‘Polyptoton’

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

Masters of polyptoton John F. Kennedy and David Ben-Gurion.

This is a word I’ve been needing to know, in the same way where you see a particular object everywhere but have no idea what it’s called. I finally learned it while reading Fiona Maazel’s new novel, “Woke Up Lonely.”

The example Maazel gives of a polyptoton  is John Kennedy’s exhortation, “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”

A polyptoton, Maazel-as-narrator explains, is “a redeploying of the same word in different form, fear as noun and verb. It was JFK’s genius to use the polyptoton as much as possible…”

In the hands of a master, this rhetorical tool can open the mind to new possibilities.

When Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he wove a strand of idealism into a generation that was coming of age in the early 1960s.

In the wrong hands, the polyptoton is a cheap parlor trick, a favorite of epigram-mongers because they sound profound even when they’re not. (I will add an example of this when I come across a good one.)

Like Kennedy, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a fount of this kind of rhetoric. As World War 2 approached, before Israel was a state, the country’s British rulers issued the (always referred to as “infamous”) White Paper — a policy barring Jewish immigration to Palestine, just when they needed it most.That policy, along with the world’s refusal to welcome Jewish refugees to safety and the Nazi’s rather efficient genocide led to the murder of one third of the world’s Jews.

It was a knotty problem for the Jews in Palestine: the British on one side and the Germans on the other. A right-wing group, known as the Stern Gang, operated in the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” They attacked the British and attempted to make common cause with the Nazis to try to save Jewish lives.

Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in Palestine, undid the knot. He did it through paradox. And a polyptoton.

His policy was, “We shall fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler.”

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An altogether amazing story

Shaver1-590x845In 1943, a letter arrived at the editorial offices of Amazing Stories, a Chicago-based science fiction magazine that had prospered in the pulp fiction craze that had begun a decade before. The letter told an amazing story: In underground caverns there lived the survivors of an ancient race of people. Radiation had mutated some of them and they had become what the letter called deros, or degenerate robots. The deros had access to the machinery of the ancient civilization, and used it to affect the minds of the humans on the surface.

The letter was nothing less than a wake up call to mankind to the unseen forces in our world. What made the letter different from anything else that showed up at Amazing Stories, was that the letter writer, Richard Sharpe Shaver, insisted that it was not fiction. He held that he had direct experience of the caverns and the mind-influencing machinery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash. But the editor, Ray Palmer, saw promise in it. He fished the letter from the wastebasket, rewrote it to give it a sense of narrative, and published it in 1945 as “I Remember Lemuria.”

For the next three years, Palmer continued to publish stories about what came to be known as the Shaver Mystery. Shaver’s claims that the tale was true and Palmer’s insistence that he believed in the Shaver Mystery’s veracity were transgressive. It smelled of a hoax and it outraged orthodox sci-fi buffs. Richard Toronto’s new book, “War over Lemuria,” looks at the controversy that split the small but fanatic world of science fiction fandom.

Toronto is the editor of the Shavertron fanzine, dedicated to the Shaver Mystery. He knew both Shaver and Palmer, who died in 1975 and 1977 respectively, and other members of what was known the Inner Circle at Ziff-Davis, the publishers of Amazing Stories and other titles. This book is as much as a dual biography of Palmer and Shaver as it is an exploration of the Shaver Mystery.

The associate editor, who had read the letter aloud, tossed it into the trash.

Shaver appears in Toronto’s telling as a well-meaning if often-lost individual. He began hearing voices, the source of his knowledge about the caverns, in his 20s. The voices got him two lengthy stints in mental institutions, but as Toronto shows, Shaver seems to have largely weathered the auditory hallucinations like a chronic condition, albeit one that colored his understanding of cause and effect in the world.

