Friday, September 5, 2008

Words, Words, Words, Words, Words

Language is very important to me. I'm a deep believer in the idea that language itself is the way that our brain is tied together; its the rules and the logic which gives it form. Nietzche once said "I fear we still believe in God because we still believe in Grammar." It seems to me to be strangely apt, despite the fact that I can't unravel the relationship. If I were any sort of a religion, it would be the blind-watchmaker vision of God (perhaps--it's hard to talk about a hypothetical version of me). The formulae and the logic that exists is existence, is the reason and the end, and therefore, would havve to be God.

There's a Czech saying:"Kolik řečí znáš, tolikrát jsi člověkem" which translates into "You are as many times a human as languages you know." I agree. Today, I was walking to my apartment through Prague, and I heard a German, an Englishman, and an American outside of a bar, talking in English. And I heard a Frenchman and a Czech person also debating in English. How much more they must learn about each other and the world, being able to communicate like that?

I've had a very positive experience with language in Prague. People have told me that they find Czechs rude. I've heard the same about the French. I found neither to be the case, either here or in Provence. The reason is because I always try very gamely and very positively to speak their language. My French is passable if fairly vocabulary-dry, but my Czech is only marginally better than a phrase book.

Don't ask them, "Do you speak English?" Ask them, "Parlez-vous francais" or "hablas ingles?" or "mluvim anglicky." It puts it on their turf, and it allows them choice. Several times now, I've had conversations with Czech people who don't know English. I barely know Czech. But using the few words I know, and the few words they know, and tracking intonation and gestures, I've managed to get by. And just the effort of communication has been greeted with smiles and indulgence for me.

Perhaps this is not everyone's experience. I tend to smile a lot and say "prosim" and "dekuju" a lot, just to make sure I'm in people's good graces.

Also: translation is an exceptionally fun way of learning meaning. I'm right now translating Artaud's journals when he was in a mental asylum in 1948. It's very, very simple French (which is good because I'm fairly lame at it), but it's fascinating. The tiniest of adjustments creates a totally different sense of what's going on. George Carlin once said that thoughts are airy and undefined, and then it gets attached to a word, and then you're stuck with that word for that thought. Translation defies that. You really have to know the person's mind to know what they were saying, and you have to know what they were saying to know their mind. It's rather like sculpting away at rock until you see the statue that was hidden beneath.

This is why I have a great respect for Eric Bentley, who most theater people in America do not pay proper homage to. Bertold Brecht is considered one of the top ten theater aestheticians of all time. He is often put in opposition to Aristotle in the very most basic theater classes, as a way of framing all of theater. Alienation, and empathy. But Brecht wouldn't have that privileged place in society if it wasn't for the tireless translation and promotion of Eric Bentley. Brecht would still be a small event in German history (and a freak Broadway success) if Bentley hadn't really placed Brecht on the map.

Words. They're the most important thing we have. I get very distressed when we damage words' meanings. The Bush administration has signalled the most vicious attack on the concept of language since Ernest Hemingway made the American dialect so word-impovershed. I can't list it all now, but concepts like "torture" or "time table" or "victory" have been so damaged, so needlessly... it signals terrible times for us. When your language unlinks from reality, you have lost your way: Vaclav Havel has written impressive things on that score.

This thought is short, because I'm still pretty chill from the Jazz Club I went to (music being the language we all speak and most of us can't read), and I have a less defined point than usual.

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