Reds under the Thread

A clue, or clew, was originally a ball of thread, as unwound by the Greek hero Theseus en route to the centre of King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete. When he had found and slain the Minotaur, he used the thread to retrace his steps. So a clue is a guide: Theseus followed a thread to solve a puzzle. Nowadays, scientists are following much finer threads to solve much bigger puzzles: DNA is a microscopic thread of chemicals and the clue to all manner of puzzles. Perhaps the biggest and most important is the puzzle of language. How did it evolve? How is it encoded in our genes? How is it instantiated in the brain? Those are the big problems waiting to be slain at the centre of the labyrinth of human genetics. Without language, we wouldn’t be human and you wouldn’t be reading this essay.

But this essay is a thread too: like DNA, language consists of a string of symbols used to construct something bigger. DNA codes for brains and bodies; language codes for ideas and images. By looking at a sample of DNA, scientists can tell what kind of body it builds: its sex and race, for example. In future, we’ll be able to tell much more: DNA will offer clues to intelligence and personality. Samples of language offer similar clues: we can often deduce a lot about someone from his or her writing. There are already computer programs that claim to be able to identify the sex of a writer by the lexical and grammatical patterns in a text. But I wonder how much more computers will be able to deduce in future and what clues there already are in our language to our intellects and personalities. They might not be obvious ones. Perhaps it will be possible to deduce race or sexuality or political preferences from apparently trivial things. Perhaps libertarians or homosexuals or psychopaths use pronouns in a distinctive way or prefer certain kinds of consonants or vowels.

But those are differences between groups: regardless of politics or personality, it’s certain that every individual uses language in a unique way. In future, it will be possible to track people on the internet even when they’re writing anonymously or under false names. A bloodhound can track people after sniffing something known to belong to them. In future, bloodhound programs will track people after sniffing – statistically analyzing – texts known to have been written by them. It’s a worrying thought in our ever-more authoritarian times. Express anonymous thoughts on-line about a controversial topic and you may find a bloodhound-program sniffing you out and the thought-police knocking on your door. Science will hand totalitarian tools to tyrants and it may not be possible to escape even if you avoid controversial topics and write about innocuous things. If psychopaths use language in distinctive ways, as seems likely, perhaps other warped individuals will inadvertently betray themselves in their language. Going for a government job? Maybe you’ll have to write an essay about your last holiday or your first pet. And an apparently innocent metaphor will reveal that you’re racist or homophobic or sexist. So no job for you (and quite right, too).

I don’t know whether crime-think like that can be identified by linguistic patterns, but I do think that good-think can be. In terms of issues around progressive publications like The Guardian and London Review of Books, I’ve noticed again and again that members of the decent’n’compassionate community engage issues around imagery in a special way. In short, they like to mix their metaphors. The most recent example I’ve come across was in a review of a Derrida biography in The Guardian by the decent’n’compassionate Marxist Terry Eagleton:

Before long, the taciturn, socially gauche young man from the colonies was gracing the dinner tables of a galaxy of French luminaries: Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot and others.[1]

Reading that felt a little like stepping on a stair that wasn’t there: it was jarring to go from the image of “dinner tables” to the image of “a galaxy”, as though giant balls of flaming hydrogen could give dinner-parties. But that’s what a mixed metaphor does: it combines incongruent or incompatible images in a lingustically gauche way. George Orwell provided some good examples in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946):

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash – as in the fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot – it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.[2]

The Eagleton example isn’t particularly egregious: Eagleton is mediocre even as a bad writer. He did a little badder six years ago in the same progressive forum:

This year’s calendar to celebrate Beckett’s 100th anniversary is crammed with literary events celebrating the life of the modern age’s most lovable pessimist, most of them, one imagines, awash with talk of the timeless human condition portrayed in his work… Yet there is also a distinctively Irish quality to Beckett’s deflation of the florid and high-flown, just as there is something recognisably Irish about those starved, stagnant landscapes where, like colonial victims, you do nothing but sit and wait for deliverance.[3]

“Talk” consists of vibrations in the air. Is “awash”, which refers to liquids around one’s feet, the right image for talk? And if the “calendar” is “crammed”, is “awash” not over-egging the pudding? Can landscapes be “stagnant”, like water or air? If they can, can they be “starved” at the same time? Or did Eagleton just want the alliteration and not give a toss about the meaning? I suspect it was the last: Eagleton seems to me a typical example of the progressive prosateur. He writes not to convey meaning or apply reason, but for a higher purpose: to demonstrate his own cleverness and assure other progressives of his goodthinkfulness. The Guardian and LRB are full of similar narcissists and Eagleton isn’t exceptional amongst them. So why did I choose his text to unlock the swamp of progressive windbaggery? Well, first because his review of the Derrida biography finally prompted me to write this essay, which I’ve been planning to write for a long time. And second because I didn’t want to give anyone whiplash. Reading Eagleton is a gentle introduction to the mixed metaphor, like driving slowly down a cobbled street in a car with good suspension. Reading another Guardian regular, on the other hand, is like driving fast through the aftermath of an earthquake in a tank with very bad suspension. But forewarned is forearmed. You’ve seen Eagleton and I doubt you’ve been very impressed. Okay, now marvel at the most magisterial mixed-metaphorizer I’ve ever come across:

