A Splinter of Ice

A vignette drawn from real life, as remembered by David Wemyss (April 2012)

Room C28, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
17 November 2002

The ten thousand trivial accidents of the day in a secular life which exert a troublous influence upon the soul, dimming its fair surface with many a spot of dust and damp, these give place to a divine stillness which, to those who can bear it, is the nearest approach to heaven. A sharp word, or a light remark, or a tone, or an expression of countenance, or a report, or an unwelcome face, or an association, ruffles the mind and keeps it from fixing itself upon its true good – John Henry Newman, The Reformation of The Eleventh Century

A stair that has not been deeply hollowed by footsteps is, from its own point of view, merely something that has been bleakly put together out of wood – Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

“I think you’re going a bit too far now, Mr Salisbury. Modernist literature wrestles with the intuition that our words won’t do our bidding, but this should not serve as a manifesto for the aggrandisement of habitual untruths, untruths in even the most humdrum pieces of everyday conversation.  If I understand you correctly, you’re happy to let language run free, like a small child making up extravagant stories about what happened at school because the stories are larger than life, and more entertaining than the truth. That is not the same as someone attempting to relate the truth and encountering rhetorical slippage. When a craving for the larger-than-life takes over the agency of a fully-grown adult, is it not to be feared that a fantasist is among us?”

Helena was first in.

“Dr Critchley, I don’t think that’s fair. After all, this tutorial group exists because you advertised for students who could attribute sense to the expression wordsickness. We’ve discussed some pretty personal stuff. Richard came out with something I’m sure he felt a lot of difficulty in saying, but I thought there weren’t going to be any no-go areas. Yet you seem to be morally offended all of a sudden. And anyway, he was talking about situations where the atmosphere of speech – not its content – draws someone into lies.”

“Am I to take it then, Miss Samuels, that this sub-division of the fantasist’s art is being advanced to defend the aggrandisement of habitual untruths in everyday conversation?”

“I suppose it is, yes. But only up to a point. My little sister married a green ideologue  and my older sister hid her true feelings for a long time until eventually she just couldn’t bear to hear any more po-faced justifications for scarring landscapes and seascapes with wind turbines. She always said she didn’t mind the wind farms; it was the windy sanctimony that wore her down. But I think she did mind them really. Saying she didn’t opened up better ways of pretending – and pretending was easier than trying to describe sanctimony to the sanctimonious.”

“Well – maybe. But aren’t you and Mr Salisbury a bit too fond of invoking the mess and muddle of having to put up with the hell of other people? When you are most yourselves, you share with J. Alfred Prufrock the dream of a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas, safe from the opaque mediation of language. Otherwise, your conversations just get stuck all the time, don’t they, until you can get back to the private world of conversational felicity each of you brings to the other?”

“That’s probably true, yes.”

“It’s a bit defeatist, isn’t it? The difficulty of saying what we mean may just be part of being human. Or that’s a theme I’d like us to consider, at least. Isn’t it narcissism to resent the failures that actually make us what we are? When fin-de-siecle Vienna was turning into what he called a testing-station for the end of the world, Karl Kraus satirized the abject state of public language, a morass of evasion and euphemism. But when he got the straight talking he had been looking for – a few years later the Nazis were nothing if not prepared to say exactly what they meant – he realized that spin and straight talking were two sides of the same coin. George Orwell reached a similar conclusion, albeit at the end of a very different journey. There’s no virtue in weasel words that can mean anything, but brutality can find the confidence to say just what it means and dare anyone to oppose it. Political correctness in our own time can be a form of brutality, yet its wider context in our workplaces and universities is that of jargon that can mean anything. It’s a confusing world, but it’s not as new as we think it is.”

“I think that’s a good point – but I’d draw the opposite conclusion. Brutality may find the confidence to say exactly what it means but geniality is impeded by much less than brutality. My little sister was impeded by conversational miasma – bad air. But a lot of people are oblivious to it. Is it stuffy in here? – I hadn’t noticed. So what can you do? Wittgenstein once rebuked Bertrand Russell for talking about setting up some sort of peace organisation, and Russell asked him if he’d rather he set up an organisation to promote war and slavery. The reply? Yes, rather that, rather that! You see the point – Russell’s affectation obviously couldn’t be stated – as if it were a philosophical propositionand Wittgenstein clearly thought he would have been guilty of the same affectation had he tried.”

She was brilliant when she was like this. And she wasn’t finished.

“But you can’t clean out your thinking by storming the barricades of your conversations. That just topples over into a wilful desire to be the author of elegant remarks – and the author of their reception. It’s like fishing for compliments, but on a horrifying scale. Yet it’s there all the time. It’s the dark side.”

