Ordinary Language

Here I am in a ghost-town, an old mining camp at 10,000 feet, snow on the peaks.  It’s called “Gothic,” about an hour and a half up the road north of Gunnison, CO.  It was taken over in the 30s by alpine biological researchers.  Flying in you could see the smoke from the fires.  As fate would have it I was reading W E Sebald on the firestorms incinerating German cities, and German forgetfulness of them.  He is precise and painfully truthful about failures of language to hold up its end of the bargain when it comes to dealing with the most calamitous experience.  Linguistic amnesia is a function not just of our wish to turn away from the unbearable but  a function of the utter uselessness of inherited speech to bear up under the palpably unbearable. 

I’m used to thinking of the failure of ordinary language to bear up to the taste of blue cheese, or to wrap itself around the pain of a kidney stone.  Somehow I can live with linguistic failures here.  But I can’t be indifferent to the haunting, terrible, and otherworldly demonic incapacities of language and response that Sebald chronicles in On the Natural History of Destruction.


9 comments on “Ordinary Language

  1. dmf says:

    on working through grief projects and getting lost in translation:

  2. dmf says:

    that we can’t, tho all too many can, be indifferent to such works/experiences is perhaps the success of ordinary language, and yet its all too human limit in terms of doing much more than bearing witness, being-compassionate, stirring the melting pot.

    • efmooney says:

      What struck me about Sebald’s account of events 60 years past and of the massive silence about them and of the failure even of writers who tried to break through with an account — writers of great moral sensitivity and established literary reputation and competence — was both the effectiveness of his analysis of the failure of even the best attempted accounts (they kept reverting to cliche and platitude) and the intricate intelligence and command of language (he’s Nobel Prize caliber) HE had to put in play over many chapters to even begin to bear witness. It is, to my ear, a kind of witness that transcends any I’ve encountered before and in quite a different league from ‘grief work.’ I wouldn’t know where to begin laying out what makes the events and his relating them so powerful, other than to say it’s nothing to be thought out in a weekend or a summer. What is interesting is that there’s a sizable holocaust-survivor’s literature that succeeds, when it does, because there is no question of moral onus whereas in the German-survivors case it’s almost as if deep shame and a sense that the incinerations were deserved punishment ‘from above’ makes an account of the suffering impossible for the sufferer to relate. All that in addition to the failure of language to capture the enormity of scale and horror.

  3. dmf says:

    Alice Oswald takes Madeleine Bunting for a walk along the river Dart and explains why, for her, water represents the complexity of putting an ever-changing landscape in to words

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