Negotiating Babel

breughel tower of babel…The Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” —Book of Genesis 11,5-7

If the bible says the truth, then there’s something potentially dangerous about speaking only one language. What could it be? “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly“[1] if our tongues were no longer split in different directions?

In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Babel fish, a telepathic universal translator, is described as “a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.“[2] Though the argument is about as deep as the rest of the book, it suggests that language may be linked to a “Deep Magic” as C.S. Lewis might have said[3]. What is the nature of this magic? Can it be made or unmade? Can it be learnt or must it be inherited?

Language clearly is more than sound waves, just as mastering language is more than learning patterns, just as speaking is more than being a parrot. Language can set the tone for our dialogue with the divine: in Franz Werfel’s novel Song of Bernadette, the apparition of the Virgin Mary speaks not in any language, but in Occitan[4], the vernacular spoken by the poor people of Lourdes. But which of the many tongues spoken is shared by God, if any?

I’ve been talking and writing about bilingual writing for a while now – on my blog, where I rather flippantly called myself a “linguistic cross-dresser” once[5], and in interviews[6]. In fact, as soon as people find out that I write both in English and in German, they are likely to ask: why? Why don’t you just stick to your mother tongue?

In the past I stayed away from the deeper aspects of this question, the aspects that concern the nature of language. Instead, I responded on the level of pattern-making, of language as a plaything, as something that is manipulated, bent into multiple shapes – a craftsman’s reply, fair enough given my own ongoing struggle with two tongues on the paper.

But I don’t feel or think that this response is sufficient any longer. I say this at the end of many months of trying hard to break up my own work habits, of identifying the pieces of my mind puzzle in order to fully control my bilinguality. I did this out of hubris and out of hunger: the hubris came from several years of (more or less) successfully going back and forth between English and German; the hunger came from my desire to be able to produce fiction for a market, be it English or German. I wanted to get rid of my inhibitions against writing in German or English depending on the topic, the genre and the form. And a German literary agent had told me that she needed something written in German and not in English. So I applied myself to the task using all the analytical tools that I know and my considerable discipline of writing fast and in bulk (helped by my relatively new habit of dictating my text instead of typing or writing them by hand).

Did I succeed? Did I gain the independence of language in writing I’d sought? The answer is no. But I don’t think that I failed myself in the process. Because I am beginning to understand what I’ve hinted at above: that language is not just some stuff to sculpt with; that its spirit had better not be probed with scientific tweezers; that EVERYONE “speaking the same language” might not an apparent paradise of communication, but likely hell on earth.

Nowhere is the faith in a common tongue as strong as on the Internet. Since I’ve been around, at least since the early 1990s, the homogenization of language has continued: not surprisingly, since the medium isn’t just a reflection of the culture but also creates its own culture, one which includes a language. This language is different from English, or from German for that matter; it is becoming the biblical Babel’s idiom, the babble of billions who believe that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them“. I’m no longer one of them. I’ve weighed my linguistic limits and found them wanting. Now, I once again believe in language as a mystery, something that comes to you not as clay to be moulded, but as a marvel. Does this position constrain me? It surely does, but with it comes a spiritual depth that I would not want to miss.

My new position touches not only upon the inner but also upon the outer world: if language is a mystery instead of a tool, then writing is a mystical experience instead of a job, and a book is a miracle instead of a product. For me, this is more than a sea change: it’s like the two-fold realization that there is (1) an entire world behind the world I knew, and (2) that I cannot ignore that new world.

When you live in a room with curtains, it makes all the difference whether you believe the curtains cover a window or a wall. If they cover a window, you must draw them if you want to see. If they cover a wall, drawing them or not drawing them becomes a matter of degree rather than destiny.

On the net, language sensibility seems limited to Karl Marx’ view as a “practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it also exist for me.» That this consciousness is near-global is again a matter of degree, it does not fulfill the promise of language as a channel to another dimension.

I’m still somewhat excited about globalization but I’m also increasingly baffled by its paradoxes, like: the paranoia of politically correctness vs. the delightful diversity of the heart; standardized communication in the name of marketing and money-making vs. the costly human desire to muddle things up creatively and clumsily.

To me, the world, viewed from the keyboard, looks rather increasingly like Edith Wharton’s view of the libretto in The Age Of Innocence: »An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.« What if the global mind has gloriously woken up from its slumber only to enter an electronic nightmare?

I have not said much about the origin of my change of heart. It’s very personal and lies beyond the scope of this essay. Only this much: I took up singing. Singing is a form of prayer — it hardly matters if you have a religion or a God. It takes one outside, it draws the curtains without one’s conscious approval.

As a writer, I’ve always believed in hard, continuous work: writing, writing, writing. I imported this practice from the rest of my life since I felt I had done well. I always knew that I was on a long journey. Its beginning, a few years ago, was filled with wonderful encounters on and off the page, on and off the screen. And at the end of this period, I even published a book which was bliss and a blessing both.

Now, I experience myself much more as traveling within. I am much less driven and I write little – not because I feel blocked but because I lack the ambition to push through at any price, no matter where to. I’m inspired by reading how Cormac McCarthy works[7]: »I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.«

I used to obsess about time — the time during the day, in the week or during the holidays available for writing; the time left in my life to write; the time stolen from me by myself, by others etc. Now, rather than obsess about time, I wait.

I used to torture myself with goals: I always had one, and I didn’t believe anything could be achieved without a clear goal. I would enforce striving to reach the goal against my health and against my own conscience and, again, against time. Now, rather than race towards an invisible finishing line, I have faith.

The image of my own process has altered quite dramatically in the past six months: I feel as if I’m drifting around the edges of a giant ice shelf. I’m hoping to dislodge a floe, I’m waiting for an opening in the ice, I’m trying to be ready for it, but that is all. Writing has become an act of grace rather than of bricklaying. I have abandoned the Tower but I’ll never be sorry that I was tempted by its splendour.

[Published in: Awkword Paper Cut, February 2014. Thanks to eds. Michelle Elvy and Michael Dickes.][My German Translation of this essay.]

6 thoughts on “Negotiating Babel

  1. Pingback: Oak-aged | T Upchurch

  2. Marcus, this is a magical post, and I’m sorry that I don’t have time to do it justice by writing a considered comment right now. I’ve long enjoyed the different inflections in bilingual writers’ works, I’ve always enjoyed cadence and rhythm and felt writing to be musical, and I’ve just written a much more basic post on slowing down, not chasing ‘achievements’ but savouring the writing on a deeper level. I’m still chasing small children so have to go now, but will come back to this post. Thanks for writing it, you inspire.

    • Thank you, Isabell! — I’m enjoying your posts on writing, too; your comments on screenplay writing are useful, too — personally, I enjoy planning and writing longer texts using a storyboarding kind of method (which I may have gotten used to because of my flash writing practice).

  3. Pingback: Oak-aged – TM Upchurch

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