Category Archives: understatement

“God does not tolerate sin very well.”

If only my student had intended to be ironic here. It would be a tired pose, but at least he would have achieved his goal. The context of this statement made fairly clear, though, that yes, alas, he was being perfectly serious.

What a testy God. Not very tolerant!

But to say that God doesn’t tolerate sin “very well” is to imply that He does tolerate it a bit, sometimes, and also that when He reaches His limit, what follows is a snit of some kind—along the lines of my mother, who didn’t tolerate disobedience “very well”; when pushed too far, she would scold us, send us to our rooms, maybe ground us. Seemed pretty harsh at the time, but in retrospect, not so much.

Well, in fact God doesn’t tolerate sin very well, if the Old Testament is anything to go by, and that’s what my student was looking at: excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, in World Lit I. And the way He expresses exasperation is worlds beyond what my student’s words imply.

What are some of the ways God manifests poor tolerance in those excerpts? Oh, banishment. Toil and labor pains visited upon not only the miscreants but also all descendants of the miscreants for all time. Turning a lady to a pillar of salt. Knocking down a tower and changing everyone’s language not for defying any laws but just for building something that might encroach on His territory. Eradication of entire cities, and then that once, eradication of every living thing except the godly and provident breeders on the Ark. “THOU SHALT NOT” thunderously and unambiguously opening most of the Commandments. Eternal torment.

Even Jesus, in the Christian Bible, has His limits, and responds with rigor to transgressors. For example, he physically drives out of a temple a lot of people doing business there, including sellers of livestock and changers of money. As for the afterlife, those who set themselves up as preachers but do no good works and don’t truly love Jesus will be told in no uncertain terms, as they plead for salvation at death, “Depart from me.”

In the Bible, sin isn’t “tolerated” at all.

My student lives in a looser, more ambiguous time, an age of diminished expectations, and he expects God to share his frame of mind. He evidently thinks God is as tolerant as his English instructor, who generally expresses exasperation at late papers but accepts them with a minor downgrade, who scolds and/or expresses despair at terrible grades on the midterm exam and then goes on with the next lesson, who throws minor tantrums or gives pop quizzes when students are blatantly unprepared for class (easy enough for the minimally prepared to pass). I don’t tolerate these things very well, but I tolerate them. Pushed beyond my limit (plagiarism…), I will fail the paper; sometimes I will even permit the plagiarist to redo the assignment, if I’m convinced the cause was ignorance rather than intention; sometimes I’ll actually fail the student for the course. Only once have I recommended expulsion.

Maybe I should be more strict, less flexible. But God, being omnipotent and without equal, is in a position to enforce His rules. Believe me, when you teach part-time and have no job protection your inclination is toward the tolerant.

So for the sentence that is the subject today, my moving finger merely writes “understatement!” in the margin and then moves on.

“By killing his son he did not give him the right to live.”

My student was not trying to examine the legitimacy of charging a killer with violating his victim’s civil rights; she was merely trying to explain what was so bad about killing someone. Even without reading the rest of the essay, we can gather this from the fact that the sentence does not claim the father was depriving his son of the right to live, or denying his son’s right to live; it says that he did not give him the right to live, which would imply that such a right was the father’s to give or deny in the first place…an idea certainly contradicted in the Declaration of Independence, where the right to life is proclaimed to be inalienable.

She just wanted to convey the seriousness of the act of killing someone. Negating the verb, though (“did not give him” as opposed to “refused him”), almost always produces a sentence that is weaker, not stronger, than another phrasing of the idea. My theory is that she began her sentence with energy and intention: “By killing his son he…” And then she didn’t know what to put next.

I thought at one time that a good way to explain to my visually-oriented students how to find concrete language was to suggest that they ask themselves what they would show in a movie if they had to tell their story that way instead of in words on a page. If I had to show this scene (it’s Football Father again), I would probably decorate the wall behind the son’s bed with photos of the kid catching a long pass, father and son laughing, maybe a college pennant, maybe a nice nature shot; this would form the backdrop as the father put the gun to his sleeping son’s temple and shot him dead. If I really wanted to sock it to my viewer, I’d let the kid take a deep breath and smile slightly in his dream just before Dad pulled the trigger. If I could see that in my mind’s eye I would then know the words to put it in writing, because I would know the point and the feelings I wanted to convey.

