Adjectives and nouns


Are we confusing the two?  Are we thinking we “are” our descriptors?  Is it a ring of gold or gold in the shape of a ring?  Am I a white male or a human with light skin and penis?  What is the raw material from which humans are made?


The Sirens, by John Flaxman. From Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve argued, Homer’s Odyssey can be seen as the process whereby Odysseus sheds all the adjectives and epithets that had become attached to him–“polytropos,” sacker of cities, cunning, resourceful, etc.–and becomes one again with his real self: his noun.  He does this by letting go of his past glories; hearing from Achilles in the underworld about the emptiness of kleos, weeping when he hears Demodokos sing of Troy, bearing up under the temptations of the sirens, and so on.  So it is with us.  Our adjectives are the identities with which we are born, really, whether from our sanskara or our genes, which we accept as givens and carefully nurture.  Our talents, preferences, tastes, sexual orientation, team affiliation.  Heart or head, cat person or dog person, left or right, materialist or idealist.  These are never really conscious choices–rather leanings we are born with, and then attempt to justify.  We can agree with the political, religious and social dogmas with which we are raised, or rebel against them.  But as with most of the academic analysis of the Odyssey–or any work for that matter–these are all just on the same plane.  Rearranging, or upgrading the furniture.

But we seldom observe the choices being made, since we are identified with mind that makes them.  So we pile on the adjectives, thinking we are becoming more complex, deeper, multifaceted, polytropos.  Meanwhile the observer, our noun itself, waits in the background for us to start letting go.  Waiting to lift the roof off the house.

Update 1/27: Just came across this video, which I think also makes the point.

Update 2/4: And came across this advice quoted in Bob Richardson’s book about Emerson’s writing process, First We Read, Then We Write: “Avoid adjectives.  Let the noun do the work.” (p. 35)  (Originally in Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson by Charles J. Woodbury.  Also available online.)

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