through the solar systems

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Thinking of Elin.

On Foot I Had to Walk Through the Solar Systems
Edith Södergran
On foot
I had to walk through the solar systems,
before I found the first thread of my red dress,
Already, I sense myself.
Somewhere in space hangs my heart,
sparks fly from it, shaking the air,
to other reckless hearts.

Original
Till fots
fick jag gå genom solsystemen,
innan jag fann den första tråden av min röda dräkt.
Jag anar ren mig själv.
Någonstädes i rymden hänger mitt hjärta,
gnistor strömma ifrån det, skakande luften,
till andra måttlösa hjärtan.

weak tongue

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“Using in one tongue the word for a thing in the other makes the attributes of both resound: if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things. The world happening anew, Makina realizes: promising other things, signifying other things, producing different objects. Who knows if they’ll last, who knows if these names will be adopted by all, she thinks, but there they are, doing their damnedest.”signs preceding the end of the worldyuri herrera

As always, translation is a lie. One from which, in most cases, we cannot escape.

And then there are other kinds of silence.

untitled
rupi kaur
i’d be lying if i said
you make me speechless
the truth is you make my
tongue so weak it forgets
what language to speak in

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

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

 

Grammarians

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“This was the kind of thing the grammarians liked to hear. Together they would see the paper into the grave with its syntax pure.” – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

When I told the story (well, let’s face it – it wasn’t so much a story as it was the airing of a grievance) of a colleague challenging me (a self-proclaimed grammarian) on adjectival-phrase hyphenation, oddly, it was the first time he had heard the word “grammarian”.

“The grammar turned and attacked me.” – Adrienne Rich, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”

The grit of language

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As someone in love with language, the perils and challenges of translation and the cultural concepts that are embedded in language, I was thrilled to read about the Positive Lexicography Project. The interactive project, spearheaded by Dr Tim Lomas, catalogs and categorizes words/concepts (in this case, positive traits, feelings, experiences and states) that have very specific meanings in a language but have no direct equivalent or translation in English.

It’s not a new project, but I just stumbled onto it now. I’m in love.

Image by Brenda Godinez on Unsplash

Frightening times: Tyranny

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“You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“When anticipation of, and salivation over, the trickle of power sinks to the level of cruelty to helpless children, one is tempted to accept that all that is left to say is—nothing. The rest is silence. It is an admission that humanity has finally touched the peak of apprehension and the nadir of impotence.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

This is not the most coherent “essay” but I am overflowing with thoughts I don’t have the time or wherewithal to organize. I am thinking: What is terrorism? It is a form of tyranny – the uncertainty and fear created by unstable and unpredictable forces, among which, to my mind, the United States government/president can be counted at present. Anything that creates terror in or threatens a whole population or group.

Watching the new iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale, after having re-read the book a few weeks ago, I’m struck (as most people are) by the depiction of how easy it would be to end up with a society as extreme and dramatically transformed as that in the show/book. It would be not entirely different from what is happening in the US today. Make a few changes in society that anger people but don’t ultimately send a big enough alarm through the population – stage an attack, blame some false perpetrator, declare martial law and claim it’s only temporary. We’ve seen some version of this play out in countries we’ve widely regarded with dismay as “uncivilized” or “in need of American intervention”. Would Americans even be prepared, or would they, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, be meek, “Well, it’s only temporary…” and “Let’s wait and see…”? Incrementally it’s not so bad, it seems. After all, it’s only temporary, right? Surely someone else will do something about it. And by the time they felt the true violations of their individual sovereignty encroaching, it would already be too late. They’d try to protest but be met with violence against which they have no defense. Some would try to escape; many would wait too long and wonder why they had not gone sooner. Probably because these things never seem like they can happen. (Our real-life comparative equivalent being late 1930s/early 1940s Germany.)

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, a new order would soon exist, and people would wonder how they got there. Living in a bubble of ‘false safety’, as if nothing can go wrong, believing that democracy and its accompanying institutions are strong enough to withstand any onslaught, without guarding it closely, is how a society ends up here. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder writes in his recent book, On Tyranny:

“We tend to assume that institutions will automatically maintain themselves against even the most direct attacks.”

“The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” He added that “the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten.””

