Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics

More stuff — April 24, 2013

More stuff

Hi everyone –

Sorry I haven’t been posting much but I’m on again!

Been away, and been working on some profesh writing. I’ll have more up soon about BTM and some fun words. But check out my article about Philly Young Playwrights’ Time Machine – and then check out Time Machine, too.

And check out this spider:

I'm calling him Dr. Doopdedoop.
He may be a spider, but he’s a social butterfly.
Steps 3 & 4 / Another great word here — April 14, 2013

Steps 3 & 4 / Another great word here

Some sights make you wonder if you're sleeping or awake . . .
Gus Depenbrock at the oneiric Plato’s Porno Cave

The Final Steps to Learning New Words – involve interaction.

If I wanted you to learn how to use a wrench, I wouldn’t just give you a document that lays out its uses, or a definition of a wrench, or even just show you how it works. I would want you to take it in your hands and use it to wrench something.

We have this conception of our brains as infinitely absorptive; we think that if we know something NOW we will know it tomorrow and the days after that. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Our brains are made to sift through all of the seemingly useless information we’re observing and receiving every day.

Taking the wrench in hand provides a physical context for its definition. We can watch someone use it, but until we actually heft its weight against a lug-nut or a screw we don’t truly understand the physics of it, the three-dimensional reality of its work.

Words are the same way, and there is a physics to language. Once you’ve looked up a word, you need to define it for yourself, in your own words. This way you get past thinking you understand it to actually understanding it. I suggest keeping a pocket dictionary where you list all of the new words you learn, with their definitions.

Then, use the word itself. Discuss it, use it in sentences, share it with people, see how it interacts with your world and the concepts and ideas you find important. Find sentences to put it in and come to grips with its weight.

That’s, basically, the reason why I started this blog – to discuss new words and train myself in using them, so that they find their way into my daily vocabulary. It’s been working wonderfully.

My roommate loves, or even hates, Butternut Squash
How to use a tool

Oneiric, adj.: Of or relating to dreams.

Thanks for this one go to Liana at the Hour of Soft Light. In her short poem – or story – she is on a treadmill and writing furiously. Her friend asks her why she risks falling off of the treadmill – and she answers, “Well, I’ve just found the word for dreamlike.”

The word for. Why do we need more than one word for one meaning? What is the difference between “oneiric” and “dreamlike”? Between “German” and “Teutonic” or even “healthy,” “hale” and “salubrious”?

In some cases, like the latter, the different words have slightly different meanings. “Healthy” has many distinct meanings, but “hale” specifically refers to a person or thing which is in good health, while “salubrious” usually means something health-giving.

But “oneiric” and “dreamlike” are synonymous. So to what special world does “oneiric” take Liana, in which she risks falling off of her treadmill she’s so bound up in the excitement?

Words are like spells which, with all the fullness of images, present experiences for our minds and our senses. Generation to generation new images are needed, new styles of art, which express the new age’s sensibilities – or just as importantly, provide a new way of experiencing the same sensibilities. New words, even when they say the same thing, create fresh impressions of old ideas.

Except for slang, which is fairly limited in its scope, and technological developments, we don’t invent so many new words in each generation in the same way that we invent new styles of art and new images. There are not schools of word-smiths, inventing neologisms for the new ways of looking at the world. We enjoy, instead, the rush of combining old words into new phrases, or the excitement of discovering a word we never knew existed, which expresses something we’ve always wanted to express.

We think we know our language, especially those of us who make daily, in-depth use of it: writers, poets, orators, etc. But its scope is always broader than the user’s understanding of it. “I’ve just found the word for dreamlike,” says Liana, smilingly. What she’s pointing out here is the pleasure of being proven, to some degree, ignorant; the naturalist does not want to think that she knows every insect and leaf, she wants there to be something left to discover.

And every word, through its differing sound and combination of letters, its various background and history of meaning and subtlety (even if its dictionary definition is the same as another’s), claims its own texture, its own special feel as it’s used.

