Words! Be sick as I am sick

The bookish types.
The bookish types. // Creative Commons

M and N talk a lot about books. Books have a certain gravitational pull. M and N eat lunch together Thursdays and start with personal questions: How was your week? How are your classes? How was your midterm? The conversation orbits the inevitable with a lazy grace. Slowly, the circuit tightens and the satellite spirals inwards. Then, a collision. Once again, M and N are talking about books.

They tackle the same question every Thursday, a question they’ve each spent a year trying to answer. They’ve only been friends since June. Before then, they tackled the question alone. They grappled and struggled in separate libraries and separate rooms and now, in October, they grapple and struggle together. They linger, sipping coffee in the afternoon light. The question is dark and knotted — why read?

M and N know a benevolent professor with white teeth and tan, weathered skin. He thinks a lot about beauty and art and claims that the humanities “restore the wonder which those who have glimpsed the human condition have always felt, and which our scientific civilization [...] obscures.” During M and N’s first semester at Yale, he once gave a lecture on the Odyssey and said: “It is hard to be human. Perhaps impossible.” M and N thought this was unbearably beautiful. Now they don’t. The question is more complicated than the human condition, they think. The words “human condition” don’t mean a thing. When M and N read Mill, they became utilitarians. They’re proud of this tough-love ideology, happy to dismiss antiquated humanism. It feels like revenge.

But even Mill cannot really answer the question. Researchers at the New School for Social Research conducted a study and found that literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, promotes empathy. The study went like this: some participants read Don DeLillo and some read Danielle Steel. Then both groups took empathy tests and the DeLillos outperformed the Steels. So there you have it — good books make good people. Feeling selfish and alienated? Read some Henry James for a quick fix. With Daisy Miller, you’ll be back on your feet and ready to feel in no time. You’ll be primed and “sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” M and N do not believe this. In fact, they hate the study.

Robert Graves once wrote of a “cool web.” That’s language, of course. Language is a cocoon that keeps us warm and unaware. It mutes and muffles. The world is infinitely complex and language can only convey so much. We cut corners because the Oxford English Dictionary only has 600,000 entries. Words chill “the angry day” and “dull the rose’s cruel scent.” But Graves knows that “if we [throw] off language and its watery clasp [...] we shall go mad no doubt and die that way.” With no rhyme or reason, no pattern, a wordless reality is endless, maddening novelty. We wake up and go to work because words make things simple and clear. Patterns are easy to spot: each day is like the next. Reality slips through language — water through a sieve — and comes out altered. Language breaks it down, gives it form and meaning.

A Field of Study must justify its own existence. Young people will ask the Field: why pick you over other fields? And the Field will always say: I am the fundamental, basic, pure Field of Study. I predate all other Fields. I am the first premise. And so History is the study of time and Physics the study of movement.The Fields are very old and make convincing arguments. But time and movement are words. They’re constructs, an altered, digestible reality. They’re nice but neither is essential, neither is the purest Field of Study. The sieve, the cocoon, the dictionary predates it all. Language is the first premise. Any other Field takes words for granted, assumes that language will not alter the data it spells out in textbooks and in archives.

So M and N don’t care that books will make them good or teach them how to live. It’s enough to to think of words as the beginning of it all. They eat lunch together Thursdays and they talk about these things. Frank O’Hara wrote: “Words! be / sick as I am sick, swoon, / roll back your eyes, a pool.” M and N are sick — there’s autumn sunlight in their eyes, bitter coffee in their mugs.