I was sitting on a friend’s terrace the other night surrounded by olive trees in big terracotta pots, stars flicking on one by one in the darkening sky and the (many) children watching Home Alone II projected on to a whole wall inside.
My friend, who has a pale pink and green straw hat designed to look like a cabbage, though she was not wearing it, said:
‘I only find men attractive if they use language beautifully.’
I picked at my melon rind and stared at the distant lights of my village across the mountains.
‘Is that really weird?’ she wondered.
I didn’t think it was. Interesting though. I thought back to all my articulate and less articulate objects of desire and wondered if their eloquence was proportional to my attraction to them. It wasn’t.
‘It’s all bullshit though, isn’t it? The ones who talk well are the ones whose words are actually completely meaningless,’ I thought aloud, naming names.
I thought about witty men, public speakers, anecdote tellers, lecture givers, actors (for God’s sake) and writers. Nope. All bullshit – a dance around reality that might be fun or interesting, but is ultimately terribly (and sometimes shockingly) hollow.
It seems to me that empty people fill the space with words (I should know – I may be one of them).
My friend started looking a bit nervous.
I wondered what psychoanalysis would have to say on this. Basically, the wordless communication between mother and baby, which is supposed to be the origin of thinking, and then of expressing thought, is the crucial area of emotional truth, of self-awareness and awareness of others.
In fact, what psychoanalysis aims to uncover is ‘the unthought known,’ the things we know to be true, feelings we know to be authentic, but which haven’t yet been formed into thoughts, let alone language.
Derrida (and others) wrote that language distances us from our feelings and from the truth, though this might be cathartic sometimes, obviously.
So (back to men), the more they talk the further away they are trying to get from whatever unwanted feelings and madness lurk in their unconscious and the less, perhaps, their mothers communicated wordlessly and meaningfully with them. It is that emptiness we try to fill with language.
For Derrida it is the difference, that gap between thought and expression that hides the truth. Adam Philips says that it is the continuity of our life in the present that we use to conceal the past.
That’s why your analyst will listen to you talking about your day, and try to break through the defences to what you are unconsciously trying to conceal. People who are brilliant with language are desperately trying to hide.
My friend was coming round to my point of view. Our bottle of Prosecco was empty and the air was finally cooling down, the blanket of heat lifting.
She said she’d been in a play with someone once and they’d had to look silently at each other from opposite sides of the stage for the first ten minutes every night (gripping play it sounds like). This, she said, was the truest and most intense part of a relationship that went on for years.
My husband is not very garrulous as a rule. He has been accused of being taciturn. Sometimes he doesn’t speak for months. Well, days.
When I first met him I loved that. I loved that his public self was just that – a mask he wears when he has to pop out. I loved that only I really ever saw his real self – the sweet, gentle, chatty, funny man that talked to me in bed late at night. I felt as though his words were private and for me.
Perhaps the less people speak the more intimate it feels when they do?
‘So, if we’re distancing ourselves from each other and ourselves with language, what about private languages, sweet names, baby talk?’ we wondered, as the kids howled with laughter from inside and the bats started flitting around us.
Could babytalk be an attempt to create an authentic, non-distancing language that resulted in meaningful communication? Or, is it a desperate attempt to deny some horrible truth that ordinary language is too close to?
Couples speaking in baby talk always look doomed to separation. My son’s baby voice is an effort to deny that his sister is, in fact, the baby (though you wouldn’t know it by her glittery eyeshadow and Lady Gaga ringtone).
So, the richer the linguistic attempt at intimacy the poorer the genuine intimacy? Yes, I think so.
‘Personally,’ I said, moving on to the Pinot Grigio and licking my son’s melty ice-cream spoon. ‘I find people who speak a lot of languages attractive. Mainly people whose Russian is better than mine. Even if they are actually Russian. It still counts.’
But, in some ways, this is the opposite of eloquence. Speaking languages means you can communicate, that you want to communicate, with all kinds of different people. Not to impress them, but to hear what they say and understand them.
And yet…I find it easier to be emotionally honest in Russian. So it is definitely a kind of mask that allows me to be honest – the words have less cultural back up, less nuance, they just mean what they mean, rather than defining me by class, education, status, as my English does. Multiple languages might just mean more disguises?
‘When people speak loads of languages though,’ I decided. ‘I want them to speak to me in their first language. I am suspicious of people who don’t know which language is their first. Then everything seems like a lie. There is no way for them to be honest except in silence.’ Though then that silent honesty is particularly spectacular.
There is that wonderful song in My Fair Lady when Eliza is saying how sick of her lover’s words she is. ‘Don’t talk of love, show me.’ I think it’s true that once you have to start saying it, then it’s all over.
So, my friend and I sat in silence for a bit and some clouds blew in from out by the sea. Perhaps it will rain tomorrow. I hope so, though I didn’t like to say…