Sunday, September 14, 2014

Verisimilitude


I blame my father for turning me into the reader I am. Being the bibliophile and intellectual of the household, it was he who first got me interested in literature, and inevitably he was a major influence on what kind of books I like to read. I have had to find out that the literary taste I developed because of this paternal influence is, however, rather particular, and therefore one I don’t seem to share with many people. Which is why I can jump up at the mention of authors like Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Annie Proulx, but will sit by silently, wearing a somewhat confused smile, when my peers start raving about Game of Thrones. Mostly this difference in literary tastes originates, I think, in what you expect from literature. And one of the things which determines whether or not I will consider a book worth my while, is verisimilitude.  
  ‘Verisimilitude’ is a very fancy word which means ‘the appearance of being true or real’. The word wiggled its way into the English language via the identical 16th century French word ‘verisimilitude’, which in turn derives from the Latin ‘verisimilitudo’, meaning ‘likeness to truth’. This is a compound noun, consisting of ‘verus’ (adjective meaning ‘true’) and ‘similis’ (adjective meaning ‘like, similar’). You will probably not encounter this word often in your daily likfe (though kudos if you do); I myself only discovered it once I enrolled at university and discovered the wonderful world of literary terms. As such, you will (sadly) probably only find it in written text, but as always with obscure words, I will make a valiant attempt to popularize it. But now back on topic.  
To me, a good book has to have a perfect balance between realism and fictionality (and has to have, in other words, verisimilitude). For most people, myself included, the attraction of books lies exactly in the fact that they are different from everyday life. The book is a closed universe in which characters move according to a plot, with a buildup, a climax and a denouement. There is an order to this fictional universe which is comforting exactly because it is absent in everyday life. To quote my literary hero (brace yourselves, he’s coming along again at some point): “Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t.”
  However, as much as this necessary divergence from Life As It Is makes books attractive, in order for me to really see a book as valuable, I have to be able to take a piece of it with me in my day-to-day life. And this is where verisimilitude comes in. Many people see books as a means to get away from the world for a couple of hours; a means of escapism. And I do too, to a certain extent. But if a book makes too much sense, is too logical, too clever, I probably won’t enjoy as much, because it differs too widely from my day-to-day experience.  
  Verisimilitude creates the difference between what I consider the ‘a quick read’ and ‘a good read’. I’ve read books that tug you along into a fictional world which is marvelous and wonderful and you just can’t stop reading because it’s so exciting and you have to know what happens. And at the end of it, you usually do figure out what happens. At the end of it, everything will make sense, every storyline will be neatly tied up, and every question will be answered. And you will be left a happy, fulfilled reader. 
  I think I experience these books just like everyone else does. I find them extremely enjoyable to read. I also usually forget about them a week after I finish them. And this is the difference between ‘enjoyable’ and ‘valuable’ literature to me. Books I consider ‘valuable’ literature are rarely page-turners. I sometimes have to push myself to get through them. But by the end I will often have learned a lot about myself, about the world, about life, love, death and all his friends. These books are usually not that thrilling, exactly because of their verisimilitude. They resemble real life, which, let’s be honest, is often boring, confusing, and meaningless. Thrilling? Hmm. Let’s save that discussion for later, shall we? 
  A good book has to challenge me. Has to challenge the way I look at the world, at my life, and everything revolving around me. A good book changes you. To quote my literary hero (again): “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape—into different countries, mores, speech patterns—but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.” And it is exactly this symbiosis of fictionality and verisimilitude which makes a good book, in my eyes. Which is why, in my writing, I try to not let everything make sense. You don’t have to solve every mystery. You don’t have to answer every question. Good books don’t try to answer questions, but raise them. If the writer solves everything for the reader, the reader has nothing more to wonder about. As I usually have with page-turners, you can put the book aside and forget about it. Books which raise questions make you wonder. Make you think. Considering how much time I spend in my head, I rather like a book which gives me new and interesting thoughts. Things that don’t make sense. And yet, if it is well-written, in a way it will make more sense than anything ever has. This is the magic of fiction. You take two concepts which are superficially irreconcilable, but then you blend them together, and a chemical reaction takes place which leaves you with one of the most intoxicating potions the human race has ever made (not to be bombastic, or anything). Cheers. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Philhellene


Sing, Muse, of that blessed ancient peninsula in a corner of the Mediterranean! Sing, of its mountains, of its seas and of its myriad islands. Sing of Asia Minor, of Krete and of Northern Africa. Sing of its ancient culture, of its comedy and its tragedy, of its music and its philosophy, coming together to build the cornerstone of what we now call Western Civilization. Sing of the country which invented democracy, which reared Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and which nursed the West’s first greatest writer, who gave us the epic stories of Helen of Troy and Odysseus. Sing of the seafaring people who conquered the world through culture, much more than through politics. And sing, Muse, of those who carry yet today a love for that oldest mother country: Hellas. 
