Tag Archives: Silence

Words and Moths

I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.

Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City describes the challenge of speaking when he was a child: “The word was my agony. The word that for others was so effortless and so neutral, so unburdened, so simple, so exact, I had first to meditate in advance, to see if I could make it, like a plumber fitting together odd lengths and shapes of pipe.” I don’t stutter like the young Kazin did – but like Kazin, maybe, I’m more fluent on paper than in person. Without a drink in me, I’m am awful talker. Three minutes into most conversations I become so distracted by having nothing to say that I cease listening too.

When I was four or five years old we lived in a small house built during the war with a rose bush out front and a big sycamore (I think it was) in the backyard. One afternoon while playing alone I found an old rusted tea kettle under the leaves and put the spout to my lips, pretending to drink from it. At once I felt a fluttering on my tongue and against the roof of my mouth. I opened up and, to my astonishment, a moth flew out. That’s how it ought to feel when we speak: like some living thing – a moth, a tiger, a whale – has just launched itself from our tongue into the air.

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Marginalia, no.177

There is no exit from the dictionary.

~ Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

Words beget and are begotten by other words in endless circular succession. There’s certainly no lack of them in our house. My son, for one, never shuts up except when he’s got his face in a book. Even then, I swear, the unspoken syllables float around the living room like ghosts of the unborn. The other day at dinner I convinced everyone to sit perfectly still and say nothing, just for ten seconds. It was the loudest ten seconds of my life: the unnaturally prolonged thunderclap of a twenty-pound dictionary being slammed shut.

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