Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Jane Austen's Sentence

 Jane Austen's novels present both joys and challenges. Her beautifully crafted sentences bring pleasure to readers. She writes so masterfully that it is tempting to focus on her sentences alone, but that would be like gazing only at the brush strokes of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It would be better to commend the whole picture by pointing out that Austen’s novels are works of art that combine lovely sentences, compelling plots and captivating characters. 

We are challenged by her eighteenth century British writing style, a virtual foreign language for many of us. Austen’s narratives invite us to linger over the wording for greater understanding and enjoyment.

At the risk of violating my advice in the first paragraph, I’ll linger over this beautiful sentence from Austen's novel, Emma: Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of (Volume II, Chapter IV [22], Paragraph 1).

That assertion, prompted by Rev. Philip Elton’s engagement to Miss Augusta Hawkins, brings to mind the chapter titled “Of Exercise” in Scott Newstock's book How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education. There the author suggests exercising one’s intellect by writing variations on a sentence. Erasmus’s book, De copia, is the source for Newstock’s suggestion. He points out that we derive the word “copy” from copia, and, thanks to Xerox, we think of a copy as an exact reproduction. But copia in Shakespeare’s time “was more akin to the copiousness that we associate with a horn of plenty, or ‘cornucopia.’”

So Erasmus, with an array of diverse nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and word order wrote over 150 variations on the sentence, Your letter has pleased me greatly. 

Here are just a few of Erasmus’s variations: 

Your letter mightily pleased me.

To a wonderful degree did your letter please me.

Your epistle exhilarated me intensely.

I was intensely exhilarated by your epistle.

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.

From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable


Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.

That creative exercise prompted me to write the following variations on Austen’s sentence, Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of:

Human beings have such a positive outlook on those in intriguing circumstances such that a young adult who marries or dies is sure to receive compliments. 

It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them. 

Men and women are so intrigued by the marriage or death of a young person that they naturally speak with kindness about such friends.

We are fascinated to such a degree by young people getting married or dying that our default setting is to eulogize them.

We are enamored of marriage and bewildered by death such that our normal reaction is to praise a young person who either gets married or dies.

We are fascinated by young people who get married or die, so when either event happens, we naturally praise them.

We are so mystified by marriage and death that when one of them happens to our young friends we automatically praise them. 

Austen’s sentence also reminds me of Newstock’s chapter, “Of Imitation.” He illustrates the pervasiveness of imitation with James Baldwin’s observation that children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. The photograph at the head of the chapter, of a young child walking behind two adults mimicking their mannerisms, makes the point humorously. 

Imitation is a time-honored method of developing one’s voice as a writer, for, as Newstock points out, great writers have always imitated their predecessors. For example,

Gwendolyn Brooks imitated Eliot, who imitated Pope, who imitated Milton, who imitated Spencer, who imitated Chaucer, who imitated Dante, who imitated Virgil, who imitated Homer, who consolidated centuries of oral transmission. Your whole vocation should move beyond endless imitation—but you still begin with imitation.

Later in the book Newstock reiterates the observation, handed down from generation to generation, that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants. 

So Newstock commends a method of imitation used by Renaissance educators called double translation. “Take a Latin model; translate it into the vernacular; now translate your version back again into Latin; now compare the original Latin source (L1) with your ‘double-translation’ Latin (L2).”

I have not studied Latin, so I’ll use Austen’s eighteenth century British English as my virtual foreign language and label Austen’s original sentence A1. One of my variations, (It’s just like us humans to think positively about young friends who marry or die. In either event, we speak well of them) will serve as my translation into the vernacular—modern American English. My challenge is to translate that sentence back into Austenesque English, A2. 

Here is my first attempt: A sense of approbation fills the hearts of all human beings when they witness the nuptials or behold the demise of any of their august youthful companions.

So I’ll urge us all, experienced writers and beginning alike, to “copy” and to imitate beautiful sentences. Here are four more beautiful observations from Emma to get us started:  

Emma was not required, by any subsequent discovery, to retract her ill opinion of Mrs. Elton (Vol. II, Chapter  XV [33], Paragraph 1).

They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party (Vol. III, Chapter  VII [43], Paragraph 1).

