Duplicity and Manipulation
- Duplicity and Manipulation
- Inside and Beyond Words
- Ce traducem – autori sau cărţi?
- Înstrăinarea prin limbaj
I grew up in communist Romania, the only Latin country in Eastern Europe, but language didn’t help us to escape dictatorship. To quote South America’s experience, all you need is a Latin language and a dictatorship for surrealism to be born…I’m thinking not only of the artistic trend, but also of our every day life, full of “surrealism”, if not absurdity, for more than 40 years.
At the end of one of my elementary school years I was asked to recite a poem at the graduation ceremony. It was a so-called patriotic poem, meaning an ode to glorify the communist party and its leader. Although I was a good student, it took me three days to learn it by heart. I got on stage in front of my colleagues and teachers, and after delivering a few lines I froze up and could not remember a single word. I had completely forgotten the poem I had tried so hard to memorize. I felt ashamed and guilty. Not because I couldn’t remember the poem or because I was shy in front of a crowd, but because the words I was forced to say sounded so ridiculous and fake. I didn’t believe in them and realized that they made absolutely no sense to me. Just strange sounds, parroting empty words someone had put in my mouth. I felt as if I was speaking a foreign, incoherent language. What is more, all of a sudden, the words of the poem had ceased to be words. Instead, they sounded like air bubbles, frames with no pictures inside. At that time I didn’t know anything about the actes manqués, the refusal to follow unconditionally one’s words if one’s conscious mind judges them wrong, or doesn’t trust their content. I was in elementary school, had not yet read Freud, and had no explanation for my failure to recite that poem.
I stared at my fellows, puzzled and helpless. Some laughed and the teacher tried to comfort me. When I told him that I would never ever agree to recite stupid political poems again, there was a sudden change of tone in his voice as he whispered in my ear: “Watch your words! Be aware of what you’re saying.” This juvenile revolt was my first attempt at dissent.
We lived under one of the toughest dictatorships, watched by the secret police, completely isolated from the rest of the world. We simply tried to survive within a closed society, struggling to find our own ways to cope with the obscurantism of the political system. And one way was to get together in groups selected on the basis of affinities, commonly shared interests –like art, literature, philosophy, or simply friendship.
I remember my parents often telling me, “Wherever you go and whatever you do, be aware of words,” meaning, “Watch what you are saying”. To speak loudly and straightforwardly was dangerous in the communist system. Ironically, despite the fact that the dictatorship controlled every aspect of society, the rulers were ironically afraid of our real thoughts and words: the only weapons we could use against them. The political censorship was tough, active, and forever watchful, keeping under control every form of communication.
This lack of freedom is almost impossible to understand by people who have never lived it. Imagine a world of birdcages, and all birds, no matter how different from one another, sing the same song ad infinitum, belting out the same tune; in the end the sound sounds like the sorrowful barking of a dog.
Of all restrictions imposed by the system, the worst was that against freedom of speech. We all knew that if we ever 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 life either, or about the nonsense surrounding us. There were spies everywhere, including in our artistic gatherings and inside literary groups. The restaurants, hotels, or cabins in the mountains were equipped with hidden microphones; our phone lines were under surveillance.
Communist ideology was based on political slogans and propagandistic clichés, on lies and megalomaniac statements. Language itself had become distorted. Not only the mass media, harnessed by the powers that be, was part of the national manipulation, but also poetry and literature, arts in general. The country’s history was rewritten by authors who had compromised their integrity by slavishly attaching themselves to the political system of the day. Thus a huge fake mechanism, built on corrupted words, was put in place.
At the time almost all of us thought communism was there to stay, at least for the duration of our lifetime, so one had to get used to one’s cage by conjuring up a parallel world, in order to save one’s soul. In addition to the official language, based on fear, caution, and imposed slogans, a parallel language had to be developed – springing from one’s inner sense of freedom, truth, and fairness. Living within this inner world ensured one’s survival – through dissent and refusal to accept alienation, by sticking to the salvation that came through real words and uninhibited communication.
