On Saturday morning, our downstairs neighbor rang the doorbell. She just finished her sophomore year of high school. Her mother died of ALS this spring. She’s off with her father to travel around the country this summer. When they return they’ll move to another, more affordable apartment. She brought us a bag filled with booze as a gift because “my dad doesn’t drink anymore.”
We don’t either but still we accepted the liquor and wished her a happy summer. You’d never tell by talking with her that her mother just died. We’ll miss them not being in the building but told her to stop by anytime.
So I had ALS on my mind and I wanted to share with you the story of Tom Judt. He is an accomplished historian who has ALS and has been writing wonderful, short essays for The New York Review of Books. Here is his latest, on words:
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”
I am more conscious of these considerations now than at any time in the past. In the grip of a neurological disorder, I am fast losing control of words even as my relationship with the world has been reduced to them. They still form with impeccable discipline and unreduced range in the silence of my thoughts—the view from inside is as rich as ever—but I can no longer convey them with ease. Vowel sounds and sibilant consonants slide out of my mouth, shapeless and inchoate even to my close collaborator. The vocal muscle, for sixty years my reliable alter ego, is failing. Communication, performance, assertion: these are now my weakest assets. Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.
Though I am now more sympathetic to those constrained to silence I remain contemptuous of garbled language. No longer free to exercise it myself, I appreciate more than ever how vital communication is to the republic: not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means. The wealth of words in which I was raised were a public space in their own right—and properly preserved public spaces are what we so lack today. If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have.
There was a good, long profile on Judt by Wesley Yang in New York Magazine earlier this year. Check it out.
[Photo Credit: Steve Pyke for the Chronicle Review]