Big thanks to H. Conrad Miller for inviting me to write a guest post on his blog, A Side of Writing, today!

A Side Of Writing

I think a lot about order and chaos and our relationship to both and how the world in my mind is not the world in your mind and never will be no matter how hard we try. To express ourselves, to listen, to understand each other. We’re born into a world that makes no real sense initially, at least not to us, because all we know is that it’s colder than it was in the warm wet place we just were, glaringly bright by comparison, and filled with loud, horrible noises. Then we’re tired and hungry and sitting in a sack of our own shit, but we can’t make any sense of this yet because we don’t have language, and by the time we do get the words we need to make sense of it all, these horrible things are so far behind us and replaced with so many more…

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Lemmings? Lemmings!

I was in the middle of teaching my Freshman Composition class yesterday when it dawned on me that my students didn’t know what I was talking about. This kind of situation isn’t entirely unheard of in my class. I can go on for hours without making a point, or so my students tell me on a regular basis. But this time, I had a point, and I was making it clearly. At least, I thought I was making it clearly until I realized that my students didn’t know the meaning of a key term in the analogy I was drawing: lemming.

First, some background. My class revolves around issues relevant to popular culture. We analyze topics like education, work, and mass media. More often than not, we consider these issues in relation to social norms, and the questions we ask frequently have to do with why things are the way they are. In other words, we don’t just talk about what we consider normal. We also talk about why we consider certain things normal and whether there might be alternative ways of thinking about those issues.

As part of yesterday’s class, I asked my students whether there was any value in questioning our cultural norms and, if so, what that value might be. Among the answers was the suggestion that if we just go along with everything that our culture tells us to do, there’s no telling where we’ll end up.

“Right,” I said. “We don’t want to be lemmings.”

Blank stares.

“Lemmings,” I said. “You have heard of lemmings, right?”

“Lemons?” someone said.

Mings,” I said. “Lemmings.

Still nothing, so I asked for a show of hands to see who knew what a lemming was — and nobody did. So I told my students to whip out their smart phones and do some research. Here’s what they turned up:

The reason I mention all of this isn’t really to talk about lemmings. And it isn’t even to decry the state of education in the United States. I’m sure high school teachers have far more important things to do than make sure their students know that lemmings are best known for taking long swims that rarely work out as planned. Or that, as a result of their tendency to follow each other in droves to watery graves, they’ve come to represent mindless, self-destructive group-think.

My point — my larger point, anyway — is that words die if we don’t use them. When I was a child, I loved to castigate my friends for being lemmings. You really think Mr. Rogers cares about you? Fine, be a lemming if that’s what you want! Personally, I don’t think the guy even knows you exist. Yes, I was a very lonely four-year old, but I really knew how to hurl an insult. More to the point, I had a handy metaphor for the kind of person I didn’t want to be — i.e., a mindless follower.

So what does it mean that this particular metaphor is vanishing from our popular argot? For one thing, it means that we’ve lost a handy insult to level at people whenever they mindlessly go along with the crowd. Sure, there are others, but none have quite the same connotations as lemming. And an insult, it goes without saying, loses a bit of its punch when its intended victim remains blissfully unaware of having been insulted.

What’s more, we’re not just losing an insult. We’re losing a whole train of thought: To be a lemming is lame. I don’t want to be lame, so I won’t be a lemming. To put it another way, we’re losing a bulwark against conformity. Or, to put it yet another way, we’ve given rise to a generation of humans that’s far more susceptible to — well, to behaving like lemmings — than previous generations. By losing “lemming,” we’ve lost the ability to identify lemmings as such and, along with that, the ability to tell them to snap out of it.

Obviously, we need to get the word out. Or, more accurately, we need to bring the word back. We need to make lemming the insult it used to be, so here’s what I propose: After you’ve finished reading this post, click the “like” button. Then click the “reblog” button. And all of the “share” buttons. And after that, get on all of your social networking sites and talk about this post and how great of an insult lemming is. In short, do everything you can to drive as much traffic to this post as possible — and soon everyone will know why it isn’t good to be a…

Oh, wait.

Never mind.

More Than Just a Drinking Game

Let’s get it out in the open: Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmerelda makes for a great drinking game. If you take a shot every time a character in this collection reaches in vain for a word or ponders its origins, you’ll be on the floor in no time.*

“What is it that smells so fantastic?” asks a stranded tourist in one story. “I wish I knew the names.”

“Don’t you sometimes feel a power in you?” asks an astronaut in another. “An extreme state of good health sort of… There’s probably a German word for it.”

“An anorak would have a fur-lined hood. Consider the origin of the word.”

“There was a name for the outfit she was wearing and I nearly knew it, nearly had it, then it slipped away.”

“There was a word he wanted to apply to her. It was a medical or psychological term, and it took a long moment before he could think of it, anorexic, one of those words that carries its meaning with a vengeance.”

To an extent, DeLillo’s interest in words and their origins feels like an affectation—his signature move, as it were. Less generously, one might call it a crutch. At the same time, though, it’s not like the author is just filling space when his characters plumb the depths of their minds in search of the right words to describe the world around them. There’s always a bigger point, perhaps the main point he’s trying to explore in all of his work: language is what makes us human.

Yet language doesn’t just happen, DeLillo is at pains to point out. It has a history that’s rooted in our desperate need to make sense of the world. We are a species that attaches words to objects, ideas, and other phenomena in order to communicate with each other, a species that subsequently ties these words together to create strings of language, a species, furthermore, that spins these strings into grand systems of thought, bodies of knowledge that attempt to describe the universe and, in the act of describing, tame the chaos. This is exactly what DeLillo’s characters are trying to do throughout this collection and his fiction in general—to find the words that will allow them to make sense of an otherwise senseless world.

Of course, if DeLillo’s fiction is about using language to divine order from chaos, it’s also about what happens when your attempt to make sense of the world bumps up against mine. DeLillo explores this tension throughout The Angel Esmerelda on scales ranging from the personal to the global.

A married couple disagrees over a fellow traveler’s country of origin.

Witnesses to a kidnapping offer competing theories as to its motive.

An old-school nun argues with a colleague over a mysterious apparition.

A pair of college students have a falling out over the prospect of speaking to the hooded figure who walks the streets of their sleepy hamlet

Precocious children trade snappy comments on the world’s collapsing economy.

Astronauts watch helplessly while World War III rages below.

Through it all, there is the potential for dialogue, for real communication, but there are no guarantees. We’re awash in theories, overwhelmed with ideas, each of us struggling to convey our thoughts to the other even as we wish for a more transcendent mode of communication. But no such mode exists, DeLillo insists throughout The Angel Esmerelda.

All we have are words.

*Assuming you share my low tolerance for alcohol.