Saturday, April 25, 2009

Language Matters

Over the last few days - though it might be weeks or months - I've begun to feel a certain disillusion with language itself. A kind of language anxiety if you like, since it reminds me of the same kind of ennui I've sometimes felt about work, relationships, life itself; yet this time its none of those things (though I'll probably come back to qualify that assumption), rather its "language" itself.

A few points:

I'm constantly reading but its low-intensity; at least intellectually. Blogs and Twitter streams aren't constructed arguments, such as written simulacrum's of conversation's in a crowded room. If you ever close your eyes at a party, you hear more, and understand less. There are fragments of conversations all around you, but without the context - the body language, if you like, without the sense of spatial movement - although you catch more of these conversations it becomes more difficult to zone in and out. That said; most of the intellectually satisfying written work I read these days is on the web, not in the newspapers. (I throw the Guardian magazine in the bin most Saturday's having only skimmed it.)

There's a whole different world of reading I do - in work - which is around bids, contracts, workplans, specifications. I've often felt its the "white collar" workers angst at his industrial/manufacturing colleagues. The need to "make" something that can be pointed at, and, if, god forbid, you have to, read. Much of this, is, of course, rubbish. Much of the language is, equally of course, funny-peculiar in its own way. It doesn't lend to poetry. (Though I've tried.)

Other media assaults our consciousness and yet we still to a large extent "read" it - in much the same way that I used to read out the signs that I passed when a child in the backseat of a car with my mum and dad. Examples? The tickertape of the rolling news; the smallprint on financial adverts; the comments below a video on Youtube.

Books are all around me and yet I can't get past the first page of too many of them. I need the linear route in - but at the same time I get bored by the language therein. A little unsober on a bus home a few weeks ago I sat there reading extracts from my Kathy Acker anthology, and could concentrate on the fragmentary prose in a way that seemed inspiring. I pick up a poetry book and can't concentrate on the particular verse because my eyes are always picking up the peripheral poem on the next page. (Note to poetry editors: give every poem its own page.)

I was in Poland this week and the language was utterly unfamiliar. Logging on to the hotel internet my Google pages assumed I was Polish. There's so many new words - internet is internetowÄ… for instance - that the language is understandable. Everyone involved with the project (Swedes, Greeks, English, Polish, Spanish) spoke English, understood English. A few dense Powerpoint slides in Polish as we listened to the simultaneous translation (very impressive) were the only reminder of the difficulties of communicating. There's a bricks and mortar like quality to the conversations we were having. The "bidspeak" words mentioned above make little more sense in English, but, being without poetry, existing in a world without metaphor, their unsense can be translated well enough.

All of these things make me wonder whether I've lost my language. Or at least mislaid it. This sort of writing, thought straight to page, I can still do, but its little more than a slightly elevated pub conversation. Not much metaphor here either.

Its clear that language reacts to its environment. It is in the SF unreality of Trujillo's Dominican Republic that Junot Diaz's language takes off; in college America it becomes as flat as its environment. Cormac McCarthy's language can seem perfectly at home in the medievalised future of "The Road", and David Mitchell is far more inventive when writing about the past or the future than about the eighties. Before I was a "proper" writer (you know, before I'd shown it to anyone) I was developing my own linguistic tics for describing the flatland of my life in England then (and now). I knew so little about the world that I had to imagine it all, and language was part of the imagining. Only when trying to write a scene that had to be real, and which I was unfamiliar with (e.g. a visit to a lawyers office) did my novelistic style become flat. Writing about kinky sex or marriage or old age or being shot at or fame or, in fact, anything that had to be at least partially imagined, I was inventive; writing about what I knew I had to be either funny or camouflaging. Now, I feel that my problem is not the subject(s), but the language. And I have to solve the latter before I can get to address the former.

It's not that English prose writers don't talk about language (or think about language) they'd just rather not. It's somehow unseemly. Readers never get asked - and, I suppose, you see them reading Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer or J.K. Rowling and its clear language isn't a priority. I'm not wanting books full of Molly Bloom-like solilloquying, but something that takes our literature from the prosaic; keeps it apart from the bureaucrat speak, the blogs, the media intrusions... helps it stand out when you hear it spoken whilst your eyes are closed at a party and you have no idea of the context of the speakers.

1 comment:

Tim F said...

It's like Blake's Innocence and Experience - if you're unaware of the potential complexity and strangeness of language, you might be able to enjoy Dan Brown. So who's to say that acquiring that knowledge will make you a happier person?