But the kernel of a message black Britons had been trying to hammer home for decades suddenly took centre stage.[4]

Gary Younge, the Guardian’s resident race’n’racism-expert, is almost praeternatural in his command of the English language. He can cram more crap into less lexicality than anyone else I’ve ever seen. The mixed metaphor above, from 2005, is a triple-whammy: it manages to get three incongruent images into twenty words. If you think that’s easy, try it for yourself. Younge doesn’t have to try: as a progressive prosateur, he postures and preens without conscious effort. But his postural powers are far greater than those of Terry Eagleton. Beauty poured effortlessly from Mozart’s brain; bollocks pours effortlessly from Gary Younge’s. He rose to similar heights of mixed metaphory in 2012, when he interrogated issues around the shooting of a black teenager in Florida:

Outrage at the death of Trayvon Martin is finally lifting the lid on the US’s racist underbelly[5]

That, at least, was the sub-heading for his article: three incongruent images in seventeen words. If Younge himself wasn’t responsible for it, either he has a disciple almost as rhetorically gifted as he is or a sub-editor was taking the piss of his self-righteous posturing in terms of issues around race. I hope it’s the latter: someone really ought to take a mallet to the anti-racist windbags who litter the florid corridors of The Guardian’s stagnant columns. Not that anyone would dare do so openly. The windbags will be typing their socialist siren-songs for some time to come. Here is someone else who is Younge at heart:

Recognising the Conservatives’ persistent image as the “nasty party”, David Cameron saw her [Baroness Warsi’s] real value as someone who could prop up the image of a modern reformist party comfortable in its multi-cultural skin. The chimaera of an Asian woman influencing the levers of Tory power did prop up this illusion for most of the two-and-a-half years that Warsi was in the Cabinet.[6]

That was Ratna Lachman, the directrix of JUST West Yorkshire, “which promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights in the north of England”. Or says it does, at least. The language of Lachman suggests to me that she is not necessarily a trustworthy guide to reality or to its rectification. Like Younge and Eagleton, she habitually uses metaphors that don’t work: as Orwell put it in his essay, “the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.” Or observing reality. And I can’t believe that this is irrelevant to the progressive politics persistently pursued and promoted by these posturing, preening paragons of pretension. If their relatively simple and easy-to-correct metaphors don’t work, what does that say about their vastly more ambitious and complicated plans for a fairer, juster, more equal society? I wouldn’t trust any of them to organize a party in a brewery or spot a three-foot needle in a two-foot haystack. Linguistics, as a science, insists on being descriptive rather than prescriptive: it describes what language-users do rather than prescribing what they ought to do.

I see the scientific point, but I don’t fully agree with it. Human beings are born to use language, but that doesn’t mean we always use it well. We are born to use bodies too, but that doesn’t mean we always use our bodies in healthy, sensible, and intelligent ways. Medicine describes bodies both in sickness and in health and linguistics should be more like medicine. Language, like DNA, can go wrong and the cancers created by faulty DNA have their linguistic equivalents in publications like The Guardian and London Review of Books. Eagleton, Younge, Lachman and countless other members of the progressive community produce pathological prose. I think they do so because of their politics. You don’t have to subject their writing to sophisticated statistical analysis to know this: the kernels have taken centre stage and the chimaeras are pulling levers in plain view. Lachman claims in one of her windy, wittering articles that “Tory DNA is in essence white, male, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant to its core”. It’s odd, then, that the first Jewish and first female Prime Ministers were Conservative rather than Labour. But I don’t support the Tories any more than I support Labour, in part because neither of them recognizes the importance of actual rather than metaphorical DNA. Our DNA makes us human, so DNA explains both language and politics, as gross aspects of human behaviour. But I think it also accounts for subtler variations in language and politics, from the Marxist windbaggery of Terry Eagleton to the High Tory clarity of Evelyn Waugh. Or the non-conformist clarity of George Orwell, who was diagnosing diseased English and inventing words to describe it in the middle of the last century:

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning “to quack like a duck”. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when The Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.[7]

Eagleton, Younge and Lachman are still quacking out orthodox opinions in The Guardian, but the climate is shifting and duckspeakers don’t have wings to fly away south.

[1] “Champion of ambiguity”: Derrida: A Biography, Benoît Peeters – Terry Eagleton enjoys a superb biography of an original thinker, The Guardian, Wednesday, 14th November, 2012.

[3] “Champion of ambiguity”, Terry Eagleton, The Guardian, Monday, 20th March 2006.

[4] “Riots are a class act — and often they’re the only alternative”, Gary Younge, The Guardian, Monday, 14th November 2005.

[5] “Trayvon Martin: a killing too far”, The Guardian, Wednesday, 21st March, 2012.

[7] Appendix to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

2 thoughts on “Reds under the Thread

  1. Well, you see, fillet steak is the most prime cut you can get, pure meat sensation. But you can’t sell that at Greggs to the starving masses, can you? You need to add filler and wrap it in sogginess – that’s how you get the most of your meat.

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