The English Language: Good & Bad | Writing

What if I told you I had a house-mate who was loud, aggressive, stubborn, doesn’t think twice about making a mess but is completely intolerant whenever I leave an unwashed dish lying around and thinks of nothing but what she wants accomplished at any given moment. Not the greatest characteristics in someone you have to share a house with. But what if she was not my house-mate, what if she, with all the same characteristics, was the head chef in the restaurant I worked in? Suddenly all those words transform from synonyms for “bad, bad, bad” to “good, good, good”. Now instead of picturing ourselves arguing with this person over the volume of their music, their inability to consider other people’s feelings and seeming hypocrisy on issues of hygiene we see someone focused, determined and willing to “break a few eggs” as the expression goes.

Most adjectives now are charged with positive or negative connotations, completely to the detriment of the beauty of words. “Amazing” instead of meaning a thing that causes complex feelings of amazement, now just means “good”. “Wonderful” is not a thing that stops your mind from its random wandering and makes you consider all the complexity and intangibility of it, instead it’s “good”. “Shocking” is not an unexpected arrival of something into your awareness causing you to stop in your tracks and draining all other thoughts from your mind, it’s “bad”. No longer “awful” is your reaction to a meteor-shower or waterfall or a thunderstorm, it’s how you feel when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking.

It can seem like a degeneration of the English language to simply all our adjectives into categories of good and bad. If you tried to describe a person objectively from their physical features by saying a person has a chin that is “chiselled” then you’re complimenting them, but if you say about a different person that they have a chin that is “flabby” it’s an insult, even if both are completely true. If you applied the Socratic method here and asked “why is chiselled good?” you’d come up with the answer “because it means the person is slim” “And why is that good?” “Because it means the person probably exercises, eats well, doesn’t suffer from any serious illnesses and is a healthy person” “And why is healthy good?” “Because it means you’ll live longer” “And why is living longer good?” Apply the same criteria to the flabby-chinned person and you end up at pretty much the same question: “and why is not living as long bad?”

Whatchu call my mama, man?

It’s difficult to write about real people, particularly real people who you either know or could randomly come into contact with at some point. You want to give as an honest account of an event or a gig as you can but you have to wrestle with issues like “well, maybe this singer would be offended if I say she hunches over her piano like the Phantom of the Opera.” A simile like that is honest and not intended with either a “good” or a “bad” connotation at all, but how do you know how a person will react to being described like that? Is their reaction worth considering at all?

A book of interviews with Tom Waits Innocent When You Dream features interviews with the man through a great chunk of his career, but one thing nearly every writer mentions without fail is that he looks like a hobo. For Mister Waits this could almost be a compliment as it adds to his ethos but it’s hard to think of anyone else who could be described with this term hobo being used as anything approaching a positive. It seems like the kind of word someone writing a bitchy gossip column might use to describe an actor at an awards show who looks like he might have spent an hour at a bohemian party somewhere in Hamburg in his youth.

The thing is when we hear certain people described with certain words, depending on our relationship to the person being described and the person doing the describing, we try to accommodate whatever words are being used into our conceptions of good and bad. Good and bad is a great myth propagated by news media but they did not invent it. Our minds are wired to simplify things on a survivalist basis, meaning good things are things we want near us and bad things are what we want away from us.

There is also however a disconnect between things that are immediate and things that distant or abstract. Like when you read On The Road it’s easy to get caught up in Kerouac’s orgasmic descriptions of the mad people he meets on his travels. His writing gives you a desire to get out and see the world yourself but you realise very quickly the difference between reading about some quirky hitch-hikers on the back of a flat-bed truck and some questionable and rambling character who approaches you in a café or on the street. Instead of glorying in the randomness of nature and wonderfulness of people you become defensive, “will this person rob me? stab me? punch me? embarrass me?”

This is partly due to the easiness with which news media can dictate to us which kinds of people are good and which are bad because of our natural predisposition towards simplification. A person who is “unpredictable” is naturally a kind of person we fear because as a species to not know what is around the corner is scary. In literature and film an unpredictable character is good because we find him interesting and we know he can’t hurt us, in the real world even if he is interesting he can definitely do us harm. What the news and popular media can be held responsible for is presenting us with the characteristics of an unpredictable person, creating a lie that some people are not unpredictable, that some people are reliable. The guy with the raggedy jacket and the cigarette, the nail varnish and high-heeled boots who talks about the stars and the universe is clearly nuts and wants to stab and rape you, whereas the guy in the business suit with the tidy hair and the perfect smile, with the manicured out-stretched hand and the expected reaction to everything you say, he’s your friend. Even after he’s bankrupt your country and repossessed your house you can’t help but recoil from the hobo and greet the banker with a dignified salute.

