Category Archives: clear thinking

“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg

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“Before technology was even invented…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? It’s that observation-based-on-a-hazy-notion-of-history, the time of “yore” so usefully deployed by Phoebe—or was it Rachel?—in an episode of Friends to describe the origin of a putative antique: it was made in Yore.

I’ve written before about that historical time, so shrouded in the mists of the past and of the student mind. Despite the noble efforts of the school system, Americans in general have a rather shaky notion of history; nevertheless, we like to invoke its lessons and examples (accurately or otherwise) to justify all kinds of things. The past lends GRAVITAS. In this assumption, students are just like all the rest of us.

They want to put their ideas into an historical context to make them important, serious, significant. I appreciate that. The problem arises when the historical context is something comically vague, or comically wrong, or downright bizarre—as it was in this student’s paper.

He was writing about electronic communications: specifically, cell-phone calls, emails, and texts. We had talked in class about the changes these resources had made in the way we lived our daily lives, exchanged information or affection with each other, made contact with our fellow creatures. Then I had asked the class to write an essay that answered this question: Through our embrace of modern technology, have we become complicitous in our own isolation, almost agoraphobia?

My student wanted to defend our near-constant use of technological devices for communication, arguing that they enable us to be not isolated but actually more closely connected than ever before. That’s an argument that can be made, of course.

But he undercut his own effectiveness from the very beginning, because he felt he had to establish the contrasting image of those dark ages “before technology was even invented” (as if starting a fire by striking two appropriate rocks together or creating friction with a bow-drill were not technology). And the way he defined that pre-tech time was… well, you decide:

“Before technology was even invented, one would have to send a letter that would be carried by a man on a horse.”

Communication with someone not in the same room depended on three components, you see: a letter, a man, and a horse—the man carrying the letter and the horse carrying the man. Any other means could not succeed. Clearly the illiterate could not communicate at all (drums, smoke, beacon fires, and other non-script communications not counting). Those who could write letters but who were not men with horses, or who had no access to “a” man with a horse (so much for stagecoaches, not to mention ships), or who could not afford to employ said man, were out of luck. Could next-door neighbors simply hand their letters across the fence, or did even they have to find that obliging equestrian? People who lived in places where horses did not exist or, alternatively, existed but were not tamed to the saddle were, obviously, out of luck.

So what “technology” are we talking about here? Maybe the telephone and the telegraph machine, both of which inventions supplemented and then began to supplant letters—and both of which were faster than a man on a horse, or even a man on a bicycle or in a car, once that technology (!) was invented. I certainly hope my student had at least that time in mind, and wasn’t thinking of the invention of the computer or the cell phone as the advent of technology, because if he was thinking of the computer age as the dawn of technology (and many of my students do) then he was imagining this busy man-on-a-horse serving his very grandparents’ social and business needs, and that is a notion of history not merely bizarre but downright terrifying.

In all likelihood, my student wasn’t thinking in specific terms at all when he wrote this sentence. Something called “technology” that was his subject, a vague figure like a Pony Express rider thundering across the plains with mail in his saddlebags or perhaps a royal messenger galloping through Sherwood Forest, scrolled message held aloft in one hand and reins in the other, as a contrast to two thumbs dancing across tiny letter keys to ask “U hungry?” or remark “ROTFL.” And the contrast was, after all, his subject, his point; the rest of the image was mere launch-pad.

He didn’t expect me, his ever-hopeful reader, to spend more time thinking about the sentence than he had. But if he had spent more time, the essay would have begun better.

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! This image of the stamp accompanies the description of

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! (This image of the stamp accompanies the description of “Pony Express” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Pony-Express and can of course be found on hundreds of other sites as well.)


“From the very beginning the right to bear arms has always had some way of being involved with everything.”

Regardless of your interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you’ve got to love this sentence.

Certainly in today’s political landscape my student seems to be absolutely correct: we don’t seem to be able to address the issue of gun violence, or domestic terrorism, or even street fashion anymore without getting embroiled in the old “right to bear arms” debate (I use the word “debate,” but the reality is more and more like a brawl).

But what she has written here may be even more true than she intended.

In this blog I’ve commented on a number of student sentences where the writer seemed to be passive in a world of lively inanimate objects, and here’s another example.