Angling language

“Language is power. When you turn “torture” into “enhanced interrogation,” or murdered children into “collateral damage,” you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Be alert to the use of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

It is easy to make people believe what you want them to believe – especially if you are confirming their biases or existing suspicions, stoking their biggest fears. Someone like Donald Trump (and his proponents/adherents) can somehow play both sides of the same counterfeit coin: on one side, America is the greatest country in the world (it’s not); on the other, America is a hellscape of unemployment and ‘nothing good’ awaiting the historical inheritors of its greatness (hetero white men and, to some extent, women – who maybe in the minds of these people gain their ‘greatness’ by proxy through these men and the children to which they give birth). But you can’t honestly, fully believe both things at once: the country is the best but is also the worst? It’s not as simple as that, but it underlines the agenda of manipulating language to manipulate people. Especially people who aren’t generally all that analytical or looking at a broad range of sources for information. Seduced by hearing everything they’ve always wanted to hear, it doesn’t matter if it’s factual or honest. It makes them feel good/right/understood.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

“The first mode is the open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting inventions and lies as if they were facts. The president does this at a high rate and at a fast pace. One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 percent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path toward total fiction. Demeaning the world as it is begins the creation of a fictional counterworld. The second mode is shamanistic incantation.” -from On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

Language of anger: Where we are now

Everyone is angry about something, and half of America, arguably, is angry about the way the most recent presidential election turned out. (Most of those, however, aren’t likely to react in a violent way, which is an interesting point.) Of course that is not all that is at stake. Essentially, the pervasive anger that marked the campaign, to which Trump and Bernie Sanders gave voice on either side of the aisle, is symptomatic of a populace that knows it lives under a completely broken system. The idea that either party or individual candidate could truly fix the ills of a fundamentally flawed system is also an illusion. I’d argue that this is what fuels the anger to the levels it has reached. Anger and fear, like that of an animal caught in a trap. The recent past has created a (false) sense of entitlement, envy and irrational hatred (ressentiment, as Pankaj Mishra writes about at length in his recent book, The Age of Anger).

“This bizarre indifference to a multifaceted past, the Cold War fixation with totalitarianism, and more West-versus-the-Rest thinking since 9/11 explains why our age of anger has provoked some absurdly extreme fear and bewilderment, summed up by the anonymous contributor to The New York Review of Books, who is convinced that the West cannot ‘ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS’. The malfunctioning of democratic institutions, economic crises, and the goading of aggrieved and fearful citizens into racist politics in Western Europe and America have now revealed how precarious and rare their post-1945 equilibrium was.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The false sense of security – the cost of “freedom” – is never really calculated. Even if there were consensus as to what “freedom” actually means. It certainly means different things to different people.

But, as Tocqueville warned, ‘to live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger’. Otherwise, one moves quickly from unlimited freedom to a craving for unlimited despotism. As he explained: When no authority exists in matters of religion, any more than in political matters, men soon become frightened in the face of unlimited independence. With everything in a perpetual state of agitation, they become anxious and fatigued. With the world of the intellect in universal flux, they want everything in the material realm, at least, to be firm and stable, and, unable to resume their former beliefs, they subject themselves to a master.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

Nothing new

“… ‘the tyranny of the quantifiable,’ of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having.” -from Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“Rousseau understood ressentiment profoundly, even though he never used the word – Rousseau, the first outraged diagnostician of commercial society and of the wounds inflicted on human souls by the task of adjusting to its mimetic rivalries and tensions. Kierkegaard first used the term precisely in The Present Age (1846) to note that the nineteenth century was marked by a particular kind of envy, which is incited when people consider themselves as equals yet seek advantage over each other. He warned that unreflexive envy was ‘the negatively unifying principle’ of the new democratic ‘public’. Tocqueville had already noticed a surge in competition, envy and rivalry resulting from the democratic revolution of the United States. He worried that the New World’s ‘equality of conditions’, which concealed subtle forms of subjugation and unfreedom, would make for immoderate ambition, corrosive envy and chronic dissatisfaction. Too many people, he warned, were living a ‘sort of fancied equality’ despite the ‘actual inequality of their lives’. Having succumbed to an ‘erroneous notion’ that ‘an easy and unbounded career is open’ to their ambition, they were hedged in on all sides by pushy rivals. For the democratic revolutionaries, who had abolished ‘the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way’, had then plunged into ‘universal competition’.” -from The Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra

The future past

“We in ancient countries have our past—we obsess over the past. They, the Americans, have a dream: they feel nostalgia about the promise of the future.” –Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

But this is not so now – there is a tug-of-war between those who are looking to the promise of the future (or at least trying to safeguard it beyond the foreseeable future) and those who want to greedily live in the now with an eye full of envy and nostalgia, on a past that probably never existed but which they nevertheless elevate. And it’s everywhere. As a woman I don’t go through the world imagining that every man sees me as an equal, but I usually don’t imagine that people like my own father, who constantly praised my brain and smarts when I was a child, telling me I could do whatever I wanted, or his friends are longing for some 1950s-era period where women would be forced to stay at home, pop out children and have dinner on the table. Or that they would sit around spewing hateful condemnations of all women, especially those who have achieved any kind of power or influence.

And yet, this is literally what I hear from them, and sometimes I hear this from (American) men my own age and younger. Like the hypocrite of hypocrites Donald Trump is, he applies one standard to his daughter and denigrates the rest of womankind. My father, too, thinks this is fine – expected even – that I would have an independent, professional life full of my own choices. But every other woman is a “stupid bitch” (from Hillary Clinton to Pramila Jayapal, from Theresa May to Ivanka Trump) who does not belong in public life.

As long as we have this kind of man and this kind of thinking, particularly in decision-making roles, there will still be people obsessing over a mostly illusory past and trying to force people, women and men both, into certain (outdated) roles. Will we have the fortitude or agency to stop this force?

Abandoning humanity

I highlight and personalize points about women in particular, largely because The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women’s subjugation and objectification. But the real story is an anti-human story. What becomes of humanity when it is divided by systematic inequality, by ideological warfare, the inability to perceive propaganda or discern fact from fiction, manipulated by language and how it is used?

“Is the spiral of antihumanism now unstoppable? If so, where will it lead? Constantly immersed in the cumulative denigration of human sensibilities, only to have one’s most pessimistic predilections topped again and again by new acts—or revelations—of the limitless depth to which the human mind can sink in its negative designs, one is tempted to declare simply that the world has now entered an irreversible state of global anomie.” -from Climate of Fear, Wole Soyinka

 

Prospect forecast: Read and reject the label

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“Tocqueville captured the phenomenon of invisibly creeping despotism in atomized societies devoted to the pursuit of wealth when he wrote that people ‘in their intense and exclusive anxiety to make a fortune’ can ‘lose sight of the close connection that exists between the private fortune of each and the prosperity of all. It is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold.’”

We might for some inexplicable and unreasonable reason (what else can we call it but a ‘reason’ even if it defies that very thing?) expect that the world, our quality of life – our own individually and that of each successive generation – will progressively improve. This is the lie we’re told/sold in at least American society, if not as overtly in others. And sometimes it turns out true. But the forecast isn’t true for everyone. This we know from the divisions we see played out in American society. And in all societies – modern and historic – the haves and have-nots, the with and without, the empowered and disenfranchised. None of this is hidden or difficult to see, but the label still reads: the world continues to get better; progress is on an endless march forward (whether “progress” means more liberal markets or universal prosperity/material betterment, eradication of the worst of the world’s diseases – its definition depends on to whom we pose the question, and even then does not have a simple answer. After all, for example, we might eradicate disease theoretically, patting ourselves on the backs about the triumph of science and ingenuity. But a drug company will come in and make the cure prohibitively expensive, so we have not made that much progress in reality).

These ideas come to the fore in many books I’ve read recently, most notably in Age of Anger (which I recommend) and the book about Boomers destroying everything. Things teeter on the brink on many fronts because people have been told that this label is true: “Freedom is all that matters – and by freedom, we mean the freedom to get rich.” And somehow, the have-have not dichotomy becomes entrenched because the masses of have-nots do not feel the same deprivation they should or the drive for equality. Instead they have been promised that there are lottery winners (whether literal or through hard work). Because they live in “freedom” (another word with complex meanings, all depending on whom you ask) – which in this case is another form of cage – they will swallow anything because there is a slight hope (certainly not expectation) of becoming wealthy, i.e. truly free.

Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies.

In Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which was about addiction, one of his addict patients said it in the most down-to-earth, distinct way possible: “Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients … and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You’ve collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You’re looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks’ worth up and above what you already have in the bank. “But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What’s everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they’re free? How are they freer than I am? “Everybody’s searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I’d rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom.”

But how are we to define freedom, really? We have the version that society feeds and reinforces; our own innate need to fit in or make ourselves feel better (and how? Collecting money? Consuming? Doing drugs or drinking? Owning guns?). From where do we derive our conception of personal/individual autonomy, freedom and what that means and why it is important? Why do we place such an outsized emphasis on freedom – or the version of freedom painted-by-numbers for us in the societies in which we live? Are safety or community or compassion not equally important?

From Age of Anger of course Dostoevsky is cited again: “True socialism, which rested on spiritual self-sacrifice and moral community, could not be established in the West, for the ‘Occidental Nature’ had a fundamental design flaw: it lacked Fraternity. ‘You find there instead,’ Dostoevsky wrote: a principle of individualism, a principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of personal gain, of self-determination, of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and the rest of mankind as an independent autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to all that exists outside itself.”

For Pessoa, though, no, freedom actually equates to being free of people and needing them for anything. I relate to his feelings on the subject. I have worked to find freedom from having to co-exist (even if in a bigger sense, e.g. paying taxes and earning money, I do co-exist), and flexibility when I did have to co-exist. At the same time, it is not entirely clear that this ‘freedom’ is important, certainly not beyond the individual sense, and is probably not psychologically healthy either (like it or not, we as humans do need some kind of network and connection to survive, i.e. no man is an island): “Freedom is the possibility of isolation. You are free if you can withdraw from people, not having to seek them out for the sake of money, company, love, glory or curiosity, none of which can thrive in silence and solitude. If you can’t live alone, you were born a slave. You may have all the splendours of the mind and the soul, in which case you’re a noble slave, or an intelligent servant; you’re not free.”

“Slavery is the law of life, and it is the only law, for it must be observed: there is no revolt possible, no way to escape it. Some are born slaves, others become slaves, and still others are forced to accept slavery. Our fainthearted love of freedom — which we would reject as strange and unfamiliar, if it ever came to us — is proof of how ingrained our slavery is.”

“We squander our personalities in orgies of coexistence. Every spoken word double-crosses us. The only tolerable form of communication is the written word, since it isn’t a stone in a bridge between souls but a ray of light between stars.”

“Whenever I’ve tried to free my life from a set of the circumstances that continuously oppress it, I’ve been instantly surrounded by other circumstances of the same order, as if the inscrutable web of creation were irrevocably at odds with me. I yank from my neck a hand that was choking me, and I see that my own hand was holding a noose that fell around my neck as soon as I freed it from the stranger’s hand.”

How can there be this kind of false freedom when it really is a form of keeping people in line, enslaved to a system that pushes them down but teases/taunts them with the tantalizing idea that maybe they could be one of the few to reach the upper echelons? What does it say about a society whose values and education reinforce the idea that that is all that is worth striving for and that that is what truly constitutes freedom?

From Age of Anger:

“In Santayana’s view, most human beings, temperamentally unfit to run the race for wealth, suffered from impotent resentment, and even the few successful rich did not enjoy ‘moral security’ and ‘a happy freedom’. He left the United States for Europe in 1912, having concluded that ‘there is no country in which people live under more overpowering compulsions’. For the next four decades he continued to amplify his warnings that the worldwide dissemination of an individualist culture of competition and mimicry would eventually incite a ‘lava-wave of primitive blindness and violence’.”

“Modernization, mostly along capitalist lines, became the universalist creed that glorified the autonomous rights-bearing individual and hailed his rational choice-making capacity as freedom. Economic growth was posited as the end-all of political life and the chief marker of progress worldwide, not to mention the gateway to happiness. Communism was totalitarian. Ergo its ideological opponent, American liberalism, represented freedom, which in turn was best advanced by moneymaking.”

“Responding to Fukuyama’s thesis in 1989, Allan Bloom was full of foreboding about the gathering revolts against a world that ‘has been made safe for reason as understood by the market’, and ‘a global common market the only goal of which is to minister to men’s bodily needs and whims’.”

