The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

Nostalgia, sentimentality, old age and Japanese language camp

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“even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension

…when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

-From “My Imperialism” (Ryuichi Tamura)

I started yet another conversation with a reference to attending Japanese language camp. This never ceases to amuse others, some thinking it sounds like the height (or depth) of total geekery, some thinking it sounds too similar to something like a forced death march or a Japanese internment camp. But alas, no, I studied almost all the languages my high school had to offer (German was the only exception, which made the Frau teaching German feel quite left out). Back in those fearful days of American decline (ongoing), when Bush senior caused an international incident by vomiting at the Japanese prime minister’s residence, and we all thought Japan was going to take over the world, we on the American west coast were hedging our bets, picking up our hashi and “nihongo o benkyooshimashita日本語を勉強しました. The Japanese were in fact helping us – subsidizing us – giving us money and camps and all the rest so we could immerse ourselves in Japanese language and culture for weeks at a time in the rural woods of western Washington. Never mind that I was never a “camp going”, group activity kind of girl – I tried to tell my teachers that I did not have the money for such a thing, but the school district had money to burn, I guess, and had never had a student like me (not that I was remarkable – it is just that I was the only one who ever willingly took so much language study at once). They paid for the camp.

The point of this – although I am not terribly nostalgic about those days, some characters from Japanese language camp come to mind sometimes. I only keep in touch with one guy – and got a letter from him yesterday. He shared some rather alarming news after a long (an entire adulthood) correspondence of mostly mundane stuff between us – sure, each of us moved back and forth between countries and had things happen, but nothing that does not happen to everyone. And suddenly, almost like a postscript, he added something rather serious, even stating that he “did not want to make a big deal out of it” – which I completely understand – but still I had to stop and catch my breath and suddenly reflect on… the deceptive, wicked nature of time. Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.

I am sitting in my car hanging out in a parking lot, reflecting on the way time has passed since meeting this Japanese language camp friend – we met each other in 1991, which still feels a lot like yesterday except that it was almost 25 years ago. This is how even the unsentimental start to feel the pull of nostalgia.

I wish nostalgia had a body so that I could push it out of the window! To smash what cannot be!” –Odysseus Elytis -Οδυσσέας Ελύτης

It starts to weigh them down when they can talk about how a quarter-century has passed and it felt a lot like the blink of an eye. I may not be overly sentimental myself, but this is how I have lost myself in poetry. The words I feel have been captured somewhere else. It’s a Ryuichi Tamura-田村隆一 kind of morning.

My Imperialism
by Ryuichi Tamura

I sink into bed
on the first Monday after Pentecost
and bless myself
since I’m not a Christian

Yet my ears still wander the sky
my eyes keep hunting for underground water
and my hands hold a small book
describing the grotesqueness of modern white society

when looked down at from the nonwhite world
in my fingers there’s a thin cigarette-
I wish it were hallucinogenic
though I’m tired of indiscriminate ecstasy

Through a window in the northern hemisphere
the light moves slowly past morning to afternoon
before I can place the red flare, it’s gone:
darkness

Was it this morning that my acupuncturist came?
a graduate student in Marxist economics, he says he changed
to medicine to help humanity, the animal of animals, drag itself peacefully to its deathbed
forty years of Scotch whisky’s roasted my liver and put me
into the hands of a Marxist economist
I want to ask him about Imperialism, A Study
what Hobson saw in South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century
may yet push me out of bed
even if you wanted to praise imperialism
there aren’t enough kings and natives left
the overproduced slaves had to become white

Only the nails grow
the nails of the dead grow too
so, like cats, we must constantly
sharpen ours to stay alive
Only The Nails Grow-not a bad epitaph
when K died his wife buried him in Fuji Cemetery
and had To One Woman carved on his gravestone
true, it was the title of one of his books
but the way she tried to have him only
to herself almost made me cry
even N, who founded the modernist magazine Luna
while Japan prepared to invade China
got sentimental after he went on his pension;
F, depressed
S, manic, builds house after house
A has abdominal imperialism: his stomach’s colonized his legs
M’s deaf, he can endure the loudest sounds;
some people have only their shadows grow
others become smaller than they really are
our old manifesto had it wrong: we only looked upward
if we’d really wanted to write poems
we should have crawled on the ground on all fours-
when William Irish, who wrote Phantom Lady, died
the only mourners were stock brokers
Mozart’s wife was not at his funeral

My feet grow warmer as I read
Kotoku Shusui’s Imperialism, Monster of the Twentieth Century, written back in 1901
when he was young N wrote “I say strange things”
was it the monster that pumped tears from his older eyes?

Poems are commodities without exchange value
but we’re forced to invade new territory
by crises of poetic overproduction

We must enslave the natives with our poems
all the ignorant savages under sixty
plagued by a surplus of clothes and food-
when you’re past sixty
you’re neither a commodity
nor human

But it is so much more than just Tamura lamenting the sentimentality of old age. It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters.

“With the incomparable feeling of rising and of being like a banner
Twenty seconds worth twenty-five years” (from “To Marina” by Kenneth Koch)

That sudden sense that one second you were an awkward and completely artistically inept kid fumbling imprecisely with the Japanese art form katazome. And the next you are shaking your head, remembering the details of that time so clearly, wondering, “Could that really have been twenty-five years ago?” (The twenty-five year mark comes up a few times in Kenneth Koch’s masterpiece, “To Marina” – possibly my favorite poem of all time.)

“We walk through the park in the sun. It is the end.
You phone me. I send you a telegram. It
Is the end. I keep
Thinking about you, grieving about you. It is the end. I write
Poems about you, to you. They
Are no longer simple. No longer
Are you there to see every day or
Every other or every third or fourth warm day
And now it has been twenty-five years
But those feelings kept orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in my and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.”