The detour of words

In honor of what would have been his 84th birthday

It happens to me at least once a year that i sink through everything. With everything, i mean, as an industrious verbalist, in the first place the world of words that proliferates like an enormous jungle on a bottom, of which at that moment it’s not clear whether that is the world or yet another substrate of words. For one word invokes another, leans up against it and makes an alliance with it. Finding support with each other they create the suggestion of a robust reality that can exist on its own. What is said so seriously and repetitively gets the same density as a solid object. When the word ‘well-being’, to name a random example, is pronounced seriously and with some display of noble concern is placed against something like ‘welfare’, it soon takes on the same fleshiness and and we start thinking that well-being is something that can be realized by our efforts. And in the meantime all that has become clear is that we can have discussions and meetings about it, but not that it has its own existence outside of language and conference rooms and can be the object of meaningful efforts. And it is that way with a lot of other words, most of all with the most expensive, the fattest, the noblest.

Apparently there is still a border above which words, no matter how fat, lose so much of their relative density, that they can’t descent anymore to a reality where their meaning can still be checked. They then maintain each other somewhere high in the sky and form a verbal universe that competes with reality -or even: they suck up all the other words to their own vacuum until it coincides with the world.

The periodical collapse of that world is something very different than a sudden attack of skepticism, more vital and more elementary. It causes a merry mood more than it does a sombre one. It therefore has more to do with springtime than with fall, more with Easter than with All Souls Day. From underneath a crust of meaningless words and things that have become obvious an elementary reality breaks through. About this reality poets and philosophers sometimes speak. But they have done this so often in the course of centuries, that this repetition of their words seems to be contributing to the rampant verbalism. We continuously need new words to express old experiences. And especially within the expression of those elemental experiences lurks the kitsch. This is what makes them inexpressible.

The inexpressibility of things that arouse our wonder is not the consequence of a shortage of words, but of an excess. Inexpressible is not what is new, but what is being suffocated under a repetition of words from the past. Language itself is a barrier, the cliche an obstacle. The most elemental things become inexpressible, because they’re snowed in, packed in a layer of words that can easily be repeated that only refer to a former use of those same words. Especially that which has been said so well, that it appears to have been put into words definitively, can only be used for a ritual repetition which no springtime can break through. Speaking becomes quoting, referring to numbers in a storage room. ‘We deeply regret’, ‘We’re deeply shocked’, ‘It is with great joy that we’, says the spokesperson, but there isn’t anybody who can think of sadness or joy with those statements anymore. It’s just referring to a certain register in the common way we use language.

To avoid kitsch we are almost forced to remain silent about elemental experiences or to speak about them in a language in which we decline any reference to either the outside or the inside. Poetry will have to become an autonomous art. If there’s still a poet that writes about springtime, he’ll have to write about poetry about springtime and about poets writing poems about springtime. His creativity is sent on a detour from which no one has ever returned. Like a monkey he climbs in the paper trees of a superfluous jungle. This happens in the name of a sophistication built of the shards of many failures and rejected sentiment. Every guileless directness is doomed to lead to kitsch.

The taboo on elemental things has almost become an obviousness. Out of fear for sentiment their existence is ignored, so it has to hide in a fairly obscure corner of amusement. Only when packed between frolics, piquancy and stunts may the springtime, a mother’s love, and sorrow be brought up. Outside of that they’re endlessly tinkering on a universe of words about words, solidified lava around a volcano that must have worked some time ago.

Even activism, heir to the ancient grim resoluteness, has developed its own verbalism, the most misleading one that can be thought of. Few expressions are as purely verbalistic as the thousand times repeated phrase, that it is not about the words, but about the deeds and that something finally needs to happen. Dozens of words have come into circulation that are being used with a certain volition, but exclusively relate to deeds and happenings that never took place and lay far beyond our powers: changing society, revolution, progressive policy, to make aware and even: upbringing. Has anyone ever been brought up? The so-called people of deed have become the biggest verbalists. For them words are not just the means to make a career, but also to maintain the illusion that the world is completely manageable, as manageable as language. By ruminating words they get the satisfying feeling of putting their teeth into reality.

It is an elemental joy and a small wonder to see this world crumble, silent as wet cardboard, to look outside without a mist of words before your eyes, to hear a blackbird sing without thinking of music or poetry, to see old things as new without a revolutionary interference and without an accompanying commentary track. Language is a detour to speechlessness. At a real occurence, we have nothing to say.

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