Things have come to a pretty pass when I have to ask myself what ‘a pretty pass’ means; or, rather, what its derivation is. I know there’s nothing pretty about a pretty pass. Not remembering or not knowing is not a condition of the memory slippage that comes with age. I’ve never known why a particular kind of pass should be pretty, so there’s been no loss of knowledge. And I take it that ‘pass’ means that to which something has come, as in ‘passage’ and the ‘passage’ of time. We’ve arrived at this place and it’s not pretty, as the shipwrecked say in Twelfth Night.
There are so many words and phrases in the English language that it’s a wonder how even more capacious and retentive brains than mine can accommodate them. I used to know what ‘chiliastic’ meant but now I’d have to look it up. That’s true memory loss, easily remedied by the knowledge of it; you know when you’ve failed to remember something so you remind yourself. I didn’t know what ‘a pretty pass’ meant even when I used it for the first time and with confidence. Meaning isn’t always about explication; it’s mostly about intuition. In some odd way, an expression explains itself through context, sometimes inaccurately but mostly with enough sense for you to understand. One thing’s for sure: not many come these days to a pretty pass; they do, but they wouldn’t describe it that way. They’d just say ‘Oh my god’, or, in the textually vernacular, ‘OMG!’ That’s to say, they wouldn’t have the words. That’s because they don’t read, and if they do, it’s not likely to be anything that might disturb a brain cell. All that said, for a long time I used the adjective ‘hair-brained’ and spelled it that way; until I thought about it, sought its provenance and discovered that it was spelled ‘hare-brained.’ Made more sense, as these things normally do.
This is the sort of thing the novelist Howard Jacobson might have written about in his Saturday column for The Independent, before it went digital (which sounds better than ‘when it scrapped its newsprint version and offended a lot of its readers’.) He was so funny at this year’s Hay Festival in conversation with Amol Rajan, his old editor at the Indie, that I bought Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It, a collection of his Indie columns up to 2011. At the same time, in an interview with Rupert Dastur on The Short Story website, I was mentioning that critics who take exception to short-story collections on the grounds of their relentless variety deserve to suffer from the mental equivalent of the gripes. I felt a bit like that after reading Jacobsen the columnist, though with not the same negative effects: reading those slightly curmudgeonly looks at life in one batch almost turned me into a curmudgeon myself – I whose attitude to whatever it is is likely to be variable. I’ve always had a place for F R Leavis, though, Jacobsen’s teacher at Cambridge. (I never thought Downing College housed students, only Leavis and his Liberal Humanist friends.) Jacobsen’s conservatism, never triumphing over his wisdom, did find its echo. Inter-textuality, or not seeing the ‘work’ for the trees, was once, for Jacobsen, called philistinism; now, it was dignified as ‘theory’. I’m inclined to agree with that.