Saturday, September 11, 2010

Have you heard the joke about Adolf Eichmann, the strip-tease dancer and the eminent linguist?...

Language is the armory of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its past, and the weapons of its future conquests. -Samuel Taylor Coleridge

[and yet...]

Language--human language-- after all, is little better than the croak and cackle of fowls, and other utterances of brute nature--sometimes not so adequate. -Nathaniel Hawthorne (American Notebooks)

Hannah Arendt, from her work "Responsibility and Judgment," wrote:

"Some years ago, reporting the trial of [Adolph] Eichmann in Jerusalem, I spoke of "the banality of evil" and meant with this no theory or doctrine but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was a perhaps extraordinary shallowness. However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.

He functioned in the role of prominent war criminal as well as he had under the Nazi regime; he had not the slightest difficulty in accepting an entirely different set of rules. He knew that what he had once considered his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as though it were nothing but another language rule [my emphasis added]. To his rather limited supply of stock phrases he had added a few new ones, and he was utterly helpless only when he was confronted with a situation to which none of them would apply, as in the most grotesque instance when he had to make a speech under the gallows and was forced to rely on cliches used in funeral oratory which were inapplicable in his case because he was not the survivor. Considering what his last words should be in case of a death sentence, which he had expected all along, this simple fact had not occurred to him, just as inconsistencies and flagrant contradictions in examination and cross examinations during the trial had not bothered him. Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence. If we were responsive to this claim all the time, we would soon be exhausted; the difference in Eichmann was only that he clearly knew of no such claim at all." (end quote)

Arendt's experience with Eichmann illustrates to me the disagreement in belief between Coleridge's and Hawthorne's views. Where Eichmann clearly used language as a means to wield power to the ends of torture and genocide in a war against the Jews and Others, Coleridge's assertion is born out. But upon deeper inspection, Hawthorne's insistence that language is brutish senselessness seems utterly apparent in Eichmann's vacuous adaptivity without any shift in consciousness--even facing the moment of his own death.

Where Coleridge sees language as the means for identifying what we want and then waging war to acquire it--the occupation of our own worlds [read: words], Hawthorne sees language as oftentimes a waste. Though what it is a waste of, I'm uncertain from the quote. And it is interesting that Hawthorne is using language to denigrate language.

But Arendt's assessment of the simple change in "language rule" identifies the deeper issue of all three quotes: individual perception(s) and one's subsequent intention(s). Language can create victory and destruction simultaneously. It can create meaning while at the same time negating something else. In this sense, Coleridge and Hawthorne are two sides of the same coin. Eichmann was the negative of his own positive.

Another perspective on this follows:

"There is a perfectly true story of the strip-tease dancer who wrote to an eminent American linguist asking him to supply a word to replace 'strip-tease' because of its 'strong connotations.' "I hope," she added, "that the science of semantics can help the verbally unprivileged members of my profession." The eminent linguist, knowing his classical languages, suggested 'ecdysiast.'" -Frank Palmer (1981)

ecdysis n. the shedding or casting off of an outer coat or integument by snakes, crustaceans, etc.

[from The Study of Language by George Yule, 1985]

If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet (Shakespeare), how do we account for our sexist reinterpretations of something like waitress changing to wait person changing to server? Arendt seems to be saying that in Eichmann's case at least, intention was so impersonal to Eichmann, that even his own death was a thing entirely apart from himself. And yet in the case of the strip-tease dancer and the eminent linguist (the juxtaposition of which, I simply LOVE), the linguist is extremely personal in his intellectually-veiled attack. He does exactly with language what Coleridge argues for. However, I think the sum total of what he accomplishes fits more closely with Hawthorne. And why?

For myself, Arendt's observations pinpoint the dangers of context from which we can never free ourselves. Eichmann could BE the staunch leader for true Germany as easily as he could Be the hated war criminal. Language will always at some level, speak the morality of the person and the culture from which it is executed (no pun intended). If I were to simply say "turn right," my language relies upon the history of each word that holds countless meanings built upon each other through all their various reincarnations and then delivered with my own tacit and explicit intentions. The linguist not only wished to humiliate the dancer, he wished to show his own brilliance and superiority to others in the act of it. And yet without using the words 'eminent' or 'strip-tease,' the story would mean something else entirely. Would the persons themselves each be someone else entirely too?


Scott Abbott said...

wow, a whole bunch of interesting thoughts.

one set of them reminds me of e.e. cumming's line (and we should note that he loved burlesque): a pretty girl who naked is, is worth a hundred statues."

why settle for representation when the real thing is available?

and more seriously, i think you've laid out the important dichotomy: language disables us as well as enables us.

and finally, you've left me thinking that if eichmann had been more than a product of the language games he was immersed in, if he had had creative/poetic ability to work with language, he would have answered Alex's "Poetry Is Wanted Here" rather than causing the need for poetry with his banality.