In My Own Write: Bialik and the X-factor

Face to face with our innermost selves.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
Polonius: What do you read, my lord? Hamlet: Words, words, words. - 'Hamlet' by W. Shakespeare When a page designer whom I work with at the Post referred to the article he was laying out as "just a bunch of words strung together," I couldn't help smiling. We journalists - reporters, editors and layout people - are exposed to such quantities of writing of all kinds that a level of cynicism is almost inevitable. My colleague's remark, albeit thrown out with his trademark brand of dry humor, got me thinking about the zillions of words in English alone published daily in newspapers and on websites around the globe. My thoughts moved to the incessant flood of words that issues from TV and radio news stations worldwide, accompanied by nonstop background commentary and endless punditry on countless talk shows. Just trying to imagine that vast ocean of words made my head spin. Hopefully, some of it is useful, educating people to be wiser and more discerning in their assessment of events. LITERATURE, of course, is also a matter of "words strung together" - brilliantly, or less so - and some writers' ability to string them together in huge numbers is astonishing. The 19th-century Polish author Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski and the popular 20th-century English children's writer Enid M. Blyton each produced an astonishing 600 books. Jewish theologian Jacob Neusner has written more than 500. Down in the lower numbers, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, managed only five words an hour - around 30 on a good day - and, I recall reading somewhere, was apt to roll around on the floor in agony when he couldn't find the right one. In La Peste (The Plague), the 1947 novel by Albert Camus, a curious and moving character called Grand, an aspiring novelist, gets stuck forever rewriting his first sentence. Poignantly, we learn, his wife left him because he didn't know how to tell her that he loved her. This disconnect underlines the truism that our words aren't of too much use if they don't succeed in conveying our feelings. Which prompts the question: What do we really get across when we speak? In a fascinating 1915 essay called Gilui Vekisui Belashon - "What language reveals and what it conceals" - Haim Nachman Bialik, Israel's national poet, gives his take on the matter; and it isn't all that encouraging. For us, in our revved-up, cyber- and cell-phone-driven existence almost a century after the essay appeared, it is possibly even more relevant than it was then. IN THEIR prime, Bialik says, words were so potent that they could "unseat kings from their thrones." Inevitably, however, they got thrown "into the marketplace," where they were bandied about thoughtlessly and lost their power. Nothing too surprising about that, Bialik comments. It's what happens with language. But, he stresses, there isn't one tiny word that wasn't, at the moment when it came into being, "a great and awesome revelation of feeling, a lofty victoriousness of the spirit." As examples, he cites what he surmises was the biblical Adam's instinctive "rrrr" response the first time he heard thunder (Hebrew: ra'am), which expressed "a profound and complex emotional upheaval"; and the deep philosophical significance of Adam's first utterance of the word "I." Today, wrote Bialik back in 1915 - today, we might echo in 2009 - such words and countless others, tossed from the private into the public sphere and emptied of their essence, "hardly touch the soul." Only their "shells" remain. Again, that may be inevitable. Yet Bialik expresses his astonishment at man's calm confidence that he is giving voice to his real thoughts and feelings, "unaware of how shaky that bridge of words is; how deeply and darkly the abyss below yawns, and how much of a miracle is every step he takes." WHAT IS this "abyss"? Bialik doesn't exactly say; hinting only that, alarmingly, it attracts us even as it repels and terrifies us. It is, I think, the place where we confront our innermost selves - and, by implication, others - stripped of all artifice, excuse and apology; and the gigantic question of what we are doing here at all. Terrifying, indeed. And so, he says, we build a barrier of never-ending words "overlapping each other like plates of armor, so close that not a hair can get between them." It stands between us and that dark place, covering up and blocking out those hugely disturbing existential questions. THERE IS one rare moment, Bialik says, when our word-armor cracks open, our protection disappears and "the abyss gleams." It happens when someone dies. "Suddenly everything becomes confused. The unknown X-factor intrudes itself in front of us in all its looming formidableness - and we sit there on the ground, confronting it for a moment, mourners in the darkness, silent as rocks." But that moment of recognition doesn't last, Bialik says. Another word - of eulogy, condolence, philosophy or faith in the immortality of the soul - soon pops up to divert our attention and quell our fears. The protective word-barrier is up again, solid as ever. Bialik does offer some hope for our nobler selves: There are, he writes, three "wordless languages" - music, tears and laughter - which "begin at the point where language ends. "They come not to block, but to open. They bubble up from within the abyss; they are of the abyss itself, which is why they sweep us away in overpowering waves, lifting man out of his conscious self and his everyday world." THE POWER of Bialik's "wordless languages" was brought home to me recently when I attended a remarkable funeral. In fact, I don't think I've ever been to a funeral like it. The deceased was a quiet man in his 60s whose quick intelligence and caring, attentive gaze had won him friends in many different circles. Four hundred of them, perhaps more, stood shoulder to shoulder in the funeral chapel, some comforting others, all waiting silently for the eulogies to begin. The eldest son, a charismatic-looking figure with longish hair, wearing a white tunic, stepped up to the lectern. Everyone prepared to hear what he had to say. He didn't say anything. Instead, he began to hum a hassidic niggun, very quietly. (His family had established a Shabbat prayer minyan in Jerusalem many years earlier, and the niggun was very likely one sung there; perhaps it was one of his father's favorites.) The haunting melody, repetitive as these hassidic ones are, was gradually taken up by everyone present. Again and again it was repeated, until the very walls of the chapel were humming with it. Then it finished. The son stepped away from the lectern. He hadn't uttered a single word. Yet everyone there felt they had heard - participated in - a eulogy that was deeper, closer and truer to the essence of the deceased than any spoken words could have been. Had we, briefly, glimpsed Bialik's "abyss"? If we had, it seemed to hold out more solace than fear.