Dec 31, 2008

Stone steps

The accidents that made us

Sarah Anne was not German, not really, but if you had believed her you would have believed she’d come up with the whole country herself. She was insanely proud of the place and the people and would always, for any reason, argue for German superiority.

Sarah Anne was the daughter of immigrants, but was born in the U.S. and lived in the U.S. like every other citizen. She lived in the suburbs, drove a sedan, spent time online, and rented me a basement room. I think she maybe spent a year in Germany, after college, with her fiancé, but even that might have been the exaggeration of a three-month vacation with a very bored boyfriend. But none of that mattered, the only truth was she had a fetish for all things German, a fixation, and she wouldn’t let go.

First thing, when I moved in, she gave me some picture hangers. “These are better,” she said. “They’re German.” She told me I should throw away my mattress and get a German bed, which is basically a pallet and a pad. “I have a bed,” I said, and Sarah Anne said, “Well it’s awful. I have the German kind. It’s a lot better.” Sarah Anne believed in German superiority, and would always think it was important to say. Germans had better cars and clerks, washing machines and anything engineered, better houses, better desserts, better manners, better words, and better weather. Germans had a better way of drinking water, better beer, better transportation, better education, better towns and better traditions. I can’t remember all of the better German things, but basically, for Sarah Anne, everything German was always superior. If she had been a planet, Germany would have been her sun, because she just went around and around and around it.

I tried to not talk to her, and when I had to talk to her I tried to not say things like, “stick a braut in it lady, your family immigrated, OK? You have nothing to do with Germany.” But for Mary Anne, the accident of her heritage was very important. She hung on to it, thinking it gave her something important, thinking it gave her access to something right.

Martin Heidegger believed thinking was better in German. Philosophy, he thought, thorough thinking and the sort of thoughts that are deep enough and sturdy enough to bear to the real weight of thinking, they have to happen auf Deutsch.

This was a very German thing to think. This is the logic of the compound word: Singularity over multiplicity; unity over diversity. In German, it’s better to have one huge, long word to express an idea. The complicated compound is preferred. It’s better than having a swarm of ant-like words crawling all over a thought. In German it is better to be right than flexible, and precision is preferred to synonyms.

When this came up, in the seminar I took on Heidegger, none of us English-speaking philosophy majors considered it serious. What we wanted to know was how far this dumb idea, this linguistic prejudice, affected (or infected) Heidegger. None of us gave even a suspicion of credence to the idea that we were barred from thinking because of the language of our births. It was just not an idea we could consider. Not just because it meant we would never think thoroughly, but because the concept of linguistic superiority seemed so obviously absurd. We couldn’t just oppose the idea, because for us the question couldn’t be about German superiority, but would have to be about why the hell someone would think this. The idea that truth is only accessible in a single language was as unacceptable to us as the Jim Crow rule about “a drop of Negro blood” or as unacceptable as attributing Jewish paternity to Satan – We couldn’t even consider the idea in order to reject it, couldn’t consider it even possibly true, and couldn’t even accept the conditions of asking it as a question.

This, I know now, is part of the character of English. The language was born out of two languages dwelling together, developed as Norman boys tried to woo Saxon girls, as Saxon cows were sold for Norman meals, as unified language systems were cracked and scrambled. English is a language with at least two words for everything, from the third person of the trinity to excrement. English is a language of multiplicity, diversity, and flexibility. The greatest English writers are the ones who make up new words and new grammars, who take the language and bend it and beat it and batter it, believing not in Germanic rigidity, but in rhythm, uproar, and delicious riot. The language has flourished with ages of global trade, as an international language, in part, because it’s better when it’s mixed up. It’s better when it’s expanded with mutation and “misuse,” experimentation and play. So to be born into English means it’s impossible to think one language is somehow superior, or uniquely related to the nature and structure of being.

But we didn’t choose this idea, or come up with this idea, and we couldn’t escape it. Heidegger couldn’t unthink his thoughts on thinking, English-speaking philosophy students can’t take that idea seriously, and I can’t prefer compound-word contusions. I have nothing to do with it, anymore than Sarah Anne had anything to do with Germany.

We are stuck here. These are inescapable accidents. We are and always will be who we are, stuck in the language spoken before we spoke, before we were even conceived. We do not get a say about these things, and if we did, we could only speak with the language we knew.

The danger, though, is not in being bound by the gravitational force of our language, but in thinking we’re free. The danger is in thinking we have slipped the bonds, escaped our orbit and sailed clean away. What we do – what I do – is take credit for choices which were decided by accident before I was born. But there is no breaking orbit, and Sarah Anne didn’t engineer German engineering, and none of us can escape the accidents that made us.