Gnomicon 207

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  207
Wednesday 5 December 2012
Read gnomica 1-200 here!
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“Mostly I just kill time,” he said, “and it dies hard.”
Raymond Chandler (23 Jul 1888 – 26 Mar 1959)

At times this justly famous American noir novelist who created the enduring private eye Philip Marlowe did truly make “poetry out of pulp”, and this masterful spin above on the transitive-intransitive designations for death from The Long Goodbye (1953) is as memorable an example of Chandler’s vaunted feeling for (poetic) language as any.  There was a period in the early seventies after tenure when I had my short catholic phase of reading ‘trivial’ stuff written after the fifth century CE, and among it all were the great iconic detective writers of noir who flourished during the thirties, forties and fifties.  That’s where I first ran into Chandler who, as it happens, lived for many years, unbeknownst to me at the time while I too lived there, in La Jolla  CA – where he died in 1959. [In my own feeble way, I tried years later to work that tradition in my novel Revenge Should Have No Bounds.]

What interests me here is language – language in its infinite variety and endless fascination.  Chandler had been educated in the Greek and Roman classics while living in his youth in England, and I got a sense of this when I first read him – without knowing at the time that he did have this literary background.  No surprise, then, that lexical richness and rhetorical tropes and images are so prominent in his writing.  One could no doubt say this more or less of a great number of authors, even those not fortunate enough to have experienced the cathartic rigors of learning ancient Greek and Latin (even Shakespeare – as his contemporary Ben Johnson [1572-1637] once put it – is reputed to have had “small Latin and less Greek”, but both are salient in his language).

One does not perhaps immediately think of Greek and Latin as being the primary formative influences on Chandler’s hip (for the day!) noir language, painting its inimitable and unforgettable portraits of the denizens doing dark deeds in the lush topography of Southern California in the forties and fifties.  Study some Greek and Latin, and – for better or worse – it will leave an imprint on your use of language whether you know it or not.  It’s just there:  that’s what studying the Greek stichomythia of Aeschylus and especially Euripides will do for your writing of English dialogue (at which Chandler was superb), and that’s what gliding through the slick dactylic hexameters and pentameters of Ovid’s Latin will do for the sense of the rhythm and flow of your English!

Take it from me – your Greek and Latin is as ineluctably embedded in your English as it is unconsciously there!  And that’s before we even broach vocabulary …

On that ‘killing’ and ‘dying’ of time … first read some thoughts I have about intransitive and transitive verbs here. What we have in the epigraph is a very clever way of combining active and passive voice, without morphological marking for the latter, in two etymologically – but not semantically – unrelated words.  For me it’s the interplay of these various features that makes me perk up and go back for a quick reread.

You could say that, with some modification, ‘die’ is just a passive voice of ‘kill’.  Or, put differently, ‘kill’ is the causative of ‘die’ [i.e., ‘cause to die’] – as ‘lay’ is of ‘lie’ and ‘set’ is of ‘sit’.  In the case of ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ or ‘sit’ and ‘set’ it would seem that there is an etymological relationship, and – if one could do a complete diachronic analysis – one might well find evidence for that far enough back.  No such possibility seems plausible to me for ‘die’ and ‘kill’.

Well, one could go on and on about all of this, and I am no doubt tediously hung up on the peg of a private fascination with (in the larger scheme of other things as well as linguistic ones) a rather inconsequential point – certainly a point that does not need to be made in order just to enjoy Chandler’s remarkable facility with language.

But – let’s face it – from time to time it’s a lot of fun (at least for me!) just to let the mind wander in desultory, free-associating fashion even along some cryptic byways we don’t tread as often as we perhaps should give ourselves permission to do …

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