There’s a small movement in art and writing criticism to move away from “pretention.” The concept is that literature should be able to be ready by anyone, and is a reaction against what is thought of as book “snobbery.”
Surely this attitude must come out of being unfairly forced to read Shakespeare in class and never quite getting it. One can’t help but feel that this strange idea that neither a dictionary nor complex thought should be involved in the act of reading, has its roots in some deep and ugly feelings of inadequacy.
On the opposite end of this argument are the writers who give you credit for being a thinking animal, the ones who make you feel you’re reading a foreign language: Witold Gombrowicz and Laszlo Krasznahorkai (even in translation), Peter Greenaway, Mac Wellman, of Montreal songbooks, to name a few. Poets of prose. This is what engages the unselfconscious reader: the crunch of language as you bite into it, the stream of unknown or barely-known words, drawn from rhetoric, medicine, science, philosophy or general use, words which carry with them their own systems of thought and meaning, all put to work for one sentence, paragraph, or meaning.
Somewhere in between the two is the plain ability to use $10 words from time to time, the choice to use “ponderous” instead of “weird,” and “labile” instead of “changeable,” and the willingness to look these up when you encounter them. Reading ought to be work at times, and readers like me like to be run through the woods a bit on the way to the conclusion.
Pismire, pronounced “piss mire,” comes from the words piss and mire (mire being an archaic word for ant), and means ant, and refers to the I-guess-generalized conclusion that ants and anthills smell like human pee pee.
I personally never noticed before, even when hosing down ant colonies in the front yard concrete of my youth. I’ve been concerned lately by the ponderous but marked increscence of pismires crawling out of my laptop. Weird story; not untrue.
Vicissitude, n.: 1. A sudden or unexpected change in circumstances or fortunes, especially bad. The daily vicissitude of waking up often has the effect of making me want to reverse the process. The vicissitudes of a life in politics will easily make a person tired, amoral, or straight crazy.
2. Reversion between extremes, opposites, or contrasting things. The vicissitudes of his drunken sprees left him friendless. The vicissitudes in this neighborhood between poor and wealthy blocks is a sign of coming economic development.
3. The quality of changeability; lability. The vicissitude of this season makes every morning a drama!
Vicissitude has its roots in the latin prefix vic-, meaning turn, or change, or substitute. Other words which come from this root are vicar (“substitute for God,” I guess) and vicarious. I thought at first that victim and victory fit in here too—turn of fortune, turn of power, overturn of an opponent—it worked conceptually—but they go back to another prefix, vict-, which may be connected somehow.
Coruscation means a flash of brilliance—either of actual light or of virtuosity. Thus, a knife might coruscate in the sun, and a pianist might coruscate all up in some Bach fugue. My father is shaved bald, and when I was a child we always joked that we could find him in a crowd by the coruscations of his head. This is also undoubtedly where the Star Wars universe got the name of its the Empire’s capital planet Coruscant, coruscant being the adjectival form of coruscate.
Whenever I encounter one, I’m always sure they mean the same thing, malaise, je ne se qua, beche de mer, insouciance; I think of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, who, though painted by an Italian in Italy, is posed very much like how I see French people. Eyes half-lidded, hand barely uplifted, disdainful of the celestial figures bustling around him.