When I first read this mini-poem my face was gray and my brain was cooked from plowing through the Western world’s literature. At that time reading had become more than a full-time occupation for me, since Comparative Literature was my first subject at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden—and my professor had scared me witless.
She expressed the very first day that her students should come to the Study of Literature (one could actually hear the capital letters in her speech) with knowledge from both real-life experience and with one or, preferably, a couple of other university subjects under their belts. I had neither and felt very lacking.
I was a Don Quixote fighting the windmills in form of these dense texts of geniuses, or an Icarus whose wings of hubris were melting from exposure to abstrusely antiquated language…you get the picture.
But then the above lines by the Swedish poet Bruno K. Öijer (translated by me) caught me by surprise; this was like fresh air among the crammed dusty readings. Someone was actually speaking to me in the exact moment of reading, reaching across time and space into my present moment. And furthermore, he was complimenting me—in a metatext way.
As I come from an immigrant family I have always had a heightened sensibility for language. The shame I felt over my parents’ Finnish accent made me feel socially inferior when I was a child, and that was perhaps one of the reasons that I pressured myself to compete in school. (Swedish and Finnish are totally unrelated and I would need tutoring the first two years as my Swedish vocabulary was lacking.)
Kids would ask questions I couldn’t answer: ”My dad is wondering why you’re so good in school when your parents can’t even speak Swedish properly…?” I wish I could have defended myself, but at the time I just remained silent, and only felt more singled out.
Unfortunately, I can still remember how I would pretend that I actually wasn’t present in the grocery store or the bank, when my mother would misunderstand and have problems in talking to people in everyday situations. I picked up very early on that she was treated differently because of her imperfect Swedish. So I knew that language had the power to shut you up. Make you or break you, or at least shape you.
In the 1940’s the Austrian writer Ernest Schachtel described how Western culture has created a tight control over our minds through the very construction of language. According to him, our original, non-linguistic ways of experiencing the world as children are stymied by conventional ways of thinking about the world, he calls these patterns schemata or clichés. The way we think and remember as adults is strictly schematized and governed by the language schemata we have been taught by our parents and teachers.
Schachtel claims that we all more or less suffer from childhood amnesia, as our conditioned minds are incapable of thinking outside the box of our given language. The only times we can break free from these shackles are through involuntary recalls of sensual remembrances.
An often quoted example is how Marcel Proust’s sensation of his childhood’s madeleine cookies triggered eight volumes and 3,000 pages of a Remembrance of Things Past. Aside from the arts, we also have some access to these forgotten memories through our dreams.
Schachtel means that the purpose of this manipulative cultural system is to maintain a controlled society of efficient worker bees, with a small group of free thinkers (or feelers) on the side.
He writes that “cultures vary in the degree to which they impose clichés on experience and memory, but the more a society develops in the direction of mass conformism—whether such development be achieved by a totalitarian pattern, or within a democratic framework by means of the employment market, education, the patterns of social life, advertising, press, movies, best-sellers and so on—the more stringent becomes the rule of the conventional experience and memory schemata in the lives of the members of that society.”
In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the fictional totalitarian society has similarly created a language that no longer speaks the original meaning of words. In the language called “Newspeak” freedom is the same as slavery, and hate has come to mean love.
But the lines between fiction and reality are very thin, just as between democracy and fascism. In Orwell’s dictatorship the Ministry of Brainwashing has been made into the Ministry of Love.
In 1949, right after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, a fascinating real-life renaming took place in American society: the United States Department of War suddenly became the Department of Defense. Commentators, such as the linguist Noam Chomsky, have pointed out that this shift surely gave more leeway to the notion that the United States could defend outward aggression and interventions by the implicit notion that it was done in the name of defense. Another example from today is how someone’s “freedom fighters” are usually someone else’s “terrorists.”
These and numerous other examples make it seem that language is the perfect tool for shaping our minds and expressing power.
But there is hope. Schachtel believes that artists, writers, and poets are the ones who can narrow the gap between words and true experiences. Since words are just symbols in our conventionalized language the writer has to work against the clichés, has to “fight constantly against the easy flow of words that offer themselves.” True expression and communication are as hard as the search for truth, “which never reaches its goal yet never can be abandoned.”
So to stay alert and improve our critical thinking skills, I believe we can gain much insight from continuing to enjoy all the artistic explorations of language in books, movies, music and theater.
As for our own public library in Eau Claire, I am proud of the fact that we recently hired an Early Literacy Outreach Librarian, who can help spark the interest for language in our children, and assist parents who may not have the resources or time to give their children the best tools.
Let’s have Emily Dickinson have the last word:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live