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Friday, 30 July 2021

Review: Angie Schmitt, Right of Way


We Need to Talk About SUVs.

The United Sates is, apparently, very wealthy but on a wide range of well-being indicators it scores poorly. When the statisticians crunch the data it is always an outlier, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed in The Spirit Level (2008). Outside the USA, there is some general awareness of this: we sort of  know that American people experience gun violence, drug addictions, obesity, police violence, prison incarceration rates, mental ill-health, crumbling infrastructure, and all-round insecurity on a scale which makes for what some would call a shithole country. To make matters worse, a significant part of the population is now clearly beyond any ordinary appeal to reason, caught up in religious cults, conspiracy theories, and the more or less unhinged thinking of the Alt Right and at least some of the campus Wokes.

Any explanation is going to be complex but certainly lies deep in America’s dominant cultures. Angie Schmitt’s Right of Way is a carefully documented and modestly argued analysis which starts from a problem which does not make many headlines, pedestrian road deaths. In 2018, the USA boasted 6,283 pedestrian road deaths and around 1,500 further deaths involving a person and a vehicle in an off-road car park or private driveway. On a per capita basis, this is a poor result because it is about four times higher than equivalent deaths in the usual suspects for best performance, the Scandinavian countries.

As Schmitt painstakingly develops her account of underlying causes and potential solutions, it becomes (inadvertently) clear that America is stuck in some very hard to shift cultural assumptions and practices, many of which become fully articulated in its criminal justice system. A stand-out case is presented in chapter 3, “Blaming the Victim”.

Back in 2011, having missed a bus in her home state of Georgia, Raquel Nelson - a black woman - had to wait an hour for the next one. As a result, it was dark when she and her three young children alighted from the bus and set out to cross the four-lane highway which separated them from their suburban housing estate. Halfway across, her four year old son broke free of his mother’s hand to run with his sister to the other side. His sister made it, but he was hit by a van being driven at speed and he died. The driver of the van had vision problems, two previous hit-and-run convictions, and had been drinking on the day of the crash.

Outcome? The nearest crosswalk (pedestrian crossing) to the bus stop where she had alighted was a kilometre away, so Raquel Nelson did what everyone in her area did and crossed the road directly from the bus stop to her home. Big mistake. Jaywalking is an offence across the USA, an offence invented during the automobile's post - 1918 rise to dominance,  so she was charged with jaywalking, reckless conduct, and vehicular homicide. She was convicted of all three offences. The conviction was upheld on first appeal and on second appeal (made possible by a pro bono offer) to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The driver of the van, taking advantage of America’s eye-brow raising plea-bargaining system, pleaded guilty to fleeing the scene of the crash.

It would take a long essay to unpack all that is being illustrated by this single case. Schmitt uses it as a way of crystallising the argument that American culture, embodied in laws,  assumes that roads and streets exist primarily for drivers, and that it is the role of pedestrians (and cyclists) to stay out of the way. And not only that, that it is the role of pedestrians to accept Personal Responsibility for anything bad which might befall them.

In the United Kingdom, we have heard a lot about Personal Responsibility lately, some of it from our Ayn Rand-inspired GOP Health Secretary.

As Schmitt unfolds her narrative, it becomes clear that many parts of the USA simply do not have the kind of infrastructure anyone in the UK or mainland Europe will take for granted.  There are some simple but very tellling photographs.You cannot assume pavements or street lighting or pedestrian crossings or traffic calming devices or even safety regulations to reduce the design risk which vehicles pose to walkers. In the USA, they do light-touch regulation if you are wealthy and powerful and willing and able to litigate.

This is brought our forcefully in her discussion of SUVs. SUVs are pedestrain killers for two reasons. If an ordinary saloon car collides with a pedestrian, it will strike the pedestrian below the waist and maybe no higher than the thighs and will tend to throw them forward and onto the bonnet. This actually creates a survival chance. But the high-rise, flat fronted SUV will strike you above the waist, impact your vital organs - and knock you backwards so that it will then run you over. This reduces your chances of survival. That’s not all. High-rise SUVs have blind spots, fore and aft. A small child in front or behind a SUV will simply not be visible if they are closer to the vehicle than about three meters. Schmitt illustrates this with a photograph of seventeen children sitting comfortably on the ground in front of a stationary SUV, all of them within its blind zone. It is these blindspots which cause many driveway deaths, known in America as “Bye Bye” deaths because they often involve a young child waving to a departing parent or relative who reverses over them as they position their vehicle for driving away.

In the USA, SUVs now outsell saloon cars (sedans) heavily. Schmitt links this to an American sense that the whole world is hostile environment against which one needs to be armed and defended. A vehicle which derives its design from a military jeep or armoured car has a lot of appeal; some recent SUVs are advertised as bullet-proof, no doubt attractive for  mothers doing the school run. 