The communist language, based on nationalism and utopias, had very specific aims: hiding the truth and manipulating the masses. Eventually, communism collapsed because it had been founded on a false and artificial structure of empty words with no real consistency. The boomerang effect of the words destroyed the mechanism. Still, the damage of a manipulative ideology will persist for decades to come. Corrupted words corrupt mentalities and the former communist countries will have to struggle with this legacy even longer than will take them to overcome their economic difficulties.
Words are apt to brainwash one’s mind, in unpredictable proportions. Think of Hitler’s speeches. Words can be dangerous weapons, if manipulated by evil minds. Fascism is the most tragic example of how a racist and extremist ideology leads to unspeakable crimes. Words can alter mental structures and influence the collective subconscious. We need to be aware of their power. We should be watchful of their ambiguity and duplicity that can cause a lot of harm, both on the individual and on masses in general. A word planted in your unconscious mind acts like an alien entity. There are theories about epidemic communication, a linguistic virus spread out from person to person. In the long run, the meaning of a word can be amplified or distorted or may even lose its original meaning.
In my childhood there was a popular game we used to play called “the wireless telephone,” with absolutely no reference to today’s cell phone. At that time, in the 60’s, we had barely even seen the first rotary phones, let alone the later modern contraptions! We stood in a single file, with the first child whispering a word in the ear of the fellow next to him, making sure the others could not hear the word uttered. This child repeated the word he thought he had heard into the next child’s ear and so on up the line. If we didn’t hear correctly or didn’t understand the word, we were not allowed to ask the fellow to repeat it. In the end, the last child was asked to say out loud the word he had heard, often totally different than the originated one. Not only were there some quite weird, incomprehensive words, but some players felt compelled to bring their own contribution, intending to poke some fun by deliberately modifying the word passed on to them.
We also played a variation of the game by saying a simple sentence - Americans call it “whisper down the lane“ - with an even more hilarious effect. For instance, the first child would say “A bird flies in the sky” and by the time this sentence reached the top of the line, the result might be something like “A herd dines on the shy”.
I now view the game from another perspective: our desire to change reality, to put a personal mark on it; an attempt at personalizing the common language; the temptation to be creative or just to step out of line. Our instinct is to oppose manipulation, to be different and to think with our own words. On the other hand, communication can modify its message or consistence, already spread out from a source to multiple subjects.
After the fall of communism I traveled to different countries and discovered that, in addition to ideological manipulations, there are many other types of brainwashing even in the free world: phony Messiah to propagate religious ideas, to proselytize masses or to form sects; fake outspoken healers, selling illusions to crowds fascinated by idealistic, pie-in-the-sky promises; a whole industry of advertising, bent on satisfying the consumer’s oversized expectations; media or electronic addictions, the money culture and the obsessions of globalization… In the new slavery era of high tech communication, image swallows the word while the form gulps its content. Thus, we live in a time of ease and comfort. All we have to do is flip a switch, touch a key, dial a number, or plug in this or that device…and we can have everything we desire, from goods and services, to information. “Press now for additional happiness” could be the next step of the digital dialogue we have with the tireless institutions and machines created in our best interest…Life improved dramatically from a technical point of view, but what happened to our soul? Have we found better security, a more balanced way of life? Are we less stressed and more self-confident? Do we communicate better in our relationships?
Since I settled in New York City, I have striven to understand social mechanisms, people’s life-style, mentalities and psychological peculiarities. America is a completely different world from the one I grew up in. People came here and brought along the most advanced technological and artistic achievements: they had dreams to fulfill and found the fertile ground for them. They weren’t confronted to any dictatorships and weren’t force to imagine a parallel life in order to survive. Still, America today has its forms of alienation. More and more people have the feeling that something is missing in their life or at least is different than before. The legendary American dream needs to be updated and adapted to new realities and challenges.
Living in the present and paying attention to life around you is another way of communication. When I walk down the street, I look people straight in the eye. Some of them avoid eye contact; others don’t even see me. This is not a selfish complaint. People walk in their solitude, wrapped up in their private world, with their concerns and tensions, with no desire to interact with others, nature, or even the city landscape. I can sense stress and estrangement in their rush. You might think that everybody has friends everywhere or imperative things to say, since everyone seems to be talking non-stop in their cell phone. (And now cell phones can do even much more, a whole lot more, from connecting us to the Internet, to enabling us to take digital pictures or to playing games. I recently saw some middle age spectators playing computer games on their cells, during the intermission of an opera performance at the Met). This endless talking is the sign of a stressful life where business and staying in contact is everything? Could it be also an escape from a reality they dislike? Perhaps a way of avoiding the state of being silent with themselves, alone with their thoughts? Or a desperate attempt to fill a void?