She says “I found the word.” “Dreamlike” becomes a clumsy conflation compared to “oneiric”; there is no word for this concept, it seems to suggest, and so we had to lump two words together. We had no trains, so we hitched the cars to one-another; no wagons, so we’ve tied baskets to our saddles. There is an elegance to a word which has seemingly sprung up out of the earth to form a meaning, which a compound conglomeration cannot touch.

The snow turns the familiar streets oneiric, deserted, soft. The film’s oneiric scenes illuminated a landscape of fear behind the protagonist’s actions.

Vainglorious! — April 11, 2013


Napoleon is deposed by an alliance of jerks. Photo: Tasha Doremus

I’m on again! They like me, they really like me. This time it’s about Vainglorious, by Applied Mechanics (with a 26-person ensemble) which you should totally go see before it’s gone forever.

Read it HERE.

mere human mushrooms — April 10, 2013

mere human mushrooms

If you look at a conflict map of the world, like this one, you start to wonder about where exactly we’re heading as a culture (species, world, etc). I only started reading the news a year or so ago—has the outlook always been this grim?

Read about this person: “Lucy” of Blog del Narco. Not a bad way to start off your day: though riddled with pictures of the dead and incomprehensible statistics of the murdered, it’s a story of one person’s passion, and heroism in the face of death.

Note: This article makes a big deal out of her being a 25-year-old girl. The Blog del Narco wikipedia page, with no reason to assume this, originally called the blogger a “he” and I think still does. I have to admit, it does go against the grain of our expectations. How long will it take for that to change?

Mexican drug wars have don’t have much to do with George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah. But the horrors of world news are a fair enough jumping-off point because Shaw lived through the world’s first two great, international, multi-continental tragedies, World Wars I and II, respectively.

“Everybody would like to have a million of money. Why haven’t they? Because the men who would like to be millionaires won’t save sixpence even with the chance of starvation staring them in the face. The men who want to live for ever won’t cut off a glass of beer or a pipe of tobacco, though they believe the teetotalers and non-smokers live longer.” (84)

I’ve spent some time puzzling over Shaw’s “creative evolution” and the reasoning behind it; I conclude that it is a scientific cul-de-sac, simply bad biology (if he’d known about the function of DNA he could never suggest that our offspring retain learned traits). But from a non-biological perspective he’s pointing out something which is, in effect, already happening. I’ll come back to that shortly.

The really weird thing going on in Back to Methuselah is the task which Shaw prescribes for creative evolution: the expansion of the human life cycle from 70 to 300 years.

“They will live three hundred years, not because they would like to, but because the soul deep down in them will know that they must, if the world is to be saved.” (84)

Perhaps, he reasons, if we have 300 years to live, we’ll gather some wisdom and eventually even exhibit some signs of foresight. In The Brothers Barnabas, the second part of Back to Methuselah, Franklyn Barnabas, an ex-rector, and his brother Conrad, a biologist, deduce that humans must life for at least three centuries.

Shaw splits himself into two men, representatives from the religious and scientific communities.

“It is going to be the religion of the twentieth century: a religion that has its intellectual roots in philosophy and science just as medieval Christianity had its intellectual roots in Aristotle.” (80)

To illustrate the age-old divide between the spiritual and physical sciences, in Franklyn’s first words to Conrad at the start of the book, Shaw describes him as “familiar and by no means cordial” (37). But there’s no other intimation of fraternal antipathy. On the contrary, they support and respect one another, even asking each other for favors.

This is the first example of evolution (biological or sociological?) which Shaw offers us. Unlike Cain and Abel, though they have opposed systems of understanding the world, they haven’t murdered one another; what’s more, they’ve united, despite their mutual dislike for one another, to work toward a common goal.

The brothers present their idea to a series of people including Franklyn’s ill-mannered daughter, a simple-minded local rector, a pair of politicians, and a parlourmaid, with reactions ranging from skeptical through cynical to fearful. The politicians, wooed by the promise of a philosophy that would unite the entire human race (under their flag) at first take up the brothers’ battle cry—”Back to Methuselah!”—but when they learn the secret to immortality is not a potion or a funny diet but a rhetoric of abstinence, pacifism, work, and striving for a longer life, these “practical politicians” lose steam.

