Differences in common phrases and censorship from communist Romania to capitalist New York reveal a link between language, thought, and the power of words.
As a child in Romania, I would choose a word and repeat it over and over until it lost its meaning. The syllables would overlay one another and sound like a foreign language, not invented yet or long-ago abandoned, something mysterious and antique, rough and absurd. Instead of opening up and shining acoustically, the sounds choked like marine animals tossed into a boiling cauldron. The word would then become tangible, heavy, like a clay rock thrown in the ocean. I would wait for it to dissolve while I repeated it, compulsively, unable to control the joy of my offense. What are words? I asked myself. Where do they come from and where do they go?
Writers, I thought, have a most difficult task: to keep the mystery inside the words and save their power for the world beyond. At that time, I was not aware I would become a writer. While I was studying mathematics, I dreamed of becoming a theater director but our communist Eastern European universe was not open to dreams. We lived under one of the harshest dictatorships, watched by the secret police, completely isolated from the rest of the world. We tried to survive within a closed society, struggling to find our own ways to cope with the obscurantism of the political system.
Of all the restrictions imposed by the system, the worst was that against freedom of speech. We all knew that if we even entertained the idea of criticizing the Communist Party or its leaders, we could easily end up in jail. We weren’t supposed to complain about our miserable lives, either, or about the nonsense surrounding us. Spies were everywhere, even in the midst of artist gatherings and literary groups. The restaurants, hotels, or mountain cottages were equipped with hidden microphones; our phone lines were under surveillance. To speak loudly and straightforwardly was dangerous. Despite the fact that the dictatorship controlled every aspect of society, the rulers, ironically, were afraid of our real thoughts and words: the only weapons we could use against them. The political censorship was severe and forever watchful, keeping every form of communication under control.
The words allowed by the dictatorship would take up only two dictionary pages: empty and precious slogans, political jingles, and the like. Artists hid in metaphors; regular folks would whisper and swear. Some would make peace with the system and become megaphones of ideological emptiness; others would assume the loneliness of their own thoughts, awaiting more and more hopelessly, a liberating miracle.
Most of us lived a double life, each in a different language. We talked in a certain way in public arenas and institutions, and differently among ourselves. Paradoxically, we were still communicating. Through that communication, we were surviving culturally and keeping our minds and souls sane. The language had become a living animal, insinuating itself in our milk, in our walls, even in the design of our rugs. It flew—simulating freedom—from one window to the next, condensed, profound, intense, alert; and we cherished each word as our only hidden treasure.
At the time, almost all of us thought communism was with us to stay, at least for the duration of our lifetimes. So in addition to the official language based on fear, caution, and slogans, a parallel language had to be developed—springing from one’s inner sense of freedom, truth, and fairness.
I came to New York as a diplomat, director of cultural programs at the Romanian Cultural Center. I started by admiring everything, and for almost two years I devoted myself to discovering and understanding the new world. Meanwhile, I kept writing enthusiastic articles for journals in my native country, where everybody already figured out I wasn’t coming back. The city possessed me at first sight, and although I often felt crushed under its energy, I was following its lead as if in a trance. I decided to stay here for the rest of my life.
After awhile, I settled down and started to look closer. I opened my eyes wider, as if waking up in a strange apartment after the party was over, the lights went off, and the last guest closed the door behind him. As a new immigrant, I wasn’t feeling displaced; neither was I experiencing a crisis of identity or nostalgia. All my senses were intensely awake and alive here. I had been carrying my home with me and found the right place to settle.
For more than 30 years I lived in the opaque world of communism, where time had no value. All we had left was talking. Our conversations, sometimes delightful, were a never-ending chatter over full ashtrays and cheap alcohol, night-long discussions and hungover mornings. Time was frozen for us. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. We did not have anywhere to go.
Time is everything in America. It is sold at each deli and hot-dog cart, on TV and by insurance companies, on slot machines or in the Have a nice day greeting everyone utters automatically only to get rid of you quickly. Concentrated formulas of language do not stem here from emptiness but rather from fear of lingering too long. Time is money. The Soul? It is lying lonely somewhere on a shrink’s couch, computer screen, or on a talk show.
Over here, people seem to live beyond words, a more effective way of communication, although somehow less spectacular than ours back in Romania. Communication here excels at being direct, concise, focused, and simple. Shortly, I understood that there is no need and no time for metaphors or complicated, useless phrases. Our endless chatter in Eastern Europe, part of our extroverted Mediterranean temperament, is pointless here.