I recall my childhood and youth, spent in a communist country where people lived condemned to poverty and darkness. Our life was miserable. We had no future and could only make very few choices. We didn’t rush anywhere and we didn’t have where to go or too many things to achieve. We didn’t care about cholesterol, pollution, negative effects of smoking, nor did we worry about the dangers of obesity, drug addiction, or violence. Paradoxically, many of us managed to preserve our sanity, in the midst of an insane world. Our life was simple, reduced to mere survival. We did not need antidepressants, although we would have had all the reasons in the world to pop tons of Prozac pills. No one sought the aid of psychoanalysts, therapists or shrinks, although we had every reason to become clinically depressed. In a cave, when you don’t have many choices, all sorts of self-defense mechanisms spring into action. One of them was interpersonal communication, in spite of the official broken language. In a primitive society communication has a sort of ingenuity and directness, even if political correctness is scandalized by it. It sometimes expressed itself in what might otherwise be perceived as rude. Back then people used to speak loudly, gesticulating profusely, even cursing; living or hating passionately; given to making grandiose plans in the evening, over too many glasses of wine, only to quickly discard them as impossible next morning. And yet these people were authentic in their despair and passionate in their phantasms. They did communicate! In the streets, in pubs, at gatherings, they kept talking, aware of the words, with secret police watching over their shoulders. They were anything but alienated. Salvation for the soul came from real words. This was maybe one small compensation for many years of political nightmare they lived through.
They learned not to trust the official hammering verbiage in the press, or propagated in schools, at work, displayed everywhere as the rulers attempted to use ideology to brainwash them, in the futile struggle to create the illusory “new man.” This did not, of course, apply to the entire nation. Naturally, slavish servants of the regime or persuaded communists existed, but most people doubted any political speech and cultivated disbelief and irony as part of their self-defense mechanism. Everybody was aware of living in a ‘make-believe’ world, fully aware of the duplicity of words. Trying to escape from the official language of manipulation, most people quickly learned that they had to think for themselves, if they didn’t want to be swallowed up by the regime, know what to believe in and what to reject. They had a common enemy – the dictatorship – and thus they had to summon up all their strength to defend the real meanings and consistence of words. They had to be aware of what they were saying but also of what they were hearing. On one hand, their words could put their lives in danger; on the other hand the official speech could corrupt their soul. How many succeeded to save themselves after living for decades in this awful duplicity, well, that’s another story…
One might not be interested in all these descriptions of old, far away and hopefully forever gone realities. Americans are always more interested in what happens at home than overseas. Perhaps because they have been raised and educated like that, or they have neither time, nor the appetite for international events (which the media doesn’t try too hard to present). They have to stay focused on the national scene. After all, a huge scene, since we are talking about a continent!
I have recalled all this, in order to emphasize a rather sensitive issue in today’s society: the existence of other forms of manipulation, different from the ones we had to face in communism, nonetheless posing lethal effects, as the people’s self-defense mechanisms seem to be quite inactive here. Having lived their lives in a free world, far from all the complicated issues discussed above, they are used to taking each word for it. They’ve let their guard down, since they don’t have official enemies.
A whole media industry of advertising, with sophisticated commercials, the entertainment world, and news, are all eager to guide, inform, and help them. They don’t even have to think too much. There are professionals, well paid to boot, ready to do it for them. They will tell them what to buy, what to eat, when to laugh at sitcoms, how to be happy, successful and immortal. All they have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. They are confident in their values, and have no reason to doubt, as long as everything pouring from the TV screens, and through all the other communication channels, is in their best interest. They don’t need to be aware of words. They just take them for granted. And yet another form of manipulation is at play here, more subtle, more pernicious, in spite of its claimed good intentions. Why resist or oppose it, if it makes things smoother and easier?
