Capital Letters

‘WORDS which are spelled with a capital letter,’ says Joseph Wood Krutch recently in the Atlantic, ‘are peculiarly dangerous to thought.’ But less dangerous, I submit, with the capital than without. The effect of writing ‘Nature,’ as Mr. Krutch does, is to mark the word as designating what he wisely calls ‘a complex of ideas which has never been adequately analyzed,’ whose ‘ meaning varies from age to age as well as from person to person.’ However dangerous such a complex may be, to be warned is to be forearmed. ‘Stop! Look! Listen!’ cries the capital. Here, admits the capitalizing author, stepping modestly aside, is a large, dangerous word of unknown limits, of two-edged content, whose boundaries vanish in mist and star dust. Handle with care!

This use of the capital is, perhaps, of recent evolution. There was a time —still surviving, it may be, in literary hinterlands — when the capitalized word was hurled as a crusher and clincher. ‘Against Nature’ was supposed to end the argument. At present this is n’t being done — at least, among Those who Know. (It must have been the humorists who started the capital’s dégringolade.) We have to do with a meaning which varies from a recent age to this, and from the less to the more literate. The initial capital, aside from mild burlesque, now denotes not arrogance but humility. Its writer no longer triumphs in the bigness of his word; he apologizes for its complexity. He desires not to bludgeon his reader, but to bow to his idea.

The bludgeon words of the present are ostentatiously uncapitalized. They avoid upper-case display as strictly as those poets who eschew all capitals — missing an effect of humility by the same wide margin. For the capital offense (pardon!) is not a device of punctuation, but a state of mind. It is using an unanalyzed complex to stifle thought. It imposes on the reader’s conscious ignorance a blanket authority which he has no means to question. ‘Against Nature’ no longer cows us. We have seen too many things that were against Nature. But ‘contrary to biologic fact’ — who are we to question the alleged findings of unimagined laboratories? We share the meekness that once dared not question the priest. How could it? He knew Latin! In our days biology has put on the black cap— but not the capital — Theology used to wear.

We beat the devil around a stump. ‘Defiance of God’s will,’ ‘against Nature,’ ‘contrary to biologic fact’ — they all mean exactly the same, don’t they? Each enunciator believes he has the universe behind him. So he has — up to a point. But the Universe is so big! And always around that stump slyly grins the devil of Thinking we know What we do not know. I’m not saying the biologist does n’t know, — or the Theologian, — but that they try to make me think I know when I don’t. They play upon my ignorance, and they play the same tune. (The tune? Oh—‘There is none great but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.’)

The menace of capitalism (in letters) is deadliest when implicit. It is a rattlesnake that does n’t rattle. We step on it unaware in the fair fields of speculation and receive in our veins the venom of assumptions unproved by— or to — ourselves.

What can we do about it? We must speculate, and we cannot, alas, know everything. We can spot those gliding, reptile words and hit them on the head with a capital. Here, we may admit to ourselves, is a word that means I-Don’t-Know-What. Or a collocation of words as unsubstantial (to me) as a cloud-castle. It is an unheroic gesture, I know. It lacks altogether the careless sophistication and gallant bluff that sit so well upon us. But should n’t we be humble where we are vague? Is n’t Truth painfully and doubtfully wooed ?

Moreover, the capital letter is a two-edged sword. Along with reverence cuts burlesque. If we must be painfully humble toward Truth, we must also be painfully perky toward her ministers. Against the prophets of skepticism we ungraciously turn skepticism. We remember that a Biologist is only a man; and a Psychoanalyst as psychic and analyzable as another; and the behavior of a Behaviorist as truly behavior as any.

No longer the sign of a closed system of thought, the capital letter now symbolizes refusal to accept a closed system. It is a fool’s cap and an altar to an Unknown God. It is mockery and genuflection, and, in the heart of each, it is challenge.