Bob Schwartz

Category: Language

Donald Trump Jr.: The Only Time Normal People Pretend to Talk and Act Decently Is When They Are Running for President. Otherwise…

I can’t resist unpacking this statement from Donald Trump Jr., talking about his father’s infamous Access Hollywood comments:

“I’ve had conversations like that with plenty of people where people use language off color. They’re talking, two guys, amongst themselves. I’ve seen it time and time again. I think it makes him a human. I think it makes him a normal person, not a political robot. He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency.”

Off color: This is sort of a quaint description, usually meaning foul or coarse language. It is true that Trump used coarse language in his otherwise highbrow conversation with Billy Bush. But that is hardly the issue.

A normal person: Normal is a moving target, of course, both in terms of culture and of time, i.e., the old normal v. the new normal. To quote a favorite line from Arcade Fire’s Normal Person, “If that’s what’s normal now, I don’t want to know.”

He hasn’t spent his whole life waiting for this moment to run for the presidency: This is the best one. It implies that everybody—or at least “two guys”— always talks this way, unless they are going to run for President, in which case they keep it all behind closed doors. Junior doesn’t explain how a guy and a girl might talk, or how two girls might talk, if they are running for office. Presumably, the same rules apply.

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Translators May Be Traitors

If you read important books that are written in a language other than your own, you are at a disadvantage. You are depending on the kindness or brilliance of strangers. On translators.

That is doubly complicated if the original text is ancient, and the original language itself is a mystery, even for those who are expert.

The Bible, both First and Second Testaments, not to mention collatral ancient scriptural books and fragments, are a well-known example. The same problem arises with Asian texts such as the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, or early Buddhist discourses.

So you see the challenge. Jesus or the Buddha said great things in their native language. Nobody transcribed them when spoken. The thoughts and words were remembered and kept accurately alive, as accurately as possible, in oral transmission and storage. Then they were set down in writing, in a language related to the original speech, maybe, but later in entirely different languages. And as the words migrated, the texts were overlaid and transformed, even as there was a sincere attempt to preserve the original.

Finally, they come to you, in the language you speak, read and understand. Which is far removed from the original.

When the French had the audacity to translate Dante into their own language, the Italians came up with a harsh accusation: Traduttore, traditore. Translator, traitor.

Consider that when you read translations, you are someone who cannot read yourself, or even see. You are in the dark. You depend on those who read to you. And hope that they are good and true readers themselves.

Mandatory Campaign Esperanto and Poetry

The First Amendment forbids the government from controlling how political candidates campaign. Which seems a shame, since the abuse of language, logic, and truth that goes on often seems criminal, a form of citizen abuse.

But if we could make some changes, it might be fun and even enlightening. So instead of having to endure candidates pandering with their (sometimes questionable) fluency in Spanish, we could require all of them to campaign in Esperanto.

Jeb Bush might then have launched his campaign this way, almost certainly capturing the Esperanto vote:

En ajna lingvo, mia mesaĝo estos optimisma ĉar mi estas certa ke ni povos fari la jardekoj tuj antaŭ la plej granda tempo iam esti viva en tiu mondo.

Ke hazardo, ke espero postulas pli bona kiu estas en ni, kaj Mi gxin donos mian ĉiuj.

Mi kampanji kiel mi utilus, irante ĉie , parolante al ĉiuj, observante Miajn vorto, alfrontante la demandoj sen flinching, kaj restante fidela al kion mi kredas.

Mi prenos nenio kaj neniu por sentado. Mi kuras kun koro.

Mi kuras por gajni.

Ĝi komencas tie kaj nun.

Kaj mi petas vian voĉdonon.

Dankon. Dio benu vin.

In any language, my message will be an optimistic one because I am certain that we can make the decades just ahead the greatest time ever to be alive in this world.

That chance, that hope requires the best that is in us, and I will give it my all.

I will campaign as I would serve, going everywhere, speaking to everyone, keeping my word, facing the issues without flinching, and staying true to what I believe.

I will take nothing and no one for granted. I will run with heart.

I will run to win.

