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The Pain of Language

My mother was born on the Lower East Side and spoke Yiddish for the first five years of her life. She did not learn English until she went to school. She spoke to my grandmother in Yiddish, and I would listen to their laughter and vehemence crashing over the kitchen table.

My mother loved her mother. My grandmother’s name was Pesha, and she lived in Poland before shipping off to the US at eighteen. Everyone in her family was killed in the Holocaust. In America, my grandmother gave birth to seven babies, buried two, and sought many abortions. During her ninety-two years, she did not see a doctor. She looked like a wily peasant, her bosoms floating beneath cotton housedresses, her emotions scumbled across her Tartar face.

My mother did not speak to her mother during the last five years of my grandmother’s life. My mother regretted this and spoke about her regret when she, too, was dying. What had my mother been unable to forgive?

My mother says her three older brothers hurled insults and objects at her and her younger sister while they were growing up. A scar on my mother’s upper lip was the result of a cup pitched at her head by one of the boys. My grandmother did not intervene in the crowded tenement apartment where my mother grew up. My mother, the oldest girl, told me that one of her brothers had touched her sexually. We were walking on the beach, and the sun was casting long shadows. My father had recently died, and my mother was coming a little unlaced. Years later when I reminded her of the story, she laughed and said, “Get out of here. I never said that.”

In the essay “Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar,” German author W. G. Sebald speculates that language and magical thinking are forged in trauma, specifically where physical escape is impossible and relief can’t be found in reality. He writes, “Anthropological theory assumes that exposure in a treeless situation where all escape upward was cut off led to the invention of myths.” In the essay, Sebald considers Kafka’s story, “Report to an Academy,” in which a captured ape is dragged into human society. Writes Sebald: “It is the absence of any way of escape that has forced him to become human himself.” Says Kafka’s ape: “‘I had always had so many ways out, you see, and now I have none.’”[1]

To survive among his captors, Kafka’s ape acquires language and turns into a human being, a transformation that ushers loss, and he mourns his separation from his old understandings. On one level, the story is a parable about Jewish assimilation into a gentile world. On another level, it dramatizes how all people become human by acquiring language. For Sebald, the Kafka story portrays how language—promoted by a ruling power (a government, a racial majority, a trio of lawless brothers)—carves treacherous meanings onto those who are described by it. Like Kafka’s ape, we all acquire knowledge through the language of others, and it makes us feel alienated from who we feel we are.

Freud illustrates mythmaking or magical thinking in the example of a hungry baby that stops crying for milk because it sees a picture in its mind of a breast. In Freud’s view, hunger prompts the baby’s unconscious memory of its last feeding, and in imagining a breast that is not there feels less hungry. As Shakespeare puts it, “Such tricks hath strong imagination.”

In the capsule of magical thinking, remembering and forgetting become a resonating blur, a simultaneous activity of building up and tearing down. The moment of shock—where we see we have invented a story and yet still cling to it—is erotic, because it is filled with tension that cannot be resolved. Knowing creates one sort of pressure, not knowing another. Without forgetting, however, extinction might be our only contemplation.

Sebald charges literature to challenge the pain of language engraved on us by others—through propaganda, tracts, sermons, sales pitches, curses, and disparagement. Literature can do this, he says, “by keeping faith with unsocial, banned language, and by learning to use the opaque images of broken rebellion as a means of communication.”[2]

Photography by David Cordero © 2016

What is a banned language? Kafka might say it is unwelcome consciousness. He wrote in a notebook, “Books should be an ax for the frozen sea in us.” Freud might say unconscious wishes are a banned language as well as jokes we are surprised to laugh at.

The Yiddish my mother and grandmother spoke was often bitter and abusive and yet spoken with a smile. Ver gerharget—Drop dead. Gay red tsu der vant—Go talk to the wall. Ech hob dir in drerd—Go to hell. Farshtinkener—A rotten person. A shvarts yor—A miserable year you should have. A chaleyre—A plague on you. Kush meer in toches—Kiss my ass. A broch tsu dayn lebn—Your life should be a disaster.

To the writer Leonard Michaels, meaninglessness is the banned language best suited to challenge magical thinking. Meaninglessness shreds the magical thinking imbued in language itself, in the sense that language ascribes meaning to things that simply exist. In “My Yiddish,” the last essay Michaels wrote before his death of lymphoma in 2003, he points out that Yiddish, whose speakers have been murdered for 1,000 years for no reason, is especially equipped to reflect on meaninglessness. “At the center of my Yiddish,” he writes, “remains hut geharget yiddin [killed Jews], from which, like the disgorged contents of a black hole in the universe, come the jokes, the thinking, the meanings, and the meaninglessness. . . . Paradox as a cognitive mode is everywhere in Yiddish.” Michaels is saying you can’t give meaning to the history of hunted Jews, and by the twentieth century, the experience of Jews offers a template for the human condition on a landscape abandoned by God.

Michaels offers a joke he considers quintessentially Yiddish:

“The rabbi says, ‘What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?’

The student says, ‘I don’t know.’

The rabbi says, ‘A herring.’

The student says, ‘Maybe a herring could be green and hang on a wall, but it absolutely doesn’t whistle.’

The rabbi says, ‘So it doesn’t whistle.’”

A rabbi is supposed to believe the world has meaning because he’s a rabbi. The joke is that this rabbi does not believe the world has meaning. He is saying, “You can’t explain everything, and so what, big deal.”

Mel Brooks inserts a similar joke in History of the World Part I. Moses descends from Mount Sinai holding three large stone tablets and cries out, “Hear me! Oh, hear me! All pay heed! The Lord, the Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen . . .” He steps forward, and one tablet shatters on the ground. Quickly he continues, “Oy. Ten, ten commandments for all to obey!” The joke is about making fast adjustments in an unreliable world. In reality, we are the ones writing the commandments, and for us ten are enough. Maybe we could do with five. Maybe we don’t need any.

When I was a child and my mother cursed me in English, the words sounded crazy and I took them literally. “Go get killed.” “Go get shot.” In Yiddish, the phrases “ver geharget” and “ver geschossen” weren’t tender, but inside the familiarity and foreignness they weren’t crazier than my mother’s sense of humor.

Where does the pain of language reside? Where do the curses, cultural separations, and misinterpretations live? In a suburban outpost where lonely women drive to shabby shopping malls? In a solitary tree with hunters barking below? Maybe a tiny tenement bedroom lacking windows and doors. Even if you could draw a map to its location and walk its streets and snap a picture of the house where it grew up, it would not be a guide. And even after you could laugh at its power, it would not go away.


[1] W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Random House, 2005), 56.

[2] Sebald, Campo Santo, 62.