BE AWARE OF WORDS!
Back in Romania, I was asked to recite a poem at a graduation ceremony elementary school. It was a “patriotic” poem, meaning an ode to glorify the communist party and its leader. Although I was a good student, it took a long time to learn it by heart. I got up on to the stage in front of my fellow students and teachers, and after delivering a few lines, I froze and couldn’t remember a word. I had completely forgotten the poem I had tried so hard to memorize.
I felt ashamed and guilty, not because I couldn’t remember the poem or because I was shy, but because the words I was being forced to say sounded so ridiculous and fake. I didn’t believe in them and realized that they made absolutely no sense to me. They were just strange sounds, and I was parroting empty words someone had put in my mouth. I felt as if I were speaking an incoherent foreign language.
What is more, all of a sudden, the words of the poem had ceased to be words. Instead, they were like air bubbles, frames with no pictures inside. At that time I didn’t know anything about actes manqués, the refusal to accept one’s words unconditionally if one’s conscious mind judges them wrong, or doesn’t trust their content. At that time I hadn’t yet read Freud, and had no explanation for my failure to recite that poem.
Puzzled and helpless I stared at the other students. Some were laughing so the teacher tried to comfort me. When I told him that I would never ever agree to recite stupid political poems again, there was a sudden change of tone, and he whispered in my ear, “Watch your words! Be aware of what you’re saying.” This was my first attempt at dissent.
We lived under one of the toughest dictatorships, were watched by the secret police, and were completely isolated from the rest of the world. All that we could do was to try to survive within a closed society and struggle to find our own ways to cope with our political system’s obscurantism. One way was to get together in groups selected on the basis of affinities– art, literature, philosophy, or simply a few common tastes.
I remember my parents telling me, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, be aware of words,” meaning, “Watch what you’re saying.” To speak loudly and straightforwardly was dangerous in the communist era. There was irony in the fact that although the dictatorship controlled every aspect of society, the rulers were afraid of our real thoughts and words: the only weapons we could use against them. Political censorship was harsh, and the authorities forever watchful, keeping every form of communication under control.
This lack of freedom is almost impossible for people to understand if they have never lived it. Imagine a world of birdcages, and all the birds, no matter how different from one another, sing the same song ad infinitum; in the end, it sounds like a sorrowfully barking dog.
The worst restriction involved freedom of speech. We all knew that if we criticized the Communist party or its leaders, we could end up in jail. We weren’t supposed to complain about our miserable life, either, or about the nonsense surrounding us. There were spies everywhere, even at our artistic gatherings and inside our literary groups. The restaurants, hotels, or cabins in the mountains were equipped with hidden microphones; our phone lines tapped.
Communist ideology was based on political slogans and propaganda, on lies and megalomaniacal statements. Language had become distorted. It wasn’t only the mass media, harnessed by the powers that be, that was part of the national manipulation; it was also poetry and literature—the arts in general. The country’s history was rewritten by authors who had compromised their integrity by slavishly attaching themselves to the political system of the day. In this way, a huge fake mechanism, built on corrupted words, was put in place.
At the time, almost all of us thought communism was there to stay, at least for the duration of our lifetimes. The only way to get used to one’s cage was to conjure a parallel world that would save the soul. In addition to the official language, based on fear, caution, and imposed slogans, a parallel language had to be developed – springing from one’s inner sense of freedom, truth, and fairness. Living within this inner world ensured survival – through dissent and a refusal to accept alienation—by sticking to the salvation that came through real words and uninhibited communication.
The communist language, based on a utopian form of nationalism, had very specific aims: hiding the truth and manipulating the masses. Eventually, communism collapsed because it had been founded on a false and artificial structure of empty words. The boomerang effect destroyed the mechanism. Still, the damage wrought by a manipulative ideology will persist for decades to come. Corrupt words corrupt mentalities, and the former communist countries will have to struggle with this legacy even longer than it will take them to overcome their economic difficulties.
Words can brainwash one’s mind. Think of Hitler’s speeches. Words can be dangerous weapons, when used for the purpose of manipulation by evil minds. Fascism is the most tragic example of how a racist and extremist ideology can lead to unspeakable crimes. Words can alter mental structures and influence the collective subconscious. We need to be aware of their power. We should be watchful of their ambiguities and duplicities and know that they can cause much harm, both to the individual and to the masses in general. A word planted in your unconscious mind acts like an alien entity. There are theories of epidemic communication, linguistic viruses that are spread from person to person. In the long run, the meaning of a word can be amplified or distorted or may even lose its original meaning.