My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other? (Vol. III, Chapter  XV [51], Paragraph 16).

Time passed on. A few more to-morrows, and the party from London would be arriving (Vol. III, Chapter  XVIII [54], Paragraph 1).

© Stan Bohall 

October 11, 2021

Monday, September 13, 2021

It's No Joke!

 The pastor began his sermon on Sunday July 18, by noting that the Gospel reading (Mark 6:30-34) contained a joke. This humorous incident begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” So they set off in a boat to be by themselves. The people see them leaving and tell their neighbors. So folks from all the nearby towns hurry off to the vacation spot ahead of Jesus and his weary disciples. When the wannabe vacationers get out of the boat, they see the vast crowd. Consistent with his character, Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion: he sees these people as sheep without a shepherd, and he begins to teach them many things. 

As I pictured that scene I began to chuckle, for it reminded me of the hilarious movie What About Bob? Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) is mentally ill. From various incidents we discover that Bob suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, hypochondria, multiple phobias, as well as a very dependent personality. Indeed, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is about to discover what he’s gotten himself into by taking Bob on as his new patient. 

During their first session, Dr. Marvin tells Bob that he will be on vacation during the month of August so they will not be able to meet for a month. But Bob wilily discovers that his new psychiatrist is vacationing on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. So Bob audaciously shows up at Dr. Marvin’s vacation home.  

This is where What About Bob? and Jesus’ intended timeout with his disciples intersect. When Bob crashes Dr. Marvin's family vacation, the psychiatrist is shocked and repeatedly tries to send Bob packing. But when the crowd crashes the Messiah’s retreat, Jesus rolls with the intrusion and ministers to the people. 

Two virtues influence Bob Wiley as he “vacations” with the Marvin family. The first virtue is faith. Bob trusts Dr. Marvin and the principle explained in his new book, Baby Steps. Throughout the movie Bob takes “baby steps” to expand his behavioral horizons. He also overlooks Dr. Marvin’s outbursts and believes that the doctor’s inappropriate behavior is part of his therapy. 

The second virtue is hospitality. Dr. Marvin’s family—his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty), daughter Anna (Katheryn Erbe), son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), and eventually sister Lily (Fran Brill)—welcome Bob and accept him unconditionally. It’s actually a mutual acceptance: Bob saw family portraits during his initial visit in Dr. Marvin’s office, so when he meets “the fam” at Lake Winnipesaukee he recognizes them, remembers their names and warmly greets them. What’s more, when Mr. and Mrs. Guttman, neighbors who have issues with Dr. Marvin, meet Bob, they offer him a place to stay. 

As Bob basks in these virtues, he sheds his fears and reaches out to Dr. Marvin’s family, especially to his son and daughter, Siggy and Anna. Bob’s symptoms of mental illness gradually decrease. But Dr. Marvin finds it impossible to welcome Bob and work with him while he is on vacation. The doctor repeatedly rejects Bob, but Bob always comes back for more. As Bob’s symptoms decrease, Leo Marvin’s emotional distress increases such that he has to be hospitalized.

What About Bob? is, of course, a supposal: Suppose a severely mentally ill man discovers where his psychiatrist is vacationing and shows up for the help he so desperately needs. And suppose the psychiatrist refuses to welcome the man, but his family lovingly accepts him. In the real world, the psychiatrist would call the police and have the man arrested—or at least obtain a restraining order against him. The incident might appear on the local news, but that would be the end of it. 

What About Bob? helps us see the irony, the joke, conveyed in Mark 6:30-34: Jesus and his disciples need rest, but the crowd rushes in with its own agenda. What’s more, this film serves as a backdrop to help us see the glory of our Lord’s response to needy people. Unlike Dr. Marvin, Jesus understands that these people are like sheep without a shepherd, and he begins to teach them many things. Jesus expresses the glory of God’s mercy as he shepherds his people. In contrast, Dr. Marvin goes crazy trying to deny Bob the attention he so desperately craves.

