I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire two days ago, which prompts me to think about the killing power of words. Not out of nowhere: the germ of the idea was there earlier this week when I published a Florence Nightingale quote on Links for the Day. Here again:
“You ask me why I do not write something… I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words, they ought all to be distilled into actions and into actions which bring results.”
Spoken as a realist, I gather, resultant from the things Nightingale saw before her eyes. Yet I can’t help but sense a pessimistic edge as well, all-encompassing. Are words truly so inferior that they can’t effect results, cannot be considered—through their disciplined, enlightened, and impassioned practice—another form of action?
This parallels a recent discussion I was having with a friend, so exasperated was he by a Turner Classic Movies showing of Lilies of the Field, that it inspired a reflection on the legacy of the film’s star Sidney Poitier and, more generally, on the ability of movies to effect truly progressive and society-altering change. Where we came to was a sense that movies could definitively be shown to promote destructive tendencies (with Riefenstahl’s filmography and Birth of a Nation the standout examples), whereas any lasting progressive results existed in much murkier, abstract, unprovable territory. My example of the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta reportedly helping to raise the price of minimum wage in Belgium was met with an outwardly dismissive, yet resonant retort: “Doesn’t make me want to watch it again.”
Takes me back, as well, to a curious exchange I once had at a party about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, where my comments on the film’s failed aesthetics and simplistic presentation of societal ills inspired an elder partygoer to chastisement. I wasn’t there, she observed, when the film was released. She was, and, coming out of the theater, she saw firsthand how the film changed people’s perceptions of race and equality. Her tone was lofty, defiant, absolute—I recognized it as such because I had practiced such a posture myself (and still do at times, even against my better judgement). It’s not a good ground on which to meet in debate, so the statement hung there until the conversation, slowly but surely, took a more levelheaded turn. Post-party, of course, I came up with a rebuttal that I’d never get to propose: Had she gone home with these people (each and every) to see how they put their newfound enlightenment into action?
There’s that word again, so let’s take the repetition as incitement to definition. I’d put forth that there are two distinct kinds of action: mass action and individual action. Personally speaking, I tend to trust more in the latter than in the former. I’ve always had a phobia of groups—the propensity for mob rule and homogenization of thought is just too great a temptation. It’s a lost-in-the-crowd syndrome that made me squirm while reading Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. It’s what I feel, often, while searching the web, the wisely chosen path too easily usurped by aimless wanderings (the words—like the ideas in movies whose primary intention is to change a mass number of minds—blur together into inseparable, superficial morass).
Better the individualist pursuit, then? Ah, but this has its pitfalls too. Back to Pale Fire and its beleaguered academic protagonist Charles Kinbote, who asserts himself so forcefully within Nabokov’s poem/prose/commentary pastiche that his holed-up-in-a-cabin narcissism, by book’s end, begets its own school of destructive thought. “I shall continue to exist,” he writes in the closing, direct-address passages, “I may assume other disguises, other forms, but I shall try to exist.” It’s the “try” that chills to the bone because it manages to be at once indeterminate and absolute, a totalitarian indecisiveness, poisonous and practically invisible as it wafts its way toward a good many susceptible minds.
The dangers are not isolated, in other words, but it’s easy to let those traps (aesthetic, ideological, emotional) hamper us in all situations ’til we’re stifled and inert. Filmbrain has a point, I think, when he ponders in a recent Like Anna Karina’s Sweater blog post about the current crop of movies, “Whither subtlety?” There is a strong sense that the mass audience is being talked down to across the artistic (not to mention political) spectrum, that issues of true note must be distilled to a palatable essence, even though this effectively mutates them, makes them unrecognizable. I would argue, however, that it’s been like this to some degree forever and always, and that it is the very potent illusion of mass media (which implicitly, and wrongly, suggests that everything that can be seen and done has been seen and done) that fosters both our shared and personal senses of despair.
Will we then be a land of Charles Kinbotes, self-exiles imposing our dire, roundabout, fantasyland interpretations on a world that won’t have us? Or will we be passive receptacles for, or purveyors of, the easy amalgam that reduces engaged thought to platitudinous pronouncement? If the answer exists it is in the quagmire of experience, as likely to swallow us whole as to leave us high and dry, at times blinding and deafening, at others a depressively haunted and lonely place.
In this moment, at least, the words are on the move, and my head’s still up.
Keith Uhlich is Editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.