Making meanings from scrap

One of the passages Roy Peter Clark quotes in The Glamour of Grammar (previously mentioned here) has been on my mind a good deal this week. It’s from Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands:

But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

This helps explain to me why so many have lately been expressing attitudes about Muslims that seem to have been preserved unchanged in the culture since the Habsburgs and their allies fought off the Turks outside Vienna in 1683. Or why some teacher’s superstition about infinitives or passive voice sticks in the mind and declines to be dislodged. Or how I might have been less rebarbative an adult had children and teenagers in eastern Kentucky in the 1960s been more tolerant and accepting of bookworms.

When Eliot says in The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” he is describing how we all arrive at meaning. We collect the things that Mr. Rushdie catalogues and them patch together in jerry-built structures that, once we inhabit them, we maintain to ensure our integrity and survival.

It would be pleasant to think, against all evidence, that people would be open to reason and new experience. And no doubt there are times when we find ourselves able to make a brief sortie out of the keep.

In the nearly five years since I began writing this blog, the exchanges with my readers, with other editors and writers, and with linguists have loosened me up considerably. I’ve come to recognize how often I have clung to some rule of usage merely because it was in a stylebook or a passing dictum by some author whose name I don’t even remember—a usage that I had never bothered to investigate to determine its validity and usefulness. There is also a recognition of how many times, when challenged on such a point of usage, I’ve felt that my integrity and authority were under attack and reacted accordingly.

So I try to keep in mind Cromwell’s plea to the synod of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”



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