Monday, 8 December 2014

The myth of the single word

I'm in a George Saunders phase these days, reading Tenth of December, his collection released last year. I've taken a break to read the introduction. And here, in the form of an anecdote, I discover something about the relevance of death to writing. So I wax lyrical, I beat my brow and praise the muse for making me think of life-versus-death, of language, of me, of writing. Again.

Source: Brown Daily Herald
The anecdote is in the volume's introduction, an article by Joel Lovell reprinted from New York Times Magazine of January 2013.


The article is a summary of a discussion (or series of discussions) between Lovell and Saunders. In it, at some point, Saunders tells the story of how he faced death in a near crash while on a plane from Chicago to Syracuse.
Everything has gone well, the flight progressing as per schedule. Then suddenly there's a banging noise on the side of the plane, black smokes starts pouring in, the pilot gives a message in a trembling voice, women start screaming, a boy asks if this was supposed to happen. It looks certain: they are going to die. And here goes Saunders' voice now, explaining what he went through (with occasional explanatory interventions from Lovell):
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over. And also thinking, You could actually piss yourself. And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there.” He pointed toward the imaginary seat back in front of him. “I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I've had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.” He had assumed that if he was ever faced with death, he would “handle it with aplomb,” he would be present in the moment, he would make peace in the time he had left. “But I couldn't even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”

Source: Click Top 10
The story captures very well the thing I want to talk about here: not so much death pure and simple as death through/of/by means of language. Or, to be more precise, the myth of the single word, a myth which has been teasing the world of writing since, probably, the beginnings of writing itself: how to put It (yes, capital I, coz it's the World I'm talking about) into a single syllable? How to find that sole gust of air coming out of your lungs that can encapsulate Everything? To Saunders (and I'm sure it is to others too – writers I can't think of right now) it's this proximity of death. This experience so complex in its (biological? cultural?) simplicity comes packaged with the usual suspects: the awareness of one's body becoming irrelevant, of the event of one's life becoming irrecoverable, of the proximity of the question of mortality becoming, suddenly, irrefutable.
It all comes like an avalanche. The multiplicity of life tumbling over one's entire being, somewhere between ecstasy and regret. A Sturm und Drang moment. The very possibility of Death comes as a surplus: too much, too soon, too close, too devastating: the argument of the inevitable made apparent. So the experience arrives avalanche-like to cover one's Everything, head to toe, consciousness, ego and all. Faced with this too-muchness of the prospect of death, one is overcome by the realization that one only has words to deal with the problem. One only has language. Language to deal with Everything. And then – then and there – language simplifies itself, it purifies its cloudy waters, it finds the Syllable. One's Everything becomes (because everything is a becoming – the happening of becoming) the Syllable. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. A negation.
When faced with the evidence of Death's abundance, one can only formulate a negation. To affirm would be absurd. Affirmation means addition. Say Yes and you enlarge the abundance, make it more – abundant. But with No, with the only syllable that language allows itself to materialize as, you discover that a one-word essence is possible. That through all the fear and confusion and debris of the mind, there's one sound that can cover the entire horizon: it can cover the fear, as well as the confusion, as well as the debris of the mind.


Life is a dermatological problem. It creeps inside you through your skin. It is also, as one of my good poet friends said somewhere, a sexually transmitted disease with lethal consequences. There are many ways to describe life. Many words, that is, since in order to celebrate its own glory Life has buddied up pretty well with language. But Death? When Death comes, there's No – the Syllable – and nothing else. The only operation permitted is repetition. Not diversity, not complex loquacity, not armies of synonyms summoned to barrage the evidence of death, but repetition. Again and again and again. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. A repetition that can only be stopped by Death itself: once you're dead you can no longer repeat words.

Source: Patheos
With the repeated Syllable one witnesses the self-defense of language. As in all self-defense techniques, what the self-defender has to do is find the right combination of moves, the right position of the body, the right punch, the right kick in the groin that renders the attacker useless. It's all in the way the technique is perfected, the repetition that makes the moves right, the practice that makes perfect.
The same goes with the monosyllabic negation of Death: the perfection of the word, its monosyllableness, its punctual, efficient statement.
The martial arts of language.
The jujitsu of the Empire of Words.
Twisting Death's hand, throwing her to the floor and saying, I'm so terribly afraid of you the only disciplined way in which I can behave is use a single word. So that if you occur, if you do smite me and take me away, I know at least I've said something to you in exchange. I showed you that I am truly a being of words.
Take the word hand for my hand.
Take the word head for my head.
Take the word eye for my eye.
And so on for my ego, self, the I that I like to think I am.
So that when you, Death, come to me you find me as a text. It's no wonder, then, that when you frighten me with the death you stand for, Death, I have something to say.
Famous last words are proof of this – of the textuality of the human being. So that what you, Death, take with you when you think you annihilate me is in fact a text: a collection of words, a manifestation of language. You take away the potentiality of writing, since every word contains in itself the possibility of it becoming a mark on a page: a poem, an edict, a revolt, a resignation.
You eradicate the text that I am, but in doing so you set me free: free of the constraints of writing, free of the processed meat of language, free of conventionalities. You make me one with the word I can utter. No name, no body, no identity. Only the Syllable – not my annihilation but yours, since the Syllable doesn't require the technology of writing (which to me, as a writer, stands for everything that's technological in the human species); it only requires the biology of my vocal chords. This reminds me that biology is where the difference between Life and Death looks truly sharp, really relevant, where it matters to say something – to say.
And so with the following definition I can march forward: An utterance is the end of death.