July 2002 Archives


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Once in a while, a sentence so startling in its clarity just stops me in my tracks. I can’t stop thinking about it. It usually needn’t have anything to do with its context, or the subject of the writing that contains it. The reference is often outside, anagogical, and to a certain extent what holds me is nothing less than pure linguistic clarity. Today, it was this sentence from an article in the Spectator:

It is easy to move, hard to change.

Many substitutions could be performed for the pronoun here. The lack of a coordinating conjunction makes me ponder: “but?” “and?” “then?” — though no relation is really necessary. There is no implicit preference. However, in the American perspective, it is often taken for granted that movement and change are equivalent. They’re not. They aren’t necessarily causally related either. Movement does not, by necessity, engender change. In context, that is indeed the thought which this sentence is meant to convey, as this sentence preceeds it:

The alpine plants of Scotland will not evolve to cope with our warming weather: they will simply migrate up the mountains until they become extinct.

Beautiful. It made me wonder. Was moving from California to Arkansas a change, or only a movement?

Moving wasn’t easy. Succumbing to divorce complicated it significantly. Giving up is hard. Humans are more complex than alpine plants. We draw upon our surroundings to constitute our identities, and for this reason, I suspect we formulate that age-old equivalence of movement with change. Perhaps it's not just an American thing after all— quest-romance is built upon the myths of spiritual rebirth. Perhaps change is slow, while movement is fast.

Of course this is all counter to Gould’s view on evolution, the article that started this train of thought. Evolutionary change strikes like a lightning-bolt, rendering mating between the new species and the old impossible. When perpetual movement (and change) is part of the cultural aesthetic, estrangement seems inevitable. O well. That’s a lot of mileage out of eight words in a sentence.

Yesterday’s favorite sentence was substantially more complex, from Nabokov’s Pnin:

As a teacher, Pnin was far from being able to compete with those stupendous Russian ladies scattered all over academic America, who, without having had any formal training at all, manage something by dint of intuition, loquacity, and a kind of maternal bounce, to infuse a magic knowledge of their difficult and beautiful tongue into a group of innocent-eyed students in an atmosphere of Mother Volga songs, red caviar, and tea; nor did Pnin, as a teacher, ever presume to approach the lofty halls of modern scientific linguistics, that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabulous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects— Basic Basque and so forth— spoken only by certain elaborate machines.

Now that’s a sentence!

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