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4 The Mute Language of Brutality You whom I could not save Listen to me. Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another. I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words. I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree. -Czeslaw Milosz, "Dedication" I n The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski utilizes the perspective of a mute protagonist to put words to something usually kept outside the boundaries of language: the experience of a self undone by atrocity, told from the perspective of the undone self. As an object of ongoing atrocity, the protagonist's narration comes from outside the linguistic system, outside of the self-defining and world-defining power of words. A grotesque turn of the picaresque, The Painted Bird traces the desperate meanderings of a six-year-old Eastern European boy during the war years. Entrusted in 1939 by his anti-Nazi (and hence, endangered ) parents to the care of "a man traveling eastward" (1), the boywhose name remains undisclosed-soon finds himself alone and on his own in a hostile, dangerous countryside. He wanders from village to benighted village, seeking shelter from the harsh elements and refuge 71 72 The Mute Language ofBrutality from SS roundups. With the fair-haired local peasants, who regard his ominously dark complexion with superstitious as well as political fear, he strikes a series of shaky alliances. He survives all peril but emerges at the war's end deeply scarred psychologically and unable to speak. The boy's loss of speech forms the structural and symbolic center of the novel, while its recovery constitutes the novel's ambiguous and much-debated ending.! These two events focus our attention on the significance of speech and language in the novel as a whole. In her work on torture and its effects, Elaine Scarry observes that "its resistance to language is not simply ... incidental or accidental attributes" of atrocity but an inherent constituent of its transaction (5). "World, self, and voice are lost," Scarry notes, "or nearly lost, through the intense pain oftorture...." (35). Scarry's insistence on seeing as an integral component oftorture the enforced muting ofthe narrating subject reinforces the observations of clinicians and researchers working with posttraumatic stress. From his therapeutic work with Shoah survivors, Henry Krystal comes to understand living through extreme atrocity as "so incompatible with the survival ofthe self that it is 'destroyed.' No trace of a registration of any kind is left in the psyche; instead, a void, a hole is formed" ("Integration" 114). By its nature, the intense pain of atrocity works against the possibilities of its being placed into words. Scarry's work also suggests something more: that the muteness of the survivor is not merely the aftereffect of atrocity. Destroying the victim's voice is its desired outcome, its aim. "The goal ofthe torturer is to make the one, the body, emphatically and crushing present by destroying it, and to make the other, the voice, absent by destroying it" (49). The silencing ofthe victim affirms that the perpetrator possesses all the power, and the victim none. As Michel Foucault observes, "... speech is no mere verbalization of conflicts and systems of domination ... it is the very object of man's conflicts" (216). In The Painted Bird, Kosinski makes of muteness itself a witness to the conditions that imposed it. By the emplotment of the novel, the internal monologues of the speechless boy, and the imagery which stands in where the boy's language falters or his cognitive abilities fail, Kosinski gives the "void" a frame, so that its contours may be explored. Julia Kristeva sees in the "ruptures, blank spaces, and holes" of language and narrative "the sign of a force that has not been grasped by the linguistic or ideological system...." (165). In considering the boy's speechlessness not only as the aim and effect of atrocity but also as a speech act-the only one possible under the sign of genocide, Kosinski also frames the boy's muteness, so that its edges and bound- The Mute Language ofBrutality 73 aries define a topography different from the muteness of perpetrators. In limning the boy's speechlessness, Kosinski works toward a poetics of atrocity. If Walt Whitman, in a moment of artistic uncertainty beside the ocean of life, hears "peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,"2 what of the poet who lives beneath the shadow of the factories of death? A...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781438407074
Related ISBN
9780791431290
MARC Record
OCLC
42855116
Pages
276
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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