Thursday, November 13, 2014

Benighted, etc.

First, some errata from the last time round. The film director who bought flowers for my date was Francesco, not Franco, Rosi. (There was another film director, Franco Rossi, causing confusion.) Liv Ullmann ends in two Ns. Bo Widerberg’s film is “Elvira Madigan,” not Madison.

A correspondent wanted me to extend my “Famous People” to three actresses: Isabelle Huppert, Anouk Aimee and another I forget. (Please remind me if you can.) I had Isabelle over for a very pleasant dinner. But on another occasion, interviewing Huppert, I asked her why she would act in a movie by the overpraised phony Michael Cimino, not realizing that she was having an affair with him.

With Anouk Aimee, I had no real nexus, except for once meeting her and her then partner one afternoon in Times Square. They had just seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, brandishing the program, Anouk asked me what the word “fiddler” meant. “Violoniste,” I replied, whereupon she triumphantly exclaimed, “I thought so!”

If the third actress was Genevieve Bujold, I have already written about her before. Let me here recollect a would-be actress, Beth Short, a pretty waitress at St. Clair’s in Cambridge, with whom I had friendly conversations. Fellow Harvardman Peter Berger and I phoned her to meet us on an appointed day at the Harvard Square subway station. I left this in a message, which she never answered. Nevertheless, we waited, but the lovely waitress, expectably, never showed up.

During my brief stint in the Air Force, I was sent by friends newspaper clippings:  the Black Dahlia, as she was then dubbed, had been murdered in the grisliest fashion in Hollywood, where she had become a member of the lesbian actress Ann Todd’s circle. Her body was discovered so brutally tortured that no account offered a description. The crime was never solved, though diverse theories about it kept appearing.

Some words now about two wonderful British actresses. Eileen Atkins is one of the most distinguished stage and screen stars, whom I admired ever since I saw her on Broadway in “The Killing of Sister George.” I got to know her at an award ceremony where she felt inexplicably ignored. I turned there into what she later referred to as her protector. We spent some nice time together, but subsequent meetings have been all too few. I have always found her, on and offstage, as intelligent as she is talented, a relatively rare phenomenon among actors.

On to Lindsay Duncan. On page 810 of “John Simon on Theater,” about a revival of “Private Lives” with Alan Rickman costarred, I have reprinted my glowing review of her. Yet the one time I met her, she reminded me of an earlier, unfavorable notice I had forgotten. I must have been signally mistaken. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that in that production there was a moment when, on the edge of the bed, she was putting on her stockings. That was one of the sexiest things I have ever seen on any stage. It made me catch the show a second time and did not disappoint.

Now onto my real topic: benightedness. I have always found “benighted” a very useful word. An adjective meaning “in a state of moral or intellectual ignorance,” it is a euphemism for “stupid.” Coming from a critic, “stupid” may in some cases sound arrogant or, at any rate, excessive. My frequent recourse to “benighted,” often about a group phenomenon,  makes me wonder what has become of our designation as homo sapiens? The sapiens tends to be missing, and the homo has taken on a different, offensive significance.

Consider something that so ubiquitously gets up my dander: the asinine mispronunciation of “groceries” as “grosheries.” This must have originated with some prominent ignoramus—or a number of them—derived by faulty analogy from words like “glacier” or “hosiery” and their likes, where the contiguous vowel I softens the sibilant. In “groceries,” there is no I after the C, hence it is pronounced as “grosseries.”

It takes a goodly bit of ignorance—or benightedness—to perpetrate this fatuity. It has now pretty much swept the country, especially on television, and often has the miscreant pronounce it with the patronizing smugness of someone displaying his (supposed) superiority to the unwashed.

What I find particularly galling is that when I mention this lapse to people with a good education, the unexpected response is “Really? I haven’t noticed.” Which goes to show that people tend not hear what they are actually hearing, but something  they assume they are hearing.

In his extremely valuable  “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” which I warmly recommend to anyone who opens his mouth in English, Bryan A. Garner offers a list of common mispronunciations. The most salient ones I keep hearing are “aflooent” and “inflooence” and “greevious’ and “mischievious,” followed closely by “prefurrable” and “asterix.” And, of course, the widespread “couldent” and “wooldent.” Where I go beyond Garner and most dictionaries, I don’t approve of “exquizzite,” with the accent on the middle syllable.

