Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Beepage: The Language of Popularization

A cold St. Agnes eve it was—so cold that the owl with all its feathers shivered, so cold that the old Beadsman’s fingers were numb as he told his rosary and said his prayers. Passing by the sculptured figures of the dead, he felt sorry for them in their icy graves. As he walked through the chapel door, he could hear the sound of music coming from the castle hall. He sadly turned again to his prayers.

This is not a retranslation from a translation of “The Eve of St. Agnes” into French; it is a direct translation from English into a language called Beepage, fashioned for busy people in a busy age. Further on in the same narrative (or “plot-story”) we find a sample of Basic Beepage:

She came in with her candle, which blew out, and kneeling before her high arched casement window, she began to pray.

Thus three of the most sumptuous stanzas in all poetry, distilled into a dribble. Thus Keats’s silver, snarling trumpets, in transcription.

Beepage is not a new language. Through all ages and tongues it is the dead speech of all stagnant compendia. It filled the short-cut books that Shakespeare drew from; its wide ooze covered the medieval miles of Vincent of Beauvais; and had the terrain not been craggily individual, it would have inundated Montaigne, Bacon, and Burton. In our time Beepage lies in recurring pools in Reader’s Digest; it is the effluvium of the factories of collective authorship.

Beepage is not gobbledygook. Whereas gobbledygook conceals meaning from both writer and reader, Beepage makes plain. Gobbledygook rears ice palaces filled with fantastic sounds; Beepage drones and is level. Hiding difference, making unevenness even, it flows like a canal, narrow and slightly green, a safe way round the perilous cataracts of living water.

Some of the most extensive recent marshes of Beepage can be found in Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form (Harper, 1,144 pp., $5.95), from which we have drawn the translation of Keats quoted above. Editor Frank N. Magill comments on the literary needs of busy people in our busy age and expects his work to help produce “a more intellectually alert society,” from which “we may reasonably expect an acceleration of our cultural development.” Clifton Fadiman blows an amused but enthusiastic introductory horn; then Magill’s men step on the accelerator, from Anna Karenina, Anthony Adverse, Antigone, and Apostle, The, all the way to Yearling, The and You Can’t Go Home Again.

Selecting titles for this curious book must have been a difficult job. Fadiman notes some anomalies but finds things generally satisfactory—a 600 batting average on the first twenty-five really well-known books of fiction that popped into his head. Between horn-beeps he admits that “the aim is not to elevate taste . . . but simply to furnish . . . a useful reference tool.” Living authors are allowed to substitute among their works: Evelyn Waugh, so says Magill’s introduction, chose Brideshead Revisited in place of Vile Bodies; and some nameless soul, devout but humorless, chose Edmund Campion when he should have chosen Decline and Fall or Scoop. It is fortunate, or interesting, that this privilege is denied the dead: Milton bows to the judgment of others, and Paradise is lost in digest form but not regained. Homer bats 1.000 (two for two); though Shakespeare hits several out of the park, he sometimes fans—we have King’s Row, King Solomon’s Mines, but no King Lear.

Any surprise, however, at the selection of titles—which after all is probably a faithful reflection of the ideals of well-read moviegoers—should vanish in contemplation of eleven hundred pages of great flat plot-stories. Though occasionally a glaring error of fact enlivens their progress, in the main they are remorselessly correct except in interpretation and overtones. Let us hear Beepage at its best:

Roberta began to he suspicious and eventually found out the truth. By that time she was pregnant. Clyde went to drug stores for medicine that did not work. He attempted to find a doctor of questionable reputation. Roberta went to see one physician who refused to perform an operation.

No matter how much we may admire this unconscious criticism of Dreiser’s prose, we must be more impressed by the limp relatives which are basic to the grammar of the language which is Beepage. Clyde has more moral fiber than we gave him credit for, but we wonder how many doctors Roberta consulted who did not refuse.

When the third day of the chase began, Moby Dick seemed tired, and the Pequod’s boats soon overtook him. Bound to the whale’s hack by the coils of rope from the harpoon poles they saw the body of Fedallah. The first part of his prophecy had been fulfilled. Moby Dick, enraged by his pain, turned on the boats and splintered them. On the Pequod Starbuck watched and turned the ship in the hope of saving the captain and some of the crew. The canoe-coffin which Queequeg had built appeared now floating on the waters—the coffin of American wood. As the mate maneuvered the ship toward the battle, the monster suddenly turned on the Pequod, and Starbuck felt the wood cracking under him as the ship floundered and slowly sank. Ahab and all the men except Ishmael perished in the sea. Ishmael managed to swim to the canoecoffin. He remained clinging to it for almost twenty-four hours until he was picked up by a passing ship.

