I woke up with the cry of an eagle, circling in the crisp mountain air, and thought of early fall, of Thanksgiving. And turned in bed, reaching for my kindle.
I’m reading All The Colors of the Darkness, by Lloyd Biggle Jr (thank you to the book brigade for recommending it, as in the bad old days when finding an out of print paper book took years and a lot of money, I’d only located two of his: The Still Small Voice of Trumpets — one of the best space operas ever written, and also a metaphor for what is going on in publishing right now — and World Menders, which I didn’t particularly care for.)
Right there, a page or two in, in what was if I judge right a pulpish solid mid list book, someone prods a loose board on the floor, and it gives “into Stygian darkness.” (And apparently I dreamed this. Post charging the kindle I realized it said subterranean blackness. I have no explanation for this, except that I might have been in the wrong leg of the pants of time. OTOH the fact such language was believable for that type of novel at that time, makes my point stand.)
I’m very aware of the level of language I use for writing, because I started out with that too erudite, faintly bookish undertone of everyone who first learned English in a classroom, then practiced it by reading mostly very old books. (Look, the prices hadn’t been updated, and they didn’t have the ridiculous “culture preserving” tax. They were forgotten, in a sort of little loft in the bookstore. I spent happy hours there, selecting from Austen, Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott and a lot of now-forgotten Victorian novelists.)
One thing that has always puzzled me — though I get it less now, after years of working to stop it — is when I get otherwise cultured people telling me that my stories send them to the dictionary.
And then I stopped looking at that word “Stygian.” Understand, Lloyd Biggle Jr. was in no way trying for literary stylings. He’s setting up the situation for his characters and being very cadgey about it, and I get a workman sense from it. (It’s good to read a competent craftsman.) I don’t get a sense of “impress them with my vocabulary.”
I know what Stygian means of course. I cut my teeth on Greek-Roman myth. Stygian darkness gave me the feel of a long way underground, in the land of the dead, of a river running through total darkness. There is a feeling of no return and despair, attaching to that word.
And yet, if I were writing the story today, I’d have cut it on second language pass and replaced it with “cold darkness”or “echoing darkness.” Why? Because unless you’re aiming at a “literary fiction reading” public, you don’t want to stop the reader and make him go to the dictionary. The problem is not only that he might not come back. The problem is that you’ve popped him out of the story. Instead of worrying about why these men are doing these things in an abandoned warehouse, he’ll be tracing through references to the river Styx.
The reason Lloyd Biggle Jr. used Stygian, probably unthinkingly, and didn’t cut it on second pass is that back when he wrote All The Colors of The Darkness, the word wouldn’t be unknown to most readers, raised as he had been on classical myth and references. And because it’s so perfect, freighted with all sorts of meaning in a compact space.
But Latin is no longer routinely taught, not even in our colleges (Trust me, I’ve been looking for a class and gave up. There are two in the region, but their hours are absurd. Though Great courses now has Latin 101 which I bought just at the beginning of the Great Move and haven’t opened yet. It’s by my desk right now, and once I’m unpacked — looks like a week or so more — and have time after work, will start on it.) I was the first in my family to not get it as a matter of course in High School. Even in Latin countries, it is considered “outmoded” and who reads all those classical works with their references to Latin myth? Or the Latin myth itself?
So what is wrong with abandoning Latin and Greek, and yes, the study of the Bible too (which CAN be done in a non-religious way. It remains the basis for most of our culture’s patrimony.)?
A lot. Part of it is that it separates us from the resonances and lessons of our own civilizational past. It’s easy to convince people that women have been oppressed by men for six thousand years, due to some giant conspiracy of penis-bearing people, or that war would end if we all just decided it, or even if one side surrenders preemptively (with no bad consequences for the surrendering side.) These absurdities would be exploded by even a brief dip into the past of our species, by reading the books written a hundred or two hundred years ago.
But the problem is that our children, hell, our middle aged people, no longer can do that. Minor stumbling blocks like “stygian” send them careening into the recent, “approved” books, into the movies that give tendentious (always left) views of the past, into the pap that has been created on purpose to feed them. And then they believe absurdities, and don’t realize their bright new ideas have long ago been punished by the gods of the copybook headings, which never sleep.
That is one part of the problem. It’s been a trick of conquerors throughout history.
If you want to control a great civilization, first you have to make it forget that it was once great. As I said, I have been reading about the Muslim conquest of Europe, and one of the things they did was erase the past: they destroyed all large structures, used the elements to make their own structures (usually with captive design and labor) and then told the new generations that all the glories were Arab and their ancestors had been brutish barbarians. (Worked too. Recently read some historian lamenting the Brutish Spaniards taking over and living in the splendors of the Alhambra, not realizing it was built from elements stolen from earlier Visigoth buildings.)
The other problem is that you rob the future artists — writers, poets — of material that could connect their work to their ancestral civilization and make them resonate, enriched, into the future. Even if you know “Stygian” you can’t use “Stygian” because your audience doesn’t know it, and you’re writing for beer and skittles.
So people no longer get what used to be true “literary” resonance, the mark of a work that is supposed to last more than in the moment, more than for passing entertainment. (Well, most didn’t, but that was the aim.) Part of the reason Shakespeare has lasted and projected is that it is full of such resonance some of which we don’t even get anymore.
Instead the intelligentsia has come up with their own “marks of literary” which mostly amount to “making sure you know I’ve gone to college.” But the problem is that, unlike the older such marks, they don’t give a work deeper resonance. What colleges are full of now is flawed, just-so Marxist-Leninist tales, and “more exploited than thou” contests. Neither of which does anything but rip at the culture that originated them. And neither of which lends a literary work more than a vague, sermonizing tone that makes one want to sleep.
Future historians, looking at before and after works will think that we were invaded and the ruins of our culture salted. They wouldn’t be wrong. To prevent our venturing back, even those of us who are willing to read the past, our invaders are gleefully “salting” the ground with “racist, sexist, homophobe” for any work even fifty years old.
What they don’t get is that these things have a way of not working in the long run. Humans live not of bread alone, much less of Marx alone. And their supposed iron-civilization-that-will-last-forever is a brittle shell built by drooling idiots. They can rob us of our past, but they can’t give us anything in its place. And eventually humanity will come back, digging through the cultural ruins, as it always does, for anything useful.
Our work is neither glamorous nor exciting. We are like Walter Miller Jr’s smugglers, in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Only what we’re doing is not burying the literal books, because well, no one has thought to burn them, they made them inaccessible in other ways. Our work — if you should choose to accept it — is to take those tales, those echoing glories of western thought, and bury it in our work. We can’t simply use Stygian as a throw away work, but we can write the Styx in allegory or in fantasy and use the word there, and open the door a little for past works and new minds.
It’s a lot of work. It will take a lot of us a lot of time. What? You thought rebuilding civilization would be easy?
Take up the keyboard and write. We are all smugglers.