Friday, May 29, 2009

What is an adjective? (as if the question might be How are they glancing?)

What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning "placed on top," "added," "appended," "imported," "foreign." Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are latches of being.

Of course there are several different ways to be. In the world of the Homeric epic, for example, being is stable and particularly is set fast in tradition. When Homer mentions blood, blood is black. When women appear, women are neat-ankled or glancing. Poseidon always has the blue eyebrows of Poseidon. Gods' laughter is unquenchable. Human knees are quick. The sea is unwearying. Death is bad. Cowards' livers are white. Homer's epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumption. There is a passion in it but what kind of passion? "Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code," says Baudrillard.

--Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, from page 4


Bob MacDonald said...

ha - I am reading a book on Hazlitt and the history of grammar books in English (by my son-in-law who is brilliant) - but what I notice is how skilfully adjectives and adverbs can be used. I think I am getting over my hatred of the usual parochialism of these gadgets - now that I see they can be useful abbreviations.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for your comment Bob. I'd love to read your son in law's book.

Bob MacDonald said...

You will the advertisement here

J. K. Gayle said...

Bob - thank you.

John Radcliffe said...

One thing I find interesting about adjectives is that, when looked at one way, they limit or restrict (so "It's a yellow dog" is a more restricting, less general, statement than simply, "It's a dog": I've immediately excluded all brown, blue, and white dogs, for example), while, when looked at in a different way, they say more about the subject (so now we know it's a dog and yellow).

Isn't that like life? Some people want to label us ("Oh, so you're yellow: not green or purple, like me or him"); others just want to know more about how you tick, to understand you (and perhaps in the process, to learn more about themselves: "Oh, so you're yellow. That's interesting because I'm purple, but it seems we both like green cats.")

I'd take a wild guess that we both like the second kind of adjectives best.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that others typically choose the "wrong" labels to describe us. So while: "Mr Radcliffe, 52, an unmarried IT support worker, with no children" may all be true, it doesn't in my mind say who I am. Better might be something like: "John, who likes having long conversations with friends and family; reading and reflecting on Scripture in a multitude of translations; listening to classical, rock, folk or country music; visiting Scottish tower houses; etc, etc" perhaps comes nearer the mark. But those aren't going to be the sort of things the newspaper reporter will ask about if I'm knocked down and killed crossing the street.

J. K. Gayle said...

John, I love your view of adjectives in both directions! Reminds me of the "half-full glass" parable. And your "wild guess" gets me thinking again of the wonderful little book, Stalking the Wild Verb Phrase by my friend Bob Fradkin.