     BOOM (sorry, couldn’t help myself; it’s the first time that I’ve written an invocation of the Muse, and I got a little carried away.) Ahem. ‘Philhellene’ is a noun defined as ‘a lover of Greece and Greek culture’. It’s a contraction of the Greek adjective ‘philos’ (filov; ‘loving’) and the name the Greeks themselves gave to their country: Hellas ($Ellav). Another term would be ‘Grecophile’, but I prefer ‘philhellene’ because a) my spellcheck doesn’t appear to accept ‘Grecophile’, and b) I prefer the term which uses the Greeks’ own name for their country. Feels more authentic to me.
     So, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet: I’m a philhellene. When picking a subject to study in secondary school, I went for the least obvious choice and picked, apart from Latin, yet another dead language: Ancient Greek. And I haven’t regretted it for a second. In fact, I enjoyed it more than Latin, because as a language it’s a lot more elegant and refined. It also gave me a feeling of exclusivity, of course: there were, I think, at least 40 people taking Latin in my year, but in our Greek class it was nice and cosy, with only five of us. And though overall secondary school wasn’t a unequivocally wonderful experience for me, the classes Ancient Greek always made me feel better. And as I still study languages, my knowledge of it has helped me out in numerous ways: not only have those years of study given me a linguistic insight (as did Latin) which is very handy when you have to learn a new language, but it also has given me a load of cultural background which is vital if you want to understand anything of Western literature.
    I’m talking about the classics, of course. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were both on the menu (which is very handy now I’m reading Ulysses; pray for me), and as a 12-year-old girl I remember spending many afternoons sitting at the bottom of my closet (I didn’t yet understand the irony of this, and now I don’t understand how I could ever have found this comfortable) reading a very big and heavy book titled ‘Greek Myths’. After the epic, the oratory of Pericles followed, and the philosophy of Plato. And, let’s not forget a very important reason for my current philhellenism: the lyric. More importantly, Sappho, whose lyrical poetry continues to inspire. Though I’m generally more into contemporary literature (and less into the oldies), Sappho and Shakespeare (I’m starting to sense a consonantal pattern) are the two great exceptions. Of course, the classes on Sappho were interesting to me in more than merely an academic sense, but I only became aware of that later. I am still a fervent fan now, though, and while now I rarely pick up the other literature we used to read, I still frequently read a Sappho poem. (And thanks to a lovely friend of mine, I can now read them in English translation; my two great literary loves combined! I’m in heaven.)   
    Am I going anywhere with this eulogy (eulogìa) on the oldest mother country (as I shall henceforth call it)? Not really, no. I merely wish to raise a glass of retsina to the country which continues to inspire me, in my writing (Muses are handy when writing poetry), in my studies (‘find the Greek reference’ is a game I love to play in my academic papers, and it has yielded wonderful results), but also in my general appreciation of life. I know that my mind would be much the poorer for it if I, like the hoi polloi ($oi polloi; let me be condescending just this once?), had chosen not to put Greek on my curriculum. So in this sense this blog post is also an encouragement for anyone who still has this choice ahead of them: please add Greek to your curriculum. The vocabulary is arduous to study, but very useful (just think about how many English words derive from Greek), the grammar may give you a headache sometimes, but the literature will enrich you in ways you probably won’t appreciate until much later. Also, an argument against anyone who tells you that studying a dead language is a waste of time: believe me, it is not. It may not serve you in the most practical sense, but if you, like me, are more interested in the value of things than in mere functionality, then you might consider joining the phalanxes of philhellenism. We have cookies. (and feta cheese, and tzatziki, and moussaka; also, olives)     

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Zaftig


So, even as I’m putting the first words into this post (and such inspiring ones they are), I know this is going to be a tough one to write. Probably awkward. Possibly confrontational. But it’s an important subject, and I’ve been wanting to write something about it for a long time. So here goes nothing. 