I chipped in.

“But I don’t think we hide away in a private world of conversational felicity. In fact we’re drawn to conversation. But you can be with the wrong people most of the time – or in the wrong age, the wrong point in history. I think – sorry Helena, I know you say it’s a dead end wondering if we’re just alive at the wrong time – but I think your conversations are simply bad for you. Their anticipated reception has far too much impact on how they turn out.”

She flushed.

“Well the last bit is true enough. Not the rest of it. Worrying about the reception of my words suggests intellectual vanity – which it must be to some extent, I suppose – but, the thing is, I can get stuck on a sentence in a newspaper just as easily – all on my own, with no one else there to show off to. I just sit there turning the words over in my mind, over and over again. How do they mean what they mean? People used to say I took an awful long time in the toilet when we went to the pub. I was turning over things I’d said. How did they mean what they had meant? How did they do it? And a lot of the time I knew I’d been perfectly articulate, and that no one would have been thinking my speech-acts had been clumsy. So it wasn’t just a narcissistic desire to protect a carefully shored-up self-image. But then again sometimes I clearly wasn’t happy with my performance. It’s not an either/or. Narcissism can feed on anything – including something infinitely deeper than itself. A play on words, a pun, a grammatical twist – anything like that made me dizzy. Literally. Vertiginous. I felt I was looking out over the edge. Not just puns, though – that’s misleading – ordinary everyday remarks could do it. You don’t usually get the chance to tidy up a speech-act the way you can tidy up a piece of writing, and, if you try, you sink into a ghostly repetitiousness – or manipulativeness. Although the words are phantoms you have to knead them like dough. It feels like hammering thin air. Sin begets sin. Of course I can never finish with a piece of writing either. But speech troubles me more. Saying things and hearing things. Twilit stasis falls several times a day. It always has done, since I was little. Kafka remembers how – as a child – he was lying in his room on a hot summer afternoon. His mother and their next-door neighbour were speaking across the garden fence. ‘What are you doing, my dear? It’s so hot.’ ‘I’m having tea on the lawn’. And he wonders how people can say such things with apparent ease and composure.”

I knew how much Kafka meant to her, although I had my doubts about his absolute sense of words as malady.  For Helena, though, that was the attraction.

“In 1910 we find him writing that his whole body puts him on his guard against each word, that each word has to look round on every side, and that phrases fall apart in his hands. I see what they’re like inside, and then I have to stop quickly. I love that, although, for me, it’s more that I can’t find anything inside. He’s fonder of suggesting that what’s inside is something foul. A foul emptiness? We shouldn’t get bogged down. This is literature, not philosophy. One way or another, he was flailing about looking for ways to describe the undescribable. How does someone get to be like that? If it’s not pathological – or if pathologies are just the dust the symptoms turn into when you try to handle them, or bring them to the surface – is it that a few of us are actually getting a look at a terrible void behind language – something no one should see? Do you remember Ray Milland in that old sci-fi movie “The Man With The X-Ray Eyes”, who started out having fun seeing through things but ended up seeing too much, and too far? And then, when I started reading Kafka and Wittgenstein, I felt I was a rat in their laboratory, pinned open for dissection by the only other people who knew what it was like.”

“It’s 11.15. I think this is starting to get very interesting but we’re going to have to finish. You all have other classes. I’m sorry. I think we’re doing something important here. As for Kafka and Wittgenstein, I don’t want to come to them too soon – although they’re going to be part of any dénouement, aren’t they? If there is a dénouement. But, for Wednesday, could we stick to ‘Dante and the Lobster’ – and whether we can still talk about “a compassionate society” in the light of that story? Remember – although Beckett knew that our sympathy for the demise of the lobster could never match its experience in the pot, he still fought in the French Resistance.”

Carole spoke for the first time that morning.

“What does one have to do with the other? Beckett – like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein and Eliot and Conrad and Kafka – all our main men – sensed a void beneath language. Or so we say in tutorials like this. But we don’t actually know what all their language-bothering amounts to. They were totally different people – as are all the academics who write secondary literature about them. So Beckett fought in the French Resistance notwithstanding that our sympathy for the lobster could never match its experience in the pot. Good! Quite right too. But why imagine that our sympathy for the lobster should match its experience, or that the shortfall might bring into question whether anything mattered any more? You said it was his best story but I thought it was a stupid story. The only thing it told me was that Beckett was a clever writer who never wrote a readable book.”  

Critchley twitched.

