Friday, July 06, 2007

Letter vs. Spirit

What strikes me as funny after my second week of class is the way in which people have an inability to understand implication. Too often we are hung up on specific definitions and cannot see irony or the evolution of ideas and words.

A micro example:

I’m sitting in class. It is a class on the Harlem Renaissance. While waiting for the professor to arrive, some of the students, myself included, are discussing the material we have read in preparation for the evening’s discussion. One woman, a dash over middle age and very educated, having studied at the U of C and other impressive environs, raises the question that has bothered her all week: if “renaissance” literally means rebirth, why was it used in regard to the African American surge of creativity in the 1920s? Should it not be “birth” and not “rebirth”?

Surely there are many answers to this question. I’ll begin with the one my instructor offered later in the evening. The rebirth refers to the second wave of creative and intellectual production from African Americans that started before the 20th Century. Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, you know the names. They preceded the so-called Harlem Renaissance and essentially, by this understanding, paved the way for the second wave, or rebirth, of African American artists and thinkers.

But fuck that answer.

The real problem I have with these questions is that they evidence a literal mind. “Renaissance” has a literal meaning, rebirth if you will, but the word itself has taken on a different meaning in our culture, one that conjures up images of Italian paintings full of angels, scientific explorations and a great leap out of the darkness of ignorance. The Renaissance with a capital R signifies more than a mere rebirth. It is a symbol for an epoch of truly staggering artistic production, thought and knowledge. Thus, the term “Harlem Renaissance” is meant to be a nod to the old Italian time of Michelangelo and Leonardo and that whole gang, aligning the work of the post WWI African Americans in New York and the surround areas with the intellectual tradition began hundreds of years and miles away.

This woman also made the mistake of comparing what she saw as the misuse of renaissance with the German Reunification. To her it should have been “unification” as “reunification” implies a second uniting. Still, to reunite is to, well, re-unite two entities previously united and then cleaved, like Germany. So “reunification” works fine in both her literal definition and in the symbolic meaning.


It disturbs me that there is this lack of ability to infer coming from educated people. Seriously, what is the problem? Thinking about writing a thesis project, and someday a doctorate, makes one search for the minutiae and over scrutinize the details to the point where they sap real meaning. There is no shortage of words that have evolved in our contemporary usage. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a good example. Critics (rightfully) lambasted it for not really having much in the way of passion. Mel, and his God fearing supporters, shot back by reminding us that “passion” in its proper usage, implied pain and suffering, or something along those lines. Regardless, “passion” is not understood in that way here in the 21st century. One can argue about original definitions and feel oh so smart for knowing a small bit of etymological data, but they ignore the way etymology works. Worse, in this case they defend an act of obfuscation.

Mel knew that the word passion has a different connotation but he didn’t care. He made his snuff film and kept a misleading title. He may very well be like those who cling to antiquated and literal to a fault definitions. Hey, I do it too. I can’t stand the way people misuse the word “ignorant.” All my young life I thought the word meant intentionally rude. And when people mix up imply and infer it makes me see red. And what about pronunciation? How do you pronounce “forte”? If you do anything with the E at the end you’re mispronouncing the word. Still, anyone who pronounces it “fort”, while correct, is an overbearing prick.

The magic of words is that they evolve. The simple rule is this: if enough people agree on a rule, it is the rule. Words don’t hold elected office; they stay or go based on usage and majority understanding. Sometimes this is not such a bad thing. Sometimes it is lamentable. I am not sure which side to champion but after class I think I’m leaning toward the side that understands the connotations of words and is not so hung up on the letter of the law.

Academics… what the fuck?