Zaftig is an adjective which can only be used in reference to a woman, and it describes that woman as ‘having a full, rounded figure’, or simply ‘plump’. My dictionary informs me that it is mostly used in informal situations, and mostly only in North America at that. I say, let’s globalize that shit. Can’t let such a gorgeous word stay in North America. Anyway, it finds its origins in Yiddish, where the word ‘zaftik’ was first recorded in 1937 as ‘alluringly plump, curvaceous, buxom’ (and what gorgeous words they are). As some of you might know, Yiddish has undergone strong German influences, and this particular word derives from the Middle High German word ‘saft’, which means ‘juice’. So essentially, when you call a woman zaftig, you call her juicy. There are too many opportunities for innuendos here, so I’ll leave those to the dirty minds of my readers. Ahem. 
But now for the serious part. I have had body issues for about a decade. It started when I hit puberty around 12, at which point I started gaining weight, and hasn’t really stopped since. There have been wild fluctuations in my weight (various diets happened), but at the moment my weight is more or less stable. But even though I have accepted that I will always be zaftig to some extent, I am still not happy with my body. And in our current culture, is anyone, really? Even if you put a host of top models in a room together and asked them to talk about their body issues, I bet most of them would be able to come up with at least one thing. They will probably be minor, but however minor your grievances about your body may seem to others, on this very day millions of women are feeling bad about their bodies because of reasons which are hardly reasonable (true paradox). Some are more valid than others, of course, but whichever way you look at it, the conclusion (made over and over again) is that there is something seriously wrong with a culture which seems to promote starvation as something to aspire to.
I might add that I am solely going to write about women in this post, because sadly they are often more harassed for their (lack of) physical beauty than men are, but I am not saying that men can’t have body issues. Of course they can, and I think it would surprise us to know exactly how many. And I think that it’s actually a taboo subject, so it would be interesting to talk about. But as my experience is that of a woman, I’ll be mostly focusing on that (but males, do not despair: I feel your pain). And my experience as a woman has so far not been pleasant, in the area of physical beauty. There have been moments of triumph, but they always have been short-lived, and even on the best moments I have felt (and feel) a reasonable amount of shame and discomfort about my body.
Being a cerebral person, though, I have tried figuring out why I do feel bad. Because it has been told us over and over again by well-meaning parents that your (lack of) skinniness really does not matter. Culture, of course, tells us quite something different. And it’s not even about having the abs, but it’s the endless shaming of people who do not have optimal physical health. Apparently, in order to be a worthy human being, you need to have optimal physical health, and any deviation from that rule is considered nothing less than a cardinal sin. And you will never hear me say anything against a healthy lifestyle, but it’s the very strict definition of what is ‘healthy’ and ‘not healthy’ which does it for me. If you want to be healthy, you need to eat enough fruit and veggies and stay away from carbs at all costs, you need to go to the gym preferably every day (getting some muscle is good for your metabolism), and you need to get as much exercise as possible, because if you want to qualify as ‘perfectly healthy’, you need stamina. 
I mean, really. Ain’t nobody got time (or energy) for that. And then on the other hand there are critical voices which are vehement about the importance of a positive body image, and that whatever someone else says, you should not ever be ashamed of your body. But you put all that contradictory muddle together, and it gets quite confusing. Which authority do you follow? No wonder (zaftig) teenage girls have body issues.         
I was comforted and inspired by a passage I read in On Beauty by Zadie Smith. In this passage a mother is confronted with her daughter’s body issues: 

“ ‘Right. I look fine. Except I don’t,’ said Zora, tugging sadly at her man’s nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies—it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.”

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? To be honest, I feel ambiguous about it all. Having had body issues myself for so many years (which I have not at all outgrown), I can sympathize with women who feel like a zaftig figure is abhorrent, rather than ‘juicy’. And yet as a feminist I feel passionate about battling the shameless bodyshaming (true paradox) our culture seems to promote. Who cares if you’re zaftig? I mean, really. If you have kind eyes and a nice smile I doubt that anyone will worry about your muffin top or cellulite. The so-called “problem areas” (i.e. stomach, ass and thighs) do not, in whatever shape or size they come, detract from or add to one’s general attractiveness, and I find it sad that many women appear to think so. As if the shape and size of your stomach, ass and thighs are a litmus test for attractiveness. You can be one skinny bitch, but if your face is ugly that won’t get you very far. With all due respect to people who have face-related dysmorphia, of course, but weight issues have a special status in our bodyshaming culture. If you have dwarfism or an amputated leg or a twisted spine which makes you look funky (and makes you not fit into our culture’s ideal of physical beauty), that may make you feel self-conscious (and again, all due respect to such issues), but those are issues you cannot, technically speaking, help; they happen to you. But so many women are bodyshaming themselves because of their weight because, unlike genetic or circumstantial malformations, weight is, objectively, something you can do something about. If you are not one skinny bitch, in other words, that’s really your own fault. Which makes zaftig girls like me feel so very, very guilty. 
