your mind with someone of malevolent intent, say Satan in Paradise Lost, but not necessarily the Satan of The Book of Job.

The word villain seemed too dated to you when you began to teach literature and writing.  You cannot take any credit for switching from villain to antagonist in your lectures, written notes, and general thoughts about story.  The academic, Frederic Jameson, got you to a point of curiosity about villain, whereupon you checked the etymology of the word, a search that brought you information, a certain amount of surprise, and a brisk palm, slapped against your forehead as a sudden reproof to your naiveté.

The earliest meanings of villain take us to such tropes as "farmhand," "rural person," or unlettered, uneducated, or working class.  In that sense, being "of" a "villa" is not so bad on its face, but class structure being what it is, villainy took on the meanings evolved through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early portions of the twentieth century.  A villain meant malicious intent against persons of chivalrous--and no, you did not put that word to emphasize your point.  You used that word because it was part of the printed definition.  

In a sense, everyone under the rank of a knight was a villain.  Thus two words, chivalry, from the French for horse, and villain from the French for a person who worked at a villa, have become subtle markers of class distinction, influencing our literature, our social outlook, and the way we define behavior in general, education and its lack, and class distinction.

Your sympathies are clear; they go to the working classes, even though you can find as much to disagree with there as you can with educated classes and your scant association with upper classes.  Being a writer has marginalized you, sent you to the gulags and Siberias of your own cultures.  But you are able to accept this marginalization without bitterness, certainly without envy.  You were fortunate enough to have had a mentor who gave you the metaphor of being the Mars Probe, going to places beyond the horizons of convention and possibility, gathering information, then sending back reports.

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