Carmen Firan

 

 

(USA)

 

 

 

ALIENATION THROUGH LANGUAGE

 

 

Lack of time, fatigue, and image overload rob people of the patience and desire for fundamental reading, bulky classics that could fill minds emptied by routine, and force them to ask themselves uncomfortable questions or think independently.  It is so much easier to pick up an easy read for the subway, or a contemporary best-seller with slick writing, sex, romances stories, adventure, religious parables, mysteries, or pretentious biographies. Those interested in sampling a culture can also find abbreviated editions of massive classical masterpieces, easily accessible on the internet. ”War and Peace” reduced to only a few thousand typographical signs, on CDs and iPODs.

Intellectual curiosity is satisfied by dry, synthetic information funneled either through mass-media channels or specialized professional media.  College and university graduates specialize in more and more narrow fields.  The need to perform and compete in their precise specialty leaves them with neither time nor mood to become seriously interested in any topic beyond their profession.  To keep up with the information load is exhausting.  Vocabulary, expression of communication, speech all gravitate around the same rigorous format.

The American education system produces first-class specialists, but has less sensitivity for what Europeans call ‘general culture’.  This amplifies professionalism to the detriment of the more flavorful and unconstrained individual character, who can satisfy curiosity or passion in different areas, without the pressure of performing by any means possible and/or beyond the oppressive inflexibility of marketing that characterizes American society.  Diversity and spiritual wealth, fantasy and imagination are brought over and kept alive, especially through the immigration of young professionals.

The world is shoddier without self-taught people and bohemians. It is a more solid society from the point of view of efficiency, but it lacks charm to counterbalance the culture of money with its gratuitous and spectacle.  Precise language is comfortable through predictability and economy, but dull and uninteresting because of its conformity.

In my youth in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, we would chat and have discussions on all kind of topics. That didn’t earn us any money, but enriched our souls.  Language would follow and sustain our need for freedom and liberation through the word.  In fact, we practiced a type of group therapy, unorganized and without clear goals, centered around the major questions of existence, which made us feel authentic, original and unique.

We usually met in cafés, agoras where the faith of the world was debated. In the basement of some university we would improvise discussion groups, or at someone’s home under the pretext of a ‘tea’ party (equivalent to any form of alcoholic or artistic expression).  No topic would intimidate us, not even issues we hardly knew anything about. We were discovering the world through our own creative powers, using our own words.  With us imagination or intuition compensated for access to information. We were unprofessional thinkers, reinventing the world and exchanging its unconventional expressions for a refreshing language, unmarked by clichés. This applied only to certain intellectual groups who use language and culture as guidelines for spiritual defiance. At the same time, with totalitarianism an assault on its official language, took place full of slogans and nonsense that manipulated large and vulnerable portions of society. Dictatorship inhibited intercommunication and marked mentalities for the long haul.

In America, if you stop people in the street and shove a microphone under their noses, they talk without inhibition, answering questions with serenity and candor. This doesn’t mean they say something original or risk swimming against the tide of political correctness and behavior codes they started learning in elementary school, and which provide them with canned answers, good for any situation. Words come to them easily, standard expressions extensively used in school, on TV, in every-day relations that are unaffectedly regurgitated, giving the impression of excellence in communication.

To become an American is an option with rules. English is spoken all over the world, but an American is beyond language; it’s a reflex of language hiding behind a well-defined process. The verb has supremacy, while metaphor is ignored.  Speech that excels in clarity is direct, concise and simple; it operates with logical structures and mechanical connections. The outcome is a triumph, but it lacks brilliance. It is efficient but not spectacular.  Rigor eliminates any superfluous cargo. Personal expressions are useless, as are doubts, dilemmas, questioning outside the molds and shapes imposed by the advertising industry or the mass media.

