We are pleased to present another excerpt from the new anthology entitled, One Word: Contemporary Writers on the Words They Love or Loathe, published by Sarabande Books. The editor, Molly McQuade, asked 66 writers the question, "What one word means the most to you, and why?" Among the essays McQuade has collected is "Interesting," by Jayson Iwen.
I've been keeping an eye on this word for years now, conducting a stake-out in a van across the street from where it lives. I hate the word in writing, yet savor it in speech. In writing it's merely a placeholder for better words, while in speech it's damning praise of a sublime order. Interesting is its own antonym, its own shadowy other.
But that's not exactly why I'm watching it. That's not why I'm wary of uttering the word. I'm suspicious of the root that feeds it. Interesting entered common usage in the century that birthed modern capitalism. In its first appearance in print the word was explicitly linked to that economic context: "... that Passion which is esteem'd peculiarly interesting; as having for its Aim the Possession of Wealth" (Shaftesbury, 1711). Not surprisingly, viewed from this new old angle, contemporary definitions of the word leap to attention and assume the stance of marketing terminology: "adapted to excite interest; having the qualities which rouse curiosity, engage attention, or appeal to the emotions" (OED). In short, since detecting capitalist ideology in this most unassuming and pervasive of words, I've begun to worry it's inside every word, though its outline may only be visible in those that poorly conceal it, like sheets draped over ill intents.
Do I expect something "interesting" to gain in value over time, to somehow return my attention with interest? Do I find myself using this word because, consciously or not, though I know I cannot know the future, I know that seemingly insignificant things might, some day, be priceless? Do I therefore call all such suspects interesting? Another, dated usage of the word seems, at first, unrelated to its current usage, unless we think of something "interesting" as something which grows and accumulates value over time. An "interesting condition, situation, or state" was, not long ago, a euphemism for pregnancy, while an "interesting event" was, likewise, a euphemism for birth. Something passional becoming something economic. This is the kind of unconscious logic I'm afraid might be firing through dark channels of my brain whenever I speak.
I fear this because many days I feel finite. I feel spendable. I see my window into existence shrinking and the objects of my attention looming in that diminishing frame. They're either becoming my world or they're blocking my view of it. They add value to my life or they rub my face in my own inevitable end. I realize, however, that this is not a truth. It's belief. And, though belief is both stronger and more dangerous than truth, it is, thankfully, alterable.
Of the moment of death, Marcus Aurelius said, "Our loss is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come—for how can one be deprived of what one does not possess?" "But, Mr. Aurelius," a student of capitalism might counter, "consider, how, through corporations and estates, one's possessions might live on after one's death, in the tangible spirit of legal entities, how one ma continue to lay claim to precious resources long after death.
Can we not possess the future by shrewd planning? Can we not attain all our desires through the investment of enough labor? Surely a child's death is more tragic than an adult's, because the child loses possession of greater time." Though we may be subject to some intoxicating beliefs, I think we still know how Aurelius would answer his own rhetorical question. Probably with another question. Something like, "How can you live now, if your mind is elsewhere?"
When I say interesting now, I ask myself, "Exactly what is it you think will repay you with interest?" And the answer is usually as inevitable as it is startling. So I sit here, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for it to appear. Because it would feel so good to put it away forever. Go ahead, I say to myself. Say it.
Jayson Iwen is an assistant professor of English and English Composition at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. He previously taught in Wisconsin at Beloit College, and in Lebanon at The American University of Beirut. Jayson received his BA in English from the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, and his MA & PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. He has had poems, translations, and reviews published in journals such as Borderlands, Clackamas Literary Review, The Cream City Review, Fence, The Marlboro Review, New American Writing, The Pacific Review, Pleiades, Third Coast, and Water~Stone Review. He's had two award-winning books published, Six Trips in Two Directions (Emergency Press, 2006) and A Momentary Jokebook (Cleveland State University, 2008), and currently has a third, Gnarly Wounds, under consideration.