Definition as Theme and Technique

In definition, as in other techniques of this literary mode, theme and technique, form and content often inextricably intertwine. For example, the central role of definition in the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sages implies that only the speaker knows the true meaning of words, that the audience has lost knowledge both of the words its members use and of the reality to which these words refer, and that, finally, only the sage still retains the capacity for true speech. Just as Thoreau's destructive definition of governor inevitably blends definition, satire, elaborate emblems, interpretation, prophetic diagnosis of his society's essential problems, and prognosis of a coming spiritual disaster — in short, virtually all the elements that make up the genre of the sage — so too definition as technique naturally, inevitably, merges with definition as theme. The assumption implicit in the sage's more aggressive uses of definition — namely, that as a society falls away from the ways of God and nature, its language degenerates — frequently becomes an explicit theme, particularly in the works of twentieth-century practitioners of the genre.

Arnold, who begins Culture and Anarchy with a corrective definition, sees such degeneration as both cause and symptom of Victorian England's disastrous lack of mental cultivation. Part of the problem, he finds, lies in the fact that "candidates for political influence and leadership, who thus caress the self-love of those whose suffrages they desire, . . . are using a sort of conventional language, or what we call clap-trap" (5.152).

Whatever they diagnose as the ultimate cause, all nineteenth- and twentieth-century sages find such claptrap to be a Sign of the Times. As Joan Didion puts it in Slouching towards Bethlehem: "The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled" (84). Even the well-meaning hippies and radicals, she argues, have no command of language, no words to use: "Because they do not believe in words — words are for 'typeheads' ... and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips — their only proficient vocabulary is in the society's platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for oneself depends upon one's mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from 'a broken home"' (123).

Mailer: A Twentieth-Century Example

Like many writers since Carlyle and the German romantics, Mailer believes technology in some way to blame for such pervasive claptrap. Of a Fire on the Moon presents as related struggles his battle to find an adequate language, a language adequate to idea and experience, and that to interpret the meaning and value of the entire moon project. His problem as a writer, whether as mere reporter or sage, is that "the language which now would sing of this extraordinary vault promised to be as flat as an unstrung harp. The century had unstrung any melody of words" (130).

Throughout the early portions of the book, when he tries to get his bearings, he repeatedly comes upon the problems posed for the interpreter by technological language, and although he early confesses his admiration for the astronauts and envy for their opportunity, he finds himself troubled by their use of a peculiarly deadened, peculiarly twentieth-century form of language which insulates reality from speaker and hearer. "Even as the Nazis and the Communists had used to speak of mass murder as liquidation, so the astronauts spoke of possible personal disasters as 'contingency.'

The heart of astronaut talk, like the heart of all bureaucratic talk, was a jargon which could be easily converted to computer programming, a language like Fortran or Cobol or Algol." According to Mailer, "Anti-dread formulations were the center of it, as if words like pills were there to suppress emotional symptoms" (25). But for him language should bring one closer to reality, make one more alive to it, and therefore such formulaic, impersonal, often inaccurate speech kills the human and the humane in each of us. Mailer, always sensitive to language, heaps up a series of examples of such deadspeak. One of the astronauts, responding no to a reporter's question, says: "that's not a prerogative we have available to us." He could of course have said, "We can't do it," but in trouble he always talked computerese. The use of "we" was discouraged. "A joint exercise has demonstrated" became the substitution. "Other choices" became "peripheral secondary objectives." "Doing our best" was "obtaining maximum advantage possible." "Confidence" became "very high confidence level.". . . The message had to be locked into a form which could be transmitted by pulse or lack of pulse, one binary digit at a time, one bit, one bug to be installed in each box. You could not break through computerese. (39) Although Mailer remains fully aware of the practical justifications of such a narcotizing language that thus assiduously omits all human elements, he also perceives at what cost it protects the speaker and listener from worrisome possibilities.

One of the most terrifying consequences of such deadening language appears to him when he encounters the sublimities of the space ship within a mammoth structure, the world's largest, and then perceives that the men who can create such incredible machines no longer possess the language to make others understand what they have done. Indeed, the names they choose for their creations always produce bathos. Having found himself moved by the immense size of the space ship and then recognizing, in something like a religious conversion, that the future has arrived, Mailer wonders:

Yet all the signs leading to the Vehicle Assembly Building said VAB. VAB — it could be the name of a drink or a deodorant, or it could be suds for the washer. But it was not a name for this warehouse of the gods. The great churches of a religious age had names the Alhambra, Santa Sophia, Mont-Saint-Michel, Chartres, Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame. Now: VAB. Nothing fit anything any longer. The art of communication had become the mechanical function, and the machine was the work of art. What a fall for the ego of the artist. What a climb to capture the language again! (55-56)

Here Mailer brings together many of his central concerns throughout this volume. To begin with, he points out that a new practical, practicing religion, as Ruskin and Carlyle put it, is in the works, and its monuments are not cathedrals but gigantic creations of modern technology. These changes represent fundamental shifts in the nature of man and society that puzzle one — and demand interpretation: They provide the interpretive cruxes, the material of the sage. Finally, much that demands interpretation concerns the essential problem of language, which appears to have become corrupted, or at least so changed that it no longer connects us with reality.

Although the technique of definition appears in all forms of argumentation, it plays a particularly important role in the writings of the sage, in part because it blends so effectively with his other approaches, such as attacks upon the audience, and in part because it provides a ready means of demonstrating the audience's need for the sage and his message. Such acts of definition imply that the audience, whether because of its own faults or because of those of others, lacks a language adequate to its needs. Above all, it lacks a language adequate to reality. The sage's definitions imply that he has one and will share it.

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Last modified 14 July 2008