Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Things Left Unsaid

Bruegel's Tower of Babel, always
I am used to things left undone: hovering, waiting impatiently, pressing, pleading, finally getting done, maybe - or left unfinished like the Tower of Babel. But I am not so used to things left unsaid. A lot of things can (and probably should) go unsaid. But to be left unsaid, to ask  for and be denied expression, that is different. My teaching and administrative roles have taken a turn lately to where I am now dealing with a lot more confidentiality issues. I find this difficult - no outlet, no place or time to put words to raw and sudden emotions, no means by which to settle a lot of what is unsettled in being left unsaid. I realize how deeply deeply true it is for me that language reconciles reality, especially when that reality is complicated or painful. I am hopelessly prosaic - I go on and on with many words, I marvel at (but do not understand enough and seldom put into practice) the poetic practice of treasuring words so much as to use very few. I don't know that I treasure words as precious objects so much as see them as necessary bricks that I'm to walk on if I'm to keep going. And so I keep returning to the jagged edges of the unfinished Tower of Babel - the ultimate site of things left unsaid once the ability to all speak the same language was stripped from humanity.

I hope that you can click on the image to the right and make it bigger because the bricks there are just spectacular. I became fascinated (nay, obsessed) with them through the "Pyromena" paper I shared at that most incredible of gatherings, the "Elemental Ecocriticism" symposium last April at the University of Alabama (and which will now appear in much esteemed company in an anthology (brilliantly, generously) edited by Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert). The bricks of Babel are the first things made with fire in the Bible and I kept (I keep) thinking of how prosaic they are, one after the other brought forth in blocks.  Look at them there in their neat packets, waiting to be brought into the increasingly confused mass of the Tower of Babel. Moments of modular lucidity in the midst of chaos. That's what I need now: plain speech to enter and shape the structure of complex thought and emotion. But I can't, and I understand why, but I still want it.

Ivory writing tablet and case - at the Walters
And so to change the scale. To move from helplessness to poignancy: from things left unsaid because words are doomed to fail in the chaos of Babel, to things made unsaid because words are meant to fade in the secrecy of intimacy. I will comfort myself about the enormity of silences that seek to be broken with the smallness of whispers that want to stay quiet, and look at these tiny erasures. The wonderful Walters holds an ivory case which holds a tablet into which wax can be poured and inscribed. Words are etched in the hardening wax, the case with its scenes of lovers in and out of the Castle of Love is slipped on, and the lot delivered to a recipient who will read the words, scrape out the wax, melt it down and begin again. The slow motion SnapChat of the Middle Ages in its ephemerality and intimacy. Do you think there were pictures, too? Goofy faces, hearts pierced with arrows, bawdier tracings, mockeries of the duke? I imagine more freedom in assured erasure. In this instance. And so ok, so there are things I can't write about - not because they're great big secrets, but because they're not mine to speak to, they are mine to witness and support as a teacher and colleague. And so ok, even though at times I wish that I could set the situations I'm in to rights with the written word, I can't. So off I go to find things said and then unsaid - the lighter side (the rebellion, the fun, the agency) of silence: erasing instead of erased words. Can you imagine that? In our massive individual archives and digital palimpsests everything we write remains. We can unsay very few things in writing. There is no assured erasure. But in that mass of wax cradled in its ivory case there may have been some of the greatest freedom of writing ever enjoyed by any writers. I wonder what they did with it.

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