America (for John Powell)

 

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If you encounter the public language of America as an outsider, or somebody whose formative years were elsewhere (mine were in Sweden) you’re struck by a quality that is very difficult to identify.

I think about it almost all the time. Just now I think I got it. I want to write it down, in case I’m right.

It’s not just that feelings don’t permeate the language, it’s that feeling-less language is upheld with a near nationalist determination. We love, and abuse, sterile phrases like, “It is what it is,” “You got to move on,” and so forth.

The things people say when they don’t want to say what it really true, relevant, or reflective, have formed a kind of calcified second language, on top of the true, living language that moves, reveals and connects.

What do I expect, you may ask?

Do I expect American public figures to sound like Liv Ullman?

I don’t know.

All I know is that I just wait, and wait, and wait, to hear something human sounding. On television, on the bus, or in my own conversations.

The language is rational, above all else. Pain-avoidant and joy-avoidant.

Lawns are mowed almost out of what seems to be a fear of what might emerge from the grass if we didn’t show it who’s boss.

When somebody cries, without exception, they say, “I’m sorry.”

And we say, “Are you ok?”

Not, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Bengt, the now 93 year old father of a close friend in Sweden–when I sat on their small boat in the Baltic Sea after we’d scattered my mother’s ashes–he did something lovely.

He said nothing suggestive that I should push my tears back where they came from, that I should bring things back to an emotion-less state as fast as possible.

He just sat there with me. And then he wiped a tear from my cheek.

Comments

  1. Darlene says:

    Celia!
    I am sitting here speechless. Somehow you ran through my mind and I have stumbled upon you and your words.
    Now I am sitting in a rush of memories of 1990 something and new motherhood and divorces and for some reason, feeding a banana to Simone in your apartment.
    I hope I can catch up with you old friend.
    Yes I do.

  2. Tom says:

    That is lovely, C. To be frank, is no easy task. To be frank and unafraid of feelings conveyed, is considerably more difficult. You know me as the duke of reserve. That was my training — while half in and half out of the world. I have taken advantage of every opportunity to loosen up, trade in strategy for matter-of-fact. It’s not easy to be carried away. Alas, we’re all carried away. We’re carried away. Away. But of actions, clearly, clearly, * reserve * — at once flower and poison. Roulette: bet on the flower. To have an audience with grief and know when to shut your everfuckingloving mouth… You nailed it, because that’s what you do: You NAIL it. We work hard for what we will remember as poignant — on a boat in the Baltic. If the rest is gray, we were lazy. I was lazy. You are rarely lazy.

    • Celia Farber says:

      Lovely too is your comment, Tom. Thank you. I am wondering which Tom you are.

      I know you as the duke of reserve? Hm.

      Not that I am agreeing to that characterization but–is this Tom Callaghan?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Celia, the next time I encounter someone crying, I’m going to ask if they want to talk about it. That definitely was not the case before reading your lovely story

  4. john powell says:

    R.A. Davis, your comments raise a few unavoidable questions.

    (1.) Does a “detached analysis” of a distinct cultural diminishment really consist of (a.) living immersed within it, (b.) emotionally engaging and connecting to it, and (c.) “think[ing] about it almost all the time”?

    (2.) In the above-written text of Ms. Farber’s observations, reflections, intuitions, and qualitative impressions regarding “the public languange of America”, where did she “judge all of American speech by a sampling of what’s said in the Big Apple”?

    (3.) You made reference to an account of three African-American males, one of whom is a junkie, standing in a sleazy bar during the 1970’s, exercising the apparently-drunken, degenerate, arguably-pathological perversity of comparatively evaluating the race-specific erotic “shaking” of a “small blonde white girl.”

    Is that REALLY a true representation of the manner, depth, and integrity of the speaking aspirations and achievements within the “black” population of this or any other country; or is it quite-obviously something more accurately, more honestly described as a crude and vulgar stereotype, the “meaning” of which certainly does not reflect how “black” women and men “speak”, but does reflect a deliberate dismissing of the fact that such unflattering so-called “blackspeak” is actually an example of the widespread tone and content in the speaking resorted to by all (white included) drunken, pathologically perverse, degenerate, race-specific evaluators of the “small” drunk “girl” (blonde, red-headed, brunette, or otherwise] who is erotically “shaking” and disennobling her dignity, in every sleazy bar, in Anytown, USA?

    Is it “blackspeak”, or is it drunken, degenerate, pathologically perverse, race-specific sexual evaluation found in every sleazy white bar in the white man’s domain?

    (4.) Gahan Wilson: A joker, with a perverse, desensitized affection for the morbid and the macabre, and for the humorizing of the repulsively abusive and violent. A man.

    Celia Farber: Not a joker, and having no perverse, desensitized affection for the morbid, the macabre, or the humorizing of the repulsively abusive and violent. A woman.

    How does such a she “evoke” any such he?

    How can such a she “evoke” any he at all?

    Why is it necessary to portray she as evoking a he?

    I confess to not having anything to contribute here, except these questions which presented themselves from the content of your contribution. I am merely the messenger.