Meanwhile the number of solitarians or singles is constantly increasing, as is the number of divorces; the gap between the sexes is ever wider. Political correctness brings about not only social sanity but also duplicity; teenagers are ever more unbalanced; obesity is a national concern; the dialogue between parents and children seems so ineffective, not to mention that between a man and a woman, which is mainly a competition; more and more people feel lonely and confused, stressed out, overwhelmed or disoriented; not few are in the depths of depression, with sleeping, eating, behavioral disorders. As a result, the number of psychoanalysts, therapists, and shrinks is on the rise year after year.
Time is money, seemingly with little else being left for any other pursuit. People are rushing to keep up with the mechanism and to preserve their place within it. Many are not even aware of their alienation, avoid to look inside or ask themselves, “What’s wrong”, “Why are things the way they are?” The soul is left aside and spiritual growth is but a whim, when the main reason for living seems to be to achieve, to have, to buy, to eat, to keep children in a good school, to secure retirement funds. And, of course, in all these things everyone supposed to be successful, rich, happy, loved, secure, and accomplished.
Is this depersonalization of the individual the price we have to pay for prosperity, in this money-oriented, consumer culture? Is this confusion of values the consequence of globalization? Or maybe it’s the result of the “right” kind of manipulation? Nevertheless, we mustn’t all sing out the same song – must we? –though it may be a beautiful one!
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I had the radio on when the broadcast was interrupted by the trembling voice of a seemingly alien radio announcer: “America is under attack”. As it happens when receiving terrible news, you lose touch with reality and need to immediately check whether you are awake. The unconscious question, “What is to be done?” can stretch emotion in any direction, from panic to hysteria, from immobility to crazy running in the streets. In those days the city stuck to my soul with desperation, I felt the entire tragedy as a personal drama, a physical pain and an endless humiliation. A few years ago I survived a revolution in my country, more or less staged, but bloody, a tragic farce through which communism finally collapsed. It was like a trick of destiny to be here in the most powerful fortress of freedom and see its towers collapse. But the ironies were not to stop there….That morning is when the 21st century really started, a time of radicalization of religious conflicts, of uncertainty and desperate actions, the revolt of nature feeling its resources drained away.
It is strange how a tragedy can change people for the best; purify the spirit of a place that made its sacrifice. In those days people discovered their ability to communicate profoundly and authentically. They found their meaning and were strong just because they accepted their vulnerability. Everything was intense and unaltered by dissimulations, superficiality, and bravado. The words, gestures, silences had weight. Time had stopped from its conventional spiral, making room for metaphysics of time that haunted everyone. In the void created by a calamity, things resume their dimension uncensored by either imagination or the rigidity imposed by the level of civilization. There are moments of grace, when we find the strength to return inside ourselves, genuine, as if we were at the beginning of the world again, where the salvation of paradise or plummeting into inferno again depends only on us.
However, spiritual purification through catastrophe is the tragic side of a catharsis against nature, unable to sustain fundamental or long-lasting changes. Return to normalcy becomes the ultimate goal, not in redefining the essential meanings but rather in picking up the race where you left it. Communication retrieves its conjectural structure; the strong ones become more authoritarian, the weak folk more frail. History shows that times following disasters are fertile for the blossoming of dictatorships, form of control and domination structures.
The official discourse becomes pathetic, calling on patriotic sentiment by stimulating responsibility and nationalism, maintaining an alarm and fear status-quo, allying itself with the church and elevating the role of religion in support of the political measure. The manipulative power plays duplicity in front of the people, trying to solve or to reach hidden goals. Everything smooth, tacit, apparently unobtrusive, dissimulated by benevolent intentions, nevertheless with clear shots on precise targets.
The 21st century looks from its early start galloping through a succession of radical events, from natural disasters to grounds of tension difficult to annihilate. Analysts are wringing their hands, artists are sharpening pencils, and cynics laugh under their breath: Interesting times are coming.
Translated by Alexandra Carides
Inside and Beyond 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 superimpose 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 in a boiling cauldron. The word would then become tangible, heavy, like a clay rock thrown in the ocean. I would then await its dissolution, would watch for its disappearance while continuing to repeat 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 the Communist Eastern European universe we lived in, was not open to dreams. We lived under one of the toughest 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. And one way was to get together in groups selected on the basis of affinities and commonly shared interests – like art, literature, philosophy, or simply friendship.
