The Buck Stops Here - "Art is Not a Plaything"

The American poet, George Oppen, who lived in Mexico City for ten years apparently never learned a word of Spanish. On a bus one day, he heard the driver say something in English, and blurted out, “The man speaks English.” To hear one’s language is a form of recognition. It places you in a world. 

Not to know the language spoken around you forces you to stand outside a world, and can be considerably disorienting. Several days ago in Bratislava, there was a knock on my apartment door. A workman asked a question of me. I answered him in Slovak, Nerozumiem po slovensky. I don’t speak Slovak. He repeated his question. I repeated my answer. Either he did not understand me – my pronunciation may have been bad – or he found it inconceivable that someone in this neighborhood would not know Slovak. He repeated his question several more times. I shrugged, smiled or something. He decided it was easier to leave than get his answer.

How do you understand the world around you when you don’t know the language? Last week I had to go to the hospital in Bratislava. My doctor was the only one in the hospital who spoke any English at all. The nurse who had to take a blood sample and do other tests pointed, gestured, mimed what she wanted me to do. Tak, tak, she would say when I did the right thing. Dobre, dobre. At least I knew that meant good. I assumed tak, tak was see, see, right. 

You feel powerless. In Bertolucci’s film of the Bowles’ novel, The Sheltering Sky, Debra Winger is taken in by Bedouins after her husband, John Malkovich, dies in the Sahara. They make no effort to make themselves understood, and she must do what their gestures tell her to do if she is to live.

As every immigrant knows, an imperfect command of the language immediately defines you (and your place), if not puts you at risk. At Roosevelt School in second grade, the teacher asked one day what we slept under. I raised my hand. I sleep under a poophoony I said. Everyone looked puzzled. What’s a poophoony the teacher asked. A poophoony is a poophoony I answered, not comprehending. I did not know that some of the words my mother taught me were Slovak, not English.

It may happen in our own language. My parents were not formally educated, and some of the words I learned were from reading books (and understanding meaning from context), not from my parents’ speech. In class one day, I used a word I had learned from Dickens. Things had gone awree, I said. I had only seen the word on the page, not heard it. I did not know awry was a-wry.

Language may be corrupted. If the lie is pervasive, how can we know truth? After the Second World War, a number of German writers formed Gruppe 47 to start the German language fresh. They felt that the Nazis had so corrupted German that it could no longer be used. We see it all around us today (collateral damage, for example, to speak of the deaths of civilians).

Thing is, language may include as well as exclude, no matter what ground you stand on. Even the immigrant, who knows his new language imperfectly, or the uneducated worker can use the language he knows effectively. The immigrant can fall back into his own language with his companions at crucial moments to exclude those who know the King’s English. The worker’s English may not be understood by the boss.

“Art is not a plaything,” Rebecca West writes, “but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup, into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted.” She is talking about language, is she not?

Read More on The Buck Stops Here
Volume 3, Issue 13, Posted 6:42 PM, 06.19.2007