After you open the envelope, you learn that the missing words are “request” and “for.”
Within, at the foot of the letter of request, the font for Mrs. Trump’s signature is identical to the sawtooth felt-tip glyph generated for her husband. The letter’s text, however, in accordance with the half-whispered, breathily intimate voice of us-girls etiquette (what Stevens called “the beauty of innuendoes”), is dated “Friday Morning.” In accordance with the precept taught by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s and followed ever since by every coach of every sport in the United States (“Fred, we came here to play foobaw, Fred”) it also uses my wife’s first name, Haesun, as the first word of at least three sentences. Just keep addressing people by name, says Carnegie, and you’ll make the sale.
Additional note, March 20, 2020:
During the George W. Bush administration, a legal defense of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture was crafted by John Yoo of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. In those documents, one of the rhetorical strategies was what conservative theorists call textualism. Copying and pasting a phrase here and a phrase there from a bookshelf of dictionaries, Yoo redefined the term “torture” so narrowly that the sounds generated in the agency’s torture chambers became formally inaudible to the hearing officers outside. By definitional fiat, the screams were pre-erased from any meaning comprehended by law.
If the idea of erasure should also contemplate the verbal signifier “Pay to the order of,” the words “Check enclosed” inscribed on an envelope will become an anti-significance. In general, all it will take to enroll such an anti-significance in meaning is erasure of its context. You may think that the words “Check enclosed” mean “A check is enclosed,” but to a grammarian of the anti-contextual, that only shows you don’t know your nouns from your verbs. Actually, as the grammarian will inform you, you should have ignored the enclosure and read only what was marked on the envelope. Only the envelope words “Check enclosed” were subject in the moment to the act of reading, and if they are read in that rigorous way, without regard to context, they are equally likely to signify either “A check is enclosed” or, on the other hand, “Check the enclosed.” The grammarian will be eager to explain the theory of erasure of distinction to those who have read the envelope, and her eagerness will give the lesson a social context. It will unite the grammar joke’s words with the grammar joker’s laugh, giving them a complementary intelligibility in the verbal and the human. Responding to the unspeakable yearning to understand and be in on the joke, Mrs. Trump explains with laughing assurance to my wife, “Haesun, I know you realize how much is at stake in the upcoming Presidential Election. We simply cannot let the Democrats win the White House and set the stage for them to capture total control of our government so they can enact their Big Government Socialist programs.”
Both the assurance and the laughter are warranted. Check the lady-words like “Friday Morning” and you’ll see: the stage is already set for the joke and the envelope really is empty.
During the early 1970s, Marlboro cigarettes, formerly a niche brand, rocketed to the top of the market and became the best selling cigarettes in the world. The reason is well covered in histories of advertising: Marlboro’s manufacturer switched niches. If the cigarettes haven’t killed you yet, you associate Marlboros with masculinity, thanks to the extraordinary success of an advertising campaign whose icons came coughing onto the page beginning in 1954 — first as men with tattoos, then as cowboys. Look to your left, however, and you’ll see that as of 1944 Marlboros were a woman’s cigarette, tipped with red to hide lipstick stains. At http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php you’ll find a richly illustrated history of the gender reassignment. This note is about a language change that seems to have occurred concomitantly, and perhaps a moral change too.
Yes, in this advertisement even the illustration has a moral. Between the woman and her ashtray stands Daniel Chester French’s image of the Minuteman of Concord, steadfastly posted eyes-front at breast height. Almost as an afterthought, the advertisement’s text is duty-bound likewise. “Two luxuries she can conscientiously enjoy,” it explains about the illustration, and it half-conceals its heroine’s lineaments of conscientiously gratified desire behind a turned back and a mirror image guarded by a raised arm.
Nineteen-forty-four, after all, was a year when openly acknowledged desire must have seemed shameful. In the sixth year of the Second World War, all of the unashamed rest of America was austere. In window after window hung a little flag bearing at least one star, each star the symbol of a son in the Armed Forces or (if the star were gold) of a son dead on the field. In magazine after magazine, too, the advertisers who articulated the language of America’s economy somberly explained the necessities of shortage and pleaded for willing submission to the unending sacrifice. Turning her back and refusing to look at anyone but herself, Miss Marlboro counterpleaded, with feminine emphasis and a feminine diminutive, for “mere pennies,” but the 1943 penny itself was a memento mori. Not made of copper that year because copper was desperately needed for shell casings, it was minted instead in galvanized steel: no longer the red of a Marlboro beauty tip but gray, gray. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had cried with defiant joy as he stood before Harvard’s divinity school in 1838, but 106 years later the threat to joy was no longer a three-quarters-dead regional Puritanism but death itself, fully dressed against the summer in menacing black.
But no, pretty miss in heels and peach-colored panties: even under that dread circumstance, you need not feel ashamed of your bath. It makes you not just clean but clean-feeling, and that harmless benefit comes to you free of any charge, either in money or in currencies of the soul. The world outside has descended fully into 1944, but in this room with the ashtray on the vanity you are about to sink into a bath conscientiously. The original sense of that adverb happens to have been in good conscience.
Postwar, I get the impression that that sense has all but disappeared from American English. The word conscientiously now seems to connote little more than rational but uninspired acceptance of a duty. Yes, yes; I do, conscientiously, try to practice good dental hygiene. But except perhaps as a vestigial technicality in the legal term conscientious objector, any sense of conscience as a motivating joy seems almost to have vanished from English. In 1914, in the first poem of the sonnet sequence he called 1914, Rupert Brooke compared men about to volunteer for the war with “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” but as early as 1918 some of the Englishmen to whom that simile had once seemed to mean something were saying, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”
So conscience understands that it will be different this time when you take off your panties and leap. But do leap. It seems possible that the calendar will never again advance from 1944, and the leap will at least make you feel clean until you resurface in the smoky air. As a poet who thought himself postwar once sang:
Never such innocence,
Never before or since.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address”
Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV”