In Our Own Words - ukázka

CAT AT THE WINDOW (an essay on the future of the word)

A new assignment

As a publisher I was asked to gather some thoughts on the future of the printed word. As a poet, I have made the somewhat wilful decision to expand the reach of my subject to embrace the future of the word per se! It might seem that in making this small adjustment I have bitten off rather more than I can chew. But have no fear! Here in the Czech Lands soothsaying has a long and great tradition. Ours is a small nation and we live in a tiny country which keeps getting into trouble. From time to time this trouble threatens our very existence. It almost goes without saying that we should do our utmost to look into the future – or at least attempt to catch a glimpse of where we are headed. While the great, self-confident nations love to forecast the end of the world, in this little Czech land of ours – just as in a cosy little fairy tale – the difficulties always pass, and the phoenix (though only the size of the hummingbird) always rises from the ashes. Would that the word of this essay rose in similar fashion! Ours is a time when the difficulties faced by the word are far from small.

In the beginning was the Word …

In the beginning was the Word, or so the Gospel according to John alleges. Is there even a slight chance that some kind of word will remain with us at the end – an end which, in the view of numerous forecasters, is just around the corner? The moment of our engulfment by our own Sun gets closer by the day, though we can't say for sure when it will happen. Estimates indicate Tuesday. Still, I heard something about five thousand million years – perhaps I'll hold on to this apocalypse in case all the earlier ones come to nothing … Of course, Nostradamus, too, makes an interesting bid. Since the world refused his entreaties to wind itself up in 1999, he has set his sights on the year 3797. It's not exactly tomorrow, but nor is it so far off that we can't picture some baby wearing our Jeannie's cast-offs as the great day approaches. For the real Armageddon enthusiast – who refuses to take his leave of Earth in the absence of the heavenly host – I have in front of me a Maya calendar which claims our days are numbered until 2012, at which point we can draw a line under them. According to the Bible – our point of departure for these musings – the Apocalypse is already well under way. (So there's no guarantee that sinners will make the end of this essay without being disturbed.) In the light of all this, it perhaps makes sense to brood on the future of the word only with a certain qualification in mind: that once the world ends – and there are no people, no talking birds, left – the Word will remain on this planet otherwise deserted. It will be all alone, with no mouth to pronounce with. It will roam around, hungry and dishevelled … most likely in the general area of New York's 72nd Street.

But musings such as this perhaps invest my thesis with a sense of optimism too great.

After all, I've committed myself to the writing of an essay two to three thousand words. So please allow me – for our utilitarian purposes – to envisage a future which ends somewhere in the middle distance. This view of things changes fundamentally the half-life relation of humanity and the word.

Alongside John's bold claim that the Word preceded Man on Earth, I regret to note the existence of a somewhat more sober view of the sequence of historical events: this one asserts that Man got by on Earth without words for quite some time. And I should add one more to the mix before we get started in earnest: it is my strong suspicion that on doomsday, Man will take leave of the planet by means of nothing more than his eyes – the eyes of a miserable dog.

The word will have expired long before.

Do we understand each other any better?

But for now here we, human beings, are (to say nothing of talking parrots and talking ravens) … and we have our words. On first impression it might even seem that both of us are doing well. As for people, there will soon be six thousand million of them scattered across the planet. The British National Corpus – that gigantic burial mound above the erstwhile silence – has to the present day recorded one hundred million English phrases. In addition to English we have at our disposal some 6,799 languages and dialects. We might think of all these languages as an enormous anthill, and the words as individual ants. We can hardly complain that we lack the tools and resources for verbal communication. And boy do we talk! But do we understand each other any better? Or the world around us? Or ourselves, for that matter?

You might take me for a prophet of doom – but I don't really think we do.

The Age of Silence

The writer Nicole Krauss, author of The History of Love (which is a great international success), has something to say on this which is so much to the point that I have taken the liberty of quoting it.

The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists… During the Age of Silence people communicated more, not less… No distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life … Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen, because they didn’t go around with illusion that they understood perfectly the things other people said, they were used to unterrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly …

This is quite true: people give in to a whole range of illusions [definition of illusion: a distorted perception which does not correspond to reality]. But to very few illusions do they fall so simply and in such great numbers as to the one which claims that mere words themselves contain something revelatory. This is an illusion so strong that there is no need for us to verify the words and their perceived contents. It doesn't seem to cross anyone's mind that words, if they are to retain their power of communication, should be handled with the same subtlety as was once the case with the gestures of the Great Silence. We have given words a mandate they have done little to earn, a mandate they are unable to perform; as a result they cannot be held to account for it. It is a depressing truth that the inflated, flimsy words of today serve far more to conceal than to reveal; far more to confuse than to clarify. It is more depressing still that this is no mere matter of chance.

The Rule of Untruth

In the beginning was the Word … and today all we can do is make a rough guess at when this „was“ was. But we can say with absolute certainty that right from the day the Word first whimpered in the Universe's bed, it was called upon to serve two masters simultaneously: the Truth and the Untruth. Did not John the Apostle say that the Word was God? As far as we – later mankind – know, the Word might also from the beginning have been a mat for God and his energetic emissaries to put their feet on. It is no secret that the Gospels as we know them now are intentionally falsified versions of the originals; they were patched together and supplemented to serve particular purposes, and certain mistakes of translation are deliberate. And it is perfectly appropriate to ask ourselves here whether John's opening was not in fact a deliberate attempt to improve the credit of the word. The word underpinned by a sentence of the Gospels: such a mighty mace in the hands of a capable, ambitious ruler!

So that we don't spend all our time wading about in the half-light of the Distant Past, I'd like us to move to a past whose warmth we still sense and whose blood we can still smell. This – the time in which I grew up – gives a flagrant testament of the abuse of words. I spent twenty-five years in a country ruled by communists. As I was not born until 1964, I lived through the time when the communist rule was enforced not by the gun but almost exclusively by the word. The communists ruled by Untruth. They ruled by means of the constant inflection, obfuscation, or, conversely, overexposure of reality. And when they departed the scene, a new liar put himself in their seat: advertising. I'm not talking of small, serviceable lies, the type of lies we all tell every day. I mean institutional Untruths – the effects of which have brought about a situation where whole new generations of people never encounter the original, true meanings of streams and streams of words.

Here in Europe the dense roots of words are knotted so tightly into our history that it is almost frightening. That young country on the other side of the ocean (I mean America) has not yet had time to entangle (sometimes ensnare) itself in the word to the same complexity as the Old World. Perhaps this explains why it took America to make the discovery which makes the great manipulators of the past – the Catholic Church and the communists – look like half-hearted amateurs. I am referring, of course, to the speech of political correctness. Whereas the Church and the communists tarnished and obscured reality, the Americans have used political correctness to change it completely. What miracles are these?! Two hundred years of problems with blacks (or negroes) … and suddenly the problems are no more. How can this be? But of course! There are no longer negroes, nor even are there black people in America. Was there some kind of genocide, news of which failed to reach us here in Europe? How did the Americans succeed in silently doing away with the whole of their negro/black population when Hitler couldn't even get through six million Jews? And there we have it. The Americans hit upon a method which is incomparably more effective, far smoother and – when all is said and done – many times cheaper. They deprived the negroes/blacks of their name and the words used for their designation; as John Cleese might have said, quite simply they „ceased to be“.

The man [Adam] gave names … and in so doing de fact he brought things into being, that we might commit them to memory. The speech of the politically-correct American takes names away. We're not talking only of negroes: there used to be cripples, cranks and other riffraff, without whom today's America is a much nicer place! As a method it is eminently convenient – it's just that it has one minor defect. By making it impossible for people to live and engage directly and positively with the very negroes whose forebears their ancestors used as slaves, they are depriving them of a chance for self-reflection, catharsis, a consciousness of personal and collective growth. Take the words from the people and you take away their memory. There is no way that something such as this can be of no consequence.

A last meaningful attempt at communication by the word

On the other side of the line a barricade has been formed by a small group of dirty, tired, ill-fed people in bad clothes. Above the barricade flaps a ragged flag whose legend is barely legible. Conflagration and smouldering plain as far as the eye can see. It is cold; the sun fails to part the heavy curtains of the fog. The poets – who people the barricade – are preparing themselves in silence for the last battle. The words, meanwhile, have long since crawled into their holes. What can you say when you stand cheek-to-cheek with the end?

So what is the point of this battle, which has been lost before it starts? In the words of the great Czech poet Ivan Diviš: „The poem is the last meaningful attempt at communication by the word.“ Poetry is language in which the role of the word is not one of servitude; it does not approach with the meek glance of the hunchback, who, having begged out of you his vile pay, throws his false hump into the nearest corner and bears himself nimbly away to glory in his next deceit. And it's precisely this to which people are so unaccustomed. Hence the reason poets keep hearing in response to their „last meaningful attempts at communication“: I don't understand this! Let us compare a response such as this with what we have said about the illusion people adhere to that they understand each other. Is the paradox plain to you? Word-Untruth; Word-mechanical toy; Word-skin – that’s what people “understand”. Confronted with a jungle of original expression, sabre-toothed names and designations, the foul-smelling yet intoxicating fragrant Miocene tongue, in which the words move freely, howl and rasp, then hoot in the dark – many of us are reduced to a state of terrified despair …

No great surprise, then, that the poet has such an affinity with Nicole Krauss.

In places where the word has lost all importance (or esteem) it is best to keep silent. Some poets believe that the jumble of meanings and ideas in today's transa­tlantic civilization is best defied in the silent (or mute) poem – the wordless poem; or else in the „unarticulated“ poem, which allows the reader to articulate his own fresh and original version. (To give you a clearer idea of this, here is an English translation of the first stanza of Přemysl Rut's Absolute Poem: wuy yellegg crockyfull / aft sozzity is screath / pigein wrobing harches zol / drack puffties up with plurt…)

And is there some connection between Rut's „unarticulated“ poem and Diviš's desire to re-establish “communication by the word”? There is no doubt about it! The most powerful poems of today are spaces where a thought has not yet been carried away by the torture wheel of warped, fractured meaning; spaces where the word has not yet been pronounced upon. The most meaningful way today to attempt the re-establishing of communication by the word would appear to be this: hold one's silence – i.e. stand up for the restoration of silence as the best means of communication in the face of a babble of information.

Evolutionary line

Are you still surprised that of all people it is the poet who floats the idea of doing away with the word, to spare it the anguish of the end stages of its existence? Well, after all I have said above, the least reaction I can anticipate is the question of whether the powerful for whom the word is a good servant – the politicians and salesmen, whose lucrative reigns rest on the assistance the word affords them – would be in favour of granting the word an honourable burial. But have no fear! Of course they will be in favour. If we include those whose facility with the written and spoken word is more or less groping, we might claim that there are as many illiterate (or semi-literate) people as ever there were; and these it is simpler to manipulate by a somewhat less sophisticated form of communication: the picture.

Let us now take a look at a particularly interesting evolutionary line. This is a line which bulges elegantly somewhere in the middle, like a hill or Exupéry's snake which swallowed the elephant. It is a line which maps the history of human communication. Here is its first, most dramatic and most interesting half – the one which led upwards:

Silence (Gesture) – Speech (Word) – Picture (first attempt to preserve the word) – Script (better attempt to preserve the word) – Printed Word

It is around this point that the word achieves its zenith. This is the moment when Truth and Untruth gush out of thousands of small springs, flow into one another and swell up on their elemental course down the hillside. Yes, indeed: there can be no debate that Guttenberg's in­vention represents one of the peaks of Euro-Atlantic civilization. Still, it is widely known that from a peak the only way is down. And if we agree that the conqueror who has carried all before him must return by the way he has come – via the camps he has prepared for his ascent – it will not surprise us that the communication curve, too, bends back on itself in harsh retrograde fashion, returning via the printed word, the picture, speech itself, continuing on its way to the base camp of silence. And the mountain climber knows that the camps of his ascent have been eliminated by his return – or am I mistaken in this?

The first thing to disappear is the printed word. (Here, unexpectedly, it has burst the surface of its original assignment.) In this electronic age of ours, it is only a question of time until newspapers and books (in our traditional understanding of these terms) are consigned to the past. This is a theme we in Europe have been addressing (we even have conferences for it – one of which I attended) for the past ten years; by now the end of the printed word is treated as a foregone conclusion. And the next camp? The picture. Here we'll rest awhile, gathering strength for the next descent. Talking about picture I mean, of course, television and all its relations in the screen era, in the Age of the Picture!

Icons of the Modern Age

The history of mankind is a history of wars, and it is well known that in wartime the muses fall silent and the word is called into service in all its starkness. Dressed up in the slogans of propaganda and commands, it cannot be said to have the best of times. But it has always been so that in the aftermath of war it enjoys a wonderful reincarnation; it carries the burden of responsibility for the description, definition and – indeed – establishing of a changed reality. Here in Europe we are living through the longest period of peace in our history, so one might think the word would be enjoying a golden age. Not even after the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century were the weapons still for a full sixty years. But sadly … the assault of the picture on the word, the supremacy of the demon television – these have endured for a time concurrent with the period of the European peace, and do nothing to suggest that soon they will have run their course. Already it is apparent that this ‚invisible‘ war is the last the word will fight: the death of the word is nigh. Television performs better than the word two basic functions of which we have spoken above. It strengthens the illusion held by the dim-witted that they ‚understand‘, just as it widens the range of possibilities for manipulation by means of a suggestive image. All we need to do here is call to mind scenes from the war in Iraq which were filmed in Hollywood studios; and in this connection I wish tactfully to brush over a particular theory concerning Neil Armstrong's ut­terance „one small step … one giant leap …“. If you want to sell skin cream, the most finely rendered sentence cannot compete with television: on TV the exquisite smoothness of the skin can be visible. Among a hundred million words in English, not one gives such eloquent expression as to be able to remove week-old, burnt-in food remnants from your frying pan as reliably as the cloth advertised on TV. Etc, etc. (Everyone can supplement this ad libitum.) The printed word struggles to fight television off, but no one, surely, believes that it has a chance. By the way, have you seen what a newspaper looked like in 1946? I have, as it happens. I can tell you that – in contrast to the papers of today – there were hardly any pictures. And I am saying nothing of the tabloids, which demonstrate their loathing of the word by visual means. An extreme in this regard – which I came across myself – is an Austrian ‚society‘ magazine which goes under the symptomatic name of Alles [Everything]. In little Austria (population: eight million) it has been known to sell in excess of one million copies. And its content? One hundred pages of photo-kitsch in full colour, with the briefest of captions appended. To give a clearer impression of what this is: Beneath a full-page picture of a cat sitting on a window sill runs the caption: Cat at the window.


This snippet of information seems to me a suitable ending; after all, there's not much that one can add to it. And yet … Should we, the poets, philosophers, eggheads who succeed in reading an essay on the future of the word to its end – should we lament the imminent end of the word? Perhaps we have no real cause for lamentation as we descend back into silence; after all, this may allow us (‚us‘ meaning ‚all people‘) to understand one another better. But I can't help but worry that this wordy, subtly manipulative, printed essay has put back our return to paradise by a second or two.