January 9, 2017 by libroshombre
Commands shouted out by the Mr.T In Your Pocket (“Six Helluva Tough Guy Sayings; ‘It’s My real Voice, Fool!’”), like “Don’t give me no back-talk, sucker!”, that Santa brought got me considering the power of words. As Lord Byron noted in “Don Juan,” and Mr.T doubtlessly agrees, “But words are things; and a small drop of ink/ Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces/ That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
The Winter 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, my favorite magazine in the universe, focuses on the concept of “home” and really spurred my thinking along these lines with an article about the librarian/poet Wang Yi’s therapeutic use of powerful words in the early second century CE. Wang served the Han emperor Shun Di, and he compiled a book of poetry, intended to boost the emperor’s morale, that included “Homecoming King.” It begins, “All the quarters of the world are full of harm and evil/ Hear while I describe for you your quiet and reposeful home.” He then describes in gushing detail all the attributes of a happy house in a style of poetry known as “Fu.”
Fu was a poetic form popular throughout the Han dynasty that describes its topic “in rhapsodized and exhaustive detail and from as many angles as possible” and using as big a vocabulary as the author possessed, according to Wikipedia. Fu seems over the top to modern Western tastes, but its purpose was to saturate the listeners’ imaginations and thereby influence them.
A few pages further in Lapham’s was an excerpt from Judith Glander’s 2014 book “The Making of Home,” and the brief informative biographical description at the end included her admission that her publisher once said all her books could use one title: “Fun Stuff I Have Found Out About.” That thoroughly sums up my columns, too, and leads into Austria’s word of the year for 2016, “bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung.” A Smithsonian.com article earlier this month translated it as “postponement of the repeat runoff of the presidential election.” Last May’s Austrian presidential election run-off was so close another run-off was scheduled for last October, but “the government requested a postponement of the repeat runoff when issues with the glue used to seal mail-in ballots were discovered,” and bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung.
Meanwhile the British-American Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its 2016’s international word of the year. According to WashingtonPost.com, “post-truth” is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It was chosen after it jumped 2,000 percent in usage over 2015 and was selected before the U.S. presidential election, and anyone conscious during the seemingly endless campaign knows why. “Post-truth” shouldn’t be confused with the 2006 word of the year, “truthiness,” “a subtly different term popularized by Stephen Colbert more than a decade ago that described the phenomenon of ‘believing something that feels true, even if it isn’t supported by fact.’”
How could post-truth exist? It’s described in an excellent pre-election article in TheAtlantic.com by Selena Zito, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally.” Zito’s point was that while Trump made many unfounded, nonfactual claims during the campaign, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” His appeal to emotions worked, just as it did in Britain’s Brexit vote, and other recent international elections.
A subscription to Lapham’s was the last item I selected for our library before retiring, and I admired it so that I bought a personal subscription. However, you can borrow backissues of Lapham’s from your library for four weeks. Since every individually-themed issue contains over 200 pages of interesting words and thoughts, gorgeous art, and is littered with thoughtful quotations, and it’s culled from important writings from all periods of history, each issue is timeless and worth prolonged perusal.
Words have power, as Carrie Fisher wrote: “I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience.” But as Mr.T advises, “Shut your jibber-jabber!”