It begins here and now.

And I’m asking for your vote.

Thank you. God Bless You.

Even better, let us require all candidates to campaign in poetry, rather than in their often overextended, useless, uninspired, and uninspiring prose.

They could choose any genre or form that suited them and their message. Rhyming or free verse. Classic or experimental. Long or short. Of course, we would be thrilled if they would go with haiku or some other sort of micro poetry. Imagine a campaign speech only 17 syllables long. It would be blissfully over as quickly as it began. By the time they got through “God bless you and God bless the United States of America,” they would have exactly one syllable left. Which given the nonsense that we have to endure, may still be one syllable too many.

Notes on Interstellar

Interstellar

1

Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar is more interesting than it is imperfect. See it if you like space movies, sci-fi movies, intellectually curious movies, spectacular movies, etc.

It is filled with wonders. It is like the car trunk stuffed with luggage for a vacation, so much colorful and significant luggage creatively crammed in that when you open it on arrival you say: Wow, I wonder how we ever got all that stuff in there?

No spoilers here, but a couple of things.

Look for all the tiny (and not so tiny) echoes of space and sci-fi movies past. Star Wars, Close Encounters, etc., but most of all 2001. Why not? Right now, “they” are probably having a good 5th dimensional laugh watching Stanley Kubrick’s proto-human apes tossing that bone.

Interstellar has the most subtly cool robots ever. TARS doesn’t sing like HAL, but he has moves like Jagger and is great with the snappy patter.

2

The movie is much about cosmology—the origin and nature of existence. Cosmology is the domain of all kinds of people, including religionists and philosophers. But in greater part, we have handed over many of those considerations, as in this movie, to theoretical physicists—Einstein, Hawking, etc. I am a big fan of cosmology.

It is not a spoiler to mention that plenty of people, including some in this movie, believe that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked. Which raises this way-out-there question: What if the moon landing was real but all the cosmological theoretical physics is faked? Going back before Einstein, theoretical physics spends much of its time (as we understand it) looking for physical proof of those theories. What if all the theory is so utterly astounding and enlightening that when the evidence failed to support it, all the scientists engaged in the study conspired to make it seem as if those theories are supported?

Faking the moon landing mission has never been put entirely to rest because, in fact, only three people experienced it first-hand. Everyone else was second-hand or more distanced from the actuality. But the basic elements of it are well within our understanding: astronauts, rocket, spaceship, lunar lander, moon, television pictures. The cosmological speculation and supporting discoveries are so far beyond anything that most of us can fully—or slightly—grasp that we could easily be fooled into taking it for “reality.”

By the way, for those wondering about the earnestness of all that, be assured that I am just playing. Or am I?

3

We don’t have to be space pilots to experience cosmology, or be theoretical physicists or movie directors to think about it. Cosmology is ordinary. Interstellar and other movies and thousands of works of art and literature point to this. Everybody is a cosmologist, like it or not.

Cosmology is an excellent topic that does not necessarily require specialized knowledge. You may not know a worm hole from a black hole. But you already know a ton about time, space, being, and gravity. You just have to know how to know and that you know.

This is from an essay almost 800 years old. No more or less spectacular than Interstellar, it is no more or less a non-theoretical description:

Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being….

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival.

People only see time’s coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time being abides in each moment. Then, when can they penetrate the barrier? Even if people recognized the time being in each moment, who could give expression to this recognition? Even if they could give expression to this recognition for a long time, who could stop looking for the realization of the original face? According to an ordinary person’s view of the time being, even enlightenment and nirvana as the time being would be merely aspects of coming and going….

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated.

Dogen
The Time Being (1240)
Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

Silence

Ramana Maharshi

“Silence is the eternal flow of language, obstructed by words.”

Ramana Maharshi

Hillary Says She Was Inartful

Hillary Clinton

Asked about her comments on the Clinton family wealth, Hillary Clinton now says, “Well, I shouldn’t have said the five or so words that I said, but my inartful use of those few words doesn’t change who I am, what I’ve stood for my entire life, what I stand for today.”