“My idea is that whilst we should interest the electorate in this as a sort of religious aspiration and personal hope [. . .] it would be in the last degree upsetting and even dangerous to enable everyone to live longer than usual.” (83)

They take the marketable aspects of it to heart, though.

By placing this chapter in the late 1910‘s, the years he’s writing it, Shaw is in effect saying that he’s ahead of his time.

FRANKLYN: We had better hold our tongues about it, [Conrad]. We should only be laughed at [. . .]
CONRAD: I daresay. But Creative Evolution doesn’t stop while people are laughing [. . .]

Is that humility or arrogance? He’s certainly right that nobody is going to believe him and follow his lead. The concept is too radical. American prohibition, enacted, ironically, the year BTM was published, was a hideous failure that did little but pave the way for the emergence of organized crime in the United States. But it strikes me that to explain failure by saying that you’re ahead of your own time—in some way superior, or looking on from a superior vantage point, than most other humans—is arrogance in the extreme.

“It is my hope that a hundred apter and more elegant parables by younger hands will soon leave [my play] as far behind as the religious pictures of the fifteenth century left behind the first attempts of the early Christians at iconography.” (lxxxix-xc)

Is this just an excuse for failure? Shaw, a veteran radical, understands that radical ideas only succeed in one of two ways: through violent revolution or long, painful, societal development, sometimes over decades, sometimes over centuries.

I would like to believe, as Shaw does, that we are evolving, as a species—or even just society—toward a more peaceful way of being which no longer accepts violence as a way of dealing with our problems. But how much of this is superficial?

Look at Blog del Narco and the uncontrollable violence and destruction of these previously peaceful Mexican cities. Look at the conflict map. Look at the women in India who must resort to violence to protect themselves—and we cheer for their initiative, strength and success. Look at the rapidly compounding disaster of radical Islam and the terrorized people of Asia and Africa, a state of horror caused by violence and oppression and which seems to have no answer but more violence.

“Neo-Darwinism in politics had produced a European catastrophe of a magnitude so appalling, and a scope so unpredictable, that as I write these lines in 1920, it is still far from certain whether our civilization will survive it.” (xi)

Returning again to Shaw.

“The village atheist and the first cornet in the local Salvation Army band meet on the village green and shake hands.” (79)

Shaw expects his unification of the religious and the scientific, his system of biology based on the Garden of Eden and his discovery of immortality within it, to galvanize humanity.

“I had always known that civilization needs a religion as a matter of life or death [. . .]” (lxxxvii)

Every known civilization has been bound, on a nominal level at least, by religion. Even the Soviet Union was created under the flag of the abolition of religion. Even Free America is so much a Christian/Protestant state, now as much as ever.

In the same way that Soviet Russia’s atheism was its “religion,” Shaw’s mythology is designed looking forward to an idealized future.

What can we say for creative evolution? Shaw’s concept of it is wrong on a basic biological level. But our technological and social developments, powered by creativity, do change the way that we behave, live, and interact with the world around us.

As a society, if we want, we can bend our creativity and efforts (and funding) toward extending the human life cycle. Many people are doing this already; medical doctors have long been on a quest to annihilate all that makes us die. Another pair of men, like Shaw’s Brothers B, will are revolutionizing the way we interact with our biosphere.

As a society. This is what we’re missing. Many powerfully intelligent people are doing exactly what Shaw suggests, but they do so with a diversity of motivations, and there is no binding element, no single vision to unify the efforts of the disparate organizations, corporations and individuals.

Part 4 of an exploration of Shaw’s interminable epic. Read Part 1 here. Read Part 2 here. Read Part 3 here.

All of the quotes in this essay come from my tattered Bernard Shaw: Complete Plays with Prefaces, published in 1962, Volume II, Back to Methuselah. The title of this article comes from page 69.