But I guess not being able to turn a verbal description into a mental picture is part of the same problem that impedes envisioning a movie scene. A few students have actually benefited from my explanation, and told me so; most, though, either don’t try to follow the advice or don’t know how to follow the advice. And such a student was THIS student.

Her sentence could have invited her reader into an experience, a point of view, ultimately a judgment; instead, it’s a circular sentence that actually undercuts its point by making it abstract and pedestrian.


“Queen Elizabeth I grew up in a dysfunctional family.”

This is the best illustration I have ever seen of the inadequacy of the quasi-clinical vocabulary that moves so quickly and smoothly and brain-numbingly into the vernacular.



Detail from a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Age 13, attributed to the
Elizabethan female court painter, Levina Teerlinc / (Teerling) (1510/1520-1576)

“The death of his father brought out emotions which he had never experienced before…”

The “he” in this sentence is Alfred, Lord Tennyson. That fact is probably important in making the rest of the sentence bizarre:

“The death of his father brought out emotions which he had never experienced before, so he wrote them on a piece of paper.”

Talk about anticlimax.

Tennyson’s father took charge of much of his education until illness made the man abusive and unstable; he left the family to live abroad when Tennyson was in his late teens, returning when Tennyson was 22, dying shortly thereafter. The following year (1833), Tennyson published his second solo volume of poetry; coincidentally, his close friend Arthur Hallam died that same year, and Tennyson began work on a long poem dedicated to Hallam, the famous In Memoriam A.H.H., which he published seventeen years later.

The death of Tennyson’s father must have brought out the strong emotion, principally, of relief. Mentally unstable off and on, the older Tennyson had repeatedly threatened his son with violence and was verbally abusive to his entire family as he descended into paranoia and madness. I don’t know of any poem written about that man’s death. If Tennyson wrote something down “on a piece of paper,” that paper is long gone.

My student must have been thinking of Hallam, whose death was sudden and whose life was so closely entwined with Tennyson’s that he had planned to marry Tennyson’s sister. The two men were intense friends and colleagues, intellectually akin. Tennyson was devastated by his death, and In Memoriam tracks a heroic struggle to come to terms with it and with the universe in which it took place.

If In Memoriam is what my student is referring to as “emotions” written down “on a piece of paper,” he’s got an awfully casual notion of poetic composition and spiritual and artistic struggle.

I do like, though, the cause-effect relationship here: death of father causes emotions; emotions therefore written down. The “piece of paper” makes me think of paper napkins, backs of envelopes, pages torn out of notebooks, scraps left in the bottoms of wastebaskets. In the grips of unaccustomed emotion, one grabs whatever’s handy and scribbles it all down.

William Wordsworth, the strong-emotion-recollected-in-tranquility man, couldn’t have rolled over in his grave at the time, since he didn’t die until the year In Memoriam was actually published; but he must have done some rolling when my student described Tennyson in the grips of poetic inspiration. The picture also doesn’t seem true to what we know of Tennyson—who, worried about his own mental health, family obligations, and poetic aspirations, took his time with just about everything (he met “the love of his life” in 1830, became engaged in 1839, lost much of his money and became unengaged in 1840, and married her in 1850).

Well, as they say, Whatever. My student’s version of poetic inspiration should be a lesson to us all, though: never be without a piece of paper. If something happens that brings out unfamiliar emotions in you, you’ve go to be ready to write them down.

“The peasants had no choice…”

Talkin’ about the Revolution here. That would be the French Revolution. This from a student in my Capstone Seminar “Justice and the Disenfranchised,” many years ago.

The comment as a whole suffers not so much from inaccuracy as from the invasion of jargon, or what I (and probably others) call “pop-talk.” Here it is, for your possible pleasure:

“The peasants had no choice but to react with violence. They were suffering, angry, and frustrated. At that time, there was no other way to raise the consciousness of the aristocrats.”

Nowadays, there are other consciousness-raising techniques, heaven knows—some legal, some illegal. I like to think about all those aristocratic heads that might have stayed on their necks if only a few princes and duchesses had toked up or turned on with the people, or spent some time in therapy, or engaged in some of those trust-building exercises so popular Back In The Day.

But I don’t think my student had any of those in mind as a form of communication with those in power. I believe he was actually thinking about voting, which is the alternative to violence when the people want a change in government. But voting isn’t aimed at raising politicians’ consciousness; it’s aimed at putting (or keeping) the good guys in and throwing the bums out.

