On March 28, 2019, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli attempted to interview David Shields at a NORMS Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Later he attempted to interview Shields by a hedge and at a bookshop. Later he attempted to interview Shields and Bret Easton Ellis at the latter’s nearby apartment. Luckily, Borgli’s cameras were rolling, and The Millions is proud to present its readers with what is likely the most awkward author interview in the history of American letters.
Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.
To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.
Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.
And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)
A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.
Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”
On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Have you ever had a beautiful experience that was suddenly marred by something ugly and unexpected? Have you ever walked the beach hand in hand with your beloved, waves lapping at your toes, only to have a hovering seagull squirt shit across your arm? When your firstborn was presented to you at the hospital, the child’s face full of unspeakable possibility, did he or she vomit in your hair? Piss in your lap?
I ask — crudely, I know — because of what you did to the copy of Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset that I recently checked out from my local library. What you did — in case you’ve somehow forgotten — was this: while reading this sad, lovely tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final days, you picked your nose. As O’Nan’s Fitzgerald drank his way through Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart and Sid Perelman, you explored your nostrils for the treasure within. And you didn’t stop there.
Instead of doing what a decent person does — cleaning one’s fingers with Kleenex or toilet paper, or rolling the evidence into a ball and flinging it behind the couch, wrongly assuming it will eventually disintegrate — you wiped it directly onto the pages of West of Sunset. And — not that this would excuse your barbarism — your boogers weren’t off to the side, limited to the margins, but directly across O’Nan’s glowing prose.
The effect of your wipery — on myself and anyone else unlucky enough to have borrowed West of Sunset after you — was this:
She was just leaving the floor, sweeping gaily along the fringe of the parquet in an ash-gray evening dress with a red velvet sash that accentuated ** BOOGER! **
His money was gone and there was blood on his jacket, and when he called Sheilah, before he uttered a word, ** BOOGER! **
They nattered on, Zelda mimicking Sara’s sleepy lilt, drawing out her ** BOOGER! **
Every 15 or 20 pages, I was ripped from the story by your nostril-rubbings, forced to grimace and soldier on. It’s a testament to O’Nan’s skill that I was able to finish the book; a lesser novel might have gone back to the library unfinished, me hesitantly returning to the stacks — now a little scarred, a little gun-shy.
How do you live your life, Booger-Wiper? My first instinct is to imagine your home as a mucus-smeared nightmare hovel, mold at the corners and suspicious stains everywhere. But upon further reflection, I think your home might actually be fairly tidy — seeing as how you so freely deposit your filth on things that don’t belong to you. If I lent you a pair of socks, what would lurk inside of them when I got them back? If I left a piece of Tupperware in your kitchen after a dinner party, would you return it to me, empty and clean? Or would it ruin my day?
Part of what’s so galling about your crime is that you chose this book to besmirch. West of Sunset is so elegant, so elegiac, so worthy of respect. If, unable to escape your foul pathology, you have to do this to a library book, why not do it to more deserving title? Try Fifty Shades Freed or Trump: The Art of the Deal. You’re obviously sick — that much is clear — but at the very least, don’t drag down Art with your slimy fingers.
To read West of Sunset — and I know you read it all, because your vandalism is evident to the end — while boogerizing its pages combines the high-minded and the gutter in an intriguing way. Putting aside my disgust for a moment, I must ask: Is there a pattern to your transgressions? When you go to the opera, do you ease out silent, queasy farts as the aria swells? When you enjoy a glass of long-cellared cabernet, do you drool into it first? Do you go unwashed for days, letting your armpits ferment, then revel in their stench as you stroll through a rose garden?
What the fuck is wrong with you?
I finished West of Sunset, despite the harm you inflicted upon it, and I’ve moved on to another library book: Mo Beta Blues, Questlove’s music-focused memoir. The odds that you’ve borrowed both seem slim to me, though I haven’t yet flipped through to check for your handiwork. But if I find so much as a flake of one of your awful rocks in Questlove’s book, you will hear from me, you repugnant snot-monster. That much is certain.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.