It is a shame that culture intervened in a relationship which only ought to have two partners: you and your body. Ultimately (clichĂ© alert) it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about your body (except your GP, maybe), as long as you feel comfortable with it. So yes, I am zaftig. With that, at least, I have made peace. I don’t like skinny bitches anyway. My litmus test? Go stand naked in front of a mirror and see if you can look at yourself without looking away. It is a test I fail daily, and I know that only when I succeed at it, I will truly feel happy about my body. But that might take another lifetime. And ultimately, feeling happy with your body is one thing, but what is still the most important thing is feeling good about yourself, inside out. And on that I seem to have made remarkable (and surprising) progress this year, so so far I am quite happy with 2014. I’m curious how it might surprise me yet.   

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stymie


Many a writer will have experienced it: sitting in front of a blank piece of paper, blinking at an empty screen, and waiting for words to come. They have come in the past, so you know they must be there somewhere, and even as the minutes trickle by without much progress, you sit, doggedly, behind your desk until the words will prompt your fingers to move. But the words don’t come, and you just sit there, minutes, hours, days, you sit there, but nothing happens, nothing moves. You try various tactics to make the words flow again, by reading other things, and then not reading other things, then looking for any means of distraction, then looking for no distraction at all (it must be a concentration problem, right?). But it’s not concentration, and it’s not lack of vocabulary or writerly knowledge. Because you have been struck by that awful affliction, generally referred to as writer’s block.
    ‘Stymie’ is a funky little verb meaning ‘to prevent or hinder the progress of’. It was originally a golf term, referring to a state in which ‘an opponent’s ball blocks the whole’. Where it came from before it was a golf term is uncertain, though there is speculation amongst etymologists whether it might not derive from the Scottish word ‘stymie’, denoting ‘a person who sees poorly’, in turn derived from ‘stime’, ‘the least bit’. I admit that I am more or less literally copying this description, and fail to see much of a connection. And either way, the potential original word ‘stime’ is itself ‘of uncertain origin’, so we’re stranded anyhow. But even though ‘stymie’ appears to be a linguistic orphan, it surely became a successful one, as from 1902 onward it received its more general definition of ‘block’, ‘hinder’ or ‘thwart’, outside the context of golf. Let’s hear it for orphans.  
    As a faithful reader of my blog may know, I am currently working on a novel, and at this point I’m afraid that it’s not working. Why it’s not working, I am not entirely sure. I admit that I am feeling uninspired, as my mind-numbing student job fails to give me much input in the mental department, and does not leave me much time or energy to write in the first place. It is also possible that I have arrived at the infamous ‘I-hate-this-bloody-book-why-did-I-ever-write-this’ stage, which is generally not conductive to good (or any) work. Apart from that, what seems to stymie my progress is that I am simply stumped on how to solve some bigger plot problems. In a first draft, this does not matter so much yet, but I have arrived at a point in which I should critically review pretty much everything in the book. I admit that there are very big holes in it as of yet, and, if not entirely stumped on how to solve them, I can’t come up with any solution which completely satisfies me. Being the perfectionist that I am, this is quite the conundrum.  
    I cannot technically say that I have writer’s block, because technically I am writing this blog post, so my well of writerly inspiration must not be entirely dried out. One might say that ironically, the drying out of my writerly inspiration is giving me inspiration to write about the aforementioned. So it can’t be writer’s block; I believe that indeed, it has everything to do with the project I am working on. Another thing many a writer might recognize: you have a love/hate relationship with your book. At this point I’m about ready to chuck mine out of the window and watch with savage pleasure how it tumbles down onto the road, to be shredded by a startled driver. But no, that’s too simplistic too. I don’t hate my book. I think it has some things going for it, but what is stymieing me at this point is that there are more things I am dissatisfied with than the things I really like. I think the book is not bad, but it’s not good enough either. Perfectionism again.
