The Precision of Words

Anyone who caught the Blair/Bush press conference a few days ago might sympathize with Philip Roth. Those two leaders, now joined at the hip politically, make for such an interesting juxtaposition — one a well-read academic and well-spoken debater; the other a shoot-from the hip, “just like one of us,” rambling wreck. After watching his companion casually slip the word “compunction” into an off-the-cuff remark, Bush got that wild-eyed look again and began spewing stuff like:

As I understand, there’s been a lot of speculation over in Great Britain, we got a little bit of it here, about whether or not the — whether or not the actions were based upon valid information.

We can debate that all day long until the truth shows up. And that’s what’s going to happen. And we based our decisions on good, sound intelligence, and the — our people are going to find out the truth. And the truth will say that this intelligence was good intelligence; there’s no doubt in my mind.

I mention Roth because in his recent fiction he seems to have become preoccupied by the degradation, sensationalizing, and politicization of language. In The Human Stain, for instance, (soon to find larger public acclaim, by the way, when the film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins is released in the fall), the main character is undone by a single word, spoken innocently but exploded by an agenda. At one point, he returns to Athena college, the site of his tragedy, and overhears a conversation between two young professors, who are debating the Clinton/Lewinski scandal. Using the young intern as a personification of her generation’s intellectual vacancy, one says to the other:

Their whole language is a summation of the stupidity of the last forty years. Closure. There’s one. My students cannot stay in that place where thinking must occur. Closure! They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and end—every experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious , must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman cliché. Any kid who says “closure” I flunk. They want closure, there’s their closure.

This passage caught my attention this morning as I was typing up notes because of three words: ambiguous, knotty, and mysterious. I worry when politicians denounce ambiguity, when they normalize and conventionalize concepts as mysterious as democracy and history. People die unnecessarily as a result. Families are destroyed and resources are wasted. Someone should flunk ’em.