Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dilettante


I’ve been going at this writing business for a little over two years now, and I hope I can say that I made marginal improvement. I feel at least a little more confident, and others have assured me that my writing isn’t all that bad. Which is reassuring, but being the worrywart that I am, I like to be certain about things. To know where I stand, to know how many bridges I still have to cross, to know what I’m up against. My dream career (you’ll never guess) is to become a professional writer, but the question remains: do I have what it takes? Difficult question. Which leads me to another question: is there any way to find out?
     Dilettante means ‘a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge’. It is by origin an Italian word (which means wacky plurals; note that multiple such individuals are ‘dilettanti’ (though ‘dilettantes’ is also correct, albeit less interesting)), meaning ‘a lover of music or the arts’, derived from the verb ‘dilettare’ (‘to delight’), which in turn derives from the original Latin ‘delectare’. Originally it did not have a negative connotation, and merely referred to a ‘devoted amateur’. The pejorative sense only emerged later, in the 18th century, in contrast to ‘professional’.
      It is one of my secret anxieties: that I will never be quite good enough. This is true for Life In General, but considering my literary activities over the past two years, this fear nowadays takes on the form of writing-related stress. Funny enough, the ‘potential’ people keep talking about is exactly the cause of that stress. Because what if you can never live up to that potential? If you have all the possibilities right in front of you, but you find them slipping right through your fingers? This reeks of dilettantism, and for someone who fears mediocrity like a disease, it is the ultimate phobia. If you’ll allow a neologism, I should say that I have mesophobia. The fear of being in the middle. Of being mediocre. 
     I suppose this fear started arising because I am slightly superstitious. Once I started thinking about words and what they mean, I looked up the meaning of my own name (call me self-centered). This was an interesting exercise for my first name, but for my last name it was less flattering. My last name is ‘Gezels’ (stress on the second syllable, if you please), which in English would translate as ‘journeyman’. Journeyman is a historical term which refers to (I quote Wikipedia) ‘an individual who has completed an apprenticeship and is fully educated in a trade or craft, but not yet a master’. They were called journeymen, because ‘journey’ in the old sense of the word meant ‘a day’s work’, and the typical thing about journeymen was that they could ask for payment on a daily basis (for a day’s work). As stated, I am slightly superstitious, so in the spirit of nomen est omen I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was doomed to stay a dilettante. To be a bit better than average, but never quite good enough to be considered a professional. To almost make it, but not quite. 
      Luckily I am rational enough to see that this fear of dilettantism is actually irrational. The fear of never being quite good enough is probably something many people can sympathize with; the moment you’re working on something, you stop for a minute, look up from your work and are seized by a sudden terror that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing. At your work, at your relationships, at life in general. I think most of us recognize this, but if it happens regularly this feeling of dilettantism becomes a problem. In scientific terms this is called ‘the impostor syndrome’, which is (again I quote Wikipedia) ‘a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments’. Even though there is plenty of external evidence proving their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. 
      Thankfully, I am not often seized by such a fear, but it does happen occasionally. The fear of being a dilettante, not just at writing, but at Life, comes up at unexpected moments, and usually has terrible timing. Sometimes these moments are short and intense, but sometimes they can spread out over long periods of anxiety. I believe in not being too proud or smug about your own accomplishments, mostly because I think humility is a virtue, but also because I have a mortal fear of hubris (because I’m Greek and all that). I’m afraid that if I show pride at my accomplishments, I’ll get overconfident and make a crucial misstep. I am currently awaiting my exam results, and though I got the overall sense that they went well, I am very cautious about making predictions based on such subjective data. What if I was overconfident? Who knows that maybe, behind a facade of intelligence and cleverness, I am the stupidest person you ever met. 
     Recently, though, I have discovered an upside to amateurism. For one, it gives you room for error. Professionals are supposed to know what they’re doing, so if they make a mistake they are often given the disapproving eyebrow. Dilettantes can feel comforted at the idea that not everything they do needs to be perfect. Secondly, it’s a comforting idea that there is someone out there who knows it better than you do; someone who can tell you how it should be done. I consider myself an incorrigibly curious person, and the thought that one day no-one will be able to teach me anything anymore because I will have learnt all there is to know, is quite frightening. Of course this moment will never transpire, because there are always new things to discover, but you get the idea. Because if you have been taught all there is to know, you are the professional, and you are supposed to know how it should be done, which doesn’t always make one feel at ease. 
