War and Euphemism

I took a break from reading Foote on the Civil War to read a few books on Marines in the Pacific during WWII. I’ve since finished Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed, and last night started Robert Leckie’s Helmet For My Pillow. Very early on in the latter, I came across probably the greatest paragraph I’ve ever read in a military memoir.

Always there was the word. Always there was that four-letter ugly sound that men in uniform have expanded into the single substance of the linguistic world. It was a handle, a hyphen, a hyperbole; verb, noun, modifier; yes, even conjunction. It described food, fatigue, metaphysics. It stood for everything and meant nothing; an insulting word, it was never used to insult; crudely descriptive of the sexual act, it was never used to describe it; base, it meant the best; ugly, it modified beauty; it was the name and nomenclature of the voice of emptiness, but one heard it from chaplains and captains, from Pfc.’s and Ph.D.’s—until, finally, one could only surmise that if a visitor unacquainted with English were to overhear our conversations he would, in the way of Higher Criticism, demonstrate by measurement and numerical incidence that this little word must assuredly be the thing for which we were fighting. (Robert Leckie, Helmet For My Pillow)

It reminds me of “The Proper Use of English Word Fuck“. Sledge, bless him, could not bring himself to write about the military habit of blasphemy, and Leckie had to content himself with euphemism to describe it. But what euphemism! The structure alone of the marvelous paragraph above delights me, with its call and response, its tension of opposites resolved in a single blaring call of hilarity.

I plan on reading some James Jones too, even though novels are not quite good for me to read while writing one. Reading fiction feels like work when you’re writing it, and it can exhaust one’s slender leftover resources after a day of chipping words free of the cranium. I feel like reaching for a red pen if I read too much fiction during my writing stage or when revisions heat up. I read a lot more nonfiction because I don’t feel the urge to edit or dissect the prose inside my head. (Unless, of course, it’s egregiously bad.) The memoirs kind of straddle that line, but they’re what the Muse wants right now, and what that bitch wants she gets.

I had to put the Foote Civil War books down after reading about a raider pulling up to a Yankee whaling ship that had just killed a whale and was harvesting the fat. The raider took the crew prisoner and fired the ship and the whale’s carcass, which made my stomach turn. A useless death of a beautiful, noble creature, murdered and set afire on the sea. It’s to Foote’s credit that his description of such things is so powerful, but it turned my stomach and I had to take a break. Reading about the waves of horses dying in battle or ridden to pieces on raids is difficult, too. War is a brutal fucking waste.

Anyway, I’m deep in the first flush of honeymoon writing, working on a book that will never be sold. I should be concentrating on a paying project, but I’m stealing time to write something for my beloved agent, and enjoying the hell out of it. I love the books that grow organically from a single hallucinatory scene best, but a close second are the books I do for my writing partner or my agent because I love them and want them happy. It feels good to give a gift.

Now, after a lunch of triple-ginger gingersnaps and very cold milk, it’s back to work.