    It has been suggested to me that it might be healthier if I could focus on something different. Shake things up a bit, get rid of the roadblock stymieing me. It’s mostly psychological anyway. And I do think it might, but I’m quite OCD about leaving a project in the middle of it. I don’t like reading two books at the same time either. Strictly monogamous, you might say; I need closure with one project before I can get started on the next. Again, this is all psychological, which is another hazard of the writing profession: you cannot be easily thwarted by technical malfunctions (even if your equipment fails, a pencil and a piece of paper aren’t difficult to get by), but what is often getting in your way is your own mind. My mind being the capricious fickle entity it is, I might have expected that this would happen at some point. And I hope it might solve itself over time (when the circumstances change), but in the mean time I am annoyed with myself. But more on annoyance later. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dilettante


I’ve been going at this writing business for a little over two years now, and I hope I can say that I made marginal improvement. I feel at least a little more confident, and others have assured me that my writing isn’t all that bad. Which is reassuring, but being the worrywart that I am, I like to be certain about things. To know where I stand, to know how many bridges I still have to cross, to know what I’m up against. My dream career (you’ll never guess) is to become a professional writer, but the question remains: do I have what it takes? Difficult question. Which leads me to another question: is there any way to find out?
     Dilettante means ‘a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge’. It is by origin an Italian word (which means wacky plurals; note that multiple such individuals are ‘dilettanti’ (though ‘dilettantes’ is also correct, albeit less interesting)), meaning ‘a lover of music or the arts’, derived from the verb ‘dilettare’ (‘to delight’), which in turn derives from the original Latin ‘delectare’. Originally it did not have a negative connotation, and merely referred to a ‘devoted amateur’. The pejorative sense only emerged later, in the 18th century, in contrast to ‘professional’.
      It is one of my secret anxieties: that I will never be quite good enough. This is true for Life In General, but considering my literary activities over the past two years, this fear nowadays takes on the form of writing-related stress. Funny enough, the ‘potential’ people keep talking about is exactly the cause of that stress. Because what if you can never live up to that potential? If you have all the possibilities right in front of you, but you find them slipping right through your fingers? This reeks of dilettantism, and for someone who fears mediocrity like a disease, it is the ultimate phobia. If you’ll allow a neologism, I should say that I have mesophobia. The fear of being in the middle. Of being mediocre. 
     I suppose this fear started arising because I am slightly superstitious. Once I started thinking about words and what they mean, I looked up the meaning of my own name (call me self-centered). This was an interesting exercise for my first name, but for my last name it was less flattering. My last name is ‘Gezels’ (stress on the second syllable, if you please), which in English would translate as ‘journeyman’. Journeyman is a historical term which refers to (I quote Wikipedia) ‘an individual who has completed an apprenticeship and is fully educated in a trade or craft, but not yet a master’. They were called journeymen, because ‘journey’ in the old sense of the word meant ‘a day’s work’, and the typical thing about journeymen was that they could ask for payment on a daily basis (for a day’s work). As stated, I am slightly superstitious, so in the spirit of nomen est omen I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was doomed to stay a dilettante. To be a bit better than average, but never quite good enough to be considered a professional. To almost make it, but not quite. 
      Luckily I am rational enough to see that this fear of dilettantism is actually irrational. The fear of never being quite good enough is probably something many people can sympathize with; the moment you’re working on something, you stop for a minute, look up from your work and are seized by a sudden terror that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing. At your work, at your relationships, at life in general. I think most of us recognize this, but if it happens regularly this feeling of dilettantism becomes a problem. In scientific terms this is called ‘the impostor syndrome’, which is (again I quote Wikipedia) ‘a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments’. Even though there is plenty of external evidence proving their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. 
      Thankfully, I am not often seized by such a fear, but it does happen occasionally. The fear of being a dilettante, not just at writing, but at Life, comes up at unexpected moments, and usually has terrible timing. Sometimes these moments are short and intense, but sometimes they can spread out over long periods of anxiety. I believe in not being too proud or smug about your own accomplishments, mostly because I think humility is a virtue, but also because I have a mortal fear of hubris (because I’m Greek and all that). I’m afraid that if I show pride at my accomplishments, I’ll get overconfident and make a crucial misstep. I am currently awaiting my exam results, and though I got the overall sense that they went well, I am very cautious about making predictions based on such subjective data. What if I was overconfident? Who knows that maybe, behind a facade of intelligence and cleverness, I am the stupidest person you ever met. 
