Bodily Movement III
Bill Long 4/8/06
Osculating and Oscitating
Before moving to these two "O"-words, which describe either a kiss or a yawn, I want to return to some of the discussion on nictate/nictitate from the previous essay. As you recall, I ended with a reference to Nabokov's Speak, Memory, the moving memoir he wrote regarding his childhood days first in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, then his European "exile" in the 1920s and 1930s, before ending with his departure for the US in 1940. Here is a fuller quotation using the term:
"The landscape itself went through a complex system of motion,..a bank of nictitating grass rising, rising, rising."
The work was written in the 1940s but was only published in book form in 1951 under the title of Conclusive Evidence. [A very sympathetic review is here.] Thus, his selection of the word nictitating to describe the grass as seen from the moving train was made sometime in the 1940s. The only other early literary reference to nictitating I have found comes from the 1940s, and is preserved in the OED under nictitating. From a 1941 letter written by C. M. Lowry:
"The blue exhaust speeds parting's litany. Then, with pneumatic bounds, we herd the street. The lights, symbolic, nictitate in day."
I don't think that Lowry's letters were published until 1965, so it seems as if Nabokov's and Lowry's literary usages of the word are independent of each other. But their respective uses of the term make us pause. Can we imagine grass nictitating (i.e, "blinking" or "winking" at us?) Can we imagine street lights nictitating (though I am not sure why Lowry says 'nictitate in day')? The verb gives us freedom to imagine not simply possible characteristics of the object observed but the way that our eyes function. We see the world in a series of flickering images, blinking and winking at us, passing through our consciousness like flashing lights. Thus, the literary use of nictitate takes us into the realm of memory, sight and self-awareness.
One More Thing on Nictitating
Nabokov must have loved the term, for his 1960 Invitation to a Beheading has the following: "Emmie was still squatting...her long, pale, almost white lashes nictating as she looked across the table-top at the door." Here the image is more literal and "true" to the scientific nature of the word. Lashes nictate. Precisely. Then again, in 1962, Nabokov wrote, in Pale Fire, "A couple..whose blundering Cadillac half entered my driveway before retreating in a flurry of luminous nictitations." Once a vivid yet little-known word sinks into the consciousness of a writer, s/he seeks opportunities to use it to advantage in future works. Nabokov must have played with the word over the years, seeing the changing colors and hues, the flickering lights, the different effects of wind on colors or light, as indications of the nictating nature of creation. Homer may nod as the classics say, but for Nabokov, creation winks.
But there is one more thing. Once a superior author has learned a word, a word through which experience is then filtered, s/he not only uses it in subsequent works in different ways but becomes a model for its use to others. Salman Rushdie, in his 1983 work Shame, wrote: The lid of her left eye began, inexplicably, to nictate." And, one of our American authors who has done the most to plumb the depths of the dictionary as he writes, John Updike, in 1994 could say, using the word with scientific precision: "When he closed his eyelids, the fine vein-webbed skin just below them twitched, like the nictitating membrane of a frog."
I have to close with two stray references to the term, one which excites risabilities and one which made me commit myself to using the term when I can. First, the funny one. James Blish, whom you may not know (1921-1975) was an American writer of science fiction and was also the first author to write short story collections based upon the TV show Star Trek. As the Wikipedia article on him says: "Blish wrote 11 volumes of short stories adapted from episodes of the 1960s TV series, as well as an original novel, Spock Must Die! in 1970." Well, in Star Trek VIII, he uses our word: "Look at their eyes--No nictation." What this brought to mind, and why it made me smile, is not the various creatures who appear in the series with weird-shaped heads or non-nictating eyes, but the scene I recall from the mid-1970s, when I was in theological seminary. Each day after dinner in my dorm, I would pass by the lounge on the way back to my room to prepare for an evening of study. The lounge was always packed, and eager seminarians were not debating the merits of Arminianism and Calvinism; rather they were "rapt withal" (to use Shakespeare's term) with the latest rerun of Star Trek. I recall standing at the doorway one night and blithely throwing out a suggestion about how the episode would end--that there would be danger but that it would be averted at the last moment, and I was roundly hissed out of the room. So it is with Star Trek and nictitation for me.
But it a usage in the Guardian from 1990 which makes my heart soar. "The banks of wines nictate like jewels; the natty labels enticing like sirens." All of a sudden, I want to look at the world as a "winking" place, a place filled with blinks, and winks and glitters and flickers and flashes. One word can alter your whole perspective.
Oops. Sorry I never got to osculate. Kiss that one good-bye until tomorrow.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long