Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.
– Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
Is silence, by definition, cowardice?
Impossible. There is no silence in silence, after all. Language is always there, elbowing and grunting its way through the heady determination shut up I’m trying to be quiet of quiet. Thought is all voice. But without throat and tongue to give it an address, where does it land? On the page, perhaps. In the letter she writes with the pen squeezed in her fist but never sends. In the steel echo of a John Lee Hooker song bouncing off the walls of his skull. In the clanging, fists-swinging noise of ideas backed against the ropes. One thought after another dripping sweat, conceived and voiced in some halfway-way.
Courage? Certainly not. But neither is the nascent thesis cowardice. It is something between. Suspension, perhaps. A pause in the action.
Truth needs a shape, though, yes? One can’t just hesitate forever.
She sits across from him, across and far and maybe nowhere near him. The silence is every possible word pushing against the roof of her mouth. Finally, she speaks. “I don’t understand you. You make no sense to me.”
He recoils from her and says, “There is something wrong with you.”
Every other thing, not spoken. Every other statement about everything also right exactly here, unchosen. Every other truth, from the draping leaves of the ceiling-high houseplant to the taste of sourdough still clinging to their fingers. Every other possible scaffolding on which they could build some structure to hold is left there in a heap. Rebar cascades away in waves. It washes offshore when the tide comes in. It drifts to the bottom of the sea.
She says, “I need to catch my breath.”
He says, “Goodbye.”
Language is multiple choice without an “all of the above.” Choosing a word, even if it is only one, is courage. Even if it is the wrong one. Maybe especially then.
5 thoughts on “Fill in the Blank”
After 22 years of marriage, sometimes I think my most courageous acts are acts of silence.
Desire wants to be known – to be spoken. So perhaps you are right. Silence is a suspension – a pause in action. But it can also be a disciplined response based on wisdom and understanding and all those things that transcend desire. Not of the desirous “shut up I’m trying to be silent”, variety, but something more primary – the experience prior to language.
Rushdie makes this comment regarding courage in a passage about the earnest poet, Jumpy Joshi. Despite ridicule, Jumpy can’t stop creating poetry. He loves language too much. But that’s the written word, not the spoken, so it’s curious that Rushdie uses the phrase “speak it.”
I wonder if a different sort of courage is required (or discipline) to bring thought into truth through the craft of writing rather than the choice to speak out loud. It requires a stepping away and a measured responsiveness. In any event, it is neither silence nor speech. It is something else.
I tried to shorten this but am having difficulty. I haven’t thought about this kind of stuff in so long so please bare with me!
I tend to think of thought as a veil on reality. Words are symbols. They cannot be “truth”. (There is an experience of a tree before we label it “tree”. Once we label it “tree” we reduce our experience to an idea – a thought about the experience, which is not the experience itself.)
Oral traditions can come closer to truth than the written word because what is spoken is allowed to change from culture to culture and generation to generation.The best a writer can do is “speak” the truth of an isolated moment in time, which, in a sense, isn’t the truth at all. Take an oral tradition from the Abrahamic Faiths and canonize it. In essence, you have frozen it within a specific time and culture. While two truths (or more) can easily coexist within oral traditions, the written word necessarily limits what can coexist.
The oral tradition is less limiting, but it also limits. Someone like Rushdie writes his truth knowing that it is not “the truth”. It is dangerous because so many people don’t recognize the limitations of language. Is that what you mean by “I wonder if a different sort of courage is required (or discipline) to bring thought into truth through the craft of writing rather than the choice to speak out loud”?
I think a tremendous amount of discipline is necessary to realize our truth is not “the truth”. It is merely an isolated fragment of truth. In that sense I think I agree, it is neither silence nor speech, but something else.
Or maybe I have misunderstood you altogether. If so, I apologize.
I recently left a relationship in which my partner and I could never forge a shared understanding of these things (and not for lack of trying!). His pursuit of a bounded, measurable “truth” was incomprehensible to me. The way we were together, the nature of connection, even the texture of my feelings all shift in response what occurs between and around us. When things were hard, I wanted so badly to make a conscious choice to re-orient ourselves to other kinds of truth by quieting ourselves from the problem at hand and attending to something else (the day, our bodies, song, a dream. . . anything). To draw in metaphor. To expand the language around our shared experience in order to broaden the experience itself. Maybe this is similar to what an oral tradition does? It lives and breathes meaning. The known world/idea mutates, in a sense.
In any event, he did not approach things in this way. He found me slippery and unreliable. Our perceptions on these things confused each other and made each other anxious.
When I made that statement about discipline/courage related to the craft of writing, perhaps I was referring to interpersonal interaction. It takes a certain kind of trust to step away from argument or a situation in which parties are not understanding each other. Instead of hammering at it, what if we just allow something to be unknown or unfixed? What if we take that unknown, changing something (or a piece of it) and instead try to craft it into an angle on one of the more primal truths? Not to fix it in place but to give it richer color and shape. To let go of the issue at hand and allow the experience to become something else, something metaphoric. Isn’t this what so many love songs do?
You express yourself so beautifully. I feel so clumsy, in comparison. I find your views absolutely fascinating but I am also slightly intimidated by their depth!
What I’m not sure I understand is this: how can you change the unknown, even a piece of it, if you don’t yet know it? Isn’t the desire to craft what is unknown into something meaningful more about fear and need than trust and vulnerability? We can open ourselves to truth and thereby allow the experience to be metaphoric. But any attempt at crafting the experience would seem to me merely synonymous with our own desire and need to be understood and not metaphoric at all. I think it is true that we create meaning and that we are therefore ultimately responsible for the meaning that exists within our relationships. But we also experience something that exists beyond what can be “known” and any attempt to craft this unknown into something known is ultimately meaningless. A metaphor points to the unknown, but it is not synonymous with it.
Rushdie once referred to his situation as being “trapped in the metaphor”. The ancient oral traditions understood metaphor. We post-Enlightenment folk, however, are no longer fully able to understand it. (It gets confused with symbol and simile.) Post-modern religions tend to create God in their own image because they fail to understand God metaphorically. (Metaphor “is” and “is not”.) I think we do the same thing with our relationships. We fail to realize they point to something much more significant than our individual needs and desires. (I think a lot of love songs are probably trapped in the metaphor, too.)