     Recently, though, I have discovered an upside to amateurism. For one, it gives you room for error. Professionals are supposed to know what they’re doing, so if they make a mistake they are often given the disapproving eyebrow. Dilettantes can feel comforted at the idea that not everything they do needs to be perfect. Secondly, it’s a comforting idea that there is someone out there who knows it better than you do; someone who can tell you how it should be done. I consider myself an incorrigibly curious person, and the thought that one day no-one will be able to teach me anything anymore because I will have learnt all there is to know, is quite frightening. Of course this moment will never transpire, because there are always new things to discover, but you get the idea. Because if you have been taught all there is to know, you are the professional, and you are supposed to know how it should be done, which doesn’t always make one feel at ease. 
      Do you think that that’s why people believe in God? A greater force in the universe which knows how this is supposed to work, and to which you can turn when things get rough? Someone to confide in when you feel your own clumsiness and dilettantism overwhelm you? When impostor syndrome strikes and you feel existential dread sneak up on you like a snake in the grass? It seems appealing to me. The alternative is believing that you are the only professional in charge of your life, and that you can only rely on yourself to figure it out. Some find this liberating. Others find it terrifying. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Ambitious as I am, I know that I will at some point have to leave the comfortable but limiting zone of dilettantism in order to move on to Bigger And Better Things, but I won’t deny that Bigger And Better Things freak me out a little as well. And so we beat on, boats against the current... (etc)      

Friday, June 27, 2014

Callow


At age 22, I’m in a phase of my life where people would still dare to call me ‘young and stupid’. And even though I like to assume an air of infinite wisdom, they wouldn’t be wrong. Because at age 22, I’m still quite young. And regularly stupid. So the hope is that, after experiencing a couple of more decades of this curious thing called Life, I will grow Older and Wiser. Whatever that means. And I am, admittedly, looking forward to the day when I may appropriate such a descriptor. When I will be, oh say, 52, and will be able to say: ‘I am Helena, now Older and Wiser.’ But I am also skeptical. Because whatever wisdom there might be in old sayings, putting ‘old and wise’ opposite ‘young and stupid’ suggests that young people can’t ever be wise, and that old people can’t ever be stupid. Which is stupid.
    Callow is an adjective which is exclusively connected to youth; my dictionary literally states: ‘(Of a young person) inexperienced and immature.’ There is discussion about the word’s etymology, but for once the preferred explanation is not that it derives from Latin (though there is speculation about this). Instead, it is said to derive from the Old English form ‘calu’, meaning ‘bare or bald’, which in turn derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘*kalwa’. One may be surprised at this etymology, considering baldness is generally associated with age, but let us not forget that young people are generally also born with fairly little hair. With human beings this is less obvious, because we naturally have less body hair than other species (this is relative), but one may  think about a young bird just emerging from the egg: it is bare and bald. It is callow.
      As stated, I am rather looking forward to not being able to be called young and stupid anymore (or, as we shall now call it: callow). Add a decade or two to my life and I will only be able to be called stupid, which is progress. But belonging, for the time being, to a relatively ‘young’ age group, my elders still sometimes pull rank on me based on my youth. This irks me. Don’t get me wrong: you will never hear me say that I am never stupid. Because I am. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise: ‘You know I’m old in some ways—in others—well, I’m just a little girl. I like sunshine and pretty things and cheerfulness—and I dread responsibility.’ I won’t say this quote entirely applies to me, but you get the idea: in some ways I’m quite mature; in others I’m really not. But I doubt that anyone can be completely mature in every possible way. 
     And by the way, what does that even mean, ‘mature’? I use this word regularly, but I admit that I find it difficult to figure out what it means. My dictionary informs me that it is, actually, used ‘especially of a young person’, to say that (s)he has ‘reached a stage of mental or emotional development characteristic of an adult.’ What it means to have the mental or emotional development of an adult I will probably never know. 
      Ever since I started taking this writing thing seriously, I also started taking an interest in older, more experienced, and (most importantly) published writers. Ghent University being such an English Author Magnet (I might be exaggerating), they now and then have writers coming over for workshops or readings. I almost always attend these, and every time it strikes me how condescending these writers are towards their younger selves. It seems that established writers who have been in the business for a while are almost unanimous in the dislike of their early work. ‘Oh, what I wrote in the beginning was absolute crap,’ they will say. ‘I know so much more now.’ (This is not a literal quotation.) 
