Sunday, December 09, 2007

Away with words

For a romantic, even sentimental poet whose most famous works brought us expressions such as “ships that pass in the night” and “into each life some rain must fall”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow clearly also had a darker side.
Reflect if you will on this little rhyme:

Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all

The title? Retribution. Just the sort of thing you can imagine stitched onto a sampler by the wife of a hellfire and brimstone preacher, framed and prominently displayed as a constant reminder not so much of God’s enduring love, but of man’s interpretation of Him as figure of infinite, agonizing, crushing judgement. There’s no actual cruelty suggested, just a relentlessness that does the math with all the precision and coldness – and perfection – of a pocket calculator. Nothing will be missed on this divine ledger, no small indiscretion overlooked, no crime, no matter how well concealed or cleverly explained, forgotten.
I have a slightly different vision of a higher power – but truly, to each his own. I think Longfellow’s short but chilling little verse reflects more the attitudes of society and certainly the course of history.
Nobody, it seems, in the end, is going to get away with anything.
Consider the legacies of Conrad Black and Brian Mulroney – still in the making and with an infinite future of judgement waiting to grind each into the shape future generations can look back on and see in bas relief; not completely three-dimensional, but simple and clear. (This is also supposing those future generations will care to do so.)
There’s something so similar in the mien of these men, something so strangely apropos that these two should be going through their dark nights of the soul in tandem, as they separately await judgment for (alleged) crimes of financial chicanery.
Two very different men, two totally different paths – one having chosen the private sector, if not a private life of a media baron; the other a lifelong politician, whose every decision and pronouncement would have been reflected back on the very pages published by his current personal doppelganger.
Big men. Big voices. Big deals. Big egos. Big downfall.
The Mills of God in their cases also twinned – the courts of law on the one hand, of public opinion, the other. Though their fates await separate sentence (and in Mulroney’s case, even a formal accusation has yet to be made as the enquiry into his dealings with evil elf Karlheinz Schreiber continues) it’s likely a safe bet that outside their fears of financial ruin and/or imprisonment, their real preoccupation and the very real personal pain both are suffering is in regard to that one area that is unaffected by crimes and courts and sentences: the judgment of history. The loss of a powerful and positive legacy they both so clearly yearn for.
The Toronto Star featured an article yesterday opining on that very subject, though perhaps you could sense which way the story was leaning with the reporter’s inclusion of Richard Nixon as an example of history’s judgment of a man vilified in his own time, destined to be remembered as the only president ever forced to resign in shame and ignominy. Though she left the ultimate judgment hanging – as she must: excellent journalist though she is, she makes no claims of psychic prescience – there was and is very little doubt that she shares the opinion of most onlookers: the final judgement, whether made by God or man, by history or histrionics, doesn’t look so good.
It doesn’t matter the good that may have been achieved by either from time to time in the course of their lives and careers, there’s a sense that overall, in a “Mill’s of God” sort of way, the balance for both lies very squarely on the dark side of the spreadsheet.
What’s surprising is that two such intelligent men – you simply don’t reach the heights either have achieved without a generous helping of grey matter – have such an inability to see themselves as others see them. To acknowledge the waves of disbelief and disgust, which they casually dismiss with all the depth of a bitchy cheerleader: “You’re just jealous!” you can imagine them bleating, as every other editorial weighs in with character sketches that might make you or me weep.
Another similarity between the terrible twins are their problems with communication – though their difficulties are expressed in two very different ways.
Conrad Black for instance, who is renowned for his virtually bottomless vocabulary renders himself incomprehensible for using words far more expensive than your regular over-the-top $10 variety; his would have to go for tens of thousands were they to be auctioned off, so obscure, so long, so complex, so multi-syllabic, but in the end so very unintelligible. Language used not to communicate, but to NOT communicate. What’s that about? Seriously?
