Armen Chakmakjian

On excellent expression…

In Random on February 18, 2017 at 4:10 pm

As the 35th anniversary of my high school graduation approaches I look back fondly on those years. I attended what at the time was called “Fairfield College Preparatory School” or “Prep” for short and at the at time Fairfield College had for many years been referred to as Fairfield University. The University teams were called Stags in reference to the time when Fairfield was an all male college, but at the time of my attendance at Prep, the university was co-ed. Not so for Prep, which was still and still is a boys’ school. The teams at Prep were and are still referred to as “The Jesuits.”

I was a child of Armenian immigrants from the middle east, my mother from Istanbul and my father from the litany of famous and infamous cities of history, Jerusalem where he was born, Bethlehem, Beit Jamal, Ramleh, Jerusalem again and finally Amman where he grew into manhood before coming to the US. I was born and raised in Bridgeport CT and my father was a steel worker with a wish that he could have had more education. While attending Prep, I was presented with as good an education that one could probably receive anywhere. The level of discourse, verbal and written, between teacher and student and even more so between students about every topic was, in retrospect, way beyond our years or peers. I was on the debating team, but every common conversation in the cafeteria would become a debate of ideas.

Within this environment of elevated discussion, I was always amazed at the writing skill of my fellow students. I had to work extremely hard to express myself in a similar way. While I knew 2 other languages beside English and was taking Latin, I always felt like the bar was really high. These guys were very smart.

I write all the above for some context on the actual topic of this note which is the appreciation of excellent expression. Years after leaving Prep and getting my engineering degree, began to re-immerse myself in non-technical books and writing for my edification and enjoyment. I read works on literary criticism, politics, and creative works. I came across some writing by that guy on Firing Line with the weird accent who used really long words that I hadn’t heard in a while, at least since the high school verbal jousts or ever at all. While I didn’t come down as far over the political spectrum as he often debated from, I was fascinated when William F. Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith would go after each other on the PBS debates. The civil repartee between colleagues who still disagreed wholeheartedly was very enjoyable.

This past Christmas one of my sisters sent me a book, A Torch Kept Lit, which is a collection of eulogies written by Buckley about people in his life that were mostly published in the National Review in his column. Given everything I wrote about above, I thought this letter by Hugh Kenner, defending Buckley’s overuse of the word “solipsism” to Charles Wallen, their mutual friend who complained about it, reminded me of a lot of the oddball discussions from that time in high school:

Dear Charles,

Bill’s point is precisely that there is no substitute for “solipsism.” If what pains you about it is simply the fact that you seldom hear it, then the fault is not in the man who grinds it against your ears, but in the millions of part-time and largely inadvertent solipsists who are so who are so convinced the universe emanates from them that they feel no need of a word to designate such a condition. Fish, on the same principal, know nothing of water and for aqueous terminology you should not apply to a fish.

If on the other hand your ears are assaulted by its impacted sibilants (as the ears of Tennyson were aggrieved by the word “scissors”) then I can only fetch you the cold comfort that for a graceless condition the wisdom inherent in the language has afforded us a graceless word. And if, finally, your grievance is that Bill uses it too often, then I can only tax you with inconsistency, since you report that after one to two years of not hearing it from his lips you were wounded anew by a single occurrence — perhaps, I will grant, on the principle of a man who has been sensitized to penicillin. Such a man’s comfort should be that others need the remedy that inflames them, and that principle I commend to you.

Hugh Kenner

Writing like this always makes me laugh out loud (LOL!).


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