Adventures in words

These days, as increasing age makes the discovery of new lands much less likely, it remains perfectly possible to voyage in the mind as adventurously as ever by reading books and talking to good friends. I find the following.

The internet is changing everything – including words:

Block

Then: “To be placed in front of something, such as a road or path, so that people or things cannot pass.”

Now: “To prevent someone from contacting you on a social network such as Twitter, or from viewing your profile.”

Cloud

Then: “A visible mass of particles of condensed vapour (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet (as the earth) or moon.”

Now: “Any of several parts of the Internet that allow online processing and storage of documents and data as well as electronic access to software and other resources.”

Friend

Then: “One attached to another by affection or esteem.”

Now: “To add a person to one’s list of contacts on a social-networking website.”

Swipe

Then: A criticism or insult that is directed toward a particular person or group; a swinging movement of a person’s hand, an animal’s paw, etc.”

Now: “To move the fingers across a touchscreen.”

Troll

Then: “A dwarf or giant in Scandinavian folklore inhabiting caves or hills.”

Now: “A person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people.”

Unplug

Then: “To disconnect something, such as a lamp or television from an electrical source or another device by removing its plug.”

Now: “To refrain from using digital or electronic devices for a period of time.”

 

  • There is a scene in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when the lovers, Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, meet in the old Metropolitan Museum in New York in a deserted room containing antique fragments from vanished Ilium. Ellen wanders over to a case: “It seems cruel that after a while nothing matters…any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled ‘Use unknown.’

‘“Yes’, her lover replies, ‘but meanwhile.’

‘“Ah, meanwhile –”’

 

Why does one write, except for bread? I read William Faulkner’s answer: “Because it’s worth the trouble.” The force of that lapidary justification lies in its single minded focus on the internal processes of literary creation – what Flaubert called the writer’s “adventures” with words. It implicitly rejects the obvious incentives which impel anyone to do anything at all in life – such as the classic Freudian trio of money, fame and the lure of beautiful women.

It is a rule of life that as one ages anxiety grows. In youth one feels safe and immortal. As the years lengthen that expectation fades to nothing. The dark angels of illness, accident, injury and death visit strangers, the friends of friends, friends, relatives, family, those we love the most – not necessarily in that order. Roger Fanning’s wonderful poem conveys the anxiety perfectly:

 

Boys Build Forts

 

Petrified teeth from some fierce – osaurus,

the rocks my friend Donny and I piled up

in the middle of a field to build a fort.

The wind through its chinks made a desolate sound

I loved. We could have been out on the tundra,

bone-tired from tracking musk oxen all day.

It thrilled me to crouch in a cow pasture

and dream I could live here. I pictured

a cook fire, a skillet, two fried eggs

agog at my good fortune… Years later,

during puberty, I saw Charles Atlas

ads in the back of my comic books

and thought those muscles would look fine

on me. It was the same idea of building

a fort, the same ideal of self-sufficiency….

Of course it’s a crock. My parents are gone.

They left me a furnished house, everything

I pictured for my fort, and more: mildew

that wears marching boots, a roof that leaks. I see

how things stand. I see how people get sick.

Every body that walks this earth

and all the ways we try to feel safe:

all are bound to fall apart. My sweet father

and mother, both dead. That cold creeps in

and I feel as though a bear has torn

my chest open, and ravaged the frail

honeycomb built there by my folks,

and left me in a field to fill with snow.

 

At my age the deaths around me are too commonplace. A dear friend’s beloved father dies and I am heartbroken for him. A snatch of despair from an old Norse saga echoes in my mind from long ago:

 

It is bad with me

now, the Wolf, Death’s

sister, stands

on the headland,

but gladly, without

fear and steadfast, shall

I wait for Hel,

goddess of death

Yet I must remember, and in the end I hope he too will realize, the truth in Albert Camus’s phrase: “happiness, too, is inevitable.”

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