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language

Mostly Hamburg: ’72

Confusion is the foreigner’s advantage. Natives 
tamp the nuance in their sounds. Stranger 
seeking refuge pockets vowels, picks gesture,
learns body, gets caught up on the cobble 

<i>Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry</i>. By Paul Celan. Translated from the German by Pierre Joris.

To Give Saying Its Shadow

On June 28, 1942, Victor Klemperer wrote in his diary, “Even if I hated Germany, I would not thereby become un-German, I could not tear what was German out of me.” A Protestant convert of Jewish parentage, Klemperer had been forced out of his position as a professor of Romance languages at the Technical University of Dresden following the Nazi “dejudification” of the civil service. His car had been confiscated; his cat, euthanized; his house, “Aryanized.” He and his wife, Eva, were forced to move into a Jews’ House, where they roomed with a number of other families, all of whom were subject to constant surveillance and harassment by the Gestapo. He performed forced labor in a segregated factory, and lived on the brink of starvation. 

The Hafgufa

The Hafgufa is a giant fish or whale said in Old Norse writings to roam the seas.

In the Konungs Skuggsjá, a book of tactics and morality written by King Håkon Håkonsson for his young son, the king is loath to describe the creature—for no one, he says, will believe him without seeing it first with his own two eyes. As for him, he fears it, “for it is a massive fish, that looks more like an island than a living thing.”

Forward Thinking

Claire Schwartz: According to the poet Marie Howe, who studied with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia, Brodsky said: “You Americans are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” You’ve written about the relationship between language and the social imagination—in particular, about the ways that totalitarian regimes in Russia and, more recently, the current government in the United States, have eroded public speech. Would you describe what you mean by that and how you see language functioning in public space right now?

Masha Gessen: For totalitarian regimes, language is an instrument of subjugation. It’s a way of controlling both behavior and thought. Attempting to ensure that words mean what the regime says they mean is a way of undermining people’s ability to inhabit a shared reality outside of what the regime says reality is. There are all sorts of tricks the regime performs along the way—such as using a word to mean its opposite, or almost its opposite. 

Illustration by Nicole Rifkin

Merge

Thundering down, a cataract from a high plateau, raising billows of dust, manes, tails, whinnies rippling like banners, a glamorous species, captive yes, but not entirely subdued, they—oh, no, a fellow in that ridiculous getup pops up from behind a rock and pulls out a—bink! That’s enough, goodbye stupid old show, time for a cup of tea. Pulls out—bang, bang, bang. Yes, sensible Cordis decides, not a drink, time for a nice cup of tea.

The dog, a parting so-called gift from unfortunate Mrs. Munderson, peers at the blank screen, baffled, then paws at Cordis. Moppet is not glamorous, except in the most trivial sense; Moppet is cute. What does Moppet want? A treat? A tickle? A furlough?

Dear Eros,

I have found you where I shouldn’t—in the wrong bodies, 
at the wrong time, and once on a subway platform 
with my feet stuck to a pool of dried soda taking gum 
from a near-stranger’s mouth. That night you were spearmint 
and the 6 train. I have been woken by you, put to bed by you. 

Made to Hear: Cochlear Implants and Raising Deaf Children. By Laura Mauldin. Minnesota, 2016. 224p. PB, $25.

Ear to the Battleground


Of the five senses, vision tends to get the glory. We hail great innovators as visionary, praise writers for their insight, and thank friends for offering perspective. We call prophets seers, but also admire daily perspicacity and seek to avoid myopia and blind spots. Just consider the words spectacles and spectacular, and you catch a glimpse—not a whisper, a glimpse—of the divergence between vision in the optometrist’s office and vision in our cultural construction of it. But while vision gets the glory, hearing has our trust. We want justice to be blind during court hearings.

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