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“we are running now, spectral and swift”

June 2, 2011

While on the subject of UD’s “guard,” I’d like to point out a small piece that recently appeared, written by a key and universally beloved member of that guard, teacher-administrator-scholar, and a man you can hardly speak of without praising his deep kindness and modesty. In this “address delivered to the faculty of the University of Dallas in October 1990, before Classics and Modern Languages became separate departments,” Dr. Sweet explicates the title of his then-department with that circuitous, yet always uncannily sure-footed, approach of his which clarifies outlines and shades of difference while quietly opening and deepening the field in which we view them.

For instance:

…We wonder, “How do we name?”

There are three possibilities: first, we give names completely arbitrarily—there is no recognizable connection between a thing and its name. Achilles means nothing to us, whether or not it meant anything to his namer. Second, we name by isolating a remarkable characteristic. I think of Ray’s first fictional hero, Swivelhips, or of mine, the lanky, long-legged pitcher with a kick like Warren Spahn’s who released the ball out of a bewildering windmill of limbs. His teammates looked up at him on the mound and called him Highpockets. Third, we do so by transference, by the paradoxical habit of calling something what it is not, that is, by metaphor. Now I think of that figure who roamed through centerfield long ago in Fenway Park, Tris Speaker, so elusive conceptually that he needed two names to describe him, the Grey Eagle and the Spook. When he ran under the ball, he became a poltergeist and a bird of prey, spectral and swift. Or what about the fellow who played later in left? They called him the Splendid Splinter, so total a hitter that he seemed to be a piece of his own bat, Ted Williams.

You can see then that this practice of naming tells us something about the difference between language as qualitative and number as quantitative. Numerical precision applied to speech would require that one word denote only one thing, which would make language impossible. We could never learn it, because the simplest statements would be unutterably complex. The solution of speech is to make use of ambiguity, which gives us the strange result that clarity is the product of the lack of clarity. A man is a hungry, swooping ghost. Naming, therefore, through its deliberate confusions, by bringing unlike things together as if they were alike, instructs us in the nature of the same and the different.

I won’t quote the last passage–“the foreign has this power”–but it’s wonderful.

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