The Capital Offense Of Elitism

Flickr / Matthew Faltz
Flickr / Matthew Faltz

In her article “Eleanor Catton on literature and elitism,” Catton discusses the implications of a Paris Review reader who opposed the use of the word “crepuscular” (a rather old-fashioned, little known word used to describe twilight), believing it to be “evidence of the writer’s self-indulgence, and claiming that the creative essay in which the word appeared was an example of elitist writing.” Well, to put it bluntly, cheers to Catton for her remarkable ability in countering the idiocy of this world. I don’t know much about Sir Evan James, save his name and his fine article “Hear that Lonesome Gasket Blow,” and I certainly I wasn’t around when he put his pen to paper and derived the word crepuscular, but nevertheless I agree it had less to do with snobbery and more with an inner knowledge that it had to be that word. Really, sometimes it’s hardly the author’s choice what word he puts down- more often than not, the word chooses itself, and that’s why one finds the occasional quirky phrase in otherwise dreary scientific textbooks; the lightning bolt of creative expressionism does, albeit rarely, strike the withered authors of, say, “Principles of Chemistry: A Molecular Approach.” And so while James may be charged with a capital offense of elitism, I point all accusation on the ballpoint and its irksome tendency to produce sophisticated styles of writing.

I imagine this hypothetical artist struggling in the darkness of the moment, the eternal labyrinth of his mind, to grasp a word that truly conveyed the essence of twilight. It was essential he find it. It seemed to glitter, elusively, within his grasp, yet beyond the realm of remembrance- perhaps even beyond existence. At times the ink swam before his eyes, and here and there a word or phrase darkened; something was stirring. Closer examination revealed the shape bore a distinct resemblance to someone he no longer knew, or perhaps had never truly known. A dark eye glared momentarily back at him before disappearing behind the lines of the pages. This delusional figment of imagination is characteristic during severe cases of Writer’s Block, though he suspected it was something more significant; however it was difficult to discern while experiencing periodic waves of nauseous analogies, diction tremors and hot flashes of alliteration.

And so he continued in pursuit of a word he did not know and a face he could not name, knowing if he found one he was sure to find the other. He didn’t think much of elitists or “self indulgence.” He hadn’t the time. He became consumed with the taste of nightfall, the rich and opulent hue of the sky, the thin warble of a nightingale. As a child he had always feared this moment- the setting sun, the ominous blackness, the gaping void of a dark and tarnished soul- and so, years later, he sought a word that resonated with a touch of childish terror. Lord, it was not a process of self indulgence, this back breaking, mind bending, hellish night he endured where man and pen grappled in fiery angst, tormented by an impenetrable wall of disagreement. He no longer cared for himself; rather, he had become a detached instrument that struggled to exactly and precisely articulate the profound honesty of his thoughts.

There in the depths of insomnia and feverish desperation it came to him that the horizontal lines on the pages had become bars, and the realization that he would not discover himself through a pen drove him to a point of near irrevocable madness. He smashed his pen until the ink streamed over his wrists like blood. He threw the Webster’s dictionary- the concise sum of the beautiful, raw and tragic English words- across the room; he tore his notebook with a savage and primal fury. He had turned to the table and begun to pry apart the boards when his eyes fell upon something that promised even greater destruction.

He picked up the fragments of the pen, gleaming like shards of obsidian, and wrote it in big, loopy writing: FROM MY TWILIGHT-LIKE BIRTHPLACE. With his hand over his heart, as though taking an oath, he declared with fixed solemnity: “Now I am a writer.”

It might have ended at that moment. He would have submitted an article that flowed like satin and gleamed like a translucent crystal, and a certain reader would smile in satisfaction at the simplicity of the piece. Even the New York Times might have liked it. Might have been a best seller. No one but him would have felt the twinge of conscience, the tightening of a noose, at the uncomfortable knowledge that the article wasn’t quite the way it should have been, that in some way it had compromised a piece of its moral righteousness and dignity. There was something bitterly dishonest about accepting an unsatisfactory piece of work. It was a work that did nothing to expand the human mind. This familiarity had made the world smaller- one could stretch his hand and bump into the West Indies, stand up and graze the Northern Lights…

I’m not sure how it came to him- the word, that is. I expect it came suddenly, in no particular context or inspiration. Perhaps it came to him out of sheer delirium. But there it was- raw, honest and terribly poignant, and it was the exact word he had sought, years and years ago, as a child when he gazed into the black face of night.

