The Laconic Man

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Lt. Castillo from the eighties TV show Miami Vice. There’s plenty more I could’ve written about him if I hadn’t been handcuffed to a tight word length. With more words, I would’ve expanded upon his sense of duty, which is not some nine-to-five obligation but his raison d’être. With more words I might’ve probed his loneliness. Yet with all the words in the English language at my disposal, I would’ve never mentioned Castillo bucking through the surf in tight swimming trunks to a cover version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” in the episode Golden Triangle Part II. Some things, after all, are best left in the eighties. (*In the event that your curiosity must be sated you can find this homoerotic weirdness here. Go on click it. You know you want to.)

Last time, though, I did note Castillo’s taciturn disposition, and with a few more words at my disposal again this week I’d like to take a quick look at some more characters who choose not to use them. I suppose the best place to start is with the ancient Greeks, specifically Sparta.

The word ‘Spartan’ has long been in everyday usage to describe the minimal. (in what could be a character summary of Lt. Castillo) give us this definition: sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere

Interestingly, the word laconic comes from Laconia, Sparta, as the Spartans were known for their terse speech. What’s not so well-known is their great wit, the original kings of the one-liners. For example, Lycurgus was reportedly asked why Sparta’s sacrifices to the gods were so frugal, to which he replied, “So that we may always have something to offer.” Nice. Another example is when an unnamed Spartan was told to listen to a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, to which he replied, “I have heard the nightingale itself.” (*Both anecdotes and all things Sparta can be found here)

Winding forward to the twentieth century, the terse male had found his way into many narratives (sometimes he’s highly disciplined like Spartan warriors during training, other times a barfly who’s lit like Spartans in a wine-fuelled battle phalanx). Hemingway, Dos Passos, James M Cain, Faulkner, Chandler — the list of writers adopting that terse ‘tough guy tone’ is endless. An interesting flip on the archetype is Monsieur Meursault in The Stranger (L’Etranger) by Camus.

Camus uses his laconic outsider Meursault as a vehicle for his philosophy of the absurd, to him, an essential and universal condition. Meursault relentlessly observes everything, including his own behaviour. At the same time, he himself is being cautiously observed by the inhabitants of Algiers and Marengo. In the translator’s note in Matthew Ward’s translation he comments:

“What little Meursault says or feels or does resonates with all he does not say, all he does not feel, all he does not do.”

Infused with the ideas of his philosophical writings, Camus mined new seams with the terse narrator, exploring lonlieness and dichotomy in a way that, in my opinion, has never been surpassed.

The laconic character comes in many shapes and sizes — hard drinkers, existential rebels, duty-bound cops — all bound together by the unspoken understanding that you should never mince words.

Next week, Nick Cody shares forty-two different ways to lose your USB before breakfast.

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  1. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 11, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Ancient Greece and Camus — if only you had replaced “Miami Vice” with any Clint Eastwood Western you’d have a nice collection of some of my favorite things. :) Wonderful!

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted May 11, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    P.S. The slow-mo of Castillo’s front crawl was particularly moving… in a weird 80s way… ;)

  3. Paul j Rogers
    Posted May 11, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I’d hoped to bring in The Man With No Name, but I ran out of time. In another great example of actor building terse character, Eastwood drew lines through pages of dialogue insisting he could replace all of those words with a look or gesture. He was right.

  4. Posted August 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink


    How ya doin Man!

    I am struggling to make sense of what you say. Your words have much more weight than mine, but mine may have more punch.

    Hey, I got a great pic of you and your charming wife up on my website, East Sea. Check it out.

    Richard, from Undah Da Bridge

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