      Do you think that that’s why people believe in God? A greater force in the universe which knows how this is supposed to work, and to which you can turn when things get rough? Someone to confide in when you feel your own clumsiness and dilettantism overwhelm you? When impostor syndrome strikes and you feel existential dread sneak up on you like a snake in the grass? It seems appealing to me. The alternative is believing that you are the only professional in charge of your life, and that you can only rely on yourself to figure it out. Some find this liberating. Others find it terrifying. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Ambitious as I am, I know that I will at some point have to leave the comfortable but limiting zone of dilettantism in order to move on to Bigger And Better Things, but I won’t deny that Bigger And Better Things freak me out a little as well. And so we beat on, boats against the current... (etc)      

Friday, June 27, 2014

Callow


At age 22, I’m in a phase of my life where people would still dare to call me ‘young and stupid’. And even though I like to assume an air of infinite wisdom, they wouldn’t be wrong. Because at age 22, I’m still quite young. And regularly stupid. So the hope is that, after experiencing a couple of more decades of this curious thing called Life, I will grow Older and Wiser. Whatever that means. And I am, admittedly, looking forward to the day when I may appropriate such a descriptor. When I will be, oh say, 52, and will be able to say: ‘I am Helena, now Older and Wiser.’ But I am also skeptical. Because whatever wisdom there might be in old sayings, putting ‘old and wise’ opposite ‘young and stupid’ suggests that young people can’t ever be wise, and that old people can’t ever be stupid. Which is stupid.
    Callow is an adjective which is exclusively connected to youth; my dictionary literally states: ‘(Of a young person) inexperienced and immature.’ There is discussion about the word’s etymology, but for once the preferred explanation is not that it derives from Latin (though there is speculation about this). Instead, it is said to derive from the Old English form ‘calu’, meaning ‘bare or bald’, which in turn derives from the Proto-Germanic word ‘*kalwa’. One may be surprised at this etymology, considering baldness is generally associated with age, but let us not forget that young people are generally also born with fairly little hair. With human beings this is less obvious, because we naturally have less body hair than other species (this is relative), but one may  think about a young bird just emerging from the egg: it is bare and bald. It is callow.
      As stated, I am rather looking forward to not being able to be called young and stupid anymore (or, as we shall now call it: callow). Add a decade or two to my life and I will only be able to be called stupid, which is progress. But belonging, for the time being, to a relatively ‘young’ age group, my elders still sometimes pull rank on me based on my youth. This irks me. Don’t get me wrong: you will never hear me say that I am never stupid. Because I am. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in his debut novel, This Side of Paradise: ‘You know I’m old in some ways—in others—well, I’m just a little girl. I like sunshine and pretty things and cheerfulness—and I dread responsibility.’ I won’t say this quote entirely applies to me, but you get the idea: in some ways I’m quite mature; in others I’m really not. But I doubt that anyone can be completely mature in every possible way. 
     And by the way, what does that even mean, ‘mature’? I use this word regularly, but I admit that I find it difficult to figure out what it means. My dictionary informs me that it is, actually, used ‘especially of a young person’, to say that (s)he has ‘reached a stage of mental or emotional development characteristic of an adult.’ What it means to have the mental or emotional development of an adult I will probably never know. 
      Ever since I started taking this writing thing seriously, I also started taking an interest in older, more experienced, and (most importantly) published writers. Ghent University being such an English Author Magnet (I might be exaggerating), they now and then have writers coming over for workshops or readings. I almost always attend these, and every time it strikes me how condescending these writers are towards their younger selves. It seems that established writers who have been in the business for a while are almost unanimous in the dislike of their early work. ‘Oh, what I wrote in the beginning was absolute crap,’ they will say. ‘I know so much more now.’ (This is not a literal quotation.) 
      This always bugs me, because every time I hear something like this I feel the frustration of not being Older and Wiser boiling inside me, and the question whether someone with a measly 22 years of life (and writing) experience can have anything interesting to say starts pestering me. Because I want to write. As melodramatic as it may sound, I feel an almost visceral need to write, and the thought that I will have to wait for thirty years before I will produce anything really worthwhile is nothing short of enraging. 
    What these writers have in common is that they don’t seem to realize how bad it sounds when you talk like this. Personally, I really hate the thought that I will be 52 one day and say: ‘When I was 22 I knew nothing.’ Not only is it a fallacy, it also shows a cruel disloyalty to your younger self, and it unintentionally insults those who are going through the same phase you went through when you were 22. The thought that anything I write now will never measure up to anything I might come up with later is frankly depressing, even though it is only logical (and, indeed, desirable). But saying that you’ve improved over the years is not the same as discrediting all the work you have behind you. That work was important too, if not more important. If I hadn’t started writing when I did, where would I be thirty years later? 
     It is useless to speculate, of course. Maybe I would be better off if I’d wait for thirty years to start writing (but then, I might die tomorrow—hypothetically). My literary hero only started writing in midlife, and he turned out pretty fantastic. But it won’t do to compare, or to take the utilitarian point-of-view. I want to write simply for the action of writing; I like the results to be good, of course (who doesn’t?), but the mere action of creating things is what keeps me going, even when I feel like I can only produce crap. The Older and Wiser Helena might be a better writer than I am now, but I sincerely hope that the Older and Wiser Helena will at least try to look at the world from the 22-year-old point-of-view. I find empathy one of the most important qualities a writer can have, and am disgusted by the thought that one day I will be 52 and not have a clue anymore what it was like to be 22. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll quote Harry Potter (which does little to disprove my callow status, but whatever), a scene in book 5, in which Dumbledore addresses the following words to Harry: ‘Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.’ I have to say I agree. It is very frustrating not to be taken seriously by your elders because they have seen more of life. I am young, and probably stupid. But does that mean that I am callow? I beg to differ. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Moniker


What’s in an name? Juliet, as we know, didn’t believe that there was all that much in it. However, she only boarded this train of thought because that was awfully convenient for her. But, as we also know, this train of thought crashed horribly. There were no survivors. I, for one, believe that there is quite a lot in a person’s name (for more than Shakespeare-inspired reasons). This is probably due to the fact that I am a self-professed WordNerd and I think that terminology is important. As a linguistic species, it is important to have a place in the linguistic world as well as in the real world. If your person cannot be referred to with a word, then methinks you’ll find it difficult to function. But apart from that dry practical fact, names are fascinating because of their own quality. Therefore, I will try to prove to you in this post that a rose by any other name would, indeed, be quite different. 
