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  • First ViolenceMarc Crépon's Faith in Literature ("if there is any")
  • Tyler M. Williams

Who will say the loneliness of thosewho thought themselves dying at thesame time as Justice?

—Emmanuel Lévinas (1996, 119)

In his introduction to The Vocation of Writing (2018), Marc Crépon outlines a variety of mechanisms according to which language succumbs to and perpetrates violence. Specifically, Crépon focuses on how the relation that makes language's capacity for weaponization possible is also threatened by that very weaponry. To do so, over the course of his introduction, Crépon details the maturation of an unnamed child (though clearly the child is Crépon himself), who, accustomed to the injuriously volatile nature of his parents' words and the stern indifference he receives from the mouths of other authority figures, learns speedily that language [End Page 47] has "the strange power of becoming a weapon of intimate destruction" (1). He describes the fear and insecurity internalized because of his parents' belittling rebukes and admonishments, an early initiation into what Crépon will characterize as an unavoidable paradox of existence: that the dependent need for care and concern from others is simultaneously the inalterable precondition for betrayal.

The relationship between language and violence in the book's early passages is mostly restricted to issues of instrumentality. Crépon limits his consideration of both "language" and "violence" to language's ability to transform into a tool for its wielder to commit acts of violence against others. This instrumental function of "lingual violence" is what Crépon calls the "first manifestation of violence," namely, language used to bludgeon the external security of our relations to those from whom we are accustomed to expect care and affection (3). To this end, the book's introduction, entitled "Practices of Language and Experience of Violence," opens as follows:

The storm rages between the kitchen walls. The child, accustomed to it, crossed the hall upon returning from school, climbed the stairs in silence, and locked himself in his room, which lets onto the courtyard shaded by the chestnut tree. He knows that the lightning-sharp phrases, thunderous reproaches, and hurtful recriminations will join him before long. He knows all about the flaring tempers, the mood swings, the unjustified anger that give language the strange power of becoming a weapon of intimate destruction. He is used to the cries, the outbursts, the irrevocable judgments, the definitive verdicts that transform affection into a tribunal and break what little confidence he might have kept in his ability to divert the furious lightning with everyday words. He has experienced it many times: everything that he might say in his defense is capable of being turned against him; there is no argument that holds when a loving word from which he would expect help and protections blows, on the contrary, a tempestuous wind. At that moment, his own words—hardly heard, hardly understood, immediately contradicted—are swept up like so many strands of straw, as if they did not deserve the attention for which all attachment calls.

(1) [End Page 48]

In Crépon's account, the boy, in his daily and quotidian routines, exudes a cautious and apprehensive demeanor forged by the knowledge that even the most loving of words spoken from the most presumptively loving of sources harbors the potential for recriminatory and "tempestuous" violence (1). The anxiety expressed in the previous passage grapples with the harsh realization that shared bonds of affection also, in each instance, share the potential for animosity—of intimacy contorted into treachery, of belonging becoming alienation, of hospitality turned to hostility, and so on. Though just a young boy unable to articulate his intuition into a formalized thesis, he is nonetheless keenly aware that, as Crépon puts it, "every affective relation is haunted by the possibility of sudden breaks, of brutal interruptions and reversals that lodge violence in the heart of the relation we maintain with language from our first steps in life, weakening all the relations that compose the fabric of existence" (1).

The devastation of this experience of the "first manifestation of violence" is inseparable from the double bind...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1539-6630
Print ISSN
1532-687x
Pages
pp. 47-70
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-31
Open Access
No
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