Some time ago, I quit watching TV because I thought it was too passive. I had great difficulty trying to find any enjoyment in just sitting around for a few hours being enter- or even info-tained. Granted, worthwhile shows and programs and channels exist; but they are few and far between, and even then, are often so filled with commercials that I wonder if, on balance, they do anyone any good.
Nowadays this video-antipathy has spread even to movies, through no conscious decision of my own. Pirated Korean classics and a digital stack of Bergman are filling up my hard drive, but I just get antsy and twitchy when I think about watching them. I can't imagine sitting still for two hours while a bunch of stuff is beamed at my head. There's something about the idea of diversion that makes me uncomfortable; what am I being diverted from and why do I want to be diverted from it? What effect would it have on society if everyone in my position - relatively well-off, well-educated, independent, young - sought the same sort of diversion? Or rather, what effect does it have, given that most do?
This line of thought leads me to prefer doing something "productive" or "educational" or "active" or "self-directed;" anything with a purpose I can be somewhat sure of, even if that purpose is just to get me thinking a little bit. This is one reason why I've been reading a lot lately, so much that I've almost stopped doing my Korean and Chinese flashcards. The other day, though, I ran across a passage - actually, just a pair of words - while reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated that gave me quite a shock.
The words were: "soggy effigy."
I remember that in Donnie Darko, someone claims that "cellar door" is purpoted to be the most beautiful pair of words in English. If that's true, "soggy effigy" has to be the most awkward. Whether it's because of the I'm-not-quite-sure-if-this-is-a-contradiction quality of the phrase (what good is an effigy if you can't burn it?) or if it's because there are not too many English words ending in -gy (search for them all here) and even fewer that you can but back-to-back, or because of something in the stress patterns, the uncanniness of the phrase stopped me in my tracks. I closed the book in mid-sentence to ponder whether or not that combination of words had ever been said before. I was betting it hadn't. What a feat!
A Google search turns up a measly 8 results, 13 if you keep it from filtering out repeats. Out of these eight, one is the version of Everything Is Illuminated on Googlebooks; two are people perhaps very much like me quoting Safran; one is a guy commenting on someone's blog, first saying that he'll urinate on the other's effigy, and then, eventually that he's kicking the soggy (that is, urine-soaked) effigy around [this post comes up twice]; two are from the index of a fairly quacko-looking book called Heart of the Living God by Michael G. Manness, LLC; and one is from some sort of random word generator. As the quack book was published in 2004, the urine comments in 2007, and E.I.I. in 2003, I'd say it's not crazy to conjecture that it might just be possible that that was the first time those two words had ever been put together.
I mentioned all that TV stuff above because, despite my contention that reading was a relatively cerebral, conscious activity, the way the soggy effigy hit me (what sound would that make??) made me realize that, hey, I was reading. Of course, in a banal sense, when reading, one always knows that one is reading. Even when I was sucked in to The Brothers Karamazov and read it twice during one winter back in 2003 or so, I still knew I was turning pages and spending the whole day in my room and probably not getting enough sunlight. But this felt different. I had to stop and reflect for a few moments on the way words were entering my mind, giving rise to thoughts and images and even sensations. On how Foer was nudging me towards anneurysm from across time and space. On how hard it must be to write so that the reader forgets he or she is reading; and yet, at the same time, how hard it is to write so that the reader remembers that he or she is reading, but in the right way. Though these are things that one knows, at some level, it is quite a different thing to feel them, to be schocked back into remembering them, if even for a few minutes. I must say, what I experienced in that moment was nothing other than a truly snazzy epiphany.
I'm very curious: have any of you had similar experiences? Has a pair or trio of words ever kicked you in the face? I'm not talking about an entire thought being superbly, beautifully and poetically expressed*; nor am I talking about an aphorism or one-liner full of wit and wisdom that you still have it memorized**. I'm talking about some incomplete description, just some little hunk of letters, that completely stupefied you for a minute or two, making you think about what's possible, and therefore impossible, in language and in thought.
Quotations from Ogden Nash need not be reported.
*The line I most recall of this sort is from Flaubert's Madame Bovary - "Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers."
**Nietzsche: "Is man merely a mistake of God's? Or God merely a mistake of man's?”