(I myself am a lover of words, I like to use them all, or as many as I can get pen around: the most apt, the most delicious, the most lyrical, the most descriptive and I’ll admit that some of them are not in everyday usage – but they’re the best words to communicate precisely what I want to say. However I would never – and I mean never – put myself in the same class as Black who, for example, instead of saying his future wife was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen mere moments after meeting her, described her to those around him as being the absolute acme of “female pulchritude”. I’m convinced half of them, before diving for their dictionaries thought he was describing a fat woman with bad skin. When a person is moved – as I have no doubt he was at first clapping eyes on the very toothsome Barbara Amiel – I’m sure he described her that way a time or two, and as I’m sure you’re aware, it has nothing to do with her actual teeth – you’d (I’d) assume all that puffery and bullshit would whither away to breathless descriptions of beauty and gorgeousness and maybe a comment or two about her rack or her ass if he was truly swept away. But to go straight to "pulchritude", suggests a man no longer able to even think as the rest of us do, let alone express himself in such a way as to be easily understood. He’s turned English into a second language… to the English.)
And Mulroney – he of the modulated to a fare-thee-well, phonier than an old-fashioned disc jockey, cheesier than that guy who used to describe recipes using Kraft products in between breaks during The Wonderful World of Disney. (Combine two cups of Kraft miniature marshmallows with six slices of melted Velveeta cheese, stir in a heaping tablespoon of Kraft Skippy peanut butter, and roll in a half cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips and top with Cheez Whiz – et voila! A marshmallow peanut butter cheese log! Perfect for entertaining – just chill and cut into interesting shapes! Gah!)
I remember my father laughing and describing the then Prime Minister’s voice after the two of us had been listening to some speech or other. “Brian Mulroney,” said my dad – a conservative himself I’ll remind you – “has a voice that sounds like (and here he slowed down) deep, brown, shit.”
I giggled like mad. My dad rarely used language like that. But clearly, in search of the appropriate descriptor, he could come up with nothing truer than that which he described. And it’s true. The result: nothing he says – though you may easily understand the words and even the point – sounds honest, or real, or true. Communication yes – but not of anything he intended. Rather, time and time again – and as seemingly out of control as Conrad Black is in his choice of words – he unintentionally reveals a character as attractive and sweet-smelling as deep, brown shit.
(Aside: I interviewed Mulroney once – two seven minute segments on my news and public affairs talk show – and he began patronisingly, treating me like the piece of blonde fluff I’m sure he assumed I was, before quickly moving into a defensive mode as I lobbed the less-than-softballs he’d been expecting. Still, he gave nothing away and really said nothing either. But the point in a great many of these interviews is not to force some alarming, heretofore unheard of shocking truth out of your interview subject – with their experience with the media that’s never gonna happen - rather to simply allow them to be themselves and reveal themselves in the ways in which they answer, avoid or obfuscate. I was pleased with the interview, though the news director had no comment except to say: “You didn’t make him cry.” I was angry at him them... I think it’s pretty funny now. And it's true - I didn't make the Prime Minister cry.
I’ll say this about Mulroney: he was patronizing, indirect, insincere, oily and cold as chipped ice, but he didn’t smell like deep, brown, shit – he smelled very, very good. It was the most remarkable thing about him: his quite glorious cologne.)
But I doubt there’s a perfume sweet-smelling enough to lift him out of the swamp he’s currently waist deep in, alligators circling, a haze of media like a cloud of noseeums, nipping at his sensitive skin. A hide that’s grown thinner and more delicate as the years and the inconsistencies have piled up.
And Conrad Black, who by all accounts is intending to write another book – his own story it is rumoured – once he beds down in the big house, is probably already mentally marshalling his words as he lies sleepless staring at some expensive hotel ceiling in Chicago awaiting tomorrow’s sentencing.
I doubt "sorry” will be one of them.
So the question is, if the Mills of God are currently grinding these two once high-living, high-flying, high-stakes gamblers into cosmic dust, is it solely for His insight and subsequent celestial sentencing, or might either of these men someday get off that relentless wheel and see for themselves what so many have seen for so long?
Or would it be kinder to pray that they never know with “exactness” just how far down they’ve been ground.

No comments: