“Words, words, words” is Hamlet’s famous reply to Polonius’ question, “What do you read, my lord?” – the repetition of “words” signifying, so various pundits tell us, that Hamlet is suggesting that what he is reading is meaningless.
Well, if you’d just been told that your uncle offed your father to take power, steal your kingship, and get his mitts on your mother, you too might feel suffused by overwhelming feelings of meaninglessness – especially if you were uncertain about the veracity of the information given to you and consequently deeply uncertain about whether to act on it.
During the last century or two, some commentators have been critical of Shakespeare for apparently taking it for granted that ghosts existed; how foolish did the fellow think his audience was? Others have said that – while grinning cheerfully because ghosts were great crowd-pleasers – Shakespeare is clearly indicating that it’s dicey to take the word of a so-called ghost.
Anyway, I hope that the “new” commentators, the young people of our era, will, because of modern events and technologies, think more outside the proverbial box – be more creative in terms of their glosses on Shakespeare’s texts.
Why not, for example, consider the ghost in Hamlet as the 16th century equivalent of a QAnon-affiliated Twitter feed? Or equivalent to many other pieces of “information” sent on social media? These have as much credibility as that of a father’s ghost, don’t they?
Flowing from this thought, I think that another way in which we could revitalize our cultural history is to bring back certain words that have fallen into disuse.
Yesterday, I tried to divert my attention from political commentary (“The ANC is rotten, corrupt, incompetent and stole all the money. Ergo, Seffrica is shtupped.”) and from reams of articles about Covid-19 (“The new variant is worse. The ANC messed up procuring a vaccine, too busy trying to make a lucrative deal for themselves. The hospitals and oxygen supply are shtupped. We have clowns jumping around putting the seashore out of bounds.”).
I don’t disagree with any of the above statements; just that I find them mind-numbingly repetitive and they leave me feeling like Hamlet that life is meaningless; so, I turned to reading about a new translation of André Gide’s Marshlands (1895) – and learned a new French word.
A “sotie” – not to be confused with a soutie – was a short satirical play common in 15th- and 16th-century France. The word comes from the sots, “fools”, the characters who appeared in such plays to comment on contemporary events and individuals. The genre, we are told, originated in the Feast of Fools and other Carnival-related festivities, the purpose of which events was to present a world turned upside-down, with fools thus being considered as “fonts of wisdom”.
By the end of the 16th century, alas, soties were banned and then they disappeared. This happened because the comments of the fools – those fonts of wisdom, although dressed in grey robes and wearing hoods with donkey ears – or fur hats with horns – obviously got too risqué for those in power.
In a way, it must in those days have been quite difficult to ban things. There weren’t servers you could just shut down or “platforms” off which one could simply remove someone. On the other hand, in those days the king was the king, and you didn’t mess with his manne. Though, on my third hand, I concede that corporate capitalism might be even more powerful than a French monarch.
I fancy the concept of soties, and it occurs to me that much of what we are witnessing these days in SA and the USA (which is more fun) are soties. I have been particularly seized by an article that came out in the wake of the now notorious march to, and short-lived invasion of, the Capitol Building.
According to the New York Times, “For Vice President Mike Pence, the moment of truth had arrived. After three years and 11 months of navigating the treacherous waters of President Trump’s ego ... there he was being cursed by the president.”
Apparently by way of “cajoling and browbeating” Pence to “overturn” the election, Trump reportedly said: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
This having been reported, shock horror broke out in the puritan souls or borrowed puritan souls of many in the US news media. On CNN, for example, the “p-word” and “Trump’s vulgar words” were solemnly referred to through clenched jaws.
On the HuffPost site, one Ron Dicker [sic] just happened to mention that “Trump, of course, infamously used the word ‘pussy’ in a tape that leaked just before the 2016 election. He was caught bragging to Billy Bush of ‘Access Hollywood’ that he could use his celebrity [status] to grab women by the genitals”.
Now, far be it from me, as a proud journalist, to spoil a good Trump/Pence sotie with certain facts. But when it comes to words, words, words, although being left with only these at one’s disposal can fill one with feelings of meaninglessness (cf. Hamlet and probably Trump), words do have specific meanings when used in specific contexts.
It’s been a long time, some 30 years, since I lived in the states, but being a younger person then did mean that I encountered the word “pussy” more often than now; and, as best as I recall, in the good ol’ USA, while pussy can refer to female genitalia, I heard it used far more often as a synonym for a wimp.
So much so, that I often found myself doing a double take, i.e., why were these two ostensibly prim young women from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, with whom I was taking some lunch and earnestly discussing Zionism, both referring to X as a real pussy?
To recap. Trump said to Pence: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
I don’t think the outgoing president of the US, who probably thinks of himself as an aficionado of what he doubtless thinks of as the fairer (or, at any rate, more pliable) sex, would suggest to Pence at that moment that the outgoing vice-president had a choice of being a patriot or a grabworthy woman.
As for me (if anyone’s interested), it’s not even a choice. Even wearing full personal protective gear, I wouldn’t touch patriotism with a barge pole.