A society in which the bitterly competitive fire is stoked to create humans most inhumane?

“Rousseau warned, amour propre is doomed to be perpetually unsatisfied. Too commonplace and parasitic on fickle opinion, it nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others; and amour propre can quickly degenerate into an aggressive drive, whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection – in Gore Vidal’s pithy formulation, ‘It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.’

“try to make sense of bewildering, and often painful, experiences by re-examining a divided modern world, this time from the perspective of those who came late to it, and felt, as many people do now, left, or pushed, behind.”

“Yet only on the rarest of occasions in recent decades has it been acknowledged that the history of modernization is largely one of carnage and bedlam rather than peaceful convergence, and that the politics of violence, hysteria and despair was by no means unique to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Communist Russia.”

The questions – and answers – are tied up in language and its influence/power as well. The language of freedom and equality are an effective smokescreen to mask that there is no actual freedom or equality. In a sense, it’s a sleight of hand (or tongue, in this case), not unlike when US Republicans have recently insisted that all people will still have “access” to healthcare if Obamacare were repealed. Yes, they would be free like every other person in America to shell out a whole lot of money to buy the care or insurance that perhaps, under Obamacare, they could actually afford. They don’t tell you that by “gaining so much freedom”, you are also losing a lot of money – if you could even afford the care in the first place. Bernie Sanders crusaded around this tricky language in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, reminding people that yes,  “access to” something is not the same thing as actually being able to get, buy or use it.

“Four years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, the German thinker Max Stirner argued in the equally incendiary The Ego and its Own that the impersonal rationality of power and government had disguised itself in the emollient language of freedom and equality, and the individual, ostensibly liberated from traditional bonds, had been freshly enslaved by the modern state. Bakunin, the forebear of today’s leaderless militants, spoke with glee of the ‘mysterious and terrible words’, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, which portend ‘the complete annihilation’ of the ‘existing political and social world’.”

“His friend Herzen saw Europe’s new gods of wealth and power as inaugurating an era of mass illusion – and violent counter-attacks. Europe was fated to move, Tocqueville warned, to ‘democracy without limits’, but it was far from clear ‘whether we are going toward liberty or marching toward despotism, God alone knows precisely’.”

Does it go beyond just the language in which the concepts are couched? Are concepts now inextricably tied to other concepts to form a net in which we are completely tangled? That is, to be American is to be free? And yet “free” in that statement is in a constant state of redefinition, stretched and pulled by different groups (one is tempted to say the liberal and the conservative, but this is too simplistic. Possibly it is pulled by the haves and have-nots, but in those cases, it’s more like the haves are holding the have-nots in their hands and pulling them at both ends like … a taffy pull, manipulating, stretching and taking more and more from them).

“Presciently critiquing the neo-liberal conflation of free enterprise with freedom, Rousseau claimed that individual liberty was deeply menaced in a society driven by commerce, individual competitiveness and amour propre. Anticipating anti-globalization critics, he argued that finance money is ‘at once the weakest and most useless for the purpose of driving the political mechanism toward its goal, and the strongest and most reliable for the purpose of deflecting it from its course’. Liberty was best protected not by prosperity but the general equality of all subjects, both urban and rural, and balanced economic growth. Emphasizing national self-sufficiency, he also distrusted the great and opaque forces of international trade, especially the trade in luxuries.”

And what could be more true than these ideas, also fruits plucked from Age of Anger?

“Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard doubted the then new ‘idea of sociality, of community’ promoted by journalism, and cautioned against the public opinion that rose from ‘a union of people who separately are weak, a union as unbeautiful and depraved as a child-marriage’. Early in the twentieth century, communications technology was still confined to the telegraph, the telephone and the cinema; but Max Weber warned that, combined with the pressure of work and opaque political and economic forces, it would push modern individuals away from public life and into a ‘subjectivist culture’ – or what he called ‘sterile excitation’. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan claimed that the era of literacy had ended with the advent of radio and television; their multi-sensory experience in a ‘global village’ had returned humankind to tribal structures of feeling and ‘we begin again to live a myth’. Today’s colossal exodus of human lives into cyberspace is even more dramatically transforming old notions of time, space, knowledge, values, identities and social relations.”