      ‘Moniker’ has probably one of the most straightforward meanings a word featured in my blog has ever had, as it simply means ‘a name’. More bad news for this paragraph is that it appears to be of ‘unknown origin’. It started coming up somewhere around the mid-19th century, and is said to be a ‘hobo term’. One hypothesis is that, via several linguistic twists and turns, it derives from the word ‘monk’, as monks an nuns habitually take on new names with their monastic vows. A derived term no longer in use, and a possible origin for ‘moniker’, was the pejorative term ‘monkery’, used to refer to ‘the practices of monks’. As one of these practices is name-changing, it isn’t too far-fetched to believe that some mumbling nun garbled up the word ‘monkery’ until it sounded a bit like ‘moniker’. But this, of course, is purely conjecture.      
    While I agree with Juliet that monikers do not refer to ‘any part belonging to a man’ (let us not discuss certain heterosexual habits of naming certain significant body parts), they do refer to the, be it more abstract, but not less important, identity of a person. Interestingly, though, it’s not the person who is defined by the name, but the name which is defined by the person carrying it. ‘Romeo’, for example, is a moniker which will go down into history as the male half of our star-crossed couple, while the mere verbal form of the name means fairly little. As such, it is quite ironic that Juliet should reject her lover’s moniker; it is ultimately the thing which, together with her own name, will be forever remembered as the title of the Ultimate Love Story. 
     And, to take this argument away from Shakespearean influences, think about some of the monikers you know. When someone says a name which happens to belong one of your acquaintances, don’t you immediately think about that person, and doesn’t that moniker take on a very specific connotation? What about the name of your mother? Your best friend? Your worst enemy? Aren’t you more likely to feel more friendly toward a complete stranger carrying one of the first two names, than someone carrying the last one? As irrational as it is, I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes catches herself at this most horrible of prejudices.  
     However, my theory isn’t completely waterproof. Because monikers do, in fact, carry a meaning separate from the person they refer to. Which is why I am very careful, when writing, about picking character names. The sound quality of the name is important, but so is the meaning. If someone, therefore, would ever take the effort to analyze my literary efforts, please take a look at the choice of names. They’re very deliberate. 
     And so was my father when he picked my moniker. My name is Helena. (Hello everyone, so nice to meet you.) As various web searches have confirmed, my moniker has a series of synonymous meanings such as ‘light’, ‘torch’, ‘shining light’ or ‘bright one’. Well. I always knew I was an inspiration for humanity. I am a little less happy with the mythological connotations of my moniker. (Mind you, this proves my previous point about people assigning meaning to names instead of the other way around.) Because when I introduce myself as ‘Helena’ this usually prompts questions like ‘oh, like Helen of Troy, right?’ Yes, like Helen of Troy. Though ‘The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships’ is probably not a bad nickname to have, I’m not very impressed with my mythological namesake. Running off with a Trojan Prince, causing a war, then running back to her Spartan husband. Bah. I’m a firm pacifist, and though I can be very passionate about romantic things, I daresay I wouldn’t let a host of horny men start a war on my account. That is just arrogant.
     Not to be outdone by ‘The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships’, I assigned myself some alternative monikers as well. One of them is something of a nickname, though it sounds more like a title. It is something a friend of mine came up with, and I’m rather happy with it. Ladies and gents, I present to you, Helena, Messiah of Words! I find this apt, don’t you? A second even more serious (but really now) moniker pertains to my literary activities. It is, as the perceptive reader may have guessed, a pseudonym. Being tragically born in the wrong country, my name does not sound very English at all, so once I started taking my English writing activities seriously, I started thinking about a more English-sounding author moniker. I came up with a classical formula: two initials and a last name. Forget about D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and J.K. Rowling! Instead, look out for H.J. Gerald! There. Now you know what to look for in book stores. Funny thing about nicknames and pseudonyms: as opposed to your official moniker, it’s one you can choose and, as such, which can be sculpted to fit your personality. Which is, unfortunately, not something your parents can plan just by looking at your squashy, slimy, rosy baby face.
