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  • The Weighing of Our Words
  • David Wemyss

The ten thousand trivial accidents of the day in a secular life which exert a troublous influence upon the soul, dimming its fair surface with many a spot of dust and damp, these give place to a divine stillness which, to those who can bear it, is the nearest approach to heaven. A sharp word, or a light remark, or a tone, or an expression of countenance, or a report, or an unwelcome face, or an association, ruffles the mind and keeps it from fixing itself upon its true good.

—John Henry Newman, The Reformation of the Eleventh Century

A stair that has not been deeply hollowed by footsteps is, from its own point of view, merely something that has been bleakly put together out of wood.

—Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

In November 2002, a series of tutorials was advertised within the University of Cambridge. Neville Critchley—a lecturer in philosophy with a reputation for preferring literature—placed advertisements on college notice boards saying he wanted to hear from students not just philosophically or intellectually intrigued by language but literally made unwell by it. Four young people replied. One of them—Richard Salisbury—subsequently provided me with the following account of what [End Page 233] passed in Room C28 at Emmanuel College, a room which I have since been told does not exist.


“You’re going too far now, Mr. Salisbury. Modernist literature wrestles with the intuition that our words won’t do our bidding, but this should not serve as a manifesto for the aggrandizement of habitual untruths, untruths in even the most humdrum pieces of everyday conversation. If I understand you correctly, you’re happy to let language run free, like a small child making up extravagant stories about what happened at school because the stories are larger than life, and more entertaining than the truth. That is not the same as someone attempting to relate the truth and encountering rhetorical slippage. When a craving for the larger-than-life takes over the agency of a fully grown adult, is it not to be feared that a fantasist is among us?”

Helena was first in.

“Dr. Critchley, I don’t think that’s fair. After all, this tutorial group exists because you advertised for students who could attribute sense to the expression wordsickness. We’ve discussed some pretty personal stuff. Richard came out with something I’m sure he felt a lot of difficulty in saying, but I thought there weren’t going to be any no-go areas. Yet you seem to be morally offended all of a sudden. And anyway, he was talking about situations where the atmosphere of speech—not its content—draws someone into lies.”

“Am I to take it then, Miss Samuels, that this subdivision of the fantasist’s art is being advanced to defend the aggrandizement of habitual untruths in everyday conversation? Aren’t you and Mr. Salisbury a bit too fond of invoking the mess and muddle of having to put up with the hell of other people? When you are most yourselves, you share with J. Alfred Prufrock the dream of a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, safe from the opaque mediation of language. Otherwise, your conversations just get stuck all the time, don’t they, until you can get back to the private world of conversational felicity each of you brings to the other?”

“That’s probably true, yes. Not that it really works.” [End Page 234]

“It’s a bit defeatist, isn’t it? The difficulty of saying what we mean may just be part of being human. Or that’s a theme I’d like us to consider, at least. Isn’t it narcissism to resent the failures that actually make us what we are? When fin-de-siècle Vienna was turning into what he called ‘a testing-station for the end of the world,’ Karl Kraus satirized the abject state of public language, a morass of evasion and euphemism. But when he got the straight talk he had been looking for—a few years later the Nazis were nothing if...


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pp. 233-242
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