Some literary genres have completely disappeared, the epistolary for example, which has been completely swallowed by the digital and electronic message.  Who is going to write letters these days, when, with a simple touch of a key you can save time, money and words?  The personal diary has been replaced by the public blog, and intimacy by a form of verbal exhibitionism in which decency and candor are confused with freedom of gratuitous expression under the pretext of being uninhibited.   Who is going to send handwritten cards these days, when all you have to do is add your name (and perhaps love) under standard Hallmark texts, which have all possible wishes already printed to cover any miracle, catastrophe or banality?

Flat and austere language is counterbalanced by visual assault.  From the time we get up to the time we go to bed, we are constantly overwhelmed by commercials in a world tattooed with images. We don’t have time for books, but all day we read commercial slogans on walls, buildings, shop windows, taxis, buses, phone booths, on show tickets and programs, tee-shirts, and billboards, some even hanging from the sky.  The eye is continuously engaged, besieged until all defense against it is exhausted.  The ears: plugged with iPod ear buds. Thoughts: digitalized.

Another reason for alienation through language could be the loss of confidence in personal expression of our own words.  Imagination can be misunderstood in a society fueled by uniformity.  Originality can be considered inefficient or unsuited to the mechanism that had itself created a communication filter for any situation and prefers to operate with depersonalized subjects who respect the rigor and standards of imposed language.

 

When I first came to America, I was confused by the use of different meanings attached to the word ‘writer,’ for example, that for me was a clear, unique, unmistakable occupation. Here I discovered that one could be a creative writer (good enough to write commercials), professional writer (a teacher ready to make corrections on a beginner’s manuscript), freelance writer (who doesn’t have a job, but writes, with unclear successes), next to published author (at last, a writer who actually writes books and gets them published).

The idealist in me was attracted to the creative writer category, not knowing that many street corners display free brochures advertising hundreds of courses that, for a fee and after only a few short months, graduate dozens of ‘creative writers.’ A writer’s talent, domestic or imported, is authenticated by master programs, that provide a passport to acceptance by groups, groupies and closed communities affiliated with universities, clubs and literary journals, agents and editors.  Everything is an industry here, based on intermediaries and governed by commercial laws that leave no room for deviation from the educational establishment, itself an economic creature mechanism.  Individual artistic adventure needs a considerable conspiracy of destiny itself to succeed.

How much do words represent us?  Could we find refuge in language and uncover forms of self-protection in communication?  Are our words a pure reflection of the thinking and of the self? On the other hand, how much dissimulation is needed, how many masks, subliminal implications, and metaphors must we use to put our life into words without exposing our vulnerability, weaknesses, fragility, and fears? What is the power of words in the information era of cyberspace, technology, and globalization, when the image tends to dominate and synthetic suggestion is gaining ground against ample linguistic display? Manipulation, emptiness, vulgarizing through devaluation, loss of the predictive and enigmatic norm, the dregs and defects of language in today’s sophisticated, but not necessarily spiritually profound world, affect communication from a double perspective– words that swallow us and our tendency to devour their meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carmen Firan, a poet and fiction writer, has published twenty books including poetry, novels, essays and short stories in her native Romania. Since 2000 she has been living in New York. Among her recent books in the United States are Inferno (novella, SDP, 2011), Rock and Dew (selected poems, Sheep Meadow Press, 2010),Words and Flesh, (selected works of prose, Talisman Publishers, 2008), The Second Life (short stories, Columbia University Press, 2005), The Farce (novel, Spuyten Duyvil, 2003), In the Most Beautiful Life (poems with photographs by Virginia Joffe, Umbrage Editions, 2002), and three collections of poetry published in New York:Afternoon With An AngelThe First Moment After Death, and Accomplished Error. In 2006, she co-edited Born in Utopia: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Romanian Poetry (Talisman House) and in 2008 she co-edited the anthology Stranger at Home. Contemporary American Poetry with an Accent (Numina Press, Los Angeles). She is a member of the Pen American Center and the Poetry Society of America.

 

www.carmenfiran.com

 

 

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