“Ah, now, I’m disappointed in you, Miss Wilding. That view is not intellectually serious. And remember Miss Samuels’ story about Kafka. I’m just having tea on the lawn. Doesn’t that tell us something about him that we can rely on – if it makes any kind of sense to us in the first place?

Carole thought that it did, but she still had doubts about other people – not Kafka, she conceded, but some of the other usual suspects. So she made a suggestion.

“ – how about asking us to do 750 words each on modernism as a symptom pretending to be a cure? You said Waugh, Larkin and Amis let the wound of negativity close, and how sad it was that Larkin ended up adoring Mrs Thatcher, but modernism pins the wound open under anaesthetic, and it ends up no more than a methodological device for routine humanism.”

“Wait a minute, though, Carole – isn’t it secondary literature that does that? – “

This was important to me.

“ – in fact, doesn’t the best of modernism keep the wound open convincingly enough? What is this wound anyway? Wittgenstein droned on about how we’re held captive by the compulsive feeling that words must stand for something – something with a defining essence. So let’s not fall into that trap. I’m just going to describe how this analogy of a wound pleases me.”

“Why should we care, though?”

“If you don’t care, then our conversation just isn’t working well. It’s getting clunky. Miasma again. A bad air hangs above speech. And there are so many different ways the air can change. But, as it happens, I remember that you, Carole – you in particular – liked what I said last time about embracing the reality of human dislike – as well as the reality of affinity and affection. You said that some people just set your teeth on edge, and that the reasons weren’t always apparent. The content of what they said sometimes provided an easy answer, but that was boring. There were far more interesting cases where it didn’t.”

“I do agree, yes. Philosophy and theology don’t face up to the question of style. Theologians talk about the intractability of sin – but then they go all po-faced if you say ‘Oh her, I can’t stand her’. Experiential noir always loses its nerve. Good company isn’t just about wit and raconteurs and good taste. Good company cultivates patience, and accommodates experiential noir. And a whole lot of other surprises.”

Helena moved it on.

“Isn’t it that good company doesn’t know where it’s going? At the opposite extreme, what’s the worst conversation you can think of? A picky argument. And what characterizes a picky argument most of all? You set out to say things you already know you don’t want to say. You set out to say them because they represent your side of the dispute, but none of it should really have to be said at all – or so you believe – and that’s why you experience it as sterile reportage, full of dead words and overcast feelings.” 

Vikki liked that.

“Yes, and you’ll probably say you pursued some little foible for some reason, and then think you never actually had that thought at all. But the thought remains a plausible explanation for what you did. This is Wittgenstein again, isn’t it? We can imagine plausible causal explanations for our actions – after all, they have predictive and explanatory power – but we can be left numb by these explanations if we don’t manipulate them gently and skeptically – which of course is just what you don’t do in a picky argument. Or in a whole lot of other conversational situations. Never mind picky arguments. What about most of what you have to say at work – in an office?”

Then Helena came back in with some remarks I’d heard before, and I hoped the sense of repetition wouldn’t get her stuck. She seemed to be doing OK, though.

“I think we keep drifting off course here. Me included. It’s in the nature of the problem. We keep getting drawn towards the sense that everything must have been better in some golden age, or that it could be better in a Glass Bead Game-type seclusion. Another analogy would be not losing altitude. And, to begin with, I feel as if I’d go along with that. Most of the time my sentences are too low – they’re clipping the tops of the trees. And Wittgenstein would think that that was a good analogy – that we needed to get back up to cruising height. But I’m not so sure. I’m not sure about his notions of seamlessness, or all that stuff about not hearing the machinery. It all converges on the idea of immediacy in speech. That’s how felicity is understood. But it seems to me that immediacy in speech no more redeems the insufficiency of conversation than a lovely day in the country means we’re going to live forever. The experience of language should remind us time and again – and in so many different ways – that genuine peace is what you take straight to the grave. And the silence of the grave isn’t amenable to any kind of Promethean theft.”

After an admiring pause, Vikki pushed even further away from the shore. “So in the end,” she said, “it comes down to a kind of linguistic skepticism – an overwhelming doubt that you mean anything you say. Of course the point is really mean – not just mean. If the kettle has boiled, and you ask me if it has, and I say yes, then I mean what I say, and it would be odd to ask if I really meant it – unless a prank with a kettle was being played, or something like that. And a lie still “means itself” – even if it doesn’t correspond to some higher referent that would make it true – but it would be odd to ask if someone really meant their lies, unless we thought they were being coerced into telling them. So linguistic scepticism is trying to say something about the really – not