Del Valle Schorske: In search of mots perdus

“Silence, I believe, avoids me, as water on a beach avoids stranded fish.” —Franz Kafka, in a letter to fiancee Felice Bauer

My beginning is fishy, I know — fishy because it is obvious. The very existence of this column confirms that silence avoids me, too. Quoting Kafka is also fishy in a more generic sense, for what do his neurotic mutterings have to do with anything that might consider itself “news”?

In keeping with Dr. K’s confessional tone, I might as well declare now my discomfort with both Kafka and the phenomenon known as the column. I like neither. Kafka I find too tortured to talk about; his books do indeed hit me “like a most painful misfortune,” as he insisted great literature should, but where I come from, life’s own misfortunes seem sufficient. Columns, on the other hand, are simply too skinny for me; like Vogue models, they become racks for whatever trends are churned out of the rhetorical machine. But despite these twin discomforts with Kafka and, well, Maureen Dowd, there is something in the juxtaposition of the two that seems to solve a problem.

Kafka hardly published. “Dearest Max, my last request,” he wrote with an ecstatic shudder of melodrama, “everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, is to be burned unread.” Needless to say, that beach bonfire didn’t light up, and so we’re left with words like those with which we began. It sounds like something out of an especially bright spot in the blogosphere, a wise witticism jacked from LiveJournal.

We live in an age, to begin portentously, not only in which we choose to avoid silence, but in which silence actually seems to avoid us. If we do not plaster ourselves on profiles, message boards or blogs, a little man in Birkenstocks on the Google campus is matter-of-factly cataloguing our every instant message, and a little man at the CIA, wearing a different type of shoe, is not so matter-of-factly monitoring our every word.

This inadvertent archive haunts me sometimes. Like Kafka, we all feel a thrill of both pleasure and terror when we imagine the materials of our life filed away in some Borgesian library and realize that silence is no longer an option. Despite this orgy of communication, we might end up feeling, as Kafka’s flopping fishy does, “stranded.”

“Stranded” is an intensely existential word to use in a news media as light as today’s. We quip, we bicker, we swipe makeup on and off pigs. Instead of being able to breathe — we’re fish out of water, remember? — we are able to talk, but instead of talking as though our lives are at stake, we are talking our lives away. Not only do our words change with every day, but what we said yesterday we no longer mean and hardly remember. We seemingly ignore the reality that our words, like Kafka’s, can always be dreged up. The smear of ash our words leave behind is just as dark as their sparks are bright.

This column is going to ignore the sparks of contemporary political discourse. That is not to say it will ignore political discourse in general but that it will take and interest in more enduring themes and in words that bear repeating.

It is a source of perplexity to me that newspapers, maybe the most regularly read texts in our modern world (with the notable and opposite exception of religious texts), deal so exclusively with “news”: the tiny incremental developments in the human situation. Organized rigorously along the temporal axis, relevance and topicality are the gods of journalism, even though life itself doesn’t feel that diachronic. Life rhymes. Life doubles back. Nas samples Tupac snapping “we ain’t ready / to see a black president” on the brink of the country’s possible defiance of that couplet. Tupac is dead, but alive in our headphones. And we can hear in his name, if we like listening hard, the voice of Tupac Amaru II, Inca revolutionary and old-school rabblerouser. Certain words echo over time, no matter the local weather, so that even the local weather of the past can be a present concern.

This is how we’ll do it: Every two weeks we’ll begin with someone else — Lil Wayne, RFK, Freud, Junot Diaz, Dan Quayle — and let them spit it long distance. You will make nominations. You will shout out names. In other words, silence will avoid you, but Kafka’s old fish promises will never leave you stranded.

Carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at carina.schorske@yale.edu.

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