Daily Archives: April 15, 2012

peristalsis

I’ve just finished reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, an exceedingly well written and entertaining book. Towards the end is this wonderful passage:

The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of an individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.

Zzzzzinggg! Man, what a scalpel-sharp tongue that Steinbeck had! On reading that, of course, I immediately thought, “I haven’t done a word tasting note on peristalsis yet.”

I imagine there is an off chance you may not know what peristalsis is. Well, you know how worms move, right? They move by peristalsis: a smooth-muscle flow of contraction and expansion (from Greek, περι peri “around” plus στάλσις stalsis “contraction, constriction” – which in turn is derived from στέλλειν stellein, verb, “set, place”). But Steinbeck did not have worms in mind, and neither do most people when speaking of peristalsis. Indeed, one does not want to have worms in the place one normally encounters peristalsis.

And where would that be? Follow your gut. Food passes through your innards from mouth to stomach through intestines to back door propelled by peristalsis. It happens automatically and regularly, and thus is not, to Steinbeck’s mind, spontaneous – although, given that it occurs without conscious impetus, it does meet a definition of spontaneous. And as to the interest factor… well, some people do study the stuff. It’s a necessary thing.

I don’t want to put you off your bedtime snack, breakfast, or whatever you’re eating as you read this, though. I think we can taste the word without thinking about all that shi… stuff, I mean. For one thing: does the movement of the mouth in saying peristalsis have any similarity to that of actual peristalsis? The closest movement of the mouth I can think of to peristalsis would be the swallowing you do while drinking a glass of something. This word has little of that – just a small reverse wave at /rɪst/; aside from that, it pops off the lips to start and then stays mainly on the tongue tip after. You may think of the s and the s and the s as having some resemblance to the contractions, but aside from that the shape of this word is a little too prickly, to my eyes, to cue the sense.

But, ah, what to make of this word? You take it into your mouth and mind and swirl it around and chew it up and pass it into your system. Perhaps it gets rearranged in the initial mastication: plaster sisi, ’tis ripe lass, sassier plait, rises at lips, sir sips late, is as tripes, retails piss, spirit seals, triples as is; perhaps the sounds are picked apart, “Paris tall sis, sis tips all air, pall stair sis…”; perhaps the associations and echoes are turned one way and another. As a reader, you digest. And you gain mental nutrition from the words. It’s an interesting process. In the end what comes out is not waste but something more like a fertilized plant.

I imagine Steinbeck’s mind worked in a similar way. Words and images and concepts and relations and sounds were taken in at one point, and mixed and matched and turned this way and that, and they passed through the unconscious processes that propel them through the brain with some things taken and some things given, and at the end the product is quite interesting.

Still, I think I see Steinbeck’s point. I would not want to be at one of those peristaltic parties.