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"A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words." &mdash Samuel Butler


Non-fiction writers describe and explain life's events. They choose as their subject matter real people, real places and real activities and often relate them to the reader in such a way as to draw some previously hidden meaning from these elements of human existence. Non-fiction writers cannot possibly write about everything — neither they nor their readers have the kind of patience that would permit a study of life in its entirety — so instead they pick specifics and then relate them to broader, universal truths. The elements they choose to draw this meaning from can be as sweeping as a writer's quest to find a replacement for a piece of brontosaurus skin or as narrow as a single word.

Like the non-fiction writers I am referring to, I cannot feasibly cover all the ways in which one draws a greater meaning out of a specific thing, so I will focus, like they do, on one example of this process: definitions. In defining words fundamental to the segments of human existence non-fiction writers study, they are able to make grand comments on the life, community or culture they are writing about. The Victorian sages used this technique extensively as it allowed them to attack their contemporaries' flaws by pointing out their misunderstandings of the true meanings of words. The sages had access to this truth; the common citizen did not. This was made evident in the sages' use of redefinition, or the ways in which they critiqued and revised the definitions their contemporaries gave to important terms. This practice is still used in the twentieth century, but with a slightly different result: while the Victorian sage's use of redefinition showed their own mastery of language and understanding of the world, modern non-fiction writers' redefinitions often reveal their own vulnerabilities. In other words, the Victorian style of redefinition describes a knowable world (knowable by the sages at least) while modern methods reveal the world's innate complexities that at times even the writer cannot make sense of.

After all, this is the point of defining — to make sense of or reveal the meaning of something. In this paper I attempt to make sense of the practice of defining itself. Again, like non-fiction writers, I will focus on a handful of specific instances in which this technique is used. By analyzing, individually and comparatively, the different methods of defining writers use, I will study the effect this practice has on the writer's role in the world. After beginning with an analysis of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and the Victorian sage's use of redefinition, I will turn my attention to Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Sara Suleri and the evolution of this technique into the modern era.

The Victorians

The Victorian sages modeled their role after Old Testament Biblical prophets who, standing apart from the rest of society, would point to inclement disaster unless the common people followed the natural truths the prophets embodied. The sage's eccentricity was both caused by and a cause of their special wisdom — when most people strayed from once widely-followed laws, the sage still had access to these truths and could, through his writing, enlighten his peers to their own shortcomings. The Victorian sages famously did this by pointing to commonplace events or objects, like a pub sign, and drawing profound meaning from them that explained where and how their contemporaries lost their way. Their credibility came from their skill in finding significance in everyday objects and this, in turn, stemmed from their position as an outsider. From this perspective, the sage was able to see clearly both his own culture and that of a past era to which he urged his society to return because in it thrived now-forgotten truths that, if ignored, would lead to destruction. The Victorian world, therefore, was knowable, but only to a select few.

Let's begin with Thomas Carlyle, the man who created the idea of the Victorian sage. He outlined the basic methods behind this style of writing in "Signs of the Times" in which he analyzes the state of his own society by redefining the word machine. The sign, therefore, that he finds meaning in but his contemporaries ignore is not a physical one, like a pub decoration, but a word.

It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practices the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, come cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it fasterÉFor all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherancesÉWe war with rude Nature; and, by our restless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.

Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Here too nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods. Everything has its cunningly devised implements, its preestablished apparatus; it is not done by hand, but by machinery. Thus we have machines for Education: Lancastrian machines, Hamiltonian machines; monitors, maps and emblems. Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand. Then, we have Religious machinesÉ In defect of Raphaels, and Angelos, and Mozarts, we have Royal Academies of Painting, Sculpture, MusicÉ

These things, which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavor, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope and struggle. Their whole efforts attachments, opinions, turn on mechanism, and are of a mechanical character. [pp. 3-5]

Carlyle begins this passage with a description of the commonly-understood definition of machine as a physical technology. Carlyle's contemporaries were all too aware of the surge in technological development as machines began to replace human factory workers, but, and perhaps because of an overpowering concern for the effects of this type of machine, were oblivious to equally destructive social and intellectual technologies. Before offering his own interpretation of the term, then, Carlyle illustrates his readers' limited understanding. His explanatory metaphor of the "outward" sense of the word is tailored (pun intended) to the common man: "the shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster." This definition of the word, however, is too limited because it only deals with a small segment of contemporary culture. In order to critique all of this society, Carlyle redefines the word to include an "inward sense" that until now has gone unnoticed.

"Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery," writes Carlyle, "but the internal and spiritual also." In this way, Carlyle redefines machine to include in its meaning the educational system, religious organizations, the press and art academies. He uses this new definition to comment on the state of his society as a whole: a state in which the natural laws of the past have been destroyed by modern, artificial institutions. This, incidentally, is a theme this paper will address again in Ruskin's and, to an extent, Didion's work. Carlyle, after explaining his contemporaries' misconceptions, his understanding of the truth and his society's distance from this truth, urges a return to a past time when the importance of natural, organic work was recognized by all — in other words, a time when people adhered to his negative definition of social machines. Though it appears to many that "our happiness depends entirely on external circumstances," or man-made machines, in fact the truth is that we owe "the great elements of human enjoyment" to "the instinctive, unbounded force, which Nature herself len[ds] [us]" (pp. 7-8). In order to be truly happy, then, the common man must accept Carlyle's redefinition of machine to include all the "external circumstances" in his life, and then return to a state where these elements are replaced by natural ones.

The act of redefinition solidifies Carlyle's role as a peripheral voice in a society gone astray. He is a typical Victorian sage, with access to truths to which rest of his society is blind. The fact that he has to redefine a word central to their vocabulary illustrates this — Carlyle's definition is uncommon, placing him apart from normal society, and it reveals certain truths that only he, the outsider, can see.

John Ruskin follows Carlyle's lead in "The Stones of Venice" in which he critiques contemporary architecture and urges a return to the past Gothic style because of the natural truths it embodies. The style he praises, however, has a certain stigma attached to it because the word Gothic embodies so many negative connotations. By redefining the word, Ruskin points out his society's faults and leads them to a more truthful understanding of the world.

I am not sure when the word "Gothic" was first generically applied to the architecture of the North; but I presume that, whatever the date of its original usage, it was intended to imply reproach, and express the barbaric character of the nations among whom that architecture arose. ItÉdid imply that they and their buildings together exhibited a degree of sternness and rudeness, which, in contradistinction to the character of Southern and Eastern nations, appeared like a perpetual reflection of the contrast between the Goth and the Roman in their first encounter . . . The word Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt, not unmixed with aversionÉ Perhaps some among us, in our admiration of the magnificent science of its structure, and sacredness of its expression, might desire that the term of ancient reproach should be withdrawn, and some other, of more apparent honourableness, adopted in its place. There is no chance, as there is no need, of such a substitution. As far as the epithet was used scornfully, it was used falsely; but there is no reproach in the word, rightly understood; on the contrary, there is a profound truth, which the instinct of mankind almost unconsciously recognizes. It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves out profoundest reverence. [p. 172]

Ruskin begins, like Carlyle, with the commonly-understood definition of Gothic: "a term of unmitigated contempt, not unmixed with aversion" that describes the crudeness of Northern Europe. He goes on to say that some people want an entirely new word to be used when describing Gothic architecture because the word Gothic, as it is understood by most, is so negative. Instead, Ruskin explains that all that is needed is a new definition. Ruskin then redefines the word Gothic to mean not a negative, sloppy, rude architecture, but a naturally imperfect style. This definition embodies the previously hidden truth that nature itself is imperfect and therefore that the imposition of artificial order on it is tantamount to enslavement. Though this sentiment is a strong echo of Carlyle's point illustrated above, Ruskin describes it in a much different manner. While Carlyle simply adds another facet to the common meaning of the word machine, Ruskin entirely reverses Gothic's established definition. This is characteristic of Ruskin's direct attacks on the reader. Ruskin is aggressively a sage, and will enlighten the reader to the truth only he sees even (and often especially) if it is completely opposite to the reader's current belief. We will see this stance slowly disintegrate when we reach Didion's work and follow the theme of definitions into Suleri. These later writers, instead of directly attacking the reader's ignorance, actually admit their own.