Ray Palmer was the son of an abusive father. At the age of 9 he was hit by a milk truck and so badly injured that he was expected to die. He survived but with severe internal injuries that stunted his growth and caused him lifelong pain. He compensated for his disabilities by mythologizing himself in grandiose terms and writing bombastic prose that never seemed to need to come up for air.  He was part editor, part huckster. And when Richard Shaver sent his letter to Palmer, he had unintentionally found the Svengali to make the most of his tale.

One of my reasons for my interest in this subject is that Richard Shaver was a relative of mine. In the 1930s, before the Shaver Mystery, he was married to my mom’s oldest sister. So parts of this book are a fleshing out of strange, old family stories that I heard in pieces through the years.  Still, these chapters were hard to read. My family’s role in Shaver’s institutionalization, as seen from today, is far less than exemplary.

The Shaver Mystery still circulates within the UFO, Bermuda Triangle and crop circles crowd. But are the threats these phenomena pose from without or from within our own minds?

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Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Spoiler alert

Trending With Tracy Spoiler alert is one of the entries to the 2013 List of Banished Words, published today by Lake Superior State University. The 12 words and phrases are accompanied by comments by those who nominated them:

“I’m sick of chirpy entertainment commentators constantly informing us of what ‘is trending right now.’ I used to like a good trend until this,” wrote Nancy of Victoria, British Columbia.

“(We’ve) lost sight of the metaphor and started to think it’s a real place, like with the headline, ‘Obama, Boehner meeting on fiscal cliff,'” opined Barry Cochran, of Portland, Oregon.

I’ve made the Banished Word list a New Year tradition for a number of years, but I can’t help feeling it’s losing some of its pizzazz. Certainly the comments seem tired, even cranky. On the term YOLO (You Only Live Once), Daniel of Hickory, North Carolina, groused,  “Just gives people, especially teens, a reason to do stupid things. I find it annoying and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here.”

Well, yeah, all the phrases on the list are annoying. But for the first time, the comments are starting to become annoying, too. In their complaining that certain words and phrases are overused and predictable, the nominators themselves are becoming predictable.

Still. with his comment about Job Creators, Bob Fandrich of Fredericksburg, Virginia, makes a valid point:

“If these guys are capitalists, as claimed, they are focused on reducing expenses and maximizing profit. Jobs are a large part of expenses. So, if anything at all, they minimize employment to maximize profits. Up is down, black is white. Job creators are really employment minimizers.”

Two of my favorites on this year’s list stood outside the election cycle: Passion/Passionate and Guru.

“Diabetes is not just Big Pharma’s business, it’s their passion! This or that actor is passionate! about some issue somewhere. A DC lobbyist is passionate! about passing (or blocking) some proposed law, said George Alexander of Studio City, California, who called it a “phony-baloney word.”

“Unless you’re teaching transcendental meditation, Hinduism or Buddhism, please don’t call yourself a guru just because you think you’re an expert at something, “Mitch Devine of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, practically pleaded. “It’s silly and pretentious.”

I don’t remember which term I nominated this year or what my comment was. (I really should write these things down.) But my nomination for the 2014 list is that the Wise Ones at LSSU weigh the quality of the comments as they choose which words to banish.

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‘Imagine a life without limitations’

I can’t.

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Just resting

Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketchThis article in Lapham’s Quarterly on Roget’s Thesaurus got me thinking (pondering, contemplating, considering, musing, putting through the meat grinder). The thesaurus has a mixed reputation, and is often derided as a hollow crutch for writers who are unable to find their own language.

Its creator, Peter Mark Roget, was a 19th century Englishman and apparently compulsive list-maker who pursued his life’s work with an Enlightenment-inspired religiosity. Lapham writes:

“His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.”

Roget ordered the unruly language into 1,ooo categories of meaning.  “The synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically … like siblings that share a striking resemblance,” Lapham writes.

I was surprised to learn that Roget’s index was an afterthought. I’ve turned to that index with greater or lesser frequency since I received a thesaurus for my bar mitzvah in 1972. It may be my most-loved and most-used present that I received that day. It sits near my computer, much closer than “up on a high shelf,” where poet Billy Collins describes his as resting in the poem “Thesaurus,” an indication, writes Lapham, that Collins believes the best place for the book is at arm’s length.

