Do you practice anodyne writing? Or, perhaps you enjoy reading anodyne literature?
Talk about a phrase with two different meanings!
I must not be reading the right publications, because until recently I was only aware of the medical sense of the word. Apparently I’m not alone in having forgotten the second usage (if I ever knew it). One “publication coach” writes:
I always welcome the chance to learn new words—or to cement the knowledge of words I should know already. Anodyne falls into this latter camp. I probably confer with my dictionary at least once a year to determine the meaning of this word and yet, despite the frequent checking, I can’t seem to hold the definition in my brain.
Like so many words, anodyne enters English, via Latin, from Greek. It’s literal meaning is “without pain.” Thus, it typically refers (as a noun) to medicines or medical treatments devoted to eliminating pain.
By extension, anodyne is also applied (as an adjective) to other things, such as writing. In this context it would refer to writing where the purpose is to comfort, or to alleviate pain. This is the good sense of the word.
An example of this use appears in “L.M. Montgomery’s The Watchman and Other Poems, a Review.” There, Brenton Dickieson expertly describes the value good-but-not-great poetry by affirming its reassuring essence in its historical context. “Any one of these poems is quite nice on its own and an anodyne to the negative poetry of many of the WWI poets.” A positive, and astute, assessment.
There is, however, a second sense in which anodyne is applied to literature.* It may mean something so inoffensive, so innocuous, that it becomes boring.
At one university writing center they describe this evolution of the word.
[An anodyne word] lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. . . .
The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.
So, as for anodynic writing, it is admirable when it relieves pain and suffering. If its primary goal is to be innocuous, that’s another matter. Essentially, comfort—good, pablum—not so much.
Lewis’ Use of Anodyne
Unsurprisingly, C.S. Lewis uses this word in its positive sense of alleviating discomfort. Two occurrences in The Screwtape Letters will illustrate. (Remember, these words of the counsel of one demonic tempter to another.)
But hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear.
The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame. To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.
Not only do the demons seek to foster hatred in their human targets, they encourage us to seek counterfeit solace in destructive places.
In the first place I have always found that the trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest.
The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. . . .
It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive.
Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.
Having read the majority of what C.S. Lewis published, I assert with certitude that his writing is anodyne—it is healing. Some of it may be discomforting (for a moment), and much of it may be demanding (in the sense of requiring our mental and spiritual focus to understand it), but it was all written to edify.
Postscript, Star Date 73890.7
There is one more use of the word anodyne which I did not include above, due to its fictional source. In the Star Trek universe, the starships rely on a massive number elements, including the ubiquitous “anodyne relay.”
The circuits invariably appear to be perfectly reliable during routine missions. However, they are prone to malfunctioning at critical moments and threatening the lives of everyone aboard.
* Anodyne is also applied—in both its positive and negative senses—to music and other activities.