Notice that the “right to bear arms” has some way of being involved. That crafty right, always finding a way of inserting itself into all sorts of situations where it wasn’t necessarily wanted. Maybe as a young person you knew a kid who always pushed his way into conversations, parties, conflicts, outings, clubs where he hadn’t been invited. He may have been lonely, or egotistical, or greedy, or needy, or just plain insensitive to social cues—whatever the reason, there he was, and he wouldn’t go away. He ruined a lot of good times: he overheard secrets, danced with girls who didn’t like him, ate too much cake, kissed up to the parental figure, sat in the best chair…. You did know a kid like that, didn’t you? And you didn’t like him, did you?

My student makes the “right to bear arms” exactly that kind of kid. Always involved with everything. You can’t get away from him. And he’s always been that way, that right,  from the very beginning. From birth! Not even enough courtesy to sit back and observe, to “lurk,” and get the feel of the group before horning in. The rest of us are evidently powerless to make him behave, or make him leave. That piece of paper—or idea, or law—is in charge; we must sit passively by and let him have his way.

Well, some people do like the Second Amendment the way it’s written (absolute phrase and all, governing the independent clause in good English), and others like the way the majority on the Supreme Court has newly read it (who cares about those words hanging off the front of it?). Of course the way it’s written is in words, and some of those words are open to interpretation (what is meant by “arms”? is “bear” the same as “always carry,” or does it mean “carry and use in battle,” for instance? how about “well regulated militia”?); some people like one definition while others prefer another. And some people wish it weren’t there at all.

But I think most people would prefer that the right just sit there until called upon, or invited. My student sees it differently: we sit there, and the right pushes his way in. As I said at the beginning, she might be wiser than she knows.

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.  (source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.
(source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)


“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685…”

Well, right off the bat we have two problems.

My student was introducing her Early American Literature “confluences” paper, for which students were to choose from the syllabus five works written within a span of 50 years and then use them to develop a sense of the intellectual, cultural, or philosophical life of that time. Since my syllabus was organized by theme rather than chronology, the paper was my effort to encourage students to weave the themes together into a larger picture (or tapestry)—or, to use the metaphor of the assignment, to show how these separate ideas flowed together into the collective experience of the culture.

She thinks of each piece as having its own “period,” though, rather than thinking of a period that comprises those works. Off to a bad beginning!

The phrasing has no logic, either, but my student is merely repeating an increasingly common bit of thoughtlessness, not inventing her own: “between” asks for two limits, joined by “and.” “Between the morning and the evening,” for example; “between north and south”; “between the cradle and the grave”; “between January and December.” So she should say “between 1630 and 1685.” Instead, she uses a hyphen (should be an en dash, of course), which in expressions such as this is pronounced “to,” as thus: “1630 to 1685.” Now, the last time I checked, it is not idiomatic to say “between [something] to [something else]: “between morning to evening”; between north to south”; “between the cradle to the grave”…. Sorry, but these phrases refuse to mean anything to me! Of course I knew what she meant; that isn’t how to say it, though, at least not yet.

But the imprecision that inhabits this part of the sentence is mere precursor to the huge vague wave of the hand that follows:

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685, which was when religion, illness, death, tragedy etc. happened.”

I don’t let my writing students use “etc.” In the margin I write “avoid this catch-all!” The Latin phrase that means “and others,” or “and other things of this nature,” or “and similar things” (or as the King of Siam so charmingly sings in The King and I, “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth”) should be used only when other elements in the series can with accuracy be predicted; it should not indicate writer’s fatigue, lack of interest, or “whatev”—which is exactly how most student writers use it.

Here my student seems to have a relatively coherent series, if “religion” can be considered dire and fatal like illness, death, and tragedy. But if she does intend a coherent series, I can’t imagine any more elements that would be needed to complete it: illness, death, and tragedy seem to cover most of the territory. And if she does not consider religion dire, fatal, and tragic, then what’s it doing in this series? (Her discussion of religion in her paper seemed to present it as dour but not dire.)

I also am relieved to know that religion, illness, death, and tragedy seem to have been confined to a mere 55-year period several centuries ago. I can breathe a sigh of relief that these things no longer occur, since she assures me with a simple past-tense verb that they are over and done with. I do wonder how Shakespeare and Sophocles got so sad, and evidently so prophetic, living before death and tragedy happened. Somehow death must have happened before 1630—and after 1685, for that matter—because a lot of gravestones carry very different dates. But my student’s sentence would deny such evidence.

What really fascinates me about the sentence is that it is at the same time so hazy and so confident. In that way it truly was predictive of the entire paper, so I suppose I should acknowledge its value as a first sentence. Yes, the paper really did go on as it had begun.

For nine pages.

Etc.


A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-stages-of-grading

Enjoy!


“These rough seas are home to numerous shipwrecks.”

I suppose there’s really nothing very wrong about what my student wrote. Of course he didn’t make clear whether he meant the seas were home to the events called “shipwrecks”—waves pounding the sides and decks, winds tearing the sails and bending the masts, rudder snapped, wheel out of control, panicked passengers huddled below, desperate seamen swarming above—or to the objects called “shipwrecks”—wrecked ships lying on the ocean floor, hulls stove in, masts splintered, treasure scattered on the drifting sand, fish swimming through empty portholes, sad skeletons partially encrusted with coral. I suppose if he thought about it he might say he meant both; I’m not sure he gave the question a lot of thought while actually writing, though.

Certainly the “rough seas” are places where there are such objects and events. “Numerous” is a rather flabby term here next to a noun of such violence and loss, but “many,” “countless,” “lots of” shipwrecks would be just as flat—and “shipwrecks aplenty” wouldn’t strike quite the right note, would it? So let “numerous” go.

What I can’t quite let go is “are home to.” Doesn’t “home” connote pretty much the opposite of despair, death, and destruction? We say New England is home to several august universities that were founded during the Colonial period. California has been home to the film industry since the beginning of commercial movies in America. New Orleans is home to the rich cuisine that is Créole. We might even say, or I might even say, Connecticut is home to me.  BUT would you say “Kansas is home to numerous tornados”? or “Cemeteries are home to numerous corpses”? Don’t things have to be alive to come, or be, “home”? Does the Dore illustration below suggest “home” to you, in any way?

Figures of speech can become so much a part of our ordinary language that we don’t pause to consider the pictures they evoke, and I think my student was betrayed by familiarity here. Blessed (or cursed) with a very visual sense of language myself, I find his perfectly ordinary statement oddly unsettling, perhaps even morbid.

Maybe I’m overreacting on this one. I welcome your comments!

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet "Le Corsaire." Note the rough seas.

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet “Le Corsaire.” Note the rough seas. Pretty homey, eh?


“The ad may even make people think twice before allowing themselves to be ignorant.”

To celebrate my 4000th follower (!), I offer this wonderful sentence.

My student was commenting on a public-service ad about nutrition, if I recall correctly.

Can’t you picture the people who see it? “Hmm!” they say; “maybe a diet of nothing but candy and Big Gulps isn’t the greatest idea! Maybe I should….” And then: “Naaaaah. This thing is probably not true. I’d rather not think about it anyway. Where did I put that bag of gummy bears?”

Nothing against gummy bears per se, but I’d say that’s a pretty INeffective ad, and I’d say some advertising agency ought to be firing somebody or maybe looking for an account to replace the one that just fired THEM.

If she had written “rather than” instead of “before,” she might be holding out some hope for us all. But maybe she didn’t proofread. Maybe she doesn’t understand what “think twice” actually means. Maybe she didn’t even think twice.

Maybe she just allowed herself to be ignorant…


“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing…”

As a lover of the theater (and a lover of a good time, for that matter), I agree that it was fortunate that the Puritans stopped existing, although lately they seem to be rising from their graves to drag modern culture back to their narrow definitions.

But that is beside my student’s point.

“Stopped existing” is nicer than, say, “died out,” since it seems to give the Puritans some volition in the matter. “Life is getting to be a drag,” you can imagine them saying to one another; “Let’s stop existing.” They shut up shop and that’s that.

