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  • Reverend James Squire

A World Without Adjectives

When the Yale Alumni Magazine (March/April 2022) arrived, I was surprised to see a picture of David Duchovny, the actor turned writer, who did his graduate degree at Yale on the cover. My first reaction was, “Yale, is that the best you can do with everything that is happening in the world today.” The articles in the magazine are of an erudite nature so I was wondering what the star of “The X Files” and “Californication” could say at this particular time that would make a contribution to our understanding of our lives.

The article, “From Film to Paper: David Duchovny Would Rather Write”, was profound.

I believe that Duchovny is on the cover to demonstrate how a journey of the mind can take you to different places and, as for me, how one line in the article could describe so much about how we live our lives. Duchovny tells the story of how one graduate school seminar that was led by the legendary professor of English, Harold Bloom, raised a question that stumped the class except for one exceptionally bright student, feminist, and Rhodes Scholar Naomi Wolf who answered it by saying, “That would be like a world without adjectives.” Bloom chanted back, “Exactly, my dear, exactly.” So, what I want to know is what was the question?

The question could be if we bring it into current times, “How would Zelensky do in his address to Congress if he could only say the facts with no descriptions of the horrible events? What would we think if he didn’t use the language of description and just stuck to the barebones issues? In overly simplistic terms, it would be the difference between saying, “See that girl in the dress!” and “See that girl in the long flowing lace dress!” The first doesn’t have life. The second does. Leadership is at its best when it lives in a world with adjectives conjuring up mental images which is one of Zelensky’s strengths not to be taken for granted.

Adjectives provide rich texture whether it is writing, directing a film, painting a portrait or what President Zelensky had as a goal in addressing Congress. Adjectives describe and change a context. Adjectives are words that describe nouns. They conjure up images that add details that enhance the meaning of the noun. So, adjectives are that extra ingredient to make a routine event something that engages. You can take them away and the sentence or statement will still make sense. However, when you take an adjective away it will make the statement less informative, thought provoking, and engaging. Adjectives are words, but to expand that definition, we can, in my opinion, have phrases that enhance, describe, and bring engaging images to our minds.

Speeches that Zelensky gives such as to Congress are like adjectives that describe his war-torn nation. It is more than one word describing a noun. One of his characteristics as a leader beyond his courage and charisma is his ability to do what adjectives do. He is informative, thought provoking, and engaging. How many politicians channel Shakespeare, “to be or not to be”, or one of the greatest political orators of all time during a war, Winston Churchill. “We will fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds. We shall fight them in the fields and in the streets…we shall never surrender…”

When he told Congress what we needed to know about the current situation in his country, he showed us the horrors of this war through film, and he engaged us with references to Pearl Harbor, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech,’ and 9/11. Events that connect to our souls. Descriptions that resonate with our past. Descriptive phrases like an adjective that remind us of the trauma of our past and its similarity to Ukraine’s struggle.

Harold Bloom described “religion as a unifying principle of living.” Where would we be without adjectives? Where would we be without the unifying principle of religion to unite and not divide, to make a nation whole and not fragmented? Where would be without the adjective, religious? Where would we be without a force that requires us to, “Act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Amos 6:8)? We would be listening to a someone who is one dimensional minus any texture. Putin is a name that will come to mean barbaric with little need of any adjective as his name like Hitler will tell us all we need to know about “evil.” Zelensky will come to mean a courageous leader and any other adjectives beyond “good” that we care to add to celebrate his life.

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