There were actually more than five words, on two recent occasions. First she said that she and Bill Clinton were not only dead broke when they left the White House, they were in debt. Then she said that they paid their taxes like regular people, not like others who were “truly well off.”

Aside from whether these words reflect their financial affairs, or whether they reflect her being out of touch or just a bit rusty as a candidate, this is the thing: regular people don’t use the word “inartful,” at least or especially not if they are running for President and trying to look like regular people.

Publicly, Bill Clinton would not say “inartful.” George W. Bush wouldn’t say it. Barack Obama wouldn’t say it. And besides those last three Presidents, John McCain wouldn’t say it. And neither would Mitt Romney, who when he faced having made a similar and very damaging comment about income, simply said that he “misspoke.”

There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, smart, well-spoken, or intellectual. Plenty of Presidents and successful leaders have been some or all of these. But the challenging key is to be both comfortable with who you are and yet able to be appropriately yourself in whatever context you are in.

Lots of us may use “inartful” as part of our writing or conversation; it’s actually a very useful word. But lots of us—almost all of us—are not running for President, or considering it.

Finally, for those who are into word things, there is another point. “Artful” sounds pretty good, particularly if you mean getting your language just right to express your thoughts. But it is a close cousin of the word “artifice,” which has a very different meaning and feel. So if what Hillary was trying to say was that her previous comments were imperfect artifice—that she didn’t get the story about the Clinton wealth quite right—then maybe she is on to something. And maybe “inartful” was le mot juste.

Thor Gives Birth to Twins

Thor
Nobody wants to hear from word nerds. They just stifle creativity and block linguistic evolution with their definitions and rules. Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland is the man (or eggman): words mean exactly what anybody says they mean.

Except they don’t, or they can’t or shouldn’t. If you tell a doctor you have a pain in your leg, and she examines and treats your arm, because leg now means arm, everybody has a problem.

Here’s the TMZ story that’s been widely picked up:

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky — Give Birth to Twins
Thor’s Got Twins Now!

3/20/2014 4:14 PM PDT BY TMZ STAFF
EXCLUSIVE

Chris Hemsworth and his wife are at Cedars Sinai Medical Center right now giving birth to twins … TMZ has learned.

It’s ultra-high security in their hospital suite … we’re told 2 security guards are standing at the door.  Chris is strolling the hallway and is being escorted with a guard.

Chris and his wife Elsa Pataky already have one baby — India Rose Hemsworth who is now 22 months old.  She’s about to have a couple new siblings.

Chris and Elsa were married in 2010.

This led to headlines like this one in the New York Daily News:

Chris Hemsworth, wife Elsa Pataky giving birth to twins

Nobody may care, except for mothers, doctors, and Mrs. Chris Hemsworth, but “giving birth” is not the same as parents having a baby. “Birth” is variously defined as “The emergence and separation of offspring from the body of the mother” or “The event of being born, the entry of a new person out of its mother into the world.”

Chris Hemsworth can be a proud and involved daddy. So can Thor. But neither of them can give birth, no matter what TMZ or the Daily News say.

Oxford English Dictionary Names Selfie Word of the Year

Arbus Mapplethorpe Selfie
The Oxford English Dictionary has named “selfie” the Word of the Year. At least one journalist covering this issue spoke in praise of the selfie, offering a few rationales:

Selfies are in the centuries-old tradition of artists making self-portraits.

This is an age of memoirs and selfies are part of this phenomenon.

So for all those who do take cover in these explanations, be aware:

Above are self-portraits by two modern masters of photography, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photography is blessedly democratic, easy and fun. But when looking at any of the millions of selfies, consider whether artistry applies.

As for modern memoirism, chronicling every moment, whether overshared or not, we might be looking at the range of those chronicles, from deeply examined reviews to diaries to nothing more than barely annotated calendars. Here are some questions:

Would you rather have your good, great and remarkable moments go unnoted and unrecorded?

Or would you rather have your ordinary, unremarkable moments go public and get attention?

Or is the point of modern sharing to elevate ordinary life to a special place where it has always belonged?

Smile.