Speech and Speechlessness
the world of words and the world beyond them
In her new book, Doppelganger: a Trip into the Mirror World, the author Naomi Klein offers a meditation on speechlessness. The premise of the book — a chronicle of contemporary misinformation and its warping effects — is a comic one: sparked by the continual confusion of Klein with another Jewish female author, the former feminist and current unhinged conspiracy-monger Naomi Wolf. Klein’s bafflement and reluctance to engage with her doppelgänger — her doubled self mirrored back at her — becomes a metonym for the ways in which the far-right “mirror world” mocks, coopts and warps language in such a way as to render its opponents speechless.
Another vector of speechlessness, and of the deconstruction of meaning, is the increasing collapse between our digital selves and our real selves, and a concomitant conflation of what we say online with what we do, and who we are. To post or not to post becomes an artificially heightened decision: Klein calls it “the quicksand underpinning our age: the confusion between saying/clicking/posting and doing.” Descartes’ signature slogan corrupted for the social media era: I post, therefore I am. We are compelled to both manufacture opinions and feed them into the digital ether, fearing erasure.
“The source of my speechlessness,” Klein writes, “is a sense of near violent rupture between the world of words and the world beyond them.” The book is extraordinary, but it is Klein’s sharp description of the dual dilemmas of hollowed-out meaning rendering one speechless, and the way the necessity of constructing an ever-present digital self forces one into ceaseless and empty speech, that caught at me, in this moment in particular.
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There’s a war in Israel and Gaza, and the left-wing orthodoxies and right-wing orthodoxies of the moment — each in their own way advocating or excusing the slaughter of unarmed civilians and whole towns — stream past me in impossible numbers, interleaved with videos of violence, with outright propaganda, with full-throated advocacy for ethnic cleansing. In this moment of peril, in which people I love are in real danger, the doubled self is present in its dark mirror. I feel the urge to speak meaninglessly, and the urge to stay silent, and the senseless notion that not speaking is the same as refraining from action.
It isn’t. I am not an expert on Israel or security or warfare or Hamas or Fatah or the Netanyahu government or the broader geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. What I cling to are the idea that children should not be slaughtered for the sins of their governments, and that I want the people I love to be safe; this is the sum of my opinions. The carefully constructed digital self I have spent a decade building is null in this moment, as are so many things in the face of so much death. Every day since this began I have recited Psalm 25 — “Mine eyes are ever toward the LORD; for He will bring forth my feet out of the snare” — because the words are old and good and round and solid, and Psalms are what you say when you want lives to be spared. I pray like a child offering anything and everything as barter.
Constantly I think about a child: a golden child I love more than my own life laughing on video a few days ago like nothing could ever be funnier, a bell-of-heaven sound, and how much I want to hear that laughter again, to bathe in its proximity, its fullness. I think about how many children have died already in this conflict, at the hands of theocratic absolutists who care nothing at all about those who will never grow up, never fall in love, never take a first step, never have another good dream or even another nightmare. In this moment that is all I can think of — it fills my mind from edge to edge — and everything else is commentary.
This weekend two books of poetry arrived, the bounty of a late-night, indulgent shopping spree. One of them is the Voronezh Notebooks, a 2016 translation of my favorite poet Osip Mandelstam, who lived in the era of Stalin’s worst atrocities, and became a victim of them. The book is his last work, composed while he was living in internal exile because of a poem he had written. His demise was described by peers as a kind of suicide by poetry. He wrote “The Stalin Epigram” in 1933, read it at a private gathering, and was arrested by the NKVD: “The huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip/the glitter of his boot-rims… He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.”
It was another time in which language was rendered meaningless, in this case by meretricious official pronouncements and silences; another time when, for graver reasons than vanity, the stakes of speech were impossibly high, and the onslaught of bullets unceasing. A time of surveillance and precarity. Teetering on the edge of madness, on the black earth of the steppe, Mandelstam recognized how many lives had been lost in the purges, how many further would be lost. His own life would be among them, his heart giving out in his starving and emaciated body in a Siberian work camp (“the stone will be my last book,” he told fellow prisoners, as his frail arms hauled stones from place to place), a year after the last poem of the Voronezh Notebooks was complete.
Yet in the last months before his death, in the shadow of tyranny, he wrote a paean to human life and its beginnings. It was a description of a child’s first smile, the ripening potential of a small being growing into consciousness. I end this column about speechlessness with these words, carried from Voronezh and from the Russian language, to another moment in which children en masse face the end of all words. Prayers are words too but still I pray for the resolution of this moment into something other than a welter of blood and a mass extinguishing of human potential. A prayer for no more dead children, parents, grandparents, mothers, fathers. Perhaps futile – but Mandelstam’s words are not futile, even if mine are. I turn away from the doubled self, the silenced one and the logorrheic in equal measure, and back to him across the fog of a century. Let him speak for me from his grave.
The Birth of a Smile
By Osip Mandelstam, 8 December 1936-17 January 1937
When a child first begins to smile
The bitter and the sweet part company,
And the sober limits of that smile
Open, oceanic, into anarchy.
To him, everything’s unbeatably good:
He plays, in glory, with the corners of his lips —
And he catches up a rainbow seam
To learn the nature, infinite, of things.
On its own two feet, from water, matter rose —
An influx, an arriving, from the mouths of snails —
And an instant of Atlantis strikes the eyes,
In a languid pose of praise and of surprise.
Translated by Andrew Davis