But SUVs now play a significant role in the explanation for America’s high pedestrian fatality figures. The SUV problem has been recognised in other countries and regulations have obliged some design changes to the vehicles which  mitigate the problem; but such regulations are not to be heard of  in the USA. That would be too much like Big Government and Big GOP-funding Business wants government small.

There is so much more in this sober and sobering book. I guess the publisher wanted the sub-title, which is accurate but which may suggest to some potential readers that matters have been pre-judged. They haven’t; Schmitt is careful in her arguments because she wants to unite not divide her potential readers.  If you are appalled to the point of mental exhaustion by what you have been reading about the USA for the past five years and want a way into refreshing your understanding, I recommend this book.








Monday, 26 July 2021

Review: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White


I admire Victorian novelists who scratched away with quills (later, steel pens) and candlelight to produce very long novels. True, the longer the novel the greater the income in a world where novels often began their lives in serialised, periodical, form before appearing as expensive triple-deckers and, eventually, as one volume popular editions.

The Woman in White runs to over six hundred pages in my Penguin Classics edition and at times the story feels as if it is being deliberately kept going. There are times too when the plot descends into plot summary, the inevitable consequence I guess of serialised publication which requires that readers be frequently reminded of what they had read in previous weeks or months - though that is  something which could have been edited out for a book version.  That said, it’s an extraordinary work and though advertised (on my Penguin cover) as in a Victorian Gothic genre,  it has the feel of a detective story complete with detective (Walter Hart in the right place), clues, plot twists, lures for the reader to wrap it all up, late revelations, and final triumphant success for the detective.

The plot is ingenious, the presentation of the unfolding story through the statements of a cast of witnesses innovative, and the suspense on balance well-sustained. As to the main characters, I found the villains rather more interesting than the heroes: Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco are complex figures who don’t react in stereotyped ways to the opportunities which present themselves or the changing predicaments which challenge them. To a lesser degree, the same is true of minor characters like Mrs Catherick.

The heroes are more stereotypical, though Collins offers fairly sustained alternatives to what I take as Victorian conceptions of femininity, notably in the character of Marian Halcombe, and there are what one might think of as authorial intrusions which underline the shortcomings of Victorian sex-discrimination, notably in relation to marriage and property rights. It would be possible to write a long essay on this topic, and someone probably has written one already.

Despite the fact that the lawyers consulted by the heroes are presented as good characters, one of the most interesting sub-texts of the book is a sustained scepticism about the capacity of the Law to deliver justice, promptly and fairly. Walter Hartright achieves what justice demands by extra-judicial means throughout and his menage a trois accomplice, Marian, cheerfully resorts to bribery in order to spring Laura Fairlie from the Asylum in which she has been imprisoned under a false name and under false pretences.  Whether this aspect of the novel shocked Victorian sensibilities I don’t know, though the best-seller success of the book suggests not.

In contrast, the system of property rights which frees one caste of people from the necessity of ever working - a privilege which provides endless occasions for inheritance disputes - attracts little scrutiny. Walter Hartight has to work for his living, but his achievement is not only to win  the woman he loves (and who loves him) but also restore her to her rightful place in the property order of things.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Should I Read William Empson's The Structure of Complex Words?


Oxford University Press has recently published scholarly editions of two books by William Empson (1906-1984): Some Versions of Pastoral first published in 1935 and now running to 496 pages and £80 in Seamus Perry’s edition; The Structure of Complex Words, originally 1951 and now running to 672 pages at £95 in Helen Thaventhiran and Stefan Collini’s edition. Colin Burrow, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Oxford, provides a long and informative review of the books in my London Review of Books 15 July 2021. But he hasn’t quite persuaded me to place an order.

Empson is reckoned a major figure in the development of literary studies in England and the USA, a position achieved despite being expelled from the University of Cambridge for heterosexual activity (see Wikipedia for details). It is his role in the development of modern literary studies which justifies these fresh editions, not his status as  persecuted heterosexual. Leaving aside the first book it is the title of the second, The Structure of Complex Words, which deters me.

That invites two questions: (1) What kind/s of structure do words have, if any?  (2) Unless the expression Complex Words is a pleonasm, what distinguishes complex words from the rest?

Words when spoken have phonetic and phonological features which can be captured by the phonetic alphabet; when spelt out in an ordinary alphabet some of those features may be recoverable from the written form but in English not consistently so. So the pronunciation differences between single-syllable hat and hate are indicated by application of a rule which extends to other cases: fat and fate, mat and mate, pat and pate, rat and rate … Unfortunately, there is also bait as well as bate, gait as well as gate. And at the outer limits of English  orthography, sound and spelling are entirely separated, notably in the case of proper names of which the stand-out (and meant to be stand-out) is Featherstonehaugh: the idea here is that only if you mix in the right circles will you know how to pronounce it.  So whatever structure there is, it is not built out of Lego blocks which retain their shape wherever inserted.

