Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tony Judt and the fragility of language

At election time we are reminded of the ways that the powerful, including politicians, political parties and corporations use language and words to mystify rather than inform.

So in the middle of a deeply depressing Federal election campaign, it was a pleasure to read Tony Judt's* profound and moving meditation on language and words, and their capacity to communicate ideas and meaning. Judt's piece titled Words appears in the New York Review of Books.

Judt. who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) a terrible disease that has left him a quadriplegic, writes that his own loss of capacity for speech reminds him of the power of language in creating and holding together public space and communicating public ideas.
"I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.
For Judt words lose their integrity when they privilege personal expression and rely on rhetorical flourishes. When this happens, Judt believes the public ideas that can be expressed and discussed through language fall into disrepair and eventually are lost.

Judt makes the point that the professionalization of writing, be it by academics, journalist, writers or politicians, favors obscurantism and has:
" encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib popular articulacy.. It is the performer rather than the subject, to whom the audience's attention is drawn".
His conclusion is a timely warning to us all:
"If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have".
* An earlier blog piece on Tony Judt is here

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