After the fall of communism, I traveled to different countries and discovered that, in addition to ideological manipulations, there are many other types of brainwashing, even in the free world: phony Messiahs propagating religious ideas, proselytizing to the masses to form sects; fake healers, selling illusions to crowds and fascinating them with idealistic, pie-in-the-sky promises; a whole industry of advertising, bent on exploiting the consumer’s oversized expectations; media or electronic addictions, money culture and the obsessions of globalization…
A slave to high-tech communication, the image swallows the word. Thus we live in a time of ease and comfort. All we have to do is flip a switch, touch a key, dial a number, or plug in this or that device…and we can have everything we desire, from goods and services to information. “Press now for additional happiness” could be the next step of the digital dialogue we have with the institutions and machines that have been created in our “best interests”…Life has improved dramatically from a technical point of view, but what has happened to our souls? Have we found better security, a more balanced way of life? Are we less stressed and more self-confident? Do we communicate better?
America is completely different from the one I grew up in. People came here and brought along the most advanced technological and artistic achievements: they had dreams to fulfill and found fertile ground for them. They weren’t confronted with dictatorships and weren’t forced to imagine a parallel life in order to survive. Still, today’s America has its forms of alienation. More and more people have the feeling that something is missing in their life or at least that it is different than before. The legendary American dream needs to be updated and adapted to new realities and challenges.
My childhood and youth were spent in a communist country where people were condemned to poverty and darkness. Our lives were miserable. We didn’t care about cholesterol, pollution, or the negative effects of smoking, nor did we worry about the dangers of obesity, drug addiction, or violence. Many of us managed to preserve our sanity. Our lives were simple. We didn’t need antidepressants, although we had good reasons for Prozac. No one sought psychoanalysis, therapists, or other shrinks, although we had good reason to be clinically depressed.
In a cave, when you have few choices, all sorts of self-defense mechanisms spring into action. One is interpersonal communication. In a primitive society, communication involved ingenuity and directness. We expressed ourselves at times in ways that others might have seen as rude. People talked loudly, gesticulated profusely, even cursed; they lived and hated passionately, were given to making grandiose plans in the evening over many glasses of wine, only to discard them as impossible the next morning. And yet these people were authentic in their despair and passionate in their fantasies. They did communicate! In the streets, in bars, at gatherings, they kept talking, aware of the words, with secret police watching. They were anything but alienated. Salvation for the soul came from real words and freed emotions.
People learned not to trust the official language in the press, in the schools, and at work. Naturally, slavish servants of the regime existed, but most people doubted any political speech and cultivated disbelief and irony as part of their self-defense mechanism. Everybody was aware of living in a “make-believe” world, fully aware of the duplicity of words. Trying to escape from the official language of manipulation, most people quickly learned that they had to think for themselves, if they didn’t want to be swallowed up by the regime; they had to know what to believe in and what to reject. They had a common enemy – the dictatorship – and thus they had to summon up all their strength to defend the real meanings and consistency of words. They had to be aware of what they were saying but also of what they were hearing. On one hand, their words could put their lives in danger; and on the other hand, official speech could corrupt their soul.
I have recalled this to emphasize a sensitive issue in our today’s society: the existence of other forms of manipulation, different from the ones we had to face in communism, yet posing lethal effects, since people’s self-defense mechanisms seem to be quite weak here. Having lived their lives in a free world, far from all the complicated issues I’ve discussed above, they’re used to taking each word as true. They’ve let their guard down; they don’t have inside official enemies, yet.
A whole media industry of advertising, sophisticated commercials, entertainment and world news is eager to guide, inform, and help. People don’t even have to think much. There are professionals, well paid who think for them and give them the right answers. They will tell them what to buy, what to eat, when to laugh at sitcoms, how to be happy, successful, and immortal. All they have to do is sit back and enjoy. People here are confident in their values and have no reason to doubt, as long as everything pouring from the TV screens and through all the other communication devices is in their best interest. They think they don’t need to be aware of words. They just take them for granted. And yet another form of manipulation is at play here, more subtle, in spite of its claimed good intentions. Why resist or oppose it, if it makes things smoother and easier?
Political correctness brings not only social sanity but duplicity; these last years more and more people felt lonely and confused seeing how their once strong values seem to fading away. The soul is left aside, whereas the pressure seems to be more than ever a challenge to keep up with the social mechanism and to preserve their place within it.
Is this depersonalization of the individual the price we have to pay for prosperity, in this money-oriented, consumer culture? Is this the consequence of globalization? Or maybe it’s the result of the “right” manipulation? Nevertheless, we mustn’t all sing the same song – must we? –though it may be a beautiful one!
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 Angel, The 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.