Of all the restrictions imposed by the system, the worst was that against freedom of speech. We all knew that if we ever 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 life 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 under control every form of communication.
The words allowed by the dictatorship would take up only two dictionary pages: empty and precious slogans, political jingles, and the like. Artists would hide in metaphors; regular folks would whisper and swear. Some would make peace with the system and become megaphones of the 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 there to stay, at least for the duration of our lifetime, so in addition to the official language, based on fear, caution, and imposed slogans, a parallel language had to be developed – springing from one’s inner sense of freedom, truth, and fairness.
Each artist or writer invented his own method to bypass the political censorship. In my first books of poetry, for instance, published in communist Romania, I chose to be “a man.” I was 19 years old when I published my first book, using a male voice. Perhaps I was protecting myself, instinctively, since it was an autobiographical book. In addition, we lived in a misogynic society where women enjoyed little prestige or recognition. Dictator Elena Ceausescu, “the mother of the nation,” hated all women except a few ugly and stupid propagandists. She didn’t approve of visibility for women, and didn’t conceive that a woman could be successful: she was the only exception, of course. It sounds anecdotic, if not surrealistic, but an author wasn’t allowed to publish on the back-cover of his book a picture larger than a standard size set by the censorship: it had to always be smaller than the pictures of the two dictators Ceausescu ever published!
In a world ruled by men, with the official acceptance of women emancipation far away, the only chance was to play alike. Or to pretend. Although it all began as a game, later on I discovered yet another motivation to my writing from a male perspective.
There are numerous women writers in the Romanian literature, all with strong, original voices, who have shown great courage during the communist era. They transformed the lamentation into a sad smile and the ironic laughter into a melancholic expression. They shared the fate of their land, writing about tragedy and loss.
What could be easier than talk, what is more natural than rolling words in your mouth? Nevertheless, we had become aware that what was normal for those beyond the Iron Curtain, was a stance of deliberate resistance for us. We were stealing the words and carefully protecting their mystery. We couldn’t afford to pauperize them; neither could we let them emerge randomly. We lived inside words with the obsession to leave an authentic and true statement after us.
Paradoxically, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the live animal was released from the cage that imprisoned it for decades, words woke up confused. They sprang up unchained but unclear, sniffing the new reality, setting in step with it and making unnatural leaps over abysses and lost history. The faucet was fully open, the fences torn down, the barbed wire was broken. Only the newly found freedom was difficult, and too few knew how to live it. It was there to stay, with all the fears and uncertainty, with the wild roaming of the language escaped from the official censorship. Some started to swim although afraid of water, some learned to fly although afraid of heights, others started to imitate the western world we had so much longed for, swallowing its rules automatically, without chewing, wishing only to catch up. The language, kept for so long the dowry chest and suddenly freed, lost its core and often its beauty as well. The so called ‘transition slang,’ abounded in distorted words. Communication became pragmatic and efficient for some, trivial for others. Now there was need for a different resistance, on an aesthetic level, in order to avoid falling into another noisy and vulgar inferno of emptiness, this time the emptiness of the “open market”.
Being a writer, now just like then, was most challenging; the perfect stage where working with words and preserving their meaning was no longer a vocational joy but a burden and a duty.
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 going back. The city possessed me at first sight and although crushed under its energy, I was following its lead as in a trance. I decided o stay here for the rest of my life. After a while I calmed down and started to look closer. I opened my eyes wider, as if awakening in a strange place 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 identity crises, nor nostalgias. 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 thirty 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 bottles, night-long discussions and hung-over mornings. Time was frozen for us. We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. Neither did we have where 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. Using concentrated formulas of conventional language do not stem here from emptiness, but rather from fear of lingering too long in a sentence which is not likely to bring anything new when weigh against Have a nice day! Time is money. The Soul? It is lying lonely somewhere on a shrink’s chair, in front of a computer screen or in a cell phone.
Over here, people seem to live beyond words, a more effective way of communication, although somehow less spectacular than ours, back in Romania. Communication excels in being direct, concise, focused, and simple. Shortly, I understood that there is no need and no time for metaphors or for complicated and useless phrases. Our endless chat and conversation in Eastern Europe as part of the extrovert temperament or Mediterranean mentality could be pointless from the American fast-culture point of view.