     And this is how you get people with monikers which, they feel, don’t really suit them. Or monikers which are just plain unfortunate. There are plenty of unfortunate baby names out there, and not all of them are distributed by celebrities. Some tips from my father about name-giving: 1) pick a name which is internationally pronounceable. I know several lovely girls with several lovely flemish monikers. However, if you try to pronounce these monikers with a french or english accent, they sound perfectly horrible. 2) Avoid abbreviations, combined names and diminutives. Admittedly, they’re not all horrible, but I would have been considerably less happy with ‘Helen’ or ‘Lena’ (horrid). The same goes for my sister: her moniker is Elisabeth, which has an astounding number of possible abbreviations (Eliza, Lisa, Beth, Betty, Bette, Ellis...). Some of these are okay, but I find ‘Elisabeth’ much more majestic, and it ties her to her own namesake (which, lucky her, is neither mythological nor annoying). 3) Pay attention to sound as well as meaning. My father picked ‘Helena’ and ‘Elisabeth’ because they sound well (my mother wanted to call me Laura, but luckily my father intervened) and because they have, respectively, a Greek and a Biblical origin, and both Greek and Christian culture happen to be two corner stones of Western civilization. My father, as you may have inferred, is very grand. He also thinks things through. I am grateful to him for that.
     But now, my dearest reader, after this self-indulgent bout of nominal navel-gazing, I turn to you. What is your moniker, and what does it mean? Are you happy with it, or had you rather preferred another? Do you have an illustrious namesake, and if so, are you happy or unhappy with him/her? Do you have a nickname and/or title and/or pseudonym, and if so, how did you come by it? Does your moniker match my father’s criteria, and, if so, do you consider this an asset and, if no, do you consider this a problem? Do share. This writer wants to know what’s in your name. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Chimeric


I often find myself guilty of a curious phenomenon called daydreaming. You may recognize it: you’re working on a paper which really needs to be finished in, oh say, fifteen minutes, because that’s when the deadline closes, and your eyes become unfocused. You stare woozily at your screen for a couple of seconds, and the sentence you were just trying to form leads you to another thought, which leads you to another thought, which leads you to an entirely different place than where your mind needs to be. And while I am happy to say that daydreaming has rarely caused horrid grades, it can be terrible annoying. In more ways than you would think.
     ‘Chimeric’ is the adjective derived from the noun ‘chimera’, which probably rings a bell for my fantasy-loving friends. The chimera was constructed by the ancient Greeks, who needed a new monster to add to their arsenal, in the spirit of their Mythical Monster Mania. They defined the chimera as a ‘fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail’. A fine piece of art. And they didn’t even know IKEA... Anyway, as one might expect, the etymology of ‘chimera’ is also Greek, deriving from the word ‘khimaira’, literally meaning ‘year-old she-goat’. However, through the ages, and through various transformations (Ovid would be proud), the word ‘chimera’ arrived in English via Latin and then French, and in its French version it had already taken on a figurative meaning when the word was taken over by the English. The first English appearance of the word in a figurative meaning was recorded in the 1580s. As such, the word ‘chimera’ also came to denote ‘a thing which is hoped for but is illusory or impossible to achieve’. Derivatives are ‘chimeric’ and ‘chimerical’ (adjectives) and ‘chimerically’ (adverb). You’re welcome.  
     Let me get one thing straight: in the right context, and for the right purposes, I think daydreaming is great. Being a writer, I think it is rather necessary, because sometimes you simply need to stick your head in the clouds to come up with interesting (albeit chimeric) ideas. And when it comes to fiction writing, I full-heartedly encourage it. However, using your chimeric tendencies for creative expression is one which, alas, most people aren’t familiar with. Instead, they apply their chimeric tendencies to their own lives. 
     And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where it gets treacherous. Once again, I think fantasizing is fine. Indeed, I think it’s what may keep you sane, because if you don’t have dreams, you’re pretty much stuck in whatever your life happens to be like. If your life is perfect, of course, then there is no reason for you to be unhappy about that. However, I find that most people see room for improvement when it comes to their lives, and then fantasizing can be interesting, because it shows you where your heart lies. The place your mind wanders off to when you’re not paying attention is undoubtedly the place it wants to be. And if your wishes are not too chimeric, you may put this knowledge to good use by taking steps to turn your (day)dream into reality. 
     But alas, very often reality and fantasies don’t mix very well. This was a tough lesson for me to learn. I used to fantasize a lot (still do, if I’m being honest). I fantasize about that fated moment when I will get a phone call from my literary agent (who is as-of-yet fictional) to tell me that my book is getting published. I fondly fill in the details of that scene in my mind: what locality I will find myself in; how many decibels my shriek of joy -which I will be unable to contain - will count; who will be around when I receive the news, and how I won’t be able to stop myself from pulling them into a rib-crushing hug (which, depending on the person, may or may not be extremely awkward). I fantasize about finally being recognized by my superiors for how brilliant I am, and being treated accordingly. I also fantasize, somewhat mundanely, about going out on the most romantic of dates with the girl of my dreams. Again, I do this in great detail, which is the joy of being a writer, I suppose. The problem with that, however, is that my mind seems to be so good at creating an alternative reality, that it can sometimes fool itself into believing that these chimeric phantoms, if not reality yet, are neither impossible nor implausible. 
