This is the third in a series of posts.
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Part Two: Pissing on Language (1)
His kind of bourgeois knows only how to talk about business. I’m not saying he’d lost his soul; he no longer had the language to express it.
—Léon Werth, 33 Days (p. 62)
But from the point of view of the philologist I also believe that Hitler’s shamelessly blatant rhetoric was able to make such an enormous impact because it penetrated a language which had hitherto been protected from it with the virulence which accompanies the outbreak of a new epidemic, because this rhetoric was in essence as un-German as the salute and uniform copied from the [Italian] Fascists—replacing a black-shirt with a brown-shirt is not a particularly original idea—and as un-German as the whole decorative embellishments of the public occasions.
But regardless of how much National Socialism learned from the preceding ten years of Fascism, and how much of the infection was caused by foreign bodies, it was, or rather became, in the end, a specifically German disease, a rampant degeneration of German flesh which, through a process of reinfection from Germany, destroyed not only Nazism, but also Italian Fascism, which was undoubtedly criminal, but not quite so bestial.
—Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 57)
The path of poetic faith in our century suggests that repressive regimes do not tolerate, are in fact afraid of, the subversive powers of language, most especially poetry in the hand of those whom the political order aims to keep powerless.
—Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century (Penguin, 1988, p. 203)
One major gift the poet can give to what Des Pres calls the poet’s “tribe”—by which he means the “audience” for the poet’s poetry, that audience which, as Heidegger taught, the poetic work itself calls forth, to hear and heed it—is that of a genuine memorial, a place in the communally shared language where real remembrance can occur. Once so marked out, that place is one to which everyone can readily return, to remember—and a place that regularly and recurrently calls one back to itself, to do just that. Striking lines of poetry that, once heard, stick in the mind work that way. They become a storehouse memory, memory that rises back up into awareness spontaneously whenever it is reactivated, we know not (and need not know) how, by some chance encounter or event, like the taste of marmalade for Proust. When they do, they call us back to ourselves, and to the memories that define us, both as individuals all as members of our community, our “tribe.”
In sharp contrast, the role of the pure slogan, insofar as it remains no more than that—the paradigm being the sheer advertising slogan, like this one from my childhood: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent!”—is not to call us back to ourselves. It is, rather, to divert us from ourselves, and most especially from openly sharing our life together in community. Its role is to isolate us from one another, rather than to bring us together in shared recall of who we really are, and to drive us into compulsive action. Instead of fostering community, remembrance, and thought, the sheer slogan divides us from one another and blocks memory, hindering thought, and any genuine thoughtfulness for one another. The pure slogan is trying to sell us something, in one fashion or another, for someone’s profit, not tell us something about ourselves, for our own good.
To use a current example, “Make America great again!” is not a call to each of us to come together with all other “Americans” in remembering the gaps and failures in our community and in our relationships one to another. It is not a call to us to atone for those failures, and address them honestly and humbly. It is, rather, a slogan designed to get us to “buy” a certain Presidential candidate, and vote for him. Or, to use a much older example, but one still from Presidential politics, the slogan “He kept us out of war!” was used to sell the nation on reelecting the man who would then lead us into it—“to keep the world safe for democracy,” of course.
Slogans, like striking lines of poetry, stick in the mind. However, whereas genuinely poetic lines keep the channels of thought’s and recollection’s flow open and clear, the lines of slogans block that flow and close those channels, diverting thinking and memory into fixation on whatever the slogan is selling, whether that be toothpaste, Presidential candidates, or nationalistic fervor (“Remember the Maine!”, “Support our troops!”, “Never forget!”, and the like). Poetry cultivates the field of language, opening new possibilities for rich yields of diverse flowers and grains. Slogans fence language in and flatten out the field of linguistic possibilities, turning it into a smooth, monotonous, dead surface where nothing but the most noxious weeds can grow.
At least that is so unless something manages to breathe life and soul (to be redundant, since those two words really say the same thing) back into the slogan, opening it up into poetry.
That happened to me with regard to the old Pepsodent slogan I mentioned above. That was way back in my childhood, when that insipid, mindless, mind-numbing jingle was still in circulation, not yet having worn itself down completely smooth, so that it needed to be replaced by some new coin of the same (dis)value, destined to the same ultimate flattening into worthlessness. That’s because the version of that slogan that stuck itself into my mind was first, last, and recurrently the version of it that my father used to delight in singing whenever the mood struck him. His version was this: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you wash your drawers in Pepsodent.” By heightening the definitive vulgarity of the original slogan, he thereby brought to the fore—without even trying, and certainly with no special intention on his part, given the simple, though intelligent, working man he always remained—the tastelessness and vulgarity of the original, and gave to me, his youngest son, a lasting memory of just what such slogans are ultimately all about, and worth. All of that—and, above all, the memory of my father himself saying his even more vulgarized version of the already vulgar toothpaste slogan—often comes back to me without effort on my own part, recalling me to myself, when some new advertising vulgarity worms its way into my mind and sticks itself fast there, like some foul, contagion-carrying tick.
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To be continued.