      This always bugs me, because every time I hear something like this I feel the frustration of not being Older and Wiser boiling inside me, and the question whether someone with a measly 22 years of life (and writing) experience can have anything interesting to say starts pestering me. Because I want to write. As melodramatic as it may sound, I feel an almost visceral need to write, and the thought that I will have to wait for thirty years before I will produce anything really worthwhile is nothing short of enraging. 
    What these writers have in common is that they don’t seem to realize how bad it sounds when you talk like this. Personally, I really hate the thought that I will be 52 one day and say: ‘When I was 22 I knew nothing.’ Not only is it a fallacy, it also shows a cruel disloyalty to your younger self, and it unintentionally insults those who are going through the same phase you went through when you were 22. The thought that anything I write now will never measure up to anything I might come up with later is frankly depressing, even though it is only logical (and, indeed, desirable). But saying that you’ve improved over the years is not the same as discrediting all the work you have behind you. That work was important too, if not more important. If I hadn’t started writing when I did, where would I be thirty years later? 
     It is useless to speculate, of course. Maybe I would be better off if I’d wait for thirty years to start writing (but then, I might die tomorrow—hypothetically). My literary hero only started writing in midlife, and he turned out pretty fantastic. But it won’t do to compare, or to take the utilitarian point-of-view. I want to write simply for the action of writing; I like the results to be good, of course (who doesn’t?), but the mere action of creating things is what keeps me going, even when I feel like I can only produce crap. The Older and Wiser Helena might be a better writer than I am now, but I sincerely hope that the Older and Wiser Helena will at least try to look at the world from the 22-year-old point-of-view. I find empathy one of the most important qualities a writer can have, and am disgusted by the thought that one day I will be 52 and not have a clue anymore what it was like to be 22. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll quote Harry Potter (which does little to disprove my callow status, but whatever), a scene in book 5, in which Dumbledore addresses the following words to Harry: ‘Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.’ I have to say I agree. It is very frustrating not to be taken seriously by your elders because they have seen more of life. I am young, and probably stupid. But does that mean that I am callow? I beg to differ. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moniker


What’s in an name? Juliet, as we know, didn’t believe that there was all that much in it. However, she only boarded this train of thought because that was awfully convenient for her. But, as we also know, this train of thought crashed horribly. There were no survivors. I, for one, believe that there is quite a lot in a person’s name (for more than Shakespeare-inspired reasons). This is probably due to the fact that I am a self-professed WordNerd and I think that terminology is important. As a linguistic species, it is important to have a place in the linguistic world as well as in the real world. If your person cannot be referred to with a word, then methinks you’ll find it difficult to function. But apart from that dry practical fact, names are fascinating because of their own quality. Therefore, I will try to prove to you in this post that a rose by any other name would, indeed, be quite different. 
      ‘Moniker’ has probably one of the most straightforward meanings a word featured in my blog has ever had, as it simply means ‘a name’. More bad news for this paragraph is that it appears to be of ‘unknown origin’. It started coming up somewhere around the mid-19th century, and is said to be a ‘hobo term’. One hypothesis is that, via several linguistic twists and turns, it derives from the word ‘monk’, as monks an nuns habitually take on new names with their monastic vows. A derived term no longer in use, and a possible origin for ‘moniker’, was the pejorative term ‘monkery’, used to refer to ‘the practices of monks’. As one of these practices is name-changing, it isn’t too far-fetched to believe that some mumbling nun garbled up the word ‘monkery’ until it sounded a bit like ‘moniker’. But this, of course, is purely conjecture.      
    While I agree with Juliet that monikers do not refer to ‘any part belonging to a man’ (let us not discuss certain heterosexual habits of naming certain significant body parts), they do refer to the, be it more abstract, but not less important, identity of a person. Interestingly, though, it’s not the person who is defined by the name, but the name which is defined by the person carrying it. ‘Romeo’, for example, is a moniker which will go down into history as the male half of our star-crossed couple, while the mere verbal form of the name means fairly little. As such, it is quite ironic that Juliet should reject her lover’s moniker; it is ultimately the thing which, together with her own name, will be forever remembered as the title of the Ultimate Love Story. 