As he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him

Playing games with words in this way on such a mass scale has a powerful effect, even when it manifests itself in such small individual and seemingly insignificant ways. There are parts of the United States where it is the greatest insult a person can think of to call another man “Socialist” (the same people believe Socialist and National Socialist are synonymous terms). This is where the simplification of the English language into “good” and “bad” becomes dangerous. In US politics and media the term “terrorist” has come describe any person on earth the government there wishes to imprison without due cause, because the level of fear they have attached to the word in the media has given the level of threat a person so labelled can cause a kind of hyper-reality, far beyond what the crazy guy in the café could ever pose.

The reason this is so prevalent is because we are never taught the art of critical thinking. People now are malleable, destined to be guided and manipulated by powerful people by convincing the masses they need not think, they just have to throw their chips in with us, the good, and curse everything said by them, the bad. The Catholic idea of the infallibility of the pope is this taken to its ultimate extreme. In fact all religion is based around this idea of good and evil, which is simply an abstract idea that holds no objective reality. It’s just as bad for people who should know better. People who consider themselves “liberal” and “educated” are just as prone to knee-jerk reactionism against words like “war” or “military-strikes”. It’s a convenience people afford themselves to not have to face and consider the issue at hand.

In the Capitalist system words help define attitudes towards business. A person who is “ambitious” is good, even if it is the ambitions of large insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits far exceeding what they need to survive at the expense of the people they are supposedly there to try and help. If ambition is good then a person who is not ambitious is bad, a person who is content with their lot must be seen in the eyes of a Capitalist society to be evil. What would happen if people started seeing a man who was perfectly happy to run a little corner shop in a city or town somewhere without either feeling the need to expand his enterprise or to fill in the gap in his life with possessions? The entire Capitalist system would collapse if people really realised happiness isn’t a commodity, and so at the expense of having everybody in a position that does their job well and competently and is satisfied in life, everybody must see themselves as a potential CEO of a major corporation. And if you don’t get that title, no worries, you can still afford the wide-screen televisions and the impractical car and the ridiculously expensive sparkling wine, just like the ambitious and successful. Just take out a loan with your bank, that’s “good”.

“Happiness” is another word that has damaged minds by being associated with “good”. “Are you happy?” a person asks as you stand waiting for the kettle to boil. “No” you reply, quite honestly, in this moment of anticipation as you think two minutes into the future to when you’ll be enjoying that cup of tea, maybe with a couple of bourbon creams on the side. “Aww,” the person says, a look of pure pity on her face, slurping a tasteless boutique coffee while an expensive hand-bag dangles on her arm, “that’s too bad.” If “happy” is “good” then “sad” is “bad”, but happiness and sadness are two complex emotions, and the feeling a person may get from watching a reality TV show, or from drinking a super jumbo sized coke or from buying a trendy piece of clothing is not happiness, it’s nothing, the absence of depression, but in Capitalism “nothing” is “good”. The difference between depression and sadness is that sadness is a feeling you get from true loss, a direct result of living that may make you feel very bad but is part of a swing, the other side of which is happiness, to which it always returns. Depression is the opposite of living. It’s the feeling that not only is that terrible feeling here now, but it is a result of no particular thing and there is no path you can take now or no thing that can happen that will get rid of it. Capitalism is an attempt to cover depression with possessions so that you feel “nothing” and mistake it for happiness. What better visualisation than the Irish propensity to buy alcohol in bulk and then drink to oblivion.

There is a place for the ideas of good and bad, but their complete dominion over the English language and the minds of the people who speak it needs to be diminished and reduced to two simple words: “good” and “bad”.

Character Revelation | Writing

Male. Twenty-three years old. Six-foot-five, Slim Build. Irish. Atheist. Hobbies: Cinema, Music. Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts in English and Film Studies.