Let’s take a word that is overused in America: love. Everybody seems loving, from dawn to dusk, and nobody is shy to show his love. Before hanging up the phone, after speaking with a close-one, automatically comes “love you”, 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 up on the vowel o, the word disappears, its power is lost. Love repeated carelessly and continuously all over the place becomes worthless.
I can remember how difficult it was to say love words in my adolescence, the way we weighed their intensity, graded their emotion using an entire linguistic allusive arsenal. We were convinced that our inhibition was due to education and that 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 will hit a wall? Of all the humiliations, to be ridiculed is the most shameful. We lived in a closed society, where discussing sex was taboo, contraception was interdicted and love was confused by the communist ideologues with either the party, or reproduction. I feel like all this happened 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 having 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 abused words category 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 heavy-set 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 a while 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, having fun and enjoyment, palliative obsessions to convince you that life is worth living. The vocabulary associated with this ambition is marked by superlatives and exaggerations to support the enthusiasm. People are looking for fun no matter what. In today’s entertainment (from cartoons all the way to stand-up comedy) there is a certain dose of hysteria fueled by the desperate need of marketing in an environment more and more anxiously searching for cultural milestones, or, rather, deprived by the lack thereof. The artistic metaphor is a technical transcription of a linear spiritual universe, leveled by the commercial grid, in which the triumphal fallacy is mixed with rough kitsch; they both fulfill the need of the majority to relate to grandiose, with the illusion that happiness is generated by grandeur and power, and translates into comfortably being attended to, and satisfying the consumption need.
In spite of the claimed happiness, there also is a lot of grief and poverty in America. Sometimes paucity and sadness rise to the surface like tragic alarm signals, as during hurricane Katrina. Devastating images were brought to light by the muddy waters that swallowed New Orleans. Another America, not the picture-perfect one, but the one hidden in silence, shoved under the rug, projecting an uncomfortable image in flagrant contradiction with the values of the American dream -- a dream more and more pragmatic otherwise, with no poetry or idealism, but directed to be more and more profitable.
Any language has routine expressions, sayings often used, that characterize the mentality of 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, serving the need for grandiose: everything is oversized and aims at eternity. If asked how things are going, here people mindlessly answer: great. At 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, like: 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 conjectural relationships asking naïve and sincere questions, beyond 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 rolling 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 could have even developed a paranoid vanity driven by the feeling that everybody wanted to find out how I was doing, caring about me. But before I could answer back, my interlocutor was gone, time is money, displaying the same open smile, making me thinking that everybody in New York has white teeth and great optimism.
In my native country I had enough of the eternal lamentation of people on every topic. They would complain any time they had a chance. 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, and the answer, beyond its formalism, implicitly means he is not sharing his problems or uneasiness with you. Truth be told, this sparse formal language could also bring alienation, seclusion and superficial relationships. On the other hand, paradoxically, the abusive use of strong words (love, happiness, God, etc.) are pretexts to avoid living their meaning profoundly.
As I started to understand the essence of the new world, I felt like placing into quarantine the tired words, those repeated until they became senseless, when the cliché replaces uniqueness. Left to its own devices, living to its full intensity and depth, the Word would overturn the order and derail society. No surprise then, that the official speech, is primarily meant to sublimely erase from the collective subconscious any metaphysics and philosophies. How can you possibly breathe in a word, fill up on its significance, when this world’s performance is the orderly (and non-dissimulated) line-up in front of the mass media, the skillful politician, the well-chosen commercials, or the out-spoken pastor. They all know better and tell you exactly what you should feel and how you should think when speaking each word.
To what extent do words represent us? Are they our ally, in critical moments? Can we take refuge in language, finding ways to defend ourselves through communication? And then, what is the power of words in today’s cyberspace, in the highly computerized world of high-tech and globalization, where increasingly it is the image that counts, where the synthetic suggestion is gaining ground over the far more complex workings of language itself?
Standardization, clichés, globalization, depersonalization are but signs of language’s estrangement. 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 or 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 out limitations, and to set us free from our fears.
The cultural salvation inside words is a personal experience, no matter what political system we live in.
Translated by Alexandra Carides