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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #NO 78 (article first published : 2008-06-23)

It has been a long time since I wrote a column in this series. The trouble with Ulysses was that he tended to run into troubles, not of his making, that delayed his journey home. My personal trouble was nothing more or less than a loss of motivation – can you possibly, Ulysses asked himself, write anything more about words?

I have been goaded back into writing by a newspaper article, written by an old source of inspiration, the character I have previously called Jane. She is actually of Indian extraction and is a practising psychologist in Durban, South Africa, who writes occasional pieces for our morning newspaper, usually of an improving nature.

She has a habit of never using a simple word when a difficult word will do. In a recent piece she wrote (if memory serves) of an idea “tessellating through the thinking of society”. Tessellating? Come on, kid – what do you mean?

“Tessellating” derives from “tessella”, Latin for a small cube of stone, used for various purposes, sometimes for paving, sometimes as a dice, numbered on its six sides. I think what dear Jane meant was something that filters through the cracks in the mental paving and creates new patterns of shared thought. But who would know? Did she perhaps mean “percolating”?

Her most recent article invited us South Africans to “reflect on our actions”, not a bad idea, as these included burning people to death because they came from outside our borders. She wrote this deathless sentence: “In the media and at social functions the analysis paralysis is an ongoing attempt at introspection, which is not a bad thing at all …” What is an “analysis paralysis” in connection with “an attempt at introspection”, or anything else? Perhaps it means something in the wonderful world of psychology, but in the real world it leaves me mystified.

Talking of the reasons for xenophobic attacks on “foreigners”, she went on to say, “Poverty, third force, poor governance, crime are the diaphoretic responses intertwined with rationalisations that tend to obscure rather than illuminate”. OK already, we don’t understand, so let’s look up “diaphoretic”. According to the Chambers Dictionary, “diaphoresis” means “sweating”, and a diaphoretic is something that promotes sweating, but what possible connection can there be between rationalisations and sweating? Dear Jane again proclaims herself as an expert in the art of obscuring rather than illuminating. I still don’t know what she meant.

She said later in the same piece that “The obscene wage gap between workers and executives is detrimental to nation building…”

I would love to believe that anything in the nature of nation building was going on here, but my grouse is about the word “obscene”. It is defined as “offensive to the senses…disgusting, repellent; indecent, esp in a sexual sense”. By some amazing process of collective thinking it has come to be associated with economic inequalities: a wage gap is always “obscene”. The sexual connotation has all but disappeared, quite an unusual occurrence in this unfettered age.

Until next time, keep it simple and watch out for those diaphoretics…no sweat, right? - Ulysses Online.




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