Just as Carlyle explains that his definition used to be commonly understood, Ruskin writes that indeed, most people are instinctively aware of the beauty of nature's imperfections. As with Carlyle, this emphasizes Ruskin's role as a peripheral sage. He is preaching a return to a past orthodoxy that is no longer the norm, but that he still embodies. People have lost sight of the truth, and thus society has degenerated into one dominated by the "slavery" of mechanical perfection that he alludes to when defining Gothic. Furthermore, Ruskin warns that unless his contemporaries heed the new meaning of the word Gothic and the universal truths of the benefits of natural imperfection that it contains, their society is doomed to inhumanity. "Men," he says, "were not intended toÉbe precise and perfectÉ If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cogwheelsÉyou must unhumanize them" (p. 177). Here again, as in Carlyle, we see the machine's domination over man through a metaphor of fingers. This is the Victorian sage fully realized — Ruskin picks a specific, seemingly trivial element of society (the meaning of a single word), extracts great meaning from it, uses this meaning to critique society and finally urges a return to a past time where these truths were commonly understood.

These goals, embodied in the Victorian sage's use of definitions, withstood the test of time and are furthered by modern authors like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. One can even find in some of this modern work the underlying theme of the negative effects of mechanical technology on society. What distinguishes the modern non-fiction addressed below from the Victorian work above is the way these authors use definitions. Things get complicated when Didion, who at first appears very similar to Ruskin, problematizes her position as an outsider or when Wolfe and Suleri focus not only on incorrect definitions of words, but also on the inability to define in the first place. Even more intriguing is the use of definitions to reveal the writer's own ignorance or even show the general public's mastery of language. Though their execution has different effects, modern definitions included within non-fiction works situate their users within the tradition of writers who unearth meaning from seemingly trivial corners of the world.

The Moderns

I'll start here with Joan Didion, a writer whose stance on technology has obvious connections to both Carlyle and Ruskin. Like these two Victorian sages, Didion uses the definition of words to comment on her society's reliance on the mechanical. In the following passage, Didion describes the engineering firm Caltrans and its plans for the Los Angeles freeway system.

The problem seemed to be another Caltrans "demonstration," or "pilot," a foray into bureaucratic terrorism they were calling "The Diamond Lane" in their promotional literature and "The Project" among themselves. That the promotional literature consisted largely of a schedule for busses (or "Diamond Lane Expresses") and invitations to join a car pool via computer ("Commuter Computer") made clear not only the putative point of The Project, which was to encourage travel by car pool and bus, but also the actual point, which was to eradicate a central Southern California illusion, that of individual mobility, without anyone really noticing. [pp. 80-81]

Like Ruskin and Carlyle, Didion distinguishes between two interpretations of the terms Caltrans uses to describe its programs: the putative, or commonly understood meaning, and the actual meaning, that only Didion sees. Caltrans's definition of The Project as an effort to increase car pool traffic and thus create safer and more efficient highways deceives most people because it hides the true meaning of the word. Didion enlightens the reader by redefining The Project as "bureaucratic terrorism" with the goal of destroying a central element of Southern California's culture. In doing so, Didion extracts great meaning from a term previously understood by most people in only a trivial sense. She uses this new definition to explain both her society's reliance on cars and Caltrans's blindness, under the guise of an interest in efficiency, to the true nature of the people it serves.

Didion, therefore, seems very much a disciple of the Victorian sages: she is an outsider with access to truths that are lost on the rest of her society. She emphasizes this status by placing Caltrans's terms in quotation marks, visually removing them from her own words and thus removing herself from their traditional usage. The quotation marks also play a satirical role, drawing attention to the language's failure at accurately conveying meaning (it is this ambiguity that deceives the average person) — the words demonstration and project are so broad, it is almost impossible to decipher their true significance. Impossible, that is, for the common person — but not for Didion.

Didion's role is not that easily classified, however, because while she redefines words like Carlyle and Ruskin, she at the same time challenges her own understanding of eternal truths with a fragmented and convoluted prose style. Ruskin is master of language, and uses it to illustrate the natural order of his world — words are easily defined and the truth is easily revealed through well-crafted direct attacks on the reader. Didion's prose, on the other hand, reflects her era's upheaval and uncertainty. Her work, "The White Album," can be seen as a constant struggle to bring order, or in her case the sort of narrative thread we need "in order to live" to a naturally chaotic world (p. 11). Didion arguably fails in this regard — her book remains disjointed — and instead of a peripheral sage becomes a representation of the world in which she lives. She is not separate from life's commotion, but rather steeped in it. This is how she gains credibility — the reader believes her interpretations of life in LA because he or she believes she was really there. Ruskin's credibility, on the other hand, comes from his perspective-enhancing distance from society.

Earlier in this same essay about Caltrans, Didion uses a slightly different tactic to expose the engineers', and her society's flaws. Instead of offering one common understanding of a word and then pointing out why this meaning is wrong, Didion here provides the only definition. In the following passage, Didion and the Caltrans engineers both use the word "incident" to refer to the same thing — a car accident on the freeway. The difference lies, then, not in the term's meaning, but in its failure to convey the true nature of what Caltrans uses it to describe. In other words, the word incident fails as a word because it entirely ignores the profoundly human aspects of a car crash in LA. Thus, in defining the term by connecting it to specific human actions, Didion critiques her own society as being unable to describe itself because it relies too much on technology.

From six A.M. until seven P.M. in this windowless room men sit at consoles watching a huge board flash colored lights. ÉThe Operations Center is where Caltrans engineers monitor what they call "the 42-Mile Loop." The Loop is a "demonstration system," a phrase much favored by everyone at Caltrans, and is part of a "pilot project," another two words carrying totemic weightÉ

The Loop has its own mind, a Xerox Sigma V computerÉ It is the Xerox Sigma V that tells the Operations crew when they have an "incident" out there. An "incident" is the heart attack on the San Diego, the jackknifed truck on the Harbor, the Camaro just now tearing out the Cyclone fence on the Santa Monica. "Out there" is where incidents happen. The windowless room at 120 South Spring is where incidents get "verified." "Incident verification" is turning on the closed-circuit TV on the console and watching the traffic slow down to see (this is "the gawk effect") where the Camaro tore out the fence. [pp. 79-80]

The technical words and phrases the engineers use, again placed inside quotation marks to illustrate Didion's removal from them, "carry totemic weight" even though they are basically meaningless until Didion defines them. This irony that Didion's act of defining exposes provides scathing commentary on her society by showing the failure of language when it relies on a mechanical interpretation or observation of the world. The engineers only see flashing lights, but Didion sees the narrative behind the lights — a car crashing through a fence, for example, and all the passing commuters pausing to see what happened — and therefore the human truths to which a society dependant on technology is blind.

This again complicates Didion's role. She is outside the "windowless room" and can see her society from a perspective that enables her to find meaning in the most trivial of words, but, as discussed above, is still affected by this culture. "To understand what was going on" with Caltrans and the Diamond Lane, she writes, "it is perhaps necessary to have participated in the freeway experience." To see the truth, then, one need not be entirely apart from society, living by an entirely different and unorthodox set of principles, like Ruskin; instead one can (and perhaps must) play a role in that society — or be, as Didion says, an "active participant" (p. 83).

Tom Wolfe was never, nor will he ever be, an active participant. While Didion, and even Ruskin and Carlyle, include some personal details in their work, Wolfe's identity is a mystery as his writing adopts multiple tones of voice and even speaks for other characters. He is a cultural anthropologist, closely scrutinizing a small section of society and uncovering the broad truths it embodies. Though he never plays a role in this work, like Didion driving on the freeways she describes or, in a different piece, pressing the buttons and pulling the levers that control Los Angeles's water supply, Wolfe's chameleon-like tone complicates his identity because it alternatively presents him as an insider and a peripheral voice. This contrast is evident in his use of redefinitions in The Right Stuff.

Like Didion, Carlyle and Ruskin, Wolfe sets up the following passage as a conflict between a formal, commonly understood definition and the hidden, human truth behind it. This sort of dichotomy is evident in his prose as well, as it is at once objectively journalistic and informally loose.

Sometimes it took the form of "inertial coupling," which usually occurred when a pilot tries to bank a rocket ship and it snapped into a full roll and then began pitching and yawing — and rolling violently. This would throw it end over end. Some pilots felt that the formal term "inertial coupling" added damned little to your understanding of the phenomenon. The ship simply "uncorked" (as Crossfield liked to put it) and lost all semblance of aerodynamics and fell out of the sky like a bottle or a length of pipe. [p. 160]

Wolfe begins by providing the technical definition of inertia coupling, though even this is tinged with his characteristic casualness: ". . . — and rolling violently." This suggests from the outset that the pure formalistic terminology is insufficient in capturing the true, emotional nature of the event it explains. He then lets five different pilots, human beings who have experienced this phenomenon first-hand, redefine it by describing it using specific examples from their lives. In this way he approaches the true meaning of the phrase like Didion does, by connecting it to specific human actions and stories.

This passage helps explain Wolfe's different roles as both intimately connected to and objectively distant from the event he describes. For this reason, Wolfe's definitions are ironic when compared to Carlyle's and Ruskin's — while the Victorian sages find the true meaning of words by removing themselves from society and connecting with abnormal and forgotten beliefs, Wolfe reveals the actual significance of an inertia coupling by immersing himself so completely in the pilots' culture that he can use their own experiences to describe it. This understanding of dramatically different interpretations of a word builds the writer's credibility in the eyes of the reader and thus reinforces his or her position as a sage of superior perception.

The world according to Wolfe, then, is knowable and understandable, but is hard to describe, especially for those actively involved in its inner workings. Indeed, in his forward to the book, Wolfe writes that many pilots have commended him for his efforts to describe the world they live in. "Almost all seemed grateful," he writes, "that someone had tried — and it had to be an outsider — to put into words certain matters that the very code of the pilot rules off-limits in conversation" (p. xv). In The Right Stuff, Wolfe seems to understand the pilots' inability to articulate the alluring central quality of their lives — the very Stuff for which the book is named — and he treats them with respect. The surfers in "The Pump House Gang," however, are in a much different league.

Here, Wolfe uses the surfers' inability to describe their own life to mock mreveals the failure of their language satirically. Didion, and Wolfe in the passage above, on the other hand redefine terms in a completely different language then that of their common users. They reinterpret technical words in a human language, either that of the pilots or that of the people actively participating in the Caltrans Project. For this reason, they are unable to achieve the same level of mockery as Wolfe does here, even though the terms they discuss are equally meaningless in the mouths of their users.

The surfers around the Pump House use that word, mysterioso, quite a lot. It refers to the mystery of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean and everything. Sometimes a guy will stare at the surf and say, "Mysterioso." [p. 27]

Wolfe plays the role of an insider, adopting the surfers' own speech, to mock the Pump House Gang's inability to talk about itself. Indeed, the definition of mysterioso revolves around two things: one a mystery and the other simply everything. Like in The Right Stuff, he also uses a specific example from the lives of those who use the word, but even here he writes as a ventriloquist: "he wasÉimmune, he was plugged into the whole pattern, he could feel the whole Oh Mighty Hulking SeaÉBut he got wiped out and killed. Very mysterioso."

A later example of definitions further emphasizes Wolfe's multiple roles. Wolfe, like Didion, places the word outside within quotation marks to remove it from his own vocabulary. He then defines it in an objective journalistic voice ("one fifth of a mileÉ"). Words like Phrygian sacristans, however, are not visibly removed from the rest of the text, nor are they defined. This, the reader assumes, is because they are part of the narrator's vocabulary (the narrator at this point is the journalist) and not that of the surfers. Here, then, Wolfe is an outsider, able to define surfing terminology in a specific, almost scientific language.

Though Wolfe defines words in a slightly different way than his predecessors by satirically employing the language of those who use them, he achieves the same end result: an insightful commentary on his own society. Towards the end of the essay, the multiple voices he distinguished through defining surfing terms seem to meld together and Wolfe is on a roll, riding a fast-paced wave of social commentary all the way to the shore, landing with a "blam blam!" that signifies the death of one of the Gang members and the transience of the whole sub-culture itself. It is this meaninglessness, this artificiality embodied in a culture that views any age over twenty-one with horror, that Wolfe captures in his satirical definition of mysterioso.

What if, however, it is not surfers or the pilots who have trouble defining their world, but the writers themselves? Wolfe spends an entire book attempting to define the Right Stuff but in the end can only say that he "tried" (p. xv). Furthermore, he never really offers a clear definition of mysterioso, besides the surfers' ambiguous explanation. Is Wolfe then just like the Caltrans engineers who use broad words with many possible meanings to deceive the reader? Or is there a certain quality to the modern world that makes it somewhat inexplicable, even for trained writers? I think that the answer is more the latter. Indeed, the Caltrans engineers do offer their own unambiguous definition of the Project (more carpools, less traffic), just not a complete one. Wolfe, on the other hand, rarely gives the reader his own clear interpretation of mysterioso, relying instead on satire and humor to convey the more general concepts behind the term — the surfers' transience as a culture. In The Right Stuff also, he does not specifically pin down the true meaning of "inertia coupling" himself, but rather lets pilots' experiences give the reader a sense of the word. Broad societal truths are there in Wolfe's work, but they are hidden behind the multiple layers of different voices his definitions illustrate. Ruskin and Carlyle, on the other hand, spell out clearly for the reader the truth that they have found, as shown in their simple and aggressive definitions that attack common understandings. Moreover, while Carlyle and Ruskin are always apart from their society, Didion and Wolfe seem to move in and out, even in the space of a single sentence. Perhaps the complexities of modern life have seeped into Didion's and Wolfe's non-fiction and created a modern sage that both defines and reflects the complicated world he lives in. The sage now, as shown through Wolfe and Didion, is as much a part of society as apart from it.

Sara Suleri takes this evolution one step further in Meatless Days. In her utter ignorance to the meaning of the word kapura, she shatters the traditional sense of the sage by revealing her own vulnerabilities and mistakes.

"Sara," said Tillat, her voice deep with the promise of surprise, "do you know what kapura are?" I was cooking and a little cross. "Of course I do," I answered with some affront. "They're sweetbreads, and they're cooked with kidneys, and they're very good." Natives should always be natives, exactly what they are, and I felt irked to be so probed around the issue of my own nativity. But Tillat's face was kindly with superior knowledge. "Not sweetbread," she gently said. "They're testicles, that's what kapura really are." Of course I refused to believe her, went on cooking, and that was the end of that.

I certainly received an unequivocal response: kapura, as naked meat, equals a testicleÉ"But," and here I rummaged for the sweet realm of nomenclature, "couldn't kapura on a lazy occasion also accommodate something like sweetbreads, which is just a nice way of saying that pancreas is not a pleasant word to eat?" No one, however, was interested in this finesse. "Balls, darling, balls," someone drawled, and I knew I had to let go of the subject." [p. 22]

This passage is set up like many of the ones previously discussed: the writer begins with one definition of the word, explains its limitations and then redefines it. Here, however, both the definition and the redefinition are wrong. After Suleri discovers that kapura are not sweetbread, she attempts to save face by redefining the word in such a way that sweetbread can somehow be included in its meaning. She tries to "finesse" the truth, "rummaging" around clumsily for a solution, but is ultimately unsuccessful. The simplest, most efficient and most truthful definition of the word is not one the writer makes up, but the meaning commonly understood by all: "balls, darling, balls."

Suleri, like all the writers discussed, pulls back from this anecdote and reveals a deeper meaning in her failure to define kapura. Because of food's strong connection to one's heritage, Suleri's misunderstanding complicates her own identity. Moreover, it problematizes her relationship with her mother, a woman who, instead of giving her the true meaning of the world, "cunningly devised a ruse" to shelter her from it (p. 23). Interestingly, this presents a paradox. On the one hand, Suleri's writing, like Didion's, is a reflection of the complicated post-colonial world in which heritage and identity are called into question. On the other, the world is presented as elegantly straightforward and composed of "simple equations" like "testicles-equal-kapura" (p. 39). Sometimes the commonly understood meaning of a word is so perfect, all the writer can do is point it out and share with the reader a moment of awe at the seemingly innate order of the world. In a later passage, Suleri emphasizes this by enunciating the phrase Jail Road, not with quotation marks that show her distance from it, but with an exclamation point that integrates it into her prose but still expresses surprise over the efficiency of this "simple and accurate appellation" (p. 47).

The sage, then, has undergone drastic changes in identity while employing, for over a century, the same techniques. By defining and redefining words, non-fiction writers from Carlyle and Ruskin to Wolfe and Suleri have revealed important truths about their society. Though the illuminated truths might be similar — the negative effects of a reliance on artificial technology — the role of the sage has become very different. From a strictly peripheral voice in a society gone astray, the Victorian sage has evolved into a complicated individual both apart from the world and thus able to truthfully define it, and contained within the world and thus only able to reflect its uncertainties.


Carlyle, Thomas. "Signs of the Times." The Victorian Web. [text]

Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York: The Noonday Press, 2000.

Landow, George. Elegant Jeremiahs: The Sage from Carlyle to Mailer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. The Victorian Web. [text]

Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings. "The Stones of Venice." John D. Rosenberg, ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Wolfe, Tom. "The Pump House Gang."

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.

Last modified 11 March 2007