Because if Roget sought to tame the language, he is often undone by the wild humans who use the thesaurus.

“To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words,” according to Lapham.

Lapham was thinking of college students, eager to express their intellectual bona fides. In my case, the thesaurus was like a ticket to the circus midway.

In a short story I wrote in 1973 called “A Clash With Death,” two high school friends, Eric and Jim, must overcome Death in an ordeal to save their lives (I had just learned about “The Seventh Seal“). Jim, as I wrote him, never went anywhere without his thesaurus.

“I’ve come to get you, Eric,” said Death.

“You won’t take me without a fight!”

“That’s right!” said Jim. “OK, well, I’ll be seeing you guys later.

“Wait a minute,” said Eric. “You can’t leave me in my hour of need.”

“I have to. I’m one who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.”

“You mean a coward?”

“Gritless would be a better word,” said Jim.

This was the exuberance of discovering the rhythms and colors of language. I was learning the humor of the unexpected and the freedom in an unwieldy accumulation of words. Far from wanting to sound impressive, I reveled in a chaotic  derangement of the senses.

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came to America a couple of years later, I recognized the same exuberant impulse, particularly in the Dead Parrot sketch:

Mr. Praline: VOOM?!? Mate, this bird wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it! He’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no. He’s pining.

Mr. Praline:  He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Yes, and Death is The Pale Priest of the Mute People, That Grim Ferryman, The Old Floorer.

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‘It’s all good.’ –Albert Einstein

Why do we quote others?  Specifically, why do we quote famous people? Presumably it’s to give weight to the point we’re trying to make: If you won’t take it from me, take it from Albert Einstein.

Better yet, if you won’t take it from me, you’ll take it from me if you see I’ve taken it from Albert Einstein.

Quoting Einstein is a no-brainer. School and PTA newsletters quote him all the time. The logic  here is interesting:  If what Einstein says is true (and of course it’s true, because he’s a genius), then the point we’re trying to make — about education or school spirit or the bake sale — by quoting him must also be true, and you’d be a fool to dismiss it.

Einstein, of course, wasn’t a genius about everything. And I wonder if people would fall in line behind a quotation from him about marriage or relations between the sexes the way they seem to behind “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

I found that quotation on a calendar which had something wise and pithy from somebody wise and pithy for every month of the year. It’s where I found this quote from Aristotle:  “Wit is educated insolence.”

I’m beginning to doubt that these famous, wise and deep people actually said the things that are attributed to them. Can you imagine Aristotle saying that wit is educated insolence? Could he have actually said that in Classical Greek? And if he had, did it mean the same thing as it does in modern English? Was Aristotle’s concept of wit the same as ours?

Many times quotations are used to demonstrate to the reader what a failure he is:  “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of life,” the calendar quotes Charles Darwin, who must never wasted an hour of his life unlike, say, me.

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do,” wrote Voltaire. And I feel guilty as charged.

What Einstein is to genius, Gandhi is to virtue. And so the calendar quotes him saying, “We must become the change we want to see.” I’d probably agree if I understood what that means.

Another thing these quotations have in common is a complete absence of  humor. This makes them catnip to organizations and institutions that are trying to assert their moral authority without making any waves.

But if these men did say or write these things, perhaps they did it as hack work. Like celebrities today do commercials for the money, perhaps Emerson and Voltaire  and the others earned extra cash by penning these deep-sounding but otherwise banal one-liners.

To rise above the cheapening of the Einstein and Gandhi brands from over-exposure, we might be forced to come up with our own quotations.

Something like:  “The secret of life is no secret if we keep it to ourselves.”

“Wisdom is wise and also dumb.” Or:  “Wisdom without wis is  just dumb. (I admit, these need some work.)

“The true path to meaning is not knowing, but not knowing.”

“I would rather eat my dog than fail to help my fellow man.”

Please add yours.

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