Saturday, July 07, 2012

Lewis on imprecations

I came across an excellent observation on imprecatory and abusive language from the prolific pen of C. S. Lewis:

…In the vocabulary of abuse and complaint we see things that once were words passing out of the realm of language (properly so called) and becoming the equivalents of inarticulate sounds…

The “swear-words”—damn for complaint and damn you for abuse—are a good example. Historically the whole Christian eschatology lies behind them. If no one had ever consigned his enemy to the eternal fires and believed that there were eternal fires to receive him, these ejaculations would never have existed. But inflation, the spontaneous hyperboles of ill temper, and the decay of religion have long since emptied them of that lurid content. Those who have no belief in damnation—and some who have—now damn inanimate objects which would on any view be ineligible for it…. It has ceased to be profane. It has also become very much less forceful….

So with abusive terms. No one would now call his schoolfellow or next door neighbor a swine unless someone had once used this word to make a real comparison between his enemy and a pig…. Villain, as we know, once really compared your enemy to a villein….

Thus all these words have come down in the world. None of them started by being merely abusive, few of them by being abusive at all. They once stimulated emotion by suggesting an image. They made the enemy odious or contemptible by asserting he was like somebody or something we already disliked or looked down on…. That was why they really hurt; because hurting was not the whole of what they did. They stimulated emotion because they also stimulated something else; imagination…. Now that they are nothing whatever but emotional stimulants, they are weak emotional stimulants. They make no particular accusation. They tell us nothing except that the speaker has lost his temper.

…An important principal thus emerges. In general, emotional words, to be effective, must not be solely emotional. What expresses or stimulates emotion directly, without the intervention of an image or concept, expresses or stimulates it feebly.

—“At the Fringe of Language,” Studies in Words (2nd ed.), C. S. Lewis, 1967

And I, in turn, expand this to apply it to my own writing (as you may have guessed from the additional emphasis I placed on Lewis’s quotation, the bold text). If I want to elicit emotion in any way, I must stimulate the imagination and let the imagination do the emotional hard work.