Saturday, June 3, 2006

Written by the academic historian David Andress, the new book is called “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26), and the subtitle emphatically semaphores the new position. Andress is hardly an apologist for the Reign of Terror, and he is both too smart and too decent to scant its horrors.

1 : an apparatus for visual signaling (as by the position of one or more movable arms)
2 : a system of visual signaling by two flags held one in each hand

I was unaware that scant could be used as verb. I only had known its adjective form.

In a revolutionary meeting, the terrain is cambered, and everything flows toward the extreme right or the extreme left.

1 : to arch slightly
2 : to impart camber to

Robespierre and Saint-Just, instead of arming their own militia, as they might well have done—they started a military academy—went on perorating, until, on July 27, 1794, the members of the Convention turned on them, out of fear for their own necks.

1 : to deliver a long or grandiloquent oration
2 : to make a peroration

Yesterday, reading Adam Gopnik's review of two new books about the French Revolution, I came across these few words, words that I did not know. I do not like coming across words I do not know - in some ways, it makes me feel inadequate in my knowledge, that there are holes, gaping ones. But also, I love coming across new words and getting the chance to broaden my lexicon a bit.

What the great historians give us, instead, is a renewed sense of sorrow and anger and pity for history’s victims—for some luckless middle-aged Frenchman standing in the cold gray, shivering as he watches the members of his family being tied up and having their heads cut off.

This is such an odd phrase, "the cold gray." It almost seems incomplete, that is should be the "the cold gray night" or "the cold gray air." Even, just "the cold" would be more standard. That in this instance, the cold isn't what they are standing in. Rather, the cold is used as an adjective to describe the gray that they are standing in. It's such odd imagery, that someone could be standing in the gray. I really like this little touch of Gopnik's.

I find myself paying a lot more attention to how language is arranged because of my job. When I read now, most of my focus is on how the sentences are structured, and in some cases, this is bad because I sort of gloss over the content (as I am doing in Bellow right now), and just read it, wondering why there isn't a comma there, wondering why there is a comma here. On the subway, I read the ads and play around with the structure of the ads, which more often than not, are big messes since it is ad copy and meant for a small space and meant to just grab someone's attention. This is all new to me, this manner of reading. I notice which magazines and which writers use commas after And, But, or So when those are the first words of sentences. I don't like the usage of commas after any of those at the beginning of sentences.

This from Bellow, not so much because it relates to what I am talking about with commas and whatnot, but because this is a passage that made me read it without looking at those aspects, but the truth of this observation struck me and made me squeal Yes, yes, that this is what Bellow is good for, these brilliant observations about this human race, so many of these observations buried in every page:

And next came his specific self, an apparition in the square mirror. How did he look? Oh, terrific—you look exquisite, Moses! Smashing! The primitive self-attachment of the human creature, that sweet instinct for the self, so deep, so old it may have a cellular origin. As he breathed, he was aware of it, quiet but far-reaching, all through his system, a pleasing hunger in his remotest nerves. (159)

[The above defintions are lifted from Merrian-Webster Online]

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