What I find perhaps even more distressingly surprising is how a wrong-word usage becomes just about omnipresent. I refer to the answer to “How are you” that nowadays is almost universally, “I am good.” Clearly the adverb “well” is called for, and used to be regularly proffered. To say you are “good,” strikes me as inappropriate and inept even if you are moral, decent, righteous—a distastefully self-promoting pronouncement to any and all comers. Goodness, in any case, is much more often paid lip service to than achieved.

Now about my own benightedness. When my wife and I moved to the suburbs, I had the movers box and transport hundreds of neckties I had collected. Incidentally, until a Hungarian maid exclaimed, “What a great collection,” I had never thought of them as anything but part of an ample wardrobe. I was simply fond of ties, especially if of fine materials and by couturiers I liked.

In fact, ties have to a large extent become outmoded. Blame it, like most fashions, on France, where even prominent men started appearing in public with open collars on their shirts. There were—are—some professions and situations that still call for ties, but they are rare enough for me to wonder how come that so many ties are still being manufactured and presumably sold. Aren’t they generally causing the wearer to be considered a benighted fuddy-duddy?

Let me proceed to other forms of benightedness, viz. the manifold adaptations, putative updatings, of Shakespeare plays. Such transmogrification into the “modern” or “contemporary” is usually performed by second-rate writers, if not by actual hacks. If deemed necessary, any other means are preferable. If possible, supertitles, or program notes. Or, for that matter, not bothering, but assuming that concerned persons will subsequently seek out annotated texts. It is not as if Shakespeare were in Middle or even Old English.

Transgressions often predicate the loftiest aspirations. Take poems in the subways, where, surrounded by advertisements of often greater interest, they nowadays proudly pop up. I don’t know who picks them, but they are usually at best mediocre, and frequently written by practitioners with not much more than membership in a P.C. -endorsed minority to their credit. I doubt whether any subway riders are thereby turned into poetry lovers; more likely into avoiders.

I also have my quarrel with e-books. Though any indulgence may be better than abstention, I think that electronics and literature are unhappy bedmates. In a real book, which remains rather than evanesces, you can annotate and underline, readily return to passages meant to be resavored and thus correctly remembered. To be sure, a recent issue of the French magazine Lire quotes Juan Gabriel Vasquez, “Memory is truly bizarre: it allows us to remember what one has not lived.” This may mitigate many a person’s hurts.

Any given week the booby prize for benightedness goes to different offenders. Here are the current ones. Anyone at all with it should know that Shaw himself rejected the George. All responsible editions and studies refer to him, according to his wishes, simply as Bernard Shaw, which in countries such as Germany he always was.

What about the benighted women who call themselves Rachael rather than Rachel? The latter comes from the Hebrew, meaning a ewe; the latter is a benighted false analogy to the Hebrew Michael (close to God), which does take the A. Granted that the stupidity was the parents’, the daughter can legally or just in practice make the correction.

Finally, head wagglers. By a cruel irony of fate, I am often seated in the theater behind a head waggler. For no good reason, i.e., no such obstacle in front of him or her, these persons keep throwing the head (granted lighter for being empty), or even the whole body, this way and that. If you reprimand them, some desist, others defiantly continue. The problem is that in issuing the reprimand during a performance, it is hard not to disturb several nearby others, making you the culprit. It certainly is a mark of substantial stupidity not to realize that you are not at home, watching television.

So much for now. Future installments regrettably not unlikely.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Pass the whine

    No cheri, eet ees not groshery!
    That word! Eet grates on me!
    Say it right, you be the weener.
    Now, where ees my deener?

    1. Pass the whine (two)

      No cheri, eet ees not groshery!
      So cheesy! Eet grates on me!
      Say eet right, you be the weener.
      Now, where ees my deener?

    2. Pass the whine (three)

      No cheri, eet ees not groshery!
      So cheesy! Eet grates on me!
      On the cultured ear
      Theese won't be losta.
      Now, where ees my pasta?