Surely this is Michelangelo’s Moses copied in a small bar of Ivory soap. It is an open question whether this account is finer than that of Classic Comics, where Ahab utters the classically comic “a-a-a-arh!” as the rope snares his neck. Melville’s limited imagination wanted silence, which Beepage gives him; he also wanted the rope, furnished by the comic. The hearse of American wood might have been Queequeg’s coffin if Melville had not obstinately said it was the Pequod. The devious-cruising Rachel finds another orphan, this time Melville.

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The style is the whole man, and Beepage is the whole nonentity. Beepage even fabricates fig leaves to hide its nakedness: Romeo and Juliet, though duly married, are apparently allowed to meet only in an orchard, which must be rather damp at night. Trivial as the mistake is, it is symptomatic, recurring in digest after master-digest, but nowhere so triumphantly as in Sanctuary. The horns of Fadiman, faintly puffing, recommend Masterpieces, “if you’d like to check on whether William Faulkner’s plots make any sense at all, denuded of the costumery of his syntax.” Well, Sanctuary is not exactly limpid, but Sanctuary in Beepage will baffle anyone not in the employ of J. B. Rhine:

Seeing Goodwin coming toward the house, she [Temple] ran to the barn and hid in the corncrib. Watching, Popeye saw Goodwin looking from the house toward the barn. In the barn Popeye found Tommy at the door of the corncrib. While Tommy stood watching Goodwin, Popeye shot him. A short while later Goodwin told Ruby that Tommy had been shot.

Eight paragraphs later, we learn that Temple had been “attacked,” but when, how, and by whom we must guess. No, Faulkner makes no sense at all, denuded of the costumery of his syntax and wrapped in so decent and so opaque a veil.

The Reverend Dr. Bowdler, who confessed himself fairly licked by Othello and had to print the offensive thing substantially entire, could have learned much from well-digested Faulkner. In fact, despite the utter depravity of world literature, one would have to concede that almost nothing in Masterpieces would defile the hypothetically pure ear of the high-school girl—quite properly, because she is the reader at whom the book is aimed.

Beepage is translation-English, and Masterpieces, for all its scholarly pretensions and Fadiman’s batting averages, is nothing but a pony. Schools were once frustrated—perhaps deservedly—by students who trotted through courses in dead languages. Now we have trots from English, a living language that is hard to read, into Beepage, a dead language that anybody can read without effort or emotion. It is too bad that students will pass a test on The Red and the Black or learn the plot of Treasure Island and miss the vicarious experience the guileless novelist hoped to induce. But it can’t be helped; we are in for acceleration in our cultural development.

All this may well be thought of as flogging a dead horse, which is futile and nasty. And flogging a live pony is wicked. But if the pony brays, may we not reasonably ask it to be silent so that we can hear what people are saying?

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Let us move on to higher ground, hoping to dry our feet. One obvious omission from Masterpieces in Beepage is a collection of masterpieces and other things called the Bible. This is hardly serious, since the Bible is translated into Beepage, among other languages, every few years. As the original is a constant best-seller, so are the translations, the chief current examples being the works of the late Fulton Oursler, The Greatest Book Ever Written and The Greatest Story Ever Told (Doubleday).

GBEW, published last year, is still high on the lists, and GSET, three years old, has run through sixteen printings: they are not negligible influences on the reading public, nor are they short cuts to a high-school diploma. They are sincerely if not profoundly religious; they intend to draw all men to their great originals—GBEW to “the Old Testament story” and GSET to the life of Jesus. But they are Beepage.

Oursler’s Beepage, however, unlike what we have been traversing, is high class. He is a professional slick writer, has done much research, and has an eye for colorful detail. His writing moves briskly; for instance, we can see through his words the town of Capernaum:

A great sight on the day they arrived, this lake port, seething with energy, overrun with men and women of all nations. Mother and son looked around them, startled and interested and a little sad at all the scurry of the place. It was a town rich, busy, and corrupt, one of the chief stations on the great route from Damascus to the Mediterranean ports of Egypt; a market where silver hordes of fish were carted through the streets, where wine from climbing grape arbors stained the bare feet of the farm girls and there were so many olive groves that a man could take a bath in oil. Through its high streets the caravans moved north and south, and one could buy and sell wheat and silk and ivory; well-paid artisans walked through the bazaars with hands stained blue from the indigo dyes made in next-door Magdala.