No, my student had a much more developed understanding of what happened to Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, Edwards, & Co.: they stopped existing “because of the Salem Witch trials.” Did she mean they were conscience-stricken at the wrongs they had done in God’s name, and so they rode off into the sunset or turned off their life force? Or their glee at beating the devil gave them all fatal strokes? Or they felt their work was done and moved on to viler pastures? The exact agency, process, and motive seem unclear, but she still goes on to offer an explanation:

“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing because of the Salem Witch trials. Luckily more Christians were rising so they didn’t last long after that.”

“Rising”? Rising out of the ground? Rising up from inactivity? Rising against the Puritans? Gaining in the popularity polls? You can see that she continues to be glad at the demise of the stern and rock-bound host (sorry, pun irresistible!), anyway; and I think she believes she is continuing in a line of exposition as well. They stopped existing because more Christians rose after, or as a consequence of, the Salem witch trials and so the Puritans couldn’t last.

Does this make sense to you? I wonder if, at last, it made sense to her. It happened, after all, back in Yore, that hazy past students love to allude to but almost never have much of a grasp of.…The statement ends like the Puritans in her narrative, not with a bang but a whimper (sorry, TSE).

She seems to realize she has embarked on a road that is becoming increasingly obscure, but she is unable to turn back. The repetition and amplification smack of desperation. There’s a hint of Oscar Wilde’s lovely line in The Importance of Being Earnest here: Algernon Moncrieff, in love with a country girl and therefore now impeded by the “existence” of the invalid (also in the country) he invented as an excuse to get out of social obligations in London, he now attempts to UNinvent him by telling his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, that Bunbury, the invalid in question, has died. The dialogue goes on:

Lady Bracknell.  What did he die of?

Algernon.  Bunbury?  Oh, he was quite exploded.

Lady Bracknell.  Exploded!  Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?  I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation.  If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

Algernon.  My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out!  The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.

Lady Bracknell.  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.  I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.

I think of this exchange because my student’s narrative has that same improvisatory feel to it, and the same ending note that “they stopped existing” because they realized they “couldn’t last.”

I have nothing against Bunbury, and so I have no feelings positive or negative about his passing away into the ether.

About the Puritans, though, I have to agree with my student. They had no tolerance for other faiths: they assumed that the native Americans were Satan-worshippers; and even other Christians they persecuted whenever they got a chance, at least in the early days, locking Quakers in smokehouses, putting non-Puritans in the stocks, driving them out of Massachusetts (that’s how Rhode Island got founded!). Maybe they knew that if these others “rose” sufficiently the Puritans would be crowded out and wouldn’t be able to “last.” But, perhaps because by 1692 the Puritans were giving more attention to killing suspected witches than to suppressing those Christian upstarts, somehow the others DID rise sufficiently to, what, jump them in dark alleys and do away with them.

However they “ceased to exist,” they were a dour lot when they trod the earth and we are fortunate that they no longer hold sway in our lives. If our luck holds, that is.

"Sample Puritan," by "Bill" Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“Sample Puritan,” by “Bill” Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.


“Civility is something that isn’t something with a concrete definition.”

My students were meant to be writing about Hank Reichmann’s essay “Is ‘Incivility’ the New Communism?” on Academe Magazine’s blog, his idea that calls for “civility” on college campuses are intended to stifle unpopular opinions just as accusations of communist affiliations did in the 1950s—they were to agree or disagree, considering his example of a student’s use of the “ice bucket challenge” to protest the violence in Gaza and any other examples they could find or had experienced. Although I knew the essay would be a bit much to ask a first-year writer to manage fully, I wanted to start the semester off with something thought-provoking and difficult. For the most part, they did their best to rise to the occasion.

But the high school lesson to “define your terms” took its toll, particularly with the student quoted here. Oh, dear. She knew she should; but Reichmann doesn’t provide a “concrete definition,” and I try to be clear that “defining one’s terms” doesn’t mean “copy the meaning from the dictionary.” To add to the problem here, it’s possible that she wasn’t familiar enough with the word to be confident with it on her own. Whatever adjurations and counter-adjurations were roiling around in her mind, when she put finger to keyboard she meant to do things right. Hence “Civility is something….”

But how to go on from there? She didn’t know what to say.