But what about the fact that Jesus and his disciples didn’t get their well-deserved retreat? There seems to be no rest for the weary. When I served as a pastor, passages like this used to frustrate me. I wondered why Jesus allowed his flock to rob him of rest. Why didn’t Jesus set better boundaries? I certainly didn’t get the joke, for as a pastor I had precious little time to recuperate. Was this situation a model for pastoral ministry? I hoped not!

Comparing Mark 6:30-34 with What About Bob? helps me realize that Jesus is the model for pastors, for parents, and for all who minister in Jesus’ name. First and most fundamentally, Jesus is our rest. He is the author and the source of restfulness (see Genesis 2:1-3; John 1:3; Colossians 1:15ff; Hebrews 4:9-16). Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was able to sleep even in the midst of a violent storm (Mark 4:35-41). We might say that Jesus is the essence of restfulness, for he told his disciples, 

Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Perhaps on this occasion Jesus was teaching his disciples the skill of resting “on location.” 

Second, it’s apparent that Dr. Marvin’s refusal to work with Bob ends badly, whereas Jesus’ ministry to the crowd ends beautifully. By God’s grace we strive to set appropriate boundaries and minister to people as we rest in our Lord Jesus Christ. That is our lifelong challenge and opportunity. 

© Stan Bohall 

September 13, 2021

Friday, August 27, 2021

Of Desert, Dessert and Desert

 Of Desert, Dessert and Desert

Over the past month, I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ American Notes, his journal of experiences in and impressions of America during his first trip to our country in 1842. By that time, he was a thirty-year-old pop sensation. In his concluding remarks, I came across this statement about the pervasively negative influence of our press upon the populace: “When any man, of any grade of desert in intellect or character, can climb to any public distinction, no matter what, in America, without first grovelling down upon the earth, and bending the knee before this monster of depravity [i.e. newspapers] . . . then, I will believe that its influence is lessening, and men are returned to their manly senses.

Dickens’ statement about the American press is still true today, but what piqued my interest as I read this passage was the word desert, by which Dickens meant something deserved or merited. It has the same pronunciation as dessert, the sweet food often served as the last course of a meal. When I looked up desert in a dictionary, I discovered that it and its companion, dessert, provide interesting examples of homonyms, homographs, and homophones. 

Dessert and desèrt (to abandon; and something deserved or merited: i.e. one’s just deserts) are homophones—words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Désert (an arid area), desèrt (to abandon someone) and desèrt (something deserved or merited) are homographs—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Desèrt (something deserved or merited) and desèrt (to abandon) are homonyms—words having the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings and origins. 

One reason this group of words is interesting to me is that I’m working with English language learners who want to improve their knowledge and use of our language. I enjoy discussing some of the unusual features of American English with them, so Dickens’ use of the word desèrt prompted me to do some research. One author prefaced his comments on the difference between desert, dessert, and desert with this observation: “The English language is a minefield where spelling and pronunciation are concerned. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn.”

The cluster of words under consideration isn’t on the top of my list to bring to the attention of my language partners, especially early on; yet, it is important to discuss homophones, homographs and homonyms as they arise during our conversations. 

So my real interest here is the word desèrt in the sense Dickens used it. I love words and I love to play with them, and when I saw Dickens using a familiar word in an unfamiliar way, I was hooked. I don't remember seeing or hearing desèrt used in this way except in the sense of someone receiving his just deserts; and, honestly, since I am spelling-challenged, I would have spelled that word desserts. In fact the Google docs spell-check urges me to spell it that way. And at least one website says that, in spite of the origin of the phrase (1275-1325; Middle English < Old French deserte), just desserts is acceptable now since it is more common than just deserts in twenty-first century texts. I guess I have a lot of company in the “fellowship of challenged spellers.”

Interestingly, later in his “Concluding Remarks,” Dickens writes that if there were an established religion in America, we would desert it. I don’t recall that Dickens commented on American desserts in his journal of the roughly four-month tour of America, but he did consider the possibility that Americans could have a “grade of desert in intellect or character” and of our propensity to desert an established church if such a thing existed. 

If I ever fully understand the nuances of desert, dessert and desert, I might try to understand this grammatically correct sentence: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo,” used in 1972 by William J. Rapaport, professor at (you guessed it) the University of Buffalo, in Buffalo, NY.

© Stan Bohall

June 14, 2021