Putting in a good word for a fading literate era


WE WENT to New York the other day to look for a community of words. The New Yorker magazine was celebrating its 75th anniversary, so we figured this was a good place to get up a search party, since the novelist Salman Rushdie would be around, and the musician Paul Simon and the critic John Lahr, plus Broadway types such as George C. Wolfe and Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Oh, and Tom Stoppard.

If half those names throw you, that's part of the problem. Words are the front men for ideas, the signals we send out that a brain is in motion. But the damned things keep getting lost, or misplaced, or used for the most insignificant reasons. Today, words translate market trends instead of emotions. And the people who use words so well that they take our breath away tend to become afterthoughts in the post-literate world.

Take, for just two examples, Comden and Green. They were part of a New Yorker discussion on life in the modern theater. All they've done is collaborate for 60 years. You heard of "Singin' in the Rain"? They wrote the screenplay. You heard of "On the Town"? They wrote it.

There is a generation, currently disappearing, that knows their names and delights in the memory of their abundant work. And another generation, currently filling the earth with their stock market portfolios and their computers, that hasn't the time or inclination for them. For these clock watchers and cross-fertilizers of money, communication consists of the well-articulated grunt, the shrug of the shoulders.

The culture is changing, and we've heard for a couple of decades now that the written word is dead. That's not true, since most of the people saying this are saying it with written words. And the precious computers are filled with words to be read.

But words are supposed to tell us stories about ourselves, about the human condition. And the world seems to move too quickly for that now. The rapid-fire set-up/punch line of the TV sitcom becomes the symbol of our depth. Words are supposed to explain the beating of the heart, and not just the beat of Wall Street. Mood and nuance and style are supposed to count. Our attention span is supposed to last longer than the political sound bite.

So The New Yorker brought together all manner of delightful folks last weekend, some of whom talked about words, and communication, and how fragile they can be.

Here was Paul Simon, talking about becoming a songwriter: "I wasn't interested in any of the music I heard as a kid. All that 'Make Believe Ballroom' stuff. I was essentially interested in nothing but the Yankees. Then I heard 'Oh, Gee,' by the Crows, and 'Earth Angel' by the Penguins. I never forgot any of those sounds.

"When I started listening to South African music for my 'Graceland' album, I thought, 'Gee, that's familiar, but I don't know why.' It's the South African harmonies that had such a big effect on our harmonies. It's the African diaspora. And, after World War II, the mingling of the cultures. They were influenced by our music, and we were influenced by theirs. We trade information. God knows what kind of a record Marco Polo could have made."

Here was John Lahr, the author and theater critic, on Broadway's huge financial success ("about $588 million in revenues last year, more than double all the New York sports teams") but its dearth of serious dramas: "Is Broadway merely a show shop? Can we make art as well as money? The skill goes out of the culture. Unless you do the work, it disappears."

And here was George C. Wolfe, the writer, director and producer, on discovering the creative process: "It was a door that gave permission for my imagination to come out. A work finds you, and you find yourself in the work. You find that it's revealing something about you. That's why people have to be encouraged to take risks, to be unique. Today, those machine musicals don't want unique. They want somebody they can fit in as the third starving peasant in 'Les Miz.' "

In other words, spectacle replaces subtlety. It's the modern way. In the marketplace, those get noticed who shout the loudest, who dance the fastest, who turn on the brightest neon. We forget how powerful mere words can be.

Salman Rushdie knows. He came to the New Yorker gathering, after living for years under the threat of death for words he wrote that offended the Ayatollah Khomenei.

And then there is Tom Stoppard. The famous playwright wasn't part of the New Yorker gathering, but a revival of one of his productions, "The Real Thing," just opened on Broadway. Here is what one of his characters says about language:

"Words ELLIPSIS are innocent, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners kicked off, they're no good any more.

"I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."

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