Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains:
Knatz.com / Teaching / Scholarship / English /
Some changes in our being come staged: drum roll, blare of trumpets; some slip in on little cats’ feet. And some come cats’ feet plus a drum roll. I remember the precise moment in grad school when my confidence in the gods’-guts-marrow type of belief fell away, leaving me on the brink of going over the falls. My linguistics professor, Howie Berntsen, a favorite guy (with a Brooklyn accent no less) blandly announced that thinkers used to believe that meaning resided innate in the core sounds of words, but that of course we know today that there’s no core meaning: it’s all custom, habit, knee jerk: and onomatopoeia is 99% coincidence.
The moment held force. I hadn’t realized that I believed in meaning deep in my belly button. That Yeats, and Shakespeare and Keats too, breathed on stable faults of essence. If I could think deeply enough I’d surely be able to “prove” it to Bernsten. I thought about it, I prayed about it, I reasoned it drunk, and sober. Time passed: and my deep certainties became less and less clear. Then they simply faded way. Drum roll, hesitant drum roll: then cats’ feet, Sandburg’s fog.
This all comes back to me this morning as I read and love and nearly adore Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English.
I’ll develop further in a bit.
Tangential Notes Meantime
Dr. Howie if my memory is being fair or accurate announced current assumptions as though they were true, proved, fact. That’s the habit of any intellectual age. I remember a challenge from John Hurt Fischer, boss of the MLA, mid-1960s (spelling?). He said he would buy a bottle of Dom P. champagne for anyone who could prove that communication was possible without words. Again I was ready to jump on it, get drunk, contemplate my navel: prove it as a voice of God. At least Fischer was treating his assumption as not-proved!
2016 07 19 I’m recalling another Howie Bertsen story. I’d run into the good doctor in the West End, on Broadway up around Columbia turf as well as down on Washington Square. I never drank around NYU, I drank at home, at Columbia. Howie drank both places: and who knows where else as well. So I see Howie in the West End. He’s tickled pink, he’s just obtained his dream, he’s acquired a Morgan: beautiful car, long hood, leather belt over the hood! Oh, my God, a Morgan. Howie lets me drive! I whip us up to Grants Tomb, take us around the curve at its north point on two wheels, holding the steering like I was Fanzio. Howie, erupts, goes crazy, stop, stop, his is not a race car, this is not a sports car.
Poor Howie, And I’ve never seen him again since.
Poor guy, and he had thought the world of me, wrote me a wonderful recommendation.