The mess of hope

One man’s hymns of praise became other men’s curses. People spoke the same language, but could not understand each other.

Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang (1927)

In Paul Auster’s City of Glass, that is far from a whodunit, we follow the protagonist Daniel Quinn, a writer of mystery fiction, who is led through peculiar events to assume the role of Paul Auster the detective, who is tasked with protecting the now-grown Peter Stillman junior from the recently released from prison Peter Stillman senior.

Critical responses to Auster’s anti-detective postmodern labyrinth of a tale have focused almost entirely on the protagonist’s identity crisis and his subsequent descent into madness. Some have touched on how it deals with the conundrum of the self and its relationship to, or its constitution by, language. But what I’m interested in is the backstory: the Professor’s quest for the language of God, the prelapsarian language of Paradise that tied human to human, human to word, and word to world, when “all the earth was one language, one set of words.” (Genesis 11:1) The language that brought brick to slime in the making of the Tower of Babel. A language so powerful in its innocence and wholeness that humankind could venture to leave its mark on a world (because what else is there?) created to be marked only by divine appetite. 

Genesis tells of how the power that came with such a unity of language led humankind to venture to break through the barrier separating the earthly from the divine. And so divine malediction ‘condemned’ humankind into a state of multiple languages and cultures. To bloom, dissevered.

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And the LORD said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, nothing they plot will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each1 other’s language.” And the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. (Genesis 11:5-8)

In Auster’s City of Glass, Peter Stillman junior did not emerge from the darkness carrying the divine, unadulterated vernacular. History holds records of the carrying out of such forbidden experiments[1] by rulers. Herodotus’ Histories tells of Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I (reigned 664-610 BC), who wanted to test a belief held at the time that lauded Egyptians as the most ancient peoples of mankind. He delivered two children to a herdsman who was instructed to never utter a single word in their presence. “The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched arms, and distinctly said ‘Becos’… [Psamtik] learnt that ‘becos’ was the Phrygian name for bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians… admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.” But many claim this conclusion was wishful thinking, deriving known words from the babble of sounds.

The Middle Ages saw two more such experiments that we know of, conducted by ‘curious’ rulers who sought to know whether humans have an innate capacity for speech and language, and if so, which language we naturally harbour. In the 13th century, according to the Chronicles of Italian friar Salimbene di Adam, two infants were raised under the watch of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who forbade wet nurses and other caregivers to speak to them, wanting to “find out whether the children would speak Hebrew, which was the first language, or else Greek or Latin or Arabic, or indeed if they did not always speak the language of their natural parents.”  But, Salimbene describes, “he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.” Two centuries on, James IV of Scotland was said to have shipped two children to live with a mute woman living an isolated life on the island of Inchkeith, in those days used as a quarantine island, where those with ‘grandgore’ (the old Scots name for syphilis) were told to remain until God provided for their health – therefore, until they died. Some accounts hold the children emerged speaking Hebrew, but historians remain skeptical.

The search for the divine language is often a search for the master language, and by extension the master race, to separate the barbaroi from the polites,to determine whose roots are not in a particular chunk of earthly soil but in Paradise, and through the blood of which fallen humans runs the language of Creation, the words from which sprung the material of the world.

But underneath the crazy involved in locking your kid up, the ideas behind the actions of Auster’s Peter Stillman senior are potent.

‘You see, I am in the process of inventing a new language…A language that will at last say what we have to say. For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality. Hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent. It’s made a mess of everything. But words, as you yourself understand, are capable of change.’ (Auster, The New York Trilogy)

The falls of man and the Tower of Babel took language with them. Or at least the Language of totality, giving birth to the unwanted child of unhinged signifiers. I tormented myself for days over whether the power and unity that would stem from a universal language are desirable enough to legitimize a potential demise of the plurality and diversity of the world’s vernaculars. Over whether a universal language – as in new puzzles of sounds that would be assigned meanings common to all, and not a Star Trek-type of universal translator that would decode what would remain Other into the enduringly hegemonic I – could restore, or at least mimic, the mythic qualities of the divine language. Binding person to person, and by extension healing to some degree the wounds of fragmentation incurred by the whips of alienation under capitalism.

But difference is too precious, and utopian projects have already been sunk too deep into the sewage of totalitarian connotations. “To become masters of the words we speak, to make language answer our needs,” as Peter Stillman senior put it, to finally fulfil Humpty Dumpty’s wishes and allow ‘glory’ to mean whatever he chooses it to mean, even ‘a nice known-down argument’ if need be, is a venture too dangerous to lead to any kind of redemption.

The search for the divine language may not have anything to do with an all-powerful language at all, but with recovering the qualities such a tool imbued in mankind: a search for an exit route out of the human condition as a fallen creature, for a roadmap leading toward non-alienating conditions, in a way that accommodates the mess, as Beckett had said, including the mess of language and the mess of hope.

“We exist, but we have not yet achieved the form that is our destiny. We are pure potential, an example of the not-yet-arrived,” Stillman senior tells Quinn, strikingly echoing the utopian politics of the German Marxist Ernst Bloch. But for Peter Stillman senior, the route out of our egg-ness (“What is an egg? It is that which has not yet been born”), is through the mastering of language, whereas for Bloch, the road to Heimat, the home that we have all sensed but have never experienced or known, is through the mastering, or better yet, the comprehension (because even as eggs we’ve strived to be masters of just about enough) of our hopes. The way out, according to Bloch, is through Docta Spes, or comprehended hope, becoming conscious of our collective desires and hungers, so that we can actively throw ourselves into that direction. But to do this effectively, we need to comprehend that being perpetually hungry, both materially and for different reconfigurations of the world, is just not okay anymore.

Hunger cannot help continually renewing itself. But if it increases uninterrupted, satisfied by no certain bread, then it suddenly changes… It seeks to change the situation which has caused its empty stomach, its hanging head. The No to the bad situation which exists, the Yes to the better life that hovers ahead, is incorporated by the deprived into revolutionary interest. This interest always begins with hunger, hunger transforms itself, having been taught, into an explosive force against the prison of deprivation. (Bloch, The Principle of Hope)


[1] The term ‘forbidden experiments’ was coined in 1980 by American literary scholar Roger Shattuck, due to the extremely unethical nature of such experiments, which deprive children of ordinary human contact.

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