     Fantasies, in other words, while enjoyable, aren’t altogether harmless. My tragic mistake (or hamartia, as my academic friends would call it) was that I thought I would be able to enjoy these fantasies without suffering from them. How wrong I was. While some fantasies remain pretty innocuous, others have, in the past, severely damaged my sense of reality. Fantasies about publication, for one, have caused me frustration many a time, because every time I imagined the long-anticipated moment when I would receive the long-anticipated phone call, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t there yet, and that I still had many years to go before I would ever reach that point. I have moved passed that frustration, luckily. But the publication fantasies aren’t, by far, the worst.
     The worst kind of chimeras, and the ones I’ve learned to watch out for, are the ones which involve other people. I won’t bother your with my history of unrequited straight girl crushes, but needless to say that in what romantic fantasies I entertained, these girls did play a role. Which was stupid, to say the least. And not even because it might be creepy to the other person. Rather, because it can completely warp your sense of reality, and your chimeric visions might turn into some kind of wish fulfillment. And that is the point where the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur, and you might catch yourself doing things which, when looked at in an objective light, are rather stupid. And embarrassing. And stupid. 
    These are the things (especially when romantic feelings are involved) about which you afterward feel the hottest of blushes slap you in the face. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I said/did that!’ is, I’m sure, a sentence which may sound familiar to some of you. Embarrassment ensues. If the unpleasantness stopped at embarrassment, though, it wouldn’t even be all that bad. But when your chimeras get a reality check, they usually bring with them a whole lot of frustration and bitterness as well, and anger, and sadness. Because the thing you so desperately wanted, dreamed, had hoped for, is (as you deep down did know) just a figment of your imagination. When you involve other people in your dream vision of reality, you may end up getting very hurt. The most problematic about fantasies involving other people is that your chimeric representation of them often doesn’t correspond with reality. And while I frequently have told myself in the past that I was rational enough to distinguish my dream version of person X from the real person X, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Our images of other people are always partly shaped by our imagination. This is someone everyone does to a certain extent (and happens mostly unconsciously), and it needn’t be harmful, as long as you don’t base any hopes or expectations on this dream version of person X. Because you can’t force other people into the role you had imagined for them, after all. Now that would be creepy.
      In short, I think you should be careful with fantasizing. It’s very pleasant, may be entertaining, and often leaves you with the dopiest of smiles. But when dreams blur into reality you have to watch out. It may be a very positive thing, mind you; I’m all for following your dreams, if they can be reasonably translated into ambitions. But sometimes seemingly innocuous dreams assume such proportions that they don’t fit anymore in the place they ought to stay, and they become as monstrous, and as dangerous, as an actual chimera.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bardolatry


What ho! You did not think that I would let this year pass without writing a post on Shakespeare, did you? Last Wednesday the whole of England celebrated his 450th birthday, and as a certified Shakespeare fan, I celebrated with them (albeit on a smaller scale). The Bard has inspired me time and again, and will undoubtedly continue to do so for many years more, if only for the fact that he made a sport out of creating neologisms. As the ‘Messiah of Words’ (a title a friend of mine came up with recently; that sounds a bit like ‘the Bard’, doesn’t it?) I intend to try my hand at this discipline as much as possible, eagerly following my illustrious predecessor. But apart from that, there are many more things I love about William, and in this blog post I would like to expound on a few of these things. I also intend to make a game out of it. Excited yet?
    Bardolatry is mainly used in a humorous way, and is defined as ‘excessive admiration of Shakespeare’. The etymology needs very little explanation, methinks, but I will, for once, state the obvious, because I need to fill this paragraph. It consists of two elements, the first referring to Shakespeare’s nickname and unofficial title, the ‘Bard of Avon’, later abbreviated to, simply, ‘the Bard’. The second element, ‘-latry’, means ‘worship of’, and is derived from the Greek word ‘-latreia’, meaning ‘worship’, ‘service paid to the gods’ or ‘hired labor’. Sometime in the 19th century someone (I long to know who it is) wanted to be funny and decided to make a compound of these two elements, and came up with ‘bardolatry’. Consider me a fan.
    ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ Well, you know this one, don’t you? I’d have to personally pummel you if you didn’t. This quote, of course, is from Hamlet, personally my favorite Shakespeare play, and therefore ideal to start this guess-the-quote game. Of course everyone knows the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy, which I partially know by heart, but ‘something rotten’ is one you should never forget either. It is the one sentence which perfectly reflects the atmosphere at the beginning of the play: gloomy, tense, and vaguely suspicious. We know something is up, but we’re not sure what. We find out what is wrong fairly quickly, but this discovery does not lead to the resolution of the problem. The one thing which sets Hamlet apart from other plays is the main character’s inability to act, something I recognize very well. He is constantly doubting, investigating, and, somewhat student-like, an unmitigated procrastinator. And though the task thrust upon him by his father’s ghost is completed in the end, this does not resolve the rottenness of the state of Denmark. Indeed, it seems much more rotten than it was before.
    ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.’ This quote is much longer, but it would take up too much space for me to quote all of it. Does it ring a bell? Admittedly, it is not that well-known. Another quote? ‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’ No? A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have a special affinity for this play, as my dad, when I was young, used to call me ‘Puck’. The fact that Puck was a guy, and that there is a Helena in exactly the same play, makes this slightly ironic, but I still like the name (as I am still prone to mischief). The first quote is one I like very well and, now I think of it, wouldn’t be a bad name for a book or a poem. A bit like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but a little less Taratino and a little bit more Shakespeare. I’m digging it.
    ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Another good example of the fact that Shakespeare provided many later writers with book titles. The benefits are numerous: it’s a famous quote, so it draws the reader’s attention; it harks back to a kind of language which everyone has had to learn at some point, so it brings up some nostalgia; and lastly, it simply looks exquisitely fancy if you use a Shakespeare quote in your own writing. Faulkner, at least, did not hesitate to use this quote as a title for one of his most famous novels. Know where it’s from yet? Yes, you clever person, it’s from Macbeth. Nearer to the end of the play, Macbeth realizes everything he did wrong, and then arrives at the conclusion that life is utterly meaningless. Something which Hamlet also might have said, come to think of it. All the more reason to be careful with these things, though. Mistake Macbeth for Hamlet and you’ll be devoured alive by bardolators. 
    ‘Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life...’ I’ll have you know that I attempted to write all this down without checking the internet. I did a pretty decent job, I believe, though a couple of words were off. Must try harder. Now, if you don’t know this one, I will really set loose the aforementioned troop of angry bardolators. Just as ‘Denmark’ was a dead giveaway for the first quote, ‘Verona’ shouldn’t leave you in any doubt. It’s from Romeo and Juliet, of course, the play which every nimrod ought to know. While Hamlet may still be abstract for some people, Romeo and Juliet is, methinks, known to everyone as the tragic tale of the two lovers from feuding families. Never mind that Juliet was probably 14, and Romeo 16 at the time, but whatever. It’s totally romantic. The star-cross’d element in the prologue caused a funny incident recently, when I was folding paper stars with a couple of friends (don’t ask). At some point I remembered the star-cross’d lovers, and drew a cross on a placemat (we were in a restaurant at the time), putting a star at either end. At either end I also positioned the salt and pepper pot, afterward appropriately named ‘Julietsalt’ and ‘Pepperromeo’. Appropriate, because Juliet seems prone to hysteric crying binges (and tears are salt―yes, I am lame), and because Romeo’s temper can get a little heated now and then. Okay, that last one was a bit of a stretch, but you get the point. Such fun!
    I could keep on quoting for quite some time: I have kept to plays in this post, completely ignoring the sonnets (oh, and by the way, I refuse to compare you to a summer’s day; Belgian weather is a bitch). You could also easily devote an entire post to Shakespearean swearing; I am always wildly disappointed when someone settles for ‘fuck you’ as an insult. I always internally respond ‘William would be so disappointed’, but as the person is usually already angry with me, I keep it to myself. But just so you know. Plenty of material to work with, in other words, but I notice that I’ve fallen into a habit of writing obscenely long blog posts, and I’d rather not test my reader’s patience (and attention span) over and over again. Then again, I should say that anyone who was interested enough to read this blog post at all, shouldn’t complain about length, because Shakespeare, after all, knew how to draw things out as well. But how well he did it. I have to say that, generally speaking, I am not particularly a fan of older literature, but it would be insulting to put Shakespeare in any kind of category: he’s a category of his own. I know I’ll enjoy him for a long time yet. William, my homie, you’re the best. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Nugatory


Most of the people I know are quite modest. In both the circles of my family and my friends, I know absolutely none who have illusions of grandeur (though I do have some suspicions), and while some of them have something called ambition, they are emotionally mature enough not to let it warp their ego. Arrogance is, thank goodness, not a trait I frequently come in contact with. In fact, I find that many of my loved ones tend to underestimate their value towards others. I don’t blame them for that, because I used to do this to an extreme degree myself, and I’m sure that in many aspects of my life I continue to do so today. However, I have recently encountered some strong arguments why you shouldn’t underestimate your value to others. They aren’t the reasons you’d expect.
     Nugatory means ‘of no value or importance’ in one definition and ‘useless or futile’ in a second definition. It derives from the Latin word ‘nugatorius’, meaning ‘worthless’, ‘trifling’ or ‘futile’. This word, in turn, derives from the noun ‘nugator’, a word referring to a ‘jester’ (you know, the funny guy who juggles and does card tricks). ‘Nugator’ is then derived from the past participle (‘nugatus’) of the verb ‘nugari’, meaning ‘to trifle’, ‘jest’ or ‘play the fool’. The concatenation of derivation stops in a dead end with ‘nugae’, a ‘joke’, ‘jest’ or ‘trifle’, which itself is of unknown origin.
     Sadly but truly, it is a fact—maybe not universally acknowledged, but at least silently agreed upon—that many people have a lower sense of self-worth than truly gives them credit. I myself have had this for a very long time, and during the darkest days of my depression (a little less than a year ago now) I considered my existence so nugatory that the only thought pervading my mind during those days was this: that nobody would even notice if I were gone. As I belong now to the land of the more-or-less-mentally-stable, I can see that that thought was quite fallacious. As much as I aspire towards humility as a virtue, thinking that nobody would even notice that I were gone is a rather idiotic idea, simply because it’s not true. Apart from the fact that thinking that was grossly selling myself short, considering myself dispensable was not only hurting my self-esteem. It was also hurting others.