Do you get the full measure of a character from such a list of information? If you were writing as a journalist and were given that information about a person who had just died to write an obituary in a local paper, you would be expected to expand it to some degree, find out some specifics but effectively communicating little more than the above facts. A “good” journalist would also be expected to add “will be missed by his family. Considered by all to be an all round good lad.” It’s an uncontroversial, unchallenging representation of the skeleton of a character. The things everyone can agree on and a polite side-stepping of any perhaps uncomfortable details.

Every single one of those above terms used to describe one person could be expanded upon, the type of writer is what decides which way things get expanded. Take the term “Atheist”. The word itself tells less than half the story. In direct opposition to his wishes perhaps this character might find that his parents, Roman Catholics (by habit rather than by choice) have decided to hold his funeral in the local church. In his eulogy, perhaps the priest might decide to erase this word from the above list. Otherwise, chances are he’d say “Christened and Confirmed in our church, he in recent years had wandered from the flock. We can only hope that, had he been given the chance, he would one day have wandered back”.

Perhaps that would be the final word on the matter. It would be the only written interpretation as there is probably not another character in the deceased’s life who both knew and understood his religious beliefs and who would be able to communicate it to others through writing. Probably the best his most honest acquaintances could manage would be “atheist, but not a nihilist,” or “atheist, decidedly anti-religious,” neither of which would satisfy his own view on the matter.

If he could be risen from his deathly slumber before the congregation of believers and be given a voice with which to express himself (he’d see the irony of this little miracle of course) he’d explain that we are all born Atheists, then many of us are brain-washed with mantras and rules that have come down to us through the generations unquestioned. His current state of non-belief is a return to his original position, but it in itself is not a belief. He doesn’t like the word “Atheist” because it’s been hijacked by people with an agenda, who start arguments on the internet and mock others relentlessly. Plus it’s an ugly word, ugly to look at and ugly to say.

It is a lack of belief. But he doesn’t believe in nothing. It is a flat area on which to build and any book or video or film or conversation can become a building block. He doesn’t believe in gods, instead he believes in people. Not all people, or at least not in all people in the same way. He believes there are certain people you meet in your life who you connect with profoundly, who make you feel more at ease in their company than you do in private, on your own. He believes that all the systems of communication humanity has either designed for itself or been granted by nature are desperately inferior methods of linking two human minds together, but also that the fun in being alive is the uncertainty of it.

He believes in these big ideas but he also believes in little ones; the sound of a melodica, the sunlight through the trees, the taste of a good ale, the smell of rosemary, the feeling of light rain, the crescendo in the first movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony, the way the patrons of Rick’s Café Americain sing La Marseillaise louder than the Nazis sing Die Wacht am Rhein. He believes in people’s eyes, people’s walks, people’s voices and he loves the cinema because he loves what can be expressed through the human face; in a Melodrama, everything, in a Bresson film, nothing. That would begin to explain the word “Atheist” as it applies to him.

Self-Awareness, Communication, Clarity

In A Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man James Joyce represents the workings of his own mind from a very young age until young adulthood. When writing Ulysses he goes a step further by not just representing the inner workings of the mind of his stand-in Stephen Dedalus, but also that of a number of other characters around Dublin at the beginning of the 20th Century. His method is similar to that of the Lee Strasberg school of acting, in which the thoughts and motivations of characters are buried beneath the surface, causing them to do and say things that are prompted by their true emotions but can seem totally random. Why does Marlon Brando put on Eva Marie Saint’s glove when they are talking together in On The Waterfront? What is the purpose of the long rambling description of hell in Portrait? It’s all about the mind, and how the world impacts it and how it in turn manifests itself in the world.

This is one reason why Joyce’s writing appeals to some people and seems tedious to others. If you find yourself fascinated by the inner workings of the mind then the fact that he’s the most obsessive writer in that style is a draw. What it shows is that even the individual is fatally inept at interpreting the workings of his or her own mind, so the idea of communicating completely with another human being is impossible. Molly Bloom in her soliloquy can’t even land on one solid opinion of her husband. She goes between feelings of his inadequacy and pride in her own acts of adultery to fondly recalling agreeing to marry him. This is a long leap from the writing just thirty years earlier of Henry James, whose characters could almost communicate with each other telepathically through facial expressions.

To be able to write believable characters we have to know what we don’t know about other people. So much of human interaction is misinterpretation, and of course the comedy of errors was a popular theatrical style long ago where the comedy arises from the audience knowing who the characters are but having the characters be confused or deceived about one another. Clarity is crucial to this style of writing because if the audience is not completely confident in their knowledge of who the characters really are then they will not laugh.

