Let us suppose that an era comes, an era of undetermined length, where words come unmoored from meaning. A word like “compassionate” say. No problem. Easy enough to hang onto the definition: To be compassionate is to both understand and to mitigate another’s pain.
But in this hypothetical era when multiple words are used without regard to meaning—when an adjective such as “fake” is deployed to describe so many, many things, some of which are fake and many of which are actual, true—one can no longer blithely assume a shared reality between speaker and listener.
When words are routinely divorced from meaning, it does not result in a benign and charming poem, “Jabberwocky,” but in a dulling of precision. Language without precision fogs, disorients. The compass no longer reliably points north. And without a compass, where north means north, not sometimes north and sometimes south or occasionally east, it becomes harder to steer a course.
If you find yourself disoriented, it may be helpful to read.
Hundreds of novelists who provide a magnetic pole come to mind: Aravind Adiga, Elizabeth Strout, James Baldwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrisson, Viet Thanh Nguyen… and that’s just for starters. But since I am on a Meg Wolitzer jag, let us take a paragraph from her novel The Position.
Michael Mellow, 41, golden-boy, is facing a crisis, that to many might seem small: he has failed (again) to get it up, but to Michael, who has rarely experienced failure and whose parents wrote the 1970s sex manual bestseller in which line drawings of his actual parents illustrated each position, this is a crisis of monumental proportions.
It glazed you early, this goldenness, or else it never glazed you at all. Michael Mellow had always been intelligent and directed, preternaturally good at standardized tests and at getting smart, sexy girls to go out with him, and at impressing heads of personnel. The woman who interviewed him at Dimension D-Net had immediately written in a red Sharpie across his application, “Steve: HIRE.” And though Michael’s childhood had of course ended, soon the firm became the consoling parent, a flatterer who took care of his needs. There were bonuses each year. There were dinners in hushed, icy restaurants where diners were encouraged to put together their own meals, comprised of various dissonant elements: grasses, seeds, the meat of innocent birds. He was celebrated by the company for being original, free-thinking, for being himself, just the way his mother and father had occasionally celebrated him long, long ago, when they weren’t too busy celebrating each other.
We arrive at the end of Wolitzer’s paragraph heartened. We are understood. We understand each other. We share a common perception of golden-ness: Golden people are good at tests, at attracting lovers and jobs. Perhaps Wolitzer has done more. She has developed our understanding of golden-ness. Golden people are “glazed” such that the dings of ordinary life do not ding them. Until they do. And then they hit extra hard, as does the phrase “the meat of innocent birds.”
Let us remember what Wolitzer does not do. She does not describe this golden boy-man as homeless and poor, a failure with women and work. But what if she did? And what if Wolitzer wasn’t the only author to do this, but the whole roster of literary lights used words to mean their opposite? What if Adiga, Strout, Lahiri, Diaz, Franzen, Morrison, Nguyen, and dozens more began calling North, South?
Readers, some? a few?, might be stubborn, confident, and insist on the true meaning of X. Some readers might be swayed or kowtow to this new definition. They might re-define X to mean “not-X.” A few of those may attempt to bludgeon the X-ers into agreeing that X really is not-X.
Some, privately convinced that X is X is X, may be overwhelmed, unwilling to enter the fray. They may retreat into the mind where it is safe to say X is X. Our books, our understanding of each other, our compassion, not to mention our civic conversations would be the poorer.
If you find yourself in such an era, you could do worse than pick up a novel, a good one. Or better yet, write one.