He mouthed it first, then – crepuscular, crepuscular.

He held it in his hands, heavy with the weight of remembrance, as though it carried the immeasurable burden of a deep and profound truth. He pressed it to his lips and kissed it and it yielded to him in nostalgic waves. He saw there were many things that he did not know, and they were all the more beautiful and dear to him; the unfamiliarity of their faces only made them gleam brighter…

The world, however, did not seem to think so, and little by little the human tongue had grown taut and swollen from lack of use. When his son was born he had immediately checked the condition of the tongue and saw with satisfaction it had inherited his own delicious taste for words. The umbilical cord had not yet been cut, and the wife, laying in an exhausted stupor, saw it still wrapped tightly around her child’s abdomen. “My dear,” she said, “I am more concerned with his heart.” Years later he would find, to his dismay, that a diet of pornography, Rolling Stone and lack of Poe had blackened his son’s tongue until his breath reeked of nicotine and guilt. The boy tried to hide it, furtively, from his father, who still went about in airy oblivion, muttering detached phrases in Latin and conversing with a long dead Shakespeare. At last it could be kept secret no longer, and the day came when the father realized his son was deeply in love.

“Tell me, my boy, who is she?” She was a classmate; he had watched her swing her long tanned legs on the bus seat, and he pressed his forehead against the glass window and died a thousand deaths. “And what is she like?” He asked because he wanted to hear the way he felt when he first saw his wife, to again experience the flood of desire and tenderness and utter desolation. He could not have described her without dumping the whole of the English language into his lap and from there, pick out the rubies and crystals and examine the lattice structure and opulent richness. For hours he would have toyed until he found a word as magnificent and beautiful as the woman he loved.

“Well,” his son yawned, “She’s hot. And sexy.”

That was when he saw his son’s tongue had succumbed to the plague and was as black and coarse as the opaque Atlantic. He wept that day because he had lost his son, and it seemed to him the world was receding into a dark pool of deception. Literature had proved its resiliency: it outlived polio, survived the atomic bombs and endured a terrorist attack in September, but in the face of the Cosmopolitan magazine it lost its backbone and trembled with an inexplicable anguish. It was around this time the father locked himself in his room and sought to write an article that would eventually include crepuscular. He did not think he would ever finish.

Meanwhile, the wheels of the Literature Factory creaked on and made millions. It poured out tens of thousands of copies of Great Literature, and there was a great deal of copying and printing and selling and distributing and an awful lot of money, though the money was never seen and it disappeared quite elusively in the end. In the summer, fifty shades of tepidity were released and made a sensation, and suddenly every American mother between the ages of twenty-something and not-as-old-as-I-look became an avid and passionate reader. None of this mattered, however, to the author who had finally gazed into the fierce eye that flitted in between the margins of his paper and saw, to his bewilderment, that it was his own.

It would not be until later that his wife, while balancing the laundry on her left hip, would casually mention, “Dear, someone is accusing you of being an elitist.”

He looked up from his manuscript. “Me? An elitist?”

“Oh, something to do with that article you wrote. A word in it, I forget. Cryptic, I think. Yes, that was it.”

“Cryptic!” he exclaimed. He was mildly amused. He remembered every square inch of the article he poured his soul into and wept a thousand tears over. He remembered the ink stains, black against the white of his wrist; he remembered the weight of his pen, the solitude, the pain, the discovery of a word and a soul. He could not, however, find a fingerprint of elitism. It was rather peculiar. He bent over his manuscript and his wife resumed the trek to the wash, but he found he could not focus. There was something so absurd, so wildly bizarre about the accusation that for one wretched instant he was torn between peals of laughter and, simultaneously, gripped by a sudden dark and convulsive fear. TC mark

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