      I don’t know if this idea is surprising to you—I know it was for me—, but acknowledging your value to others is affecting them as much as it is affecting you. This is why, for example, suicides are sometimes called ‘selfish’. I find this an extremely narrow point-of-view, considering that (attempted) suicides generally have so little self-worth left that the idea that what they are doing is selfish is altogether absurd. But I do understand why people who say this believe that it is. Because, in not acknowledging the value of your own life, you are, albeit quite unintentionally, also denying the impact you are having on theirs. Though—let me make this absolutely clear—depression is not in any way a device concocted to hurt others, underestimating your own significance to them may almost seem like you’re mocking their commitment to you. In writing off your life as nugatory, you’re also quietly killing a part of their life—the part they share with you.
     Recently the internet—the Source of Everything—presented me with a term which aptly captures the phenomenon. We all, by now, have heard of a ‘carbon footprint’, which calculates the impact your consumption of all kinds of goods (food, water, gasoline etc.) has on the planet. The greater your carbon footprint, the greater your impact on the planet. The idea is to keep your carbon footprint as low as possible, keeping the idea in mind that if everyone would do that, the earth wouldn’t go to waste as quickly as it is now. Alas, we find that this isn’t working all that well. But the theory is useful, as recently I have been introduced to something called a ‘Life Psychological Footprint’. Explained very briefly, this is the impact the way you are living your life is having on the lives of others. 
      If we all thought about it, I think we would be truly astounded by how consequential even our tiniest actions can be for the lives of others. I still remember one time when a random stranger stopped me in the street to compliment me on the hat I was wearing. To this person, the compliment was probably nothing more than a throwaway comment, but the fact that I still remember it (almost two years later) shows that it definitely made an impact—however silly it may seem. To apply the theory to myself, I also remember the time when one of my friends told me that I inspired her. I was baffled by this notion. Me, inspire people? Silly little me? How the hell did that happen? 
    As these examples (which are merely two random selections from a giant catalogue of incidents) illustrate, we are constantly in interaction with others, in a social network which is so elaborate and complex that it is virtually impossible to estimate how your myriad little actions affect others. If I only think about the books I read and the authors I admire—these are all people who don’t even know I exist, and yet they have made an impact on my life which has definitely not been nugatory. Whenever I publish a blogpost, I admit that I’m both happy and anxious when I see the number of pageviews go up (especially from all those anonymous readers in the States—say hi, America!), because I’m always afraid that my words may have undesired effects. Being a writer, I know exactly how powerful (and at the same time how meaningless) words can be, so I always pray that my words don’t bring up any unintended unpleasantness.  
     Bottom line: never underestimate your importance to others. You shouldn’t overestimate it either, but don’t sell yourself short. And this goes both for the positive as for the negative. A simple smile given to a stranger might make their day (who knows they might be having a crappy one). A compliment given to a friend might lift their spirits considerably. But a snide remark might break those spirits just as easily. And a disapproving frown might abruptly transform a good day into a bad one. 
     The surprising thing in all this for me was the knowledge that exaggerated modesty can be actually detrimental to those around you. Modesty, which I always considered a positive attribute, can have pernicious consequences if it means that you consider your actions nugatory. Of course, you shouldn’t (and can’t) take this too far either: if you’re constantly thinking about how your actions impact other people, you start living more in their heads than in your own, which would make a normal life impossible. But we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves either. How many times have you heard (and maybe uttered) the phrase ‘I didn’t realize it meant so much to you’? Why yes, it does, and I think that if we would all get a better grasp on our own Life Psychological Footprint, we would realize exactly how much it (and you) mean(s) to them. And if we could acknowledge that, we would be more generous with our support (yes, it makes a big difference), and, more importantly, we would stop hurting each other so damn much (which we do without even realizing it).   

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Serendipity


Do you recognize those moments when life scares you just a little bit? When things happen so exactly right, so fortuitously, so well-timed, that it seems like it could only have happened because it had to be that way? Because it would not have happened if even one of the hundreds of variables that create such a situation had been off? Those are the moments when, to quote Michael Cunningham, life seems, against all odds and expectations, ‘to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined’. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Those are the singular and extraordinary moments when somehow, all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall together and life seems to finally make sense. At last.
      Serendipity is defined as ‘the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way’. And if the definition wasn’t awesome enough, the word also happens to belong to my favorite category of etymological origins, which is the literary one. The word was first coined by Gothic writer Horace Walpole in 1754, when he wrote a story called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, which relates the adventures of—you’ll never guess—three princes which were ‘always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of’. The name ‘Serendip’ in itself has nothing whatsoever to do with fortuity, and is actually an old name for the island Sri Lanka. As Gothic writers were prone to exoticism, I’m sure the location must have seemed appealing to Walpole, though what the name eventually came to signify was essentially—hardy har har—a happy coincidence. To complete this list of linguistic trivia, I’ll add for the record that in June 2004 ‘serendipity’ was voted by the English Translation Company to be one of the ten English words that are hardest to translate. Go serendipity!