Let’s take a word that is overused in America: love. Everybody seems to be loving, from dawn to dusk, and nobody is shy to show his love. Before hanging up the phone, after speaking with a close one, “love you” comes automatically, meaning actually more “talk to you soon” or “take care.” Love is extended to objects, dishes, landscapes, and situations. People are often saying I love this, I love that, ignoring the existence of synonyms. And while the mouth fills us on the vowel o, the word disappears, its power is lost. Love, repeated carelessly, becomes worthless.
I can remember how difficult it was to say love words in my adolescence—the way we weighed their intensity and graded their emotion using an entire allusive arsenal. We were convinced it would be indecent to dispel the mystery and force of the strongest word by just randomly saying it. We thought that once we said it, we would become vulnerable or weak. And what if, once uttered, love hits a wall?
I feel like all this was a hundred years ago. How easy it is today to deal with a sex party, although what a huge gap separates sexes in the big cities, where a career and/or a single status are highly regarded. If you look closer and put your ear closer to the words, the solitude is overwhelming. Only the casing of motivations is shiny, only the polish is blinding you.
Happiness belongs in the category of abused words too. The entire nation is chasing it, which wouldn’t be too absurd, except that people pretend to find it several times a day in the most unexpected situations. Over here, people do not seem to experience moderate joy, relative contentedness, or minor satisfactions. A heavyset word, filled with magical and revealing experiences, happiness should make you grow wings or lift you to heaven. To answer the question, “What was the happiest moment in your life?” people usually sit and think for awhile to find the most intense experience. For a moment, they are responsible for the power of this word. However, in this quick-paced daily life, the nuances of happiness oscillate between entertainment and palliative obsessions. The vocabulary is marked by superlatives and exaggeration. People are looking for fun, no matter what. In today’s entertainment (from cartoons to stand-up comedy) there is a certain dose of hysteria, fueled by marketing, in an environment more anxiously searching for cultural milestones or, rather, deprived by the lack thereof.
Any language has its routine expressions, sayings often used that characterize the people at a given point in time. For example, in the country I come from, speech often operates with diminutives—little-country, tiny-kiss—signifying a familiarity of communication or a sort of intimacy. In America, the absolute superlative rules, the need for grandiosity: everything is outsize and aims at eternity. If asked how things are going, people here mindlessly answer: great. In the beginning, the positive American spirit energized me. Coming from the Romanian fatalistic mentality—there is always room for worse—I finally found an optimistic, serene approach: don’t worry, be happy or, in other words, there is always room for better.
I enjoyed the frankness of my new friends, or even nominal relations, and their naÏve and sincere questions—without any knowledge of history or geography—about the dictatorship I had lived in. They would listen to my stories in profound and honest astonishment, watching me roll like a pea on an empty platter. At first I was touched by that How are you, a salute more than a question, used by everybody, friends and strangers, to greet me everywhere. I might even have indulged a paranoid vanity that everybody wanted to know how I was doing and that they all cared about me. But before I could answer, my interlocutor was gone—time is money—displaying the same open smile, leaving me with the sense that everybody in New York has white teeth and great optimism.
In my native country, I had enough of eternal lamentations. People would complain any chance they had. They felt almost guilty doing well and were embarrassed to admit it; they wished to be pitied. A New Yorker, even in his saddest moments, when asked how is he doing, would calmly answer, Thank you, I am well. The answer, beyond its formalism, implicitly means he is not sharing his problems with you. Truth be told, this sparse and formal language brings its own kind of alienation. On the other hand, the abuse of strong words (love, happiness, God, etc.) are pretexts to avoid living their meaning profoundly.
Left to its own devices, lived to its full intensity and depth, the Word will overturn the order and derail society. No surprise then that official speech is meant to sublimely erase from the collective subconscious any metaphysics and philosophies. The skillful politician, the well-chosen commercials, or the outspoken pastor—they all know better and tell you exactly what you should feel and how you should think while speaking each word.
We sometimes just speak without communicating anything. Overwhelmed by duties, worn out, always in a mad rush, consumed by the daily grind, stressed out, harried, bored with this lackluster drudgery, caught up in this search for ideals, which are rather mere attempts to survive—sometimes we are no longer able to recognize, among all of life’s challenges, the power of words to overcome our limitations and set us free from our fears.
Carmen Firan has written poetry, novels, fiction, and plays, including Words and Flesh (Talisman House, 2008). She is the co-editor of Born in Utopia: An Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Romanian Poetry (Talisman House, 2006). Reprinted from Habitus (No. 8), a semiannual Jewish magazine of international literature and culture.