Friday, December 08, 2006

The Present Pernicious--or--Why I hate the History Channel (in which we find inbred cats)

By Escutcheon BlotI was waiting in my hotel rooom on one of those interminable afternoons which lie between waking up in the morning and an evening performance, when I remembered a months-old promise to Liverputty International to provide an ad hominous discourse on the execrable practice of the use of the continuous present tense in narrative fiction and historical documentaries (also mainly fictional). I call this, humbly, the Present Pernicious.

While I have always condemned this particular story-telling gimmick (at least since I first consciously encountered it in the the mid-nineties on the History Channel), its unacceptable, recent contamination of light fiction has aroused my fighting blood (we Blots are possessed of fighting blood in sanguinary need only be present for Christmas Dinner down our way to be convinced of this [we don't gather for Thanksgiving...two holidays a year would decimate our already depleted ranks]).

I had purchased, with the expressed intent of enjoyment of a light fictional nature on the Berlin-Warsaw Express, the latest effort of that here-to-fore shining ornament to the crime-writers firmament, Patricia Cornwell. I can highly recommend, incidentally, earlier novels; particularly Southern Cross and Isle of Dogs. A significant portion of the action in Isle of Dogs takes place on the very real Tangier Island in the middle of the Virginia end of the Chesapeake Bay. (On a recent day-trip to the island, I had the pleasure of escorting a European friend through the island's three or four streets. Looking at tidy homes behind prim picket fences closing off front yards full of the tombstones (and presumably graves) of honored ancestors, we began to grow disquieted by a scruffy, mangy, disreputable tortoise-shell pussycat. Wherever we went, there would appear from behind picket and bush, tombstone and overturned skiff, the scrofulous feline. It would fix us with a bilious yellow glare...and melt away. Not until we crossed a narrow footbridge spanning a lobe of marsh, only to be met by the Cat on the other side, did we realize, contrary to our initial and continuing impression that we were pursued by a sort of Cat of the Baskervilles, that we were in fact meeting several members of the same Island family. Apparently (this is supposition, of course) a London cat, partaking of the loose morals of the Restoration court, got herself in the family way before boarding the ship to Virginia, providing the only genetic stock for 350 years of Tangerian Cattery. Why a stud-cat from a mainland plantation was never introduced, history does not relate. Perhaps the high-blooded Tom's services were indeed engaged, but he balked at the idea of a 10-mile boat trip, and could not be got aboard.) Cornwell's earlier books all adhere to the normal, post-Shakespearean modern English understanding and usage of verb tenses and temporal progression in written narrative. She wrote these books in a clear, orderly and logical time sense (if a bit blood-bedecked) that is both enjoyable and profitable to the delighted reader.

However, this new book, which I eagerly opened after having dealt with the Polish border guards (they board the train in the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder...not to be confused with the much better known Frankfurt am Main, the former being less interesting to a staggering degree), expecting to only occasionally glance at the pleasant, but uninspiring scenery of the Polish bit of the Great Northern European Plain, was different.

I was unpleasantly startled to encounter on the first page a banal sequence of 'he says.., she says..., he is..., she is..., it is...'etc.; excrescences of the Pernicious School! I thought, shaken but initially confident, that it was merely a typesetter's error. I bravely soldiered on. On page 15, or so, burdened by a growing sense of incredulity and horror, I abandoned the story (such as it was), frantically flipping forward through the body of the book. All, all, all in the Present Pernicious! Feeling rather like King Alfred at the defeat of the other Saxon Kingdoms by the marauding Dane, I tossed the book aside and abandoned myself to 6 hours of moodily staring at the darkening landscape. Moody staring, as a pastime, has, at best, a 2 hour life-span---but I had naught else to read. Which, of course, made me moodier. Arrival in Warsaw's cavernous, if slightly tasteless Central Station, alleviated my boredom. My mood of bitter disappointment and disillusionment, on the other hand, lingered for several days, partially robbing me of that sweetness of disposition and urbane wit which my friends have come to expect of me...when I go a-visiting.

What is this vogue for an ever present...well...Present? The English language is blessed beyond most languages in the subtlety and variety of its verb tenses and moods. Past, Present, Future, Conditional, and many combinations thereof; they delight and instruct the well-ordered mind. In comparison with German, for example, the temporal riches are truly of an embarassing magnitude. In fact, next to its gigantic vocabulary (which I abuse mercilessly) the well-nigh-unto infinitely mutable expression of the passage of Time is the English language's greatest attribute.

Yet increasingly the talented as well as the omnipresent, un-talented writer is resorting to this crutch-"it makes the story so immediate!" Bah! This is but a damnably dumbed-down short-cut to narrative vitality.

Worst of all, however, is the insidious introduction of the Present Pernicious into the language of not only historical documentaries (which few take seriously) but in putatively serious histories of academic pretensions, and, most ominously, the textbooks of American schoolchildren.

"But why is this so bad, Scutch?" I hear bleatingly in the background. Just this: history is supposed to be the study not only of People(s), Places and Events, but of the inexorable, inescapable law of Cause and Effect. How can a child learn that every action has both its antecedents and the consequenses which then proceed forth? A History Channel documentary on the American Civil War will have Lincoln, Buchanan, and Johnson simultaneously as President. Lee will be victorious at Second Manassess and defeated at Appomatox as Grant besieges Vicksburg and St. Petersburg...simultaneously! The ordinality of normal language has been expunged from these 'histories'.

My 10-year-old niece's American History textbook is only partially written in the Present Pernicious (I will not detail the multitudinous factual errors...these are par for the course in the Modern Indoctrination of Children), but is guilty of another form of the Present Pernicious, that being Pictoral. Illustrating the Pueblo uprising in 17th century New Mexico (then under Spanish rule) is a late nineteenth century photograph of a mission church. In a vingette about the Plains Indians who met the 16th century Spanish explorers, the child is misinformed by early 20th century portraits of the survivors of Wounded Knee. Since the photos are obviously old, and to a child, anything that happened over 5 years ago is ancient history, the natural assumption is that the photos and the events described are contemporaries.

It is tempting to view this as merely a further example of the encroachment of the forces of vapidity. But there is a certain Orwellian overtone in an historical understanding which teaches that what is, is what is, is what is. The advantage of this linguistic method is that whenever something new occurs, it instantly achieves is linguistically the same age and has the same venerability as all that came before it in the Course of Human Events. In fact there is no more course of human events; merely a stagnant pool increasingly deprived of oxygen (rather like the gene pool of those poor cats).

How does one learn not only of the failures, but also the triumphs of the past? Without a coherent understanding of and ability to relate to others the temporal, logical flow of doesn't. Santayana Weeps.

Yours in perpetual ire,

Escutcheon Blot


Charlie Parsley said...


A substantial meal you have served up, it will requie some time for me to digest it. You make an excellent point with the present pernicious. Until I have considered its implications further, I may offer as commentary a recent discovery of my own.

I've been going through storage boxes and finding newspapers and magazines from decades ago, preserved in fairly good condition. The paper is old, but the stories are nothing new. War. Political scandal. Drug use among teens. Homosexuality gaining in population. Troubled schools.

Even the soft news stories could be taken word for word and used today. Vitamins are good for you. Exercise is fun and beneficial. Match throw pillows with curtains.

Recipes for sugar cookies.

How many times does this news need to be told? How many sugar cookie recipes do we need? I throrize some type of Insane Infinite.

Wagstaff said...

This article has put me in a quandary, EB. I agree with most of what you say about fiction and historical writing. Once upon a time the present tense as used in novels like John Updike’s Rabbit series was, well, novel. Now it is overused. When writing a film review, however, I find it damn near impossible to use the past tense when recounting a film’s plot without it starting to sound like a cheap novelization. I can write about various aspects of a film in the past tense, but the plot as retold always comes out as a perpetual present. I describe what’s on the screen as if you are seeing it happen. You’ve certainly made me want to figure out a way around this problem. As it stands, I can’t imagine writing my 5 for the Day piece on Opening Titles in the past tense. In the future, I will have put this dilemma behind me, but presently, you have made me self-conscious.

EscutcheonBlot said...


In discussing a film, book, symphony, or any other creation which takes a certain amount of time to experience, it is appropriate to use the continuing present. These are events, or series of events, captured forever on some more or less imperishable medium.

It has been a long accepted practice in literary criticism, for example, to use the continuing present(Shakespear says in Hamlet, for example...but Shakespear was born in Elizabethan Enland and died in Stuardain England). A work is recreated every time it is experienced...a piece of music can only be understood temporally, it is created anew with every performance(even if only in your head!). The continuing present is an acceptable critical device, whereas the Present Pernicious is a distructive bit of dumbassery.

Kein Angst, Baby! Just don't treat the Civil War like a film review. It is not a work of art, rather an historical event. (Not that you do that...incidentally, I have tried Updike many times, and have failed promiscuously...maybe the PP is to blame.)