still clattering away

Flaubert once said that language was like a cracked tin kettle on which we bang out thudding notes, when we longed to move the stars. I’m just such a dreaming star-mover. But the best I’ve been able to muster is a little wobble in the planet to which my feet are glued.

Language is that tool whereby we clothe ourselves, whereby we adorn our public person, whereby others come to meet and eventually come to think they know us. Language is my passion—is my profession. I am a poet and a philosopher of language. I both play with and study language. I sing with the Muses and analyze their ministrations, follow their leading and ponder their influences on self-expression, cultural practices, and semantic structures. I have written a graduate thesis on deception, presented papers on sincerity, and published poems of searing transparency.

But for all that, all I have when at this deepest level is a shabby tin kettle I don’t know how to tune to the rhythms of my life. I can poeticize about the betrayal of close friends, theorize about the dependency of meaning upon sincerity, and philosophize about the parasitic nature of deception. But when it comes to being sincere—what I’ve called a psychological property of a propositional attitude some intentional agent directs towards the relation between some utterance and some state of affairs in the world—I clang away tunelessly.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I can be stunningly sincere. Plays I’ve written and directed will bring you to tears. And some of my poems are shockingly naked. But you see, plays and poetry allow a veil for the writer to hide behind. And I do like to hide. I like to hide behind imagery and symbolism, behind rhythm and scansion. I like to hide behind the tropes, behind the mythology, behind the meter, behind characters I can dissociate from, but who all arise, inevitably, from the very thing I wish to hide from—me.

And I’ve hidden from me for a long time. I’m scary. There are certain kinds of things that go bump in the night, certain kinds of things that threaten stability and the stasis that psychoanalysis tells us is supposed to be the idyllic dream. And when I peek behind the imagery, behind the mythology, I find those things banging away on a kettle inside my darkest rooms. And that has terrified me for decades.

So I declared a war of words against this inner uncertainty. Whoever and whatever this kettle-banger is, well, if she’s not going to agree with my domestically tidy mythology, then she must be an emotional terrorist, or in league with terrorists. And to protect myself from her, from the terrifying uncertainty of her unleashed, I forged a careful wall of language to keep her shielded from me; and to protect my freedoms, I restructured them inside a knot of security measures.

And so went the language game.

I kept mythologizing; she kept banging away. And as she persistently pounded, I insistently sounded out new fables  and theories. And she would always come out in my dreams, when my guard was down. And she would always bang out my insincerity. And she would always sound out my carefully crafted words, my transcendent and lovely words, but in her mouth, they rang hollowly. Until one day, I truly listened.

She was banging out precisely what I had done—not what I had said, exactly, but the relationship between my words and my life. And the very incongruity was the source of the dissonance. She wasn’t mocking me, but faithfully playing the sounds I’d written. The words were tuneless because I had made them so. And I was undone.

Every word I’d written, all the language I’d abused, I threw into a heap in the center of my life. What was the meaning of my story? What kind of story was it? The tuneless clanking she’d played was a garish farce, but I’d hoped for dignity and some sort of tender honesty in my words. A stack of muddled sounds.

Cross-legged I sat on the floor by the heap. And here still I sit, sifting through the stack, searching for snatches of sincerity—longing to move the stars.


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