Many people have asked me*, “Jimmy, why do you plan on leaving such a brilliant career in unrecognized comedy writing to teach English to high school students?” I firmly believe that the value of literature is that it helps us to understand ourselves and the world around us. In addition, studying literature involves developing skills like empathy that help us better ourselves.
After following the events taking place in Iran the past few weeks, I began to think about how the situation there was so much different than in Iraq, and how it represents two different ways of going about achieving a democratic government. In Iraq, we basically told the Iraqi people, “you want a democracy because democracy is the best and you want it.” The Iranian people are standing up for themselves, without outside assistance or provocation, and demanding that their voices be heard. It’s a huge difference.
As I was flipping through my Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, Volume II last night, I came across an epigraph W.E.B. Du Bois used for his essay “Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others.” He quoted a line from a Byron peom: “Hereditary Bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 2, 76.720-1)
I know this is not exactly earth-shattering analysis of literature’s value, but I thought it was a good example of why I’m planning on spending my life studying and teaching it. I think that our world would be a little better if everyone turned off the television and read for an extra hour a day. Try it, it can’t make things worse!
*These conversations take place entirely in my head.
While most people know George Carlin as the guy from the “7 words” bit, I believe that he was much more than that. I see him as an Orwell-like defender of language, and for that we should be eternally grateful. Very near the top of my list of Orwell’s important works is his essay “Politics and the English Language,” which, among other topics, discusses the abundance of euphemistic language, and its damaging effect on writing.
Carlin’s bit, “Euphemisms,” addresses the same issue, and even more clearly shows the effect of euphemistic language on discourse, and, even more importantly, thought. Since language is the concrete instrument by which we convey abstract ideas, the language we use has a monumental impact on thought. In the bit, Carlin traced the history of the concept initially labeled “shell shock” to its present day incarnation of “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Most important is the end, where he says “I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it Shell Shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.”
Carlin points out, as Orwell did repeatedly, that the language we use affects the way in which we think, which affects the actions we take, individually and as a society. While politics is the most obvious forum for euphemistic language, it has contaminated our language’s water supply, impacting every aspect of our lives.
Both Carlin and Orwell believe that we use euphemistic language to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of life. It’s become progressively worse over time. It hurts when a loved one dies, so we say that they “passed away,” which may make it sound better in the short term, but at some point we have to deal with the certainty that we will never see that person again on Earth (or never if you do not believe in an afterlife). They are gone, and it sucks. You can deep fry an anchovy repeatedly, but once you bite through the layers of delicious dough and powdered sugar, it still tastes horrible inside.