    I admit that ever since my teenage years I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the concept ‘serendipity’. My grandmother always says that all you need to achieve something,  (anything, even something extraordinary) all you need is extreme perseverance, and—this is the crux—‘one minute of luck’. But see, that one minute of luck always kind of bugged me, because it seemed to pass me by every single time. To me, it seemed like the People Upstairs (as I call them) had always just ran out of lucky minutes on the celestial clock when it was my turn to be served. Of course, I’m a very impatient person. I would’ve liked to be given my lucky minutes when that was convenient for me (like Felix Felicis, for the people who know their Potter), which, of course, is not how it works.
     But then, how does it work? Does it even work? Because serendipitous moments are rare at best (that is why they are serendipitous in the first place; if they hadn’t been rare they wouldn’t be so remarkable), which would mean that the system is fundamentally dysfunctional. But that, of course, would be assuming that there is a system in the first place. What is problematic about serendipity is that while its definition includes the idea of ‘chance’, the happy outcome of that series of events makes us wonder nonetheless: how could it have turned out so well if it hadn’t been planned in some way? If it hadn’t been, to use the cliché, ‘written in the stars’?
    This is a debate which has been going on since time immemorial: is the world governed by Fate? Or is life just a concatenation of events that are linked in some way (according to the principle of cause and effect), but completely random in other ways (what we call ‘coincidence’)? What strikes me here is the definition of ‘coincidence’ itself: ‘a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection’. Consider the key words: it is a concurrence of events which is remarkable, and it has no apparent causal connection. 
     What is tempting to humans, who try to give meaning to pretty much everything, is the idea that such a concurrence of events must be orchestrated in some way, exactly because it is so remarkable. What makes this even more tempting, is that last part of the definition: ‘coincidence’ stipulates that there is no apparent causal connection. Ah... But does that mean that there isn’t? It’s not because you can’t see the connection that that means it isn’t there, right? And so we imagine that somewhere above our heads there is a Great Conductor in the Sky who is moving us around like puppets in the Great Diorama of the World, measuring, calculating and planning how, when and where to put certain people in certain places at certain times, which will define their lives and ultimately create a coherent narrative which you may call their Life Story. And, on a more global level, the History of the World. Now isn’t that marvelous?
     Well, not really. Let me say up front that I’m not a religious person, having been raised a critical and skeptical thinker, which is pretty incompatible with some very basic religious principles. Which is not to say that I don’t find it tempting. There is, after all, something immensely comforting in the thought that while you muddle through the mires and morasses of life, not really knowing what the hell you’re doing, someone Up There has got it all figured out. That somehow, at some point, serendipity will strike and everything in your life will fall into place. This is a very reassuring thought. And indeed, it has been proven that religious people have higher happiness levels than nonreligious ones. Religious people have more trust and confidence that things will work out, and walk fearlessly into the Swamp of Life without a backward glance, while nonreligious people teeter-totter nervously at every step, fearful that they might lose their footing. 
    Being human, but even more than that, being the person that I am, I am constantly looking for connections. The human mind works by means of association, and mine seems to have taken this to the extreme (I refer to my persistent tendency towards metaphor, the very essence of which leans on the associative modus operandi of the human brain). With a mind like that it is very tempting to, when serendipity happens, start dissecting and analyzing the situation to make sense of what it means in the bigger scheme of things. 
    Yet my rational mind objects to this. There is no empirical evidence that the world works according to any preconceived plan, after all. Witness how confusing, random and frustrating life can be sometimes. If life would be a book, it would be unpublishable, because there’s no way to make sense of it. There is no plot. And those instances of serendipity, of seeming comprehension, of happy coincidence? They are exactly that: a coincidence. Nothing preconceived about it. 
    This, of course, is not a very cheering idea, but it is a lot more logical than the first one. It is a lot safer, as well. Because once the idea of a bigger scheme has taken root, my mind starts analyzing and wondering: ‘what could it mean, this event?’ This is dangerous. Because even if there were a bigger scheme, not having the full picture, the possibility of misinterpretation is enormous. And I tend to lead my life according to how I would like it to be(come), and I try to discover little hints from the universe which is—I hope—nudging me in the right direction. But following hints from an entity which is probably nonexistent is a dangerous and—let’s face it—rather stupid thing to do. So I’m trying to be more down-to-earth, and not attempt to figure out the meaning of every triviality that crosses my path. Which, believe me, is actually pretty difficult for me. But I’m getting better.
    Someone who has been a great teacher to me in this respect is Milan Kundera. While I couldn’t make much of the story in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I found a lot of wisdom in it which changed the way I look at the world (which, to me, is a sign of Great Literature). The thought of Fate, of preconceived plans, of a bigger scheme, is attractive, not just because it is comforting, but because it means that there are greater things in store for us. We long for serendipity, because we want our lives to be more than we expect of it. ‘Chance and chance alone has a message for us,’ Kundera writes. ‘Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us.’ And he is right. Whether you call it Fate or Chance or Coincidence or Serendipity, happy coincidences are something I think everyone has a yearning for. I know I do. What about you?