Y’all should look at how I’m on — April 3, 2013

Y’all should look at how I’m on

Harry and Bess just before their whirlwind tour
Take a trip over to’s Art Attack. Photo Credit Joe Grasso

Hi hi –

Check out my article on’s Art Attack:

Before you miss it: The Ghosts That Survive Us

and don’t miss EgoPo’s The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini.

As a treat, here’s a word of the day:

Insouciant, adj: marked by blithe unconcern; nonchalant. The insouciant honey badger didn’t give a fuck.

Or . . . pull My finger
Stop being so Medamn insouciant and grab my finger
How to have a Weird Time in April — April 1, 2013

How to have a Weird Time in April

I kiss my knuckles at you
EgoPo’s Houdini. Don’t not see it – see it! Photo credit Ian Guzzone

April’s all about HAVING A WEIRD TIME as I reminded everybody a few weeks ago – kicked off as it is by the whole bunnies coming out of eggs thing—and this April, it shouldn’t be hard at all to do this.

To begin with, EgoPo’s Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini is an UNMISSABLE performance. Go see it. Really. Go see it. You don’t have much time – it runs until the 7th. You’ll hate yourself if you miss it. Go see it. I’ll have a more detailed review up on the BSR soon (hopefully).

The Bearded Ladies’ Civil War Cabaret, which I also mentioned in March’s calendar, will keep runnin til the 6th. I’m gonna try to make it, too.

Cleanse your palet TONIGHT with some hot and untempered work in progress at Scratch Night at the Painted Bride. What more do you need to hear than this caveat on the show’s page: “Good experimental art is risky and Scratch Night performances may contain adult themes or nudity.” The highlight for me will be Lee Ann Etzold obsessing over my favorite space marine in Sigourney Weaving. 

4/4-4/21: Plays and Players Theatre are putting up Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play & Other American Cousins. Parks, for those who don’t know her, is counted among New York’s celebrated language playwrights, and is known for playing with American slang and exploring issues of race and culture. In The American Play, a black Abe Lincoln look-alike offers to be shot to death by a John Wilkes Booth look-alike for a small fee.

One of the great voices of our theater – by which I mean, people vaguely our age still writing plays. Maybe she’s yesterday’s theater—she’s turning 50 next month—but this should be absolutely worth seeing either way.

4/9-4/13 You’ll only have a brief time to see Applied Mechanics’ Vainglorious at beautiful Christ Church Neighborhood House—but it’s time you’ll want to take full advantage of. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure style work, or as they put it, an “epic, 26-performer installation.” From what I hear, there’ll be the entire French Napoleonic army there, resplendent. Napoleon himself, and Marie Antoinette are supposed to pop in. They might even be crawling through the rafters. I will definitely be there.

4/11-20: The Trial of Murderous Mary. I don’t know much about this play, but I do know that Aaron Cromie (working with Gwen Rooker) is a bit of a theatrical genius with a delight for the odd and bloody. He was responsible for a puppet Titus Andronicus at the Shakespeare Theater last year, and this play, about murder, circus and a 5-ton elephant named Mary should prove an unmitigated weird time.

4/13: Check out Amanda Miller’s tumblr: see, this is exactly the kind of thing you wished there was more of but couldn’t find, right? Well, stop fretting, because at Detour on 2nd St this month you can catch her art—and on the 13th, show up for the reception, free booze and a low-priced art off the wall sale. I’ll see you there!

4/17-5/25: Arms and the Man – Quintessence Theatre. I talked about this last month, a bit, and I’ve been talking too much about George Bernard Shaw. I think he’s great; I think this play’s okay. It’s his lighter work, and if you’ve been enjoying my words about Back to Methuselah then you should love this.

4/18-4/21: Finally—and this should be attractive to a lot of you—freeze to death in a children’s story about the Shackleton Antarctica Expedition! Performers on stilts operate life-size marionette puppets—why? Get down off those stilts and act, it’d be easier! But theater isn’t always about doing the easy thing: puppetry, dance, film and photog will combine to create—I’m not actually sure what, but probably something cool: 69°S



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Notes on Words

for Writers, Readers, Logophiles and Logorrhetics