I believe I know what she meant, and I also believe that if she had just stopped to think, she could have done better. We had been reading S. I. Hayakawa’s classic Language In Thought and Action, still a wonderful and useful exploration of living semantics and the role of language in thought, and she could have pulled the word “abstraction” from its pages and wielded it here. “Like most abstractions, the word ‘civility’ has no single, clear meaning.” But she didn’t connect the reading assignment with the writing assignment. (Why, I wonder, is this so often the case? Do we really have to direct our students’ thoughts that preemptively, telling them “remember that you can relate your reading assignment to your writing assignment”?)

She also didn’t follow my urgent suggestion, given to every writing class with almost pathological frequency, that she read her draft aloud as part of proofreading and revision. Surely “Civility is something that isn’t something” would have given her pause? No. She wrote “Civility is something that…” and couldn’t go on with a “concrete definition,” so she pushed along and re-opened the sentence without closing it: “isn’t something with a clear definition.” Oh, my dear, go BACK! go BACK! Get rid of the “is something” and you’ll have “Civility isn’t something with a concrete definition.” Shorten it: “Civility has no concrete definition.” Add quotation marks so we know you mean the word, not the thing: “‘Civility’ has no concrete definition.” That isn’t elegant, but it’s a start that might get you there eventually. At least you and your reader will both know what you’re saying to begin with.

Well, she did get somewhere eventually, but that staggering first sentence was followed by a lot more staggering before she found her verbal and conceptual feet. So much work…so much effort that might have been saved, or made more efficient, with a little thought. And I mean thought ahead of time, before beginning to write. I tell my students, sympathetically, that I can always tell where in their papers they’re unsure of their facts, or their idea, or their reasoning: the sentences always go crazy, the grammar breaks down, the words go in circles. As here.

Because as it is, her first sentence is something that isn’t something that inspires confidence.

Civility reigns in Edward Hicks' painting of The Peaceable Kingdom. See it at the Brooklyn Museum. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/WLA_brooklynmuseum_Edward_Hicks_The_Peaceable_Kingdom_2.jpg

Civility reigns in Edward Hicks’ painting of The Peaceable Kingdom. See it at the Brooklyn Museum. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/62/WLA_brooklynmuseum_Edward_Hicks_The_Peaceable_Kingdom_2.jpg


“You see this fear in the past, present, and future around the world.”

My student was attributing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 to a fear of the unknown, and certainly that’s a reasonable hypothesis. Then he goes on to remark that this fear was not limited to the people of Salem, or to the seventeenth century: “you see this fear in the past, present….” Again, he’s right about that: indeed, one might even speculate that many of those folks who made such bizarre choices at the ballot boxes last Tuesday were gripped by a fear of the unknown, the different, the alien. And social issues and politics are probably thus all around the world.

I have no quarrel with my student’s thinking so far.

But don’t you know it, he HAS to go on: there’s something irresistible about a sentence with a series of three items, isn’t there? And so he adds “and future.” Now, we may very well be safe in saying we WILL see this same fear, this horror of the strange or sudden, in the future, human nature being what it is, education having as little effect as it seems to have had and all. Using the present tense to describe the future is the confusing part. We DON’T “see” this fear in the future; we’re not there yet. We don’t see anything in the future. Everything we actually see we see in the present, and in the present we can read about the past and see something there too.

I am discounting the possibility that my student is clairvoyant, or that I am (he is, after all, addressing me when he writes “You,” no?). That would be one way to see something in the future, now. “I see a tall, dark stranger.” “I see a ship sailing.” “I see money.” “I see hard days ahead…” says the exotically-gowned-and-bangled dark woman in the shadowy tent, and we believe her (or not, depending on how much we like what she “sees”). Whether such a woman is likely to say “I see fear of the unknown in the future” I don’t know; certainly no such vision has been described by clairvoyants and fortune-tellers in the novels I’ve read and television shows I’ve seen.

I honestly don’t think my student had clairvoyance in mind. I doubt that he even meant the “future” part. I think, as I said at the outset, that he simply felt the sentence wasn’t finished with only two items in a series, and the future just plopped itself down there before he could think. And he didn’t think afterwards, either. So there I am, reading about witches and suddenly giving them visiting aliens (the space kind) and carnival “gypsies” for company. That’s the kind of strange world reading will take you to.

But you can only get to it if YOU don’t have that fear of the unknown.…