    • R. A. Davis says:

      Point by numbered point, if I can, sir:
      (1.) Does a “detached analysis” of a distinct cultural diminishment really ..
      I don’t know; I didn’t write it. I do understand what she’s writing about and agree that something like that exists in our American speech patterns. But I think American speech is at this point too diverse to draw the conclusions Celia reached and apply them to the country at large.
      (2.) In the above-written text of Ms. Farber’s observations, reflections, intuitions, and qualitative impressions regarding “the public language of America”, where did she “judge all of American speech by a sampling of what’s said in the Big Apple”?
      Writing is metaphor; Celia, who lives in NYC, did not state that. I wrote it to suggest that (again) one’s assessment of “Americanese” –to lump it into a simple category–is nigh impossible. And I assure you I don’t believe New Yorkers sink to the bottom if they stop moving. They probly get up and run for office.
      (3.) You made reference to an account of three African-American males, one of whom is a junkie, standing in a sleazy bar during the 1970’s, exercising the apparently-drunken, degenerate, arguably-pathological perversity of comparatively evaluating the race-specific erotic “shaking” of a “small blonde white girl.”
      Ah, sir, you are obviously more adept at judging your fellow human beings than I. I would not dare.
      I would however correct or amend your account of my account based on an event which I, not you, witnessed. There were only two, not three….”apparently-drunken, degenerate, arguably-pathological perversity of comparatively evaluating the race-specific erotic “shaking” of a “small blonde white girl.”
      I did not think they were drunk; and the terms “degenerate, arguably-pathological perversity…” and the rest of this rather supercilious judgment that follows are alien to me. These are your terms, not mine, and so their defense is your job.
      “Is that REALLY a true representation of the manner, depth, and integrity of the speaking aspirations and achievements within the “black” population of this or any other country…”
      …All of which suggests I’m racist, right? But again, you use your own words, your own judgments to turn my accurate account of a real-life event into something that smacks of racism. Your chief weapon seems to be Political Correctness: the insistence–accepting no argument to the contrary–that if we stop saying certain disturbing things, these things will no longer disturb us, because they shall have disappeared. The late George Carlin was much wiser and more eloquent than either of us, sir; his comments are available on YouTube.
      I love Celia Farber. She published my work when nobody else would. We’ve had our arguments over the years, some of them bitter. But our friendship and mutual respect has survived. My initial comment was intended to amplify what she said, not criticize it.
      In short, sir, your dashing attempt to defend Ms Farber was unnecessary, and used as a stage to promote your own rather warped ideas. I suggest if you wish to do things like this in the future, take Bob’s advice–as true of argument as it is of dancing:
      You got to get up before He does.

      • john powell says:

        Howdy again, R.A. Davis. I hope this Wednesday night is providing you with plenty of opportunities for joyfully basking in the bountiful benefits of political incorrectness.

        Being the “warped” devotee of political correctness that I am, I wish I knew what such joyfulness feels like, but, shhhh, don’t tell anybody, my Facebook photo self-portraits of an incorrigibly-uncorrected nonconformist character are actually not photos of me. They are part of the cover identity which I and my co-conspirators have deployed for the purpose of, as you so-rightly detected, stealthily promoting the “warped” ideas of the International Jewish Political Correctness Enforcement Cabal. Damn! You caught me! I’m melting! Melting! Melllltinnng!

        I do, nevertheless, stand by my ethically-oriented original questions, because they were not, as you accused them of being, supercilious. Ethical concerns are not, as you alleged, synonymous with superciliousness.

        Indeed, my questions WERE generally intended to invite introspection about emotionally hot-button aspects of moral discernment, but they were not supercilious.

        Yes, they were indeed oriented toward issues of ethics, and yes, I do understand why some people get upset by questions which raise concerns about the ethics of their own words and/or actions.

        I understand why often the person asking such questions is accused, by the people whose ethics are scrutinized in the questioning, of being contemptuously, scornfully, and haughtily judgmental.

        Such accusations are ancient commonalities which now, as then, are often the default response from those who resent such questioning, on the grounds that the commonality of their questionable ethics renders their ethics impervious to, and immunized against being questioned by any foolishly and despicably daring, “warped”, morally and ethically “supercilious” invader whose only deficiency of credentials to question is that he comes from outside the herd of common offenders.

        Yes, there is strength in numbers, but …well, you already know how wrong that often goes.

        I do stand by my ethically-oriented original questions, but please forgive me, because presently, I’m not feeling interested in “junkie Bob”-esque dancing or arguing; and presently, the much more salient truth which is most germane to the direction I will henceforth turn in this exchange, is that I’ve never been one who aspires to lingering or triumphing in rivalries between contenders for the crown of being best at “shaking it all out”.

        So, please excuse me, while I do not “get up before he does.”

        I sincerely commend you, for your own “dashing” (albeit demonstrably dubious) effort at courteously and tastefully defending yourself against one who is as “warped” as I.

        I wish you health, luck, love, wisdom, progress, peace,
        and long life to savor your life’s all-to-brief feast on
        whatsoever defies the prevailing, prescribed feelinglessness
        which does indeed induce
        imagination-debilitating dialogue obesity
        throughout this nation’s sea-to-shining-sea Americanese.

  5. R. A. Davis says:

    The narrative itself mirrors the point you make, moving from a detached analysis of Americanese to a poignant finish.
    “Lawns are mowed almost out what seems to be a fear of what might emerge from the grass if we didn’t show it who’s boss.” –That’s simply stunning, evoking Gahan Wilson,… ‘go ask Alice’.
    But I suggest it’s unfair to judge all of American speech by a sampling of what’s said in the Big Apple–where if one stops moving, one sinks to the bottom. Blackspeak often overflows with meaning:
    1970s, South Philly, tiny bar that catches the spillover from Dirty Franks across the street,linoleum dance floor 8×8 where a small blonde white girl is shaking it all out. Standing by my friend gentleman junkie Bob who’s with a Bro I don’t know. “She move right good for a white gal.” “Ummhmm. You know there’s on thing about rhythm.” “Yeah: You Got To Get Up Before He Does.”
    qed

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