“In his prescient critique of the neo-liberal notion of individual freedom, Rousseau had argued that human beings live neither for themselves nor for their country in a commercial society where social value is modelled on monetary value; they live for the satisfaction of their vanity, or amour propre: the desire and need to secure recognition from others, to be esteemed by them as much as one esteems oneself. But, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the seeker of individual freedom must ‘break out of the prison in which his own reflection holds him’, and then out of ‘the vast penitentiary built by the reflection of his associates’. He absolutely won’t find freedom in the confining fun-house mirrors of Facebook and Twitter. For the vast prison of seductive images does not heal the perennially itchy and compulsively scratched wounds of amour propre. On the contrary: even the most festive spirit of communality disguises the competitiveness and envy provoked by constant exposure to other people’s success and well-being.”

Photo: Yes, should have paid attention to/read the label before purchasing online. A 1.5 kg package of tea is probably a bit too much.

Epiglottis

Standard

Banter, repartee and conversation with a linguist distinguishes itself from almost all other exchanges because of its speed – both in terms of the flow and the pace of topic change. Nothing said has a single meaning. Everything has multiple meanings, which makes the exchanges all the richer – things to mull over long after the brisk conversation ends.

Beyond the aphrodisiac of constant metaphor, your wordplay will be enlivened with terms like “velaric fricative” and words like “epiglottis”.

I love this, as someone who dreamt of but abandoned the dream of being a linguist many years ago. I also love how one single word – like epiglottis – sets me off on some entirely different tangent. In this case, right back to my favorite thing: poetry.

So… Romanian poet Nina Cassian. She died in 2014. Did I even know she died? (As a complete digression: When I originally jotted down this question of doubt and walked away, I came back and thought it read, “Did she know she died?” Are we aware when we die that we have died? I start to wonder sometimes about what we see or experience. So many stories I hear about near-death or about being with someone as they shed this mortal coil lead me to think we meet already-passed loved ones in those last moments, in the in-between world between here and hereafter – whatever that hereafter is, even if it is infinite nothingness.)

Nina Cassian – a discovery I made in high school. Poetry that now feels overwrought and overdone, indelicate and “blocky” (I don’t even have a word that adequately conveys what I mean by “blocky” as the dictionary definition of “blocky” isn’t right). I don’t care for Cassian’s style now, but it provided a kind of shock value at the time, which was enough credibility for me. Hers was a voice, despite not being popular or apparently well-liked by most Romanians I have known, from a mysterious but newly open place. Every Cassian reference I made to Romanians was met with a “You should be reading Eminescu”. I did, but it did not fill the need I had at that moment.

Me, I am partial to Marin Sorescu but at the time of finding Cassian, I wanted to find women poets exclusively – not men, and not pre-20th century – from eastern, southern and central Europe. Cassian qualified. She satisfied my need at the time to explore the limited perspectives of life in specific countries through a female’s eyes.

Incidentally, it also contributed to my efforts to supply my brother and his friends with poems that would shock or offend teachers who never wanted to hear words like ‘orgasm’, ‘clitoris’ or, worst of all – ‘cunt’ (see also: Heather McHugh, Marge Piercy). They could not deny the legitimacy of a word like ‘cunt’ when it was wielded by these women writers and often by champions of feminism.

But yes, Cassian. Epiglottis –> Glottis.

Cassian’s work deals frequently with language and the self/identity divided by language or the identity language confers, and it is within these poems that I sensed her greatest strengths. Other works on other themes seemed weaker:

Language
My tongue — forked like snake’s
but without deadly intentions:
just a bilingual hissing.

Or

Vowel
A clean vowel
in my morning,
Latin pronunciation
in the murmur of confused time.
With rational syllables
I’m trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power:
The enemy is illiterate.

And finally, the pièce de résistance, the poem that actually came to mind as “epiglottis” flapped its way casually into discussion, “Licentiousness”, which naturally was on the penultimate page I searched (after looking through hundreds of pages of disorganized collected poetry)…

Licentiousness
Letters fall from my words
as teeth might fall from my mouth.
Lisping? Stammering? Mumbling?
Or the last silence?
Please God take pity
On the roof of my mouth,
On my tongue,
On my glottis,
On the clitoris in my throat
vibrating, sensitive, pulsating,
exploding in the orgasm of Romanian.