In contrast take a film like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. Anna Paquin plays the lead role in the film, that of a teenage girl who witnesses/is partly responsible for a horrible accident involving a New York City bus and a woman crossing the road. The film is a brilliant example of how difficult it can be to communicate. Every relationship Anna Paquin has in the film, with her mother, the bus driver, her classmates, the friend of the dead woman, begins in a position of inability to adequately communicate in words her abstract reaction to the dreadful events she witnesses and every single time these interactions devolve into screaming matches as each party in each conversation gets frustrated at her lack of clarity. We, the audience, feel her guilt and her trauma so we sympathise when she can’t express herself, and the final scene at the opera when she and her mother finally cry for their respective isolation is the most expressive and honest these two characters ever get.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona plays these two types of characters against each other, on one side Elisabet Vogler who doesn’t talk and on the other side Sister Alma who takes Elisabet’s silence as an excuse to completely divulge her deepest secrets and fears. The film’s brilliance lies in the fact that the audience believes Alma is honest and really looking for someone to communicate with, whereas with Elisabet, an actress, we can never be sure anything she expresses is genuine, except perhaps when she screams in fear as Alma eventually cracks and makes as if to throw boiling water on her. Even Elisabet’s horror-struck reaction to the self-immolating monk in Vietnam we can’t believe to be truly genuine. Alma’s feelings are uncomplicated. She is hurt and betrayed when she reads Elisabet’s letter to her doctor revealing Alma’s secrets and later in the film we get Alma’s deconstruction of Elisabet’s feelings of disgust for her infant son shown in two separate takes, one focusing on Alma and her spiteful delight, the other on Elisabet and her discomfort with the horribleness of her own emotions, not just having someone else know them but being made aware of them herself.

Writing for Satisfaction

The literary mode of writing strives towards satisfying its audience through a game of revelations and concealment. To let it all out from the beginning is purposeless, because if we know everything about what a character will do or say at the beginning of a film then what is to keep us interested for the following ninety minutes? It’s the main reason why teen slasher films tend to have such generic characters, instead of revealing their individuality over the ninety minutes they begin to revert back to their primal natures, fighting for survival. Stories of this kind reveal little about humans that we don’t already know and to dedicate entire films to them seems pointless. This is more suited to single moments in stories, like when danger arises and a moment of self-sacrifice or self-preservation are the only choices. One of the best uses of this survival instinct is in Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, when during an air-raid in Tehran a woman runs up to Marjane, drops her baby in her arms and flees to the underground bunker. Marjane writes that since that day she has doubted the presupposition towards an innate sense of motherly protection.

Survival tends to reveal little and rarely manages to satisfy an audience’s curiosity about a character, tending more towards thrills and questions as philosophical as a schoolyard game. Curiosity is what needs to be satisfied when writing creatively and often a story can start because of an author’s own curiosity. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is such a novel. The horrible murders of a well-liked and innocent family in Kansas by two ex-convicts is just one example of the hundreds of stories reported in newspapers every day as facts. When we read things like “man shot in North inner city” it is never explained to us by the journalist what kind of person was shot or did the shooting. For convenience we disconnect ourselves from both victim and perpetrator by telling ourselves that these were probably both drug-dealers, drop-outs, hardened criminals who had it coming. Capote’s motivation for his novel was to satisfy his own curiosity about who were the people who killed and how innocent really were these people who were killed (it won’t offer the good citizens of the world any solace to read the conclusions he draws for that last question, they certainly did not have it coming).

Perhaps the most satisfying of stories are those in which the protagonist, after we have gotten to know and like him, can be seen to have cheated the system, gotten one up on the rest of the world. When Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, despite the questionable morality of his vigilantism and his disturbing levels of racism, ironically gets painted as a hero by the news media for saving a young prostitute by murdering pimps and drug-dealers, isn’t there a sense of satisfaction there with the journalistic style, knowing that the medium in its quest to simplify people into four inch columns will never know all the questionable details we know about this man. How fatally antisocial he is, his attempted assassination of a Presidential candidate, his procuring and using illegal weapons. Our satisfaction in Travis’s success is not just in his having saved Jodie Foster, but of pulling the wool over the rest of the world’s eyes in the process.