Books

Doing Language

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Pundits advise us to “watch what the Trumpists do, not what they say.” Not so fast.

I know what they mean by such counsel, because Trump uses con-man ploys of deflection, saying outrageous things (which, in his madness and ignorance, he also happens to believe), to distract us from his catastrophic policy decisions and destructive, even treasonous, actions—about which we find out anyway. But I see no reason why we can’t pay attention to what they do and to what they say. Because what they say, how they say it, and who says it matter.

Words matter. You have only to look at three simple, factual words—”black lives matter”—and the outraged resistance to those words for years, to understand how black lives did not matter to the American public until very recently, and how words do matter, even if that same public doesn’t acknowledge as much.

Followers of this blog are a kindly lot, who indulge my frequent rants about language. I suspect they’ve become resigned to that as unsurprising in a writer daft with the alchemical power of words. Perhaps they believe, as I do, that Socrates’ wisest teaching may have been “the misuse of language invites evil into the soul.

Since I was a small child, the act of scribbling, playing with words, glimpsing to the extent I was able their magic, nuance, and music; groping my way toward an exactitude I knew lay beyond my reach but that hard-won craft might permit me to approach; sharing that skill as it developed and witnessing the electric connective effect it has—this has blessed all the years of my life. I intend to practice this vocation until the moment I turn up my toes, if possible still babbling words.

Words . . . of journalism, reporting, opinion and polemic; words of fictional narrative woven under the spell of storytelling; and for me the foundation, the core, the distillation, the magnetic pole to which I always return no matter what else I write: words in a poem. Naturally, I never accomplish what I set out to accomplish, whatever the form, including these blog posts. But that’s not the point. It’s the attempt, the discipline demanded by that attempt, and on a lucky day, the maddening, intense, profound fun. That’s the point. And the responsibility.

So, for the last blog post of the season, we’ve come back to language. We come back because to try to deal with sexism and racism, with months of lies and hatred, without the sacred focus of language, is to be struck mute with suffering on fire in burning cities. We come back to language especially at this time, where a fake president condemns real facts as fake news and where politically, economically, socially, and in so many other ways, language is every day intentionally, sadistically violated—in order to invite evil into our souls.

A voice came to mind, one that incarnated that sacred focus and addressed these issues, though we lost its speaker last August 2019, at age 88.

I cherish a slender, hard-cover book, only 37 pages long. On the crimson cover, in gold writing, the words read Toni Morrison: The Nobel Lecture in Literature 1993. If by some remote chance you don’t know who Toni Morrison was or haven’t yet been transformed by reading her masterpieces of fiction and nonfiction, I urge you to do so. It is a great body of work she left us. I won’t list the titles here because they’re easily found, but I will say that she was one of the great wordsmiths in the English language of this or any other age. I’ll add that she was a funny, fierce, generous woman; and that the heights of her intellect and depths of her feeling struck a rare, precious, equatorial balance that informed all the worlds she created.

For her Nobel lecture, she chose instead to tell a story. Of course she did. It’s a story for our time and for all time. It involves an old woman, blind, wise, the daughter of slaves, a writer—and her young visitors. Here are some words from that story, which turns out, after all, to be about language.

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties, replacing them with menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux language of mindless media, whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered, and exposed. . . . Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery and cannot, do not, permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas. . . .

There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering . . . ; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. . . . There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like pate-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; . . . language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors. . . .

Underneath the eloquence, the glamour, the scholarly associations, however stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing . . . Its force, its felicity, is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word or the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know a literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue? Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.

We die. That maybe be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

The story continued. When she had finished her story, Toni Morrison thanked the Swedish Academy, being “mindful of the gifts of my predecessors, [and] the blessing of my sisters.” She surely has mine.

May your summer be a time rich in energy, activism, and peace, with laughter and love. This blog will return after Labor Day. The days between now and then will, for me, be spent (how else?) doing language.

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