This is inoffensive enough, cut to the standard last of the well-heeled historical novel, and it even includes a gende allusive shock in the word “Magdala.” It is in such footnotes to the narrative that Oursler renders his best service to readers who think they cannot cope imaginatively with the Bible—and this presumably is the service for which he was so highly paid. But in the narrative itself, though there is always motion, the majesty has vanished:

That was more than a nuisance in the high priest’s comfortable scheme of things—it was potential ruin. The Nazarene must be stopped. [Some halfback! Some line!]

Did any man ever feel more inferior than Zacchaeus? He was so small, his body so badly made, that he was almost a midget; he was a tax man, and no one would have anything to do with him. Only in this stranger from Nazareth did he see any promise of human warmth and understanding—and now that Jesus was about to pass right in front of him and his customhouse, he feared he would not get even a glimpse of his hero, because the crowd was so large and Zacchaeus was so small. That was why the hunchback scrambled up into the branches of the sycamore tree—a medium-sized, bushy green tree that swayed crazily under his monkey-like movements of arms and legs; and through the damp, flat leaves he thrust a bearded face to look down the squalid street for the man he had heard would be a friend to anyone.

Jesus looked up and saw him there, in his brocaded silken cap, imported from Ctesiphon. Zacchaeus turned pale but the Master waved His hand and called: “Zacchaeus! Hurry up and come down! . . . Come down, for this day I must abide in your house!”

The Master in my house! Jesus my guest!

Some would prefer the old primer version:

Zacchaeus he

Climbed a tree

The Lord for to see.

Again:

“That man shall surely die,” declared David indignantly. “And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”

“You are the man,” cried Nathan in a terrible voice. He made unmistakably clear the parable he had spoken: “You have despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in his sight.”

And step by step Nathan sternly rehearsed the heinous offenses against Uriah, seduction and then murder.

Oursler never uses a big big thou unless the weight of tradition is simply too much for him to bear, as in Ruth’s words to Naomi or The Song of Solomon. “You are the man,” instead of the thundering “Thou art the man” that has reverberated down the ages, is trivial but significant. English, living for centuries, can preserve an obsolete form in the amber of a phrase or a literary tradition; Beepage, since it will die this summer, must keep its insect hum nervously up to date.

Oursler accepts and adds fussy details to Biblical miracles, yet his voluminous prosiness manages to avoid the awe of the believer, the wonder of the poet, or the reason of the skeptic. He is rigid in morals yet cannot resist a titillating vignette of Sodom and a slow, sweaty strip-tease with Salome; even Boaz is “a jolly man of middle age with no eye to miss such beauty as this ragged stranger.” Oursler takes infinite pains to record and invent human touches in Jesus, yet he dares not say of Lazarus, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” He strains for grandiloquence and destroys power and dignity. He falls among all conceivable stools.

“Rhythmless speech or writing is like the flow of liquid from a pipe or tap; it runs with smooth monotony from when it is turned on to when it is turned off, provided it is clear stuff; if it is turbid, the smooth flow is queerly and abruptly checked from time to time, and then resumed. Rhythmic speech or writing is like the waves of the sea, moving onward with alternating rise and fall, connected yet separate, like but different, suggestive of some law, too complex for analysis or statement, controlling the relations between wave and wave, waves and sea, phrase and phrase, phrases and speech. In other words, live speech, said or written, is rhythmic, and rhythmless speech is at the best dead.” This sentence, pronounced long ago by H. W. Fowler in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, is prophetically just for the hack murderers of literature; ironically just also, since the passage Fowler quotes as a masterpiece of rhythm is one of many that expire in Oursler’s interminable translation.

Here is the chatty translation into Beepage:

But to David, Absalom still remained, in his ignominious death, the darling of his heart and soul. The king-father ‘s grief in the midst of military triumph was overwhelming. All in an instant he seemed to forget the treachery, the stark fact that his favorite would have killed his father if he could, would have taken his throne, worn his crown, and reigned by his father’s murder. All bitterness drained out of David’s heart. Weeping, he stood at the window of his private room and raised a broken voice to God:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The sublime English version that Beepage drowns out for us:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

By the implacable judgment of Fowler and of our own ears, and in spite of the frivolous defense by Fadiman, Magill and Oursler stand condemned—imperishable twin marsh-wideners and canal-puddlers, the Dioscuri of the damp wastes of Beepage.

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