12 Days of Internet Memeblogging: The Dank Vinci Code

John Greenleaf Whitter is a national hero. Today, he is forgotten for his abolitionist efforts and composing some of the finest poems in American literature. Mentioning his name to the most erudite in literary circles will raise people’s eyebrows. But he shall be remembered once more for he has a poem. A poem that will, I assure everyone, create a surging feeling of love and patriotism for American poetry again.

That poem is titled “The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother to Her Daughters Sold into Southern Bondage”. It begins with some stirring words:

Gone, gone, — sold and gone.
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,

The second line shall stop you in the same tracks as I did when I was pursuing research for another subject. “Dank”. You can freely ignore the word with a small giggle. But as you continue down the poem, you shall find more instances. I have excised the content surrounding it to emphasize the word.

To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,
To the rice-swamp dank and lone,

The poem has a chorus of sorts. It repeats the speaker’s frustration, anger, and depression as she sees her children getting sold. This act is done twelve times. For this lyrical use of repetition to work, we must take the word “dank” seriously.

But the word “dank” makes us laugh.

And then, we realize Whitter’s middle name is Greenleaf. And it makes us laugh harder.

This notable instance of “dank” is not uncommon. In many English works and translations, the word has been used to describe a dark and damp place. It can be found in Gothic horror works to create an unspeakable fear; we can find this in HP Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth”:

I saw the body spread on that dank stone,
And knew those things which feasted were not men;
I knew this strange, grey world was not my own,
But Yuggoth, past the starry voids—and then
The body shrieked at me with a dead cry,
And all too late I knew that it was I!

You can see people once in a while grumble about the word when they find them in literature. They would talk about how the great English language has been destroyed by the internet and their denizens. Maybe they’ll talk about cannabis culture and how it has ruined art itself. If those potheads did not infiltrate the language with memes and absurd neologisms, English will be easier to understand.

But all of this have disappeared. All of these great traditions using the word “dank” have been obliterated by the concept of dank memes. Indeed, the moves by dictionaries especially Merriam-Webster to include words like “clickbait” have provoked anger.

“If they really want to stay relevant they should start issuing pagers to everyone on the planet (pagers are old now so they’re also new and cool, you see?),” scoffs James Vincent in The Verge, “updating them each morning with a single, new word and its definition. That word is then relevant for only a single day before it becomes laughably old-fashioned.”

It is a growing concern for people, even if dictionaries are there to record words and their meanings. Maybe it is true: social media is making us dumber. If the sanctity of the word is endangered — such as the word “dank” — or “fad words” are popping up in our dictionaries, how shall we take the English language and its culture seriously?

I argue it is not a problem. Instead, it is our reluctance to take the internet culture seriously.

There are many linguistic arguments to be made: meanings change, cultures and subcultures adopt words in usages you would never think of, and so on. But I think the biggest and most systemic problem is how we treat internet culture as a joke.

When you encounter “Peas and beans are as dank here as a dog” in Henry IV and balk of the word, you are balking at the whole world now connected to the internet.

We don’t like to take the popular and mass culture seriously. As much as many left-wingers talk about the working class or right-wingers discussing the protest vote, they don’t have much respect to the internet. The thing that everyone uses. And I believe “dank” is the epitome of that apathy or disgust towards everyone here.

“Dank” is a repulsive word because we look down on people who use it in any way. It has become a socially unacceptable word, only used for a post-post-irony effect. Finding the “dank confines” in the text of The Last Guardian can only reaffirm our hatred. Something that we put on a pedestal (“art”) cannot be touched by such a lowly word like “dank”! It ruins the experience and our immersion into the high culture that we strive to be at.

Everyone wants to go up, up, up to the sky. Where all the smart, culturally dignified, and elegant people are at. But when the word pops up, it reminds us that we’re actually still at the ground. Nowhere near the idealized elites.

And this affects everyone.

The word “dank” tells us to be realistic about ourselves. We all are using the internet like everybody else. Nobody is a cultural elite like in the old days.  We can’t be all Harold Blooms or Roger Eberts of the world.

Because we’re all smoking dank memes.

In Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, he tracks down two types of literary cultures which sprang from two works: The Bible and The Odyssey. In the former, especially in Genesis, we are reading about the history of creation through the eyes of an omniscient God. There is little psychology given with anyone in the Old Testament either. We don’t know what Abraham is feeling when he sacrifices his son because God told him to. That has become the subject material for Fear and Loathing because you have to be insanely faithful to believe in such a thing. It’s almost inhumane to imagine doing this. But people do this and write about these people because of a higher cause: religion, art, political beliefs. This is the idealized depiction of “heroes” and “artists”. There’s a reason why Auerbach calls this “high mimesis”.

But then, you have The Odyssey, an epic about humans doing stupid stuff that we probably might do. Odysseus’s men fall in love with women. Courage exists only on the surface as it is all about. And the characters take a lot of drugs. A lot of them because they’re human beings.

We like to downplay the more “low mimesis” of The Odyssey in the stead of a story about bravery and homecoming. To suggest the highly dignified form of literature has references to drugs could destroy the whole mantle of a delusion that was created two millenniums ago.

And artists are aware of this. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs is all about the lowly acts of sex and drugs to throw down what literature stands for people and be a story about the real people. Even Ulysses is about a Jewish man who enjoys taking a shit once in a while and he takes drugs during the Nighttown chapter. Literature has always had the dank memes since the beginning.

That’s why we still have a reaction to the dankness of certain works when we shouldn’t be. We tell ourselves we are openminded about our definition of art. And yet, the word “dank” throws us off.

Thus, we are here now. In a culture where we think dank is a stupidly funny word that has ruined the history of our thoughts. The point of no return has long gone past.

Maybe we should love the word “dank”. It is a word of our humanity and insanity. It is a word that has evolved because of our own lowly, human actions. It is us in essence.

We are as unfunny, as half-serious, as dumb as the word.

And that is okay. Let’s revere Whitter’s poem once more not for its high, grandeur claims but for the lowly, dank memes.

Tomorrow on みみドしま, we will look into fandoms. Particularly, the Yuri on Ice one and how it impacts fans and skaters around the world.

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