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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The American "something"

Hemingway wrote a short story called The End of Something in the fine beginning of his career, when the stylized silences were new, impressive, and deep, and a terrible story, fossicked from his remains by his posthumous exploiters, entitled Everything Reminds you Of Something, at the end of his career, when the simplicity had turned simpleminded and the hardboiled silences had gone soft and squishy – the kind of thing that make Old Man and the Sea so unreadable. The end of something is all about the masculine refusal to speak its pain, while everything reminds you of something is all about the masculine refusal to shut up, even when it had nothing to say. And maybe there’s a story there.

“Something” in its American splendor is not considered in Mencken’s book on the American Language. Nor is it in Brewer’s phrase and fable, which disappointingly lists only one something-headed item, viz., something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is as if the American something were so pervasive that it never strikes anyone as a phrase or fable. But it surely is, and it surely can be dated, at least in print, to sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when writers like Ring Lardner and Hemingway were discovering in the speech of the folk the ethical sports and monsters of the American subconscious. And Broadway too, and the movies, and the cartoons.
Richard Burton wrote in his diary when the Gemini splashed down about the astronauts: “Sat on balcony until lunch reading newspapers. Learned to our relief that the ‘Gemini Twins’ were back from the Cosmos safely.83 For some reason we both felt oddly nervous about them. It is odd, too, that I almost always think – no condescension intended – of Americans as being gifted and brave but almost always child-like. White, the man who walked for 20 minutes in space, when asked how it was replied ‘It was really something.’ 

White’s comment is a sort of Summa of something – God reduced to gosh, world without end. 

Karl Kraus, that most un-American of essayists, wrote that thought can’t be the master of language, only the servant. Or something like that. I know I’ve read that somewhere. The house is a mess, I can’t put my finger on the book, or the notebook in which I jotted down this bit of intellectual tittle. However, I do know that Kraus’s whole life was a war on cliché, on the deja connu, on newspaper verities. As he said, the newspaper was the black art, the end of the world, the wormwood cast into the waters, apocalypse now with all the trimmings. World War I proved him right. So did World War 2.
 And yet if that Sacher-Masoch colored scene between thought and language is at all true, then it is hard to see how we are going to avoid just the kind of writing and talking that drove Kraus nuts.  For what after all is the newspaper verity than language pulling thought along, or rather, dispensing with thought all together in a simulacrum of thought. In other words, aren’t we all doomed to incantation, to abracadabras of variously elevated tone?

And the opposite of the highminded abracadabras, as the young Hemingway hoped, was in a speech that was modest in its claims, truthful in its sentiment, factual in its slant. This message is made clear in Farewell to Arms. That speech, it turns out, comes with a price – it turns life into a data-filled competition. Into baseball. Or something a bit more exotic among expats. What starts out as a revolutionary stripping of established lies ends up as a flattening of effect. It’s really something.
I’ve always loved the scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when death comes to a bunch of American yuppies and their friends, English gentrifiers. They, of course, take death as a colorful local yokel at first, but eventually he starts to make his point that he is Death. At this point the American man pulls out his pipe and begins to pontificate about the experience they are all going through. This breaks it for Death, who begins a wonderful rant: “Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans. You talk and you talk and say 'let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this'. Well, you're dead now, so shut up!”

“Let me to tell you something.” There it is again, through a hoax dialectic come to mean not, as in Hemingway’s “The end of Something”, that expression must be tied to the particulars, however painful, but to mean, let me fill in all the verbal space. And then let me walk in it, drifting, in a self-contained suit, safely attached to a large white phallic shaft.

That’s something else.

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