If hat and hate are simple, are hatful and hateful complex? Well, they are two-syllabled rather than one; the bolted-on ending - ful adapting them to be ready for adjectival use. That doesn’t sound very complex, and it’s not hard to grasp. But sometimes the - ful is not - or is no longer - a purely grammatical indicator. I can look at the night sky and tell you that I experienced a moment of awe but if I tell you that I had an awful day it’s not in the same league of meaning; the - ful downgrades awe to something more quotidian. Someone learning English as a foreign language might have to have that explained to them. Indeed, whatever complexity words have out of context of use might best be understood in terms of the problems they might pose a second language learner. The Oxford English Dictionary is constructed very much in this spirit though it also has English speakers in mind when it classifies words as arch., euphem., obs., coarse slang. In this way of looking at things, it’s not clear to me that the complexities of awe and awful are of a different order to those which surround, say, boat and ship. I don’t believe that the latter pair could be handled as a “technical” problem, solved by recourse to some measuring system,  in a way that awe and awful can’t.

What could be structure turns out to be a dense mass of sense congealed from a long past of history and cultural changes. History and culture do not have modular structures, as if atoms or logical formulae or those Lego bricks. Accurately summarising such history and culture within the pages of a dictionary is a Sisyphean task because history is accumulating as you write  and culture is changing in new ways ditto. Dictionaries are just specialised encyclopaedias, and thus necessarily partial. The rules of arithmetic or the periodic table aim to escape partiality and many believe that they can succeed.

But are there other kinds of complexity? Is hate a complex word in ways which hat isn’t? Is onyx simple in a way which honest isn’t?

Speakers and writers are, for the very large ninety nine point nine percent most part, using words which have been used before and where there are some fairly general features they will be understood to possess or imply unless those features are explicitly cancelled. So if I say She was wearing a hat that implies (whether I have realised or not)  something which may occasionally be cancelled as it is in She was wearing a hat slung round her neck and hanging down her back. Ah, you see it now, a straw sun hat, perhaps? If I say He’s a hateful fellow that may be partially cancelled by addition of the very convenient but word He’s a hateful fellow but I have to give him credit for ….

This last example incidentally illustrates another problem for any theory of structure: hateful was once a twin of hatful, since it meant full of hate. But that use is now reckoned archaic by the OED and hateful is now roughly synonymous with repugnant - a hateful person is one who excites hate not someone who exudes it. There is no logic or necessity requiring this change, any more than there is for the replacement of reject with refute  or annoy with aggravate. This kind of complexity in the history of individual words makes the prospect of any general  account of  their "structure" very remote. It can only be captured by narratives. The possibility of a more general theory of how to use words in a particular context is much more promising as is shown by the world-wide take-up of J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1962) and all that has been developed from its simple expositions.

A writer needs to be sensitive to the sense which words are likely to carry (as it were, directly) and imply (as it were, indirectly). But it’s also true that since writers cannot control everything they are doing, some senses will be conveyed and some implications steered towards which they did not, personally, at the moment of writing, intend. Forensic analysis of literary texts, under many different names, will be on the look-out for such senses and implications, perhaps especially if they seem to contradict avowed intentions which the author has been foolish enough to profess. It’s better to acknowledge that a lot of the time you ( and me) don’t know exactly what we are doing and at the very moment when we are trying to bend language to our purposes the meanings of what we say and what we write exceeds whatever we intended.

But thinking like this, what place is there for a special category of complex words? Hat has a history just as much as hate which is to say that both have been framed in different ways in different times and places. It may be fashionable or unfashionable to wear hats; ditto for hating to which in some times and places cultural prestige may attach so that it is a compliment to call someone a good hater.

There is a further problem. Words can be used but they can also be mentioned. Traditionally, there were words which it was forbidden to use but which it was permitted to mention - that is to say, to quote. But in my Brave New England Puritan print culture, there are words which it is regarded as unacceptable either to use or quote. Thus, when my Prime Minister (in a text message) described his Health Secretary as “totally fucking hopeless” both print and online versions which supposedly quoted what he said actually amended it to include asterisks which were not present in the original. The purpose is the same as that intended by Sunday school rules for turning Direct Speech into Indirect Speech, rules which miraculously transform the wine of “He’s totally fucking hopeless” into the water of “The Prime Minister expressed exasperation with his Health Secretary”. The trouble with direct speech is that it can be too direct by half and not something you would want to put on the front pages or allow your maiden aunt to hear. (Maiden aunt is probably now arch. but you can always look it up).

Part of the writer’s opportunity consists in the ability to make use of this difference between use and mention but sometimes leaving it unclear whether something is being said or quoted; access to this linguistic resource is central to making the most of irony which can be administered in larger or smaller doses, according to taste and malevolence.

Well, if I am led to generate 1500 words just contemplating the title of a book, I think it would be a very bad idea to try to read its 672 pages and distill them for you here - and Colin Burrow in his helpful review indicates that distillation isn't exactly easy; Empson wasn't that kind of thinker. But perhaps I have done enough to prompt you to fork out for this many-paged, expensive edition of William Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words.