Energizing voters and awakening the government can also be accomplished by non-violent means, as Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., showed, as did much of the multi-purposed demonstrating of the ‘Sixties and, today, the Occupy/99% movement.

Will the congressional consciousness be raised?

I’m sure that if the ready-made phrase “raise the consciousness” hadn’t been available to my student, he would have come up with words better suited to his purpose. The worst thing about pop-talk is that it doesn’t supplement the vocabulary; it alters it, replacing perfectly good (and usually more precise) terminology with a word or phrase that sounds much more hip (because everyone cool is saying it) and probably is less precise.

I remember when one of my deans discovered the term “input,” at that time just crossing over from the still-young world of computers into the general population. He raised an issue at a faculty meeting and then invited everyone to “send me your input.” And we asked one another afterward, Does he want our opinion or assessment of the issue? our critique of his presentation of the issue? our suggestions for resolving the issue? complaints? sympathy? supporting or clarifying evidence? alternative issues? sartorial recommendations for his next public discussion of the issue? candy?

Similarly, the student who criticized a man who “did not act as a good parental unit in guiding his son” turned a human being into a concept, or possibly a robot; and I think expecting  a concept or robot to be a good guide for a young person is unfair. Why she couldn’t have stopped at “parent” instead of letting the pop-talk flow, I can’t say. Probably neither could she. Like the auto-correct feature in Word and texting programs, the machine takes over—not always accurately, but so swiftly and smoothly that the writer doesn’t even notice.

One thing I know: raising the consciousness of someone whose head you are in the process of removing is a waste of time. I’m not even sure it goes very far to encourager les autres.

“Adolescence is a hard time in a teenager’s life.”

One of those self-evident truths!

My friend Susan and I once had a friend from Austria who solemnly announced one evening, “Life is one of the most difficult things.” Compared to what? we wondered.

For this distraught teenager, one has to ask, Isn’t a teenager’s life adolescence ALL the time?

But both statements translate well as deep sighs of despair, and neither needs clearer elaboration to make it true. Adolescence is hard. Life is difficult.

I think that’s what they meant, and I have to agree.

Oedipus curses the light, which has finally dawned on him.”

This came from a very bright (pardon the pun) student, and my assumption then and now is that the pun in the statement is intentional and witty. It capitalizes on the fact that words can carry literal and figurative meanings. Noam Chomsky would be proud of the use to which the student put this potentially confusing linguistic fact.

The “light” Oedipus curses is the natural light, the light that shows us the things around us. That light, in the form of the sun, can “dawn”—or rather, “dawn” names the moment when the sun’s light begins to be perceivable in the sky, begins to show us the things around us. In this sense, arguably, the sun “dawns.” And that’s how the student turns the sentence, from an external light to an internal “light.” The light that “dawns on” people, in the general run of events, is a descriptor for perception, realization—He saw the light. The truth dawned on him. In this way, particularly by inserting “finally,” my bright student has encapsulated almost the entirety of the play Oedipus the King. Intentionally. I think so, anyway.

In less skilled (or less lucky) hands, that “which” can be a sense-killer, though. Almost all modifiers are high-risk implements. I have a lot in my collection, and I look forward to showing them to the world.

But today, now that the (electric) light (and all that that entails, including restored computer use) has dawned IN my house after 36+ hours, I really just wanted to look at this wonderful “light” sentence.

Of course I can’t resist two much less fortunate statements on the subject of this tragic king:

“Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx, a lady monster….”

Failure to visualize? Inappropriate tone? Inappropriate word choice? Simplistic thinking? All of the above.

The second is certainly simplistic thinking too,  but a lesson for us all just the same:

 Q: What is the main theme of Oedipus the King? A: Incest can be bad.

“The storms were a natural sign that something was up with the gods.”

I like this student’s phrasing. Unlike today’s wild-eyed preachers who see punishment for the sin of their choice in every natural disaster, my student is willing to consider that “something” may merely be “up.”

If “Zeus was the god of the right thing to do,” was he chiefly responsible for the preachers’ kinds of storms, punishing humans for doing the wrong thing? (Actually the student who wrote that one  was trying to remember the word “hospitality,” which was the expected answer on the quiz that produced this reply. I would have thought etiquette meant “the right thing to do,” but still this was a nice try. I probably gave at least partial credit.)

Anyway, as we await Irene, we might think about what might be up with the Greek goddess of peace, who shares her name.