     And, to take this argument away from Shakespearean influences, think about some of the monikers you know. When someone says a name which happens to belong one of your acquaintances, don’t you immediately think about that person, and doesn’t that moniker take on a very specific connotation? What about the name of your mother? Your best friend? Your worst enemy? Aren’t you more likely to feel more friendly toward a complete stranger carrying one of the first two names, than someone carrying the last one? As irrational as it is, I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes catches herself at this most horrible of prejudices.  
     However, my theory isn’t completely waterproof. Because monikers do, in fact, carry a meaning separate from the person they refer to. Which is why I am very careful, when writing, about picking character names. The sound quality of the name is important, but so is the meaning. If someone, therefore, would ever take the effort to analyze my literary efforts, please take a look at the choice of names. They’re very deliberate. 
     And so was my father when he picked my moniker. My name is Helena. (Hello everyone, so nice to meet you.) As various web searches have confirmed, my moniker has a series of synonymous meanings such as ‘light’, ‘torch’, ‘shining light’ or ‘bright one’. Well. I always knew I was an inspiration for humanity. I am a little less happy with the mythological connotations of my moniker. (Mind you, this proves my previous point about people assigning meaning to names instead of the other way around.) Because when I introduce myself as ‘Helena’ this usually prompts questions like ‘oh, like Helen of Troy, right?’ Yes, like Helen of Troy. Though ‘The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships’ is probably not a bad nickname to have, I’m not very impressed with my mythological namesake. Running off with a Trojan Prince, causing a war, then running back to her Spartan husband. Bah. I’m a firm pacifist, and though I can be very passionate about romantic things, I daresay I wouldn’t let a host of horny men start a war on my account. That is just arrogant.
     Not to be outdone by ‘The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships’, I assigned myself some alternative monikers as well. One of them is something of a nickname, though it sounds more like a title. It is something a friend of mine came up with, and I’m rather happy with it. Ladies and gents, I present to you, Helena, Messiah of Words! I find this apt, don’t you? A second even more serious (but really now) moniker pertains to my literary activities. It is, as the perceptive reader may have guessed, a pseudonym. Being tragically born in the wrong country, my name does not sound very English at all, so once I started taking my English writing activities seriously, I started thinking about a more English-sounding author moniker. I came up with a classical formula: two initials and a last name. Forget about D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and J.K. Rowling! Instead, look out for H.J. Gerald! There. Now you know what to look for in book stores. Funny thing about nicknames and pseudonyms: as opposed to your official moniker, it’s one you can choose and, as such, which can be sculpted to fit your personality. Which is, unfortunately, not something your parents can plan just by looking at your squashy, slimy, rosy baby face.
     And this is how you get people with monikers which, they feel, don’t really suit them. Or monikers which are just plain unfortunate. There are plenty of unfortunate baby names out there, and not all of them are distributed by celebrities. Some tips from my father about name-giving: 1) pick a name which is internationally pronounceable. I know several lovely girls with several lovely flemish monikers. However, if you try to pronounce these monikers with a french or english accent, they sound perfectly horrible. 2) Avoid abbreviations, combined names and diminutives. Admittedly, they’re not all horrible, but I would have been considerably less happy with ‘Helen’ or ‘Lena’ (horrid). The same goes for my sister: her moniker is Elisabeth, which has an astounding number of possible abbreviations (Eliza, Lisa, Beth, Betty, Bette, Ellis...). Some of these are okay, but I find ‘Elisabeth’ much more majestic, and it ties her to her own namesake (which, lucky her, is neither mythological nor annoying). 3) Pay attention to sound as well as meaning. My father picked ‘Helena’ and ‘Elisabeth’ because they sound well (my mother wanted to call me Laura, but luckily my father intervened) and because they have, respectively, a Greek and a Biblical origin, and both Greek and Christian culture happen to be two corner stones of Western civilization. My father, as you may have inferred, is very grand. He also thinks things through. I am grateful to him for that.
     But now, my dearest reader, after this self-indulgent bout of nominal navel-gazing, I turn to you. What is your moniker, and what does it mean? Are you happy with it, or had you rather preferred another? Do you have an illustrious namesake, and if so, are you happy or unhappy with him/her? Do you have a nickname and/or title and/or pseudonym, and if so, how did you come by it? Does your moniker match my father’s criteria, and, if so, do you consider this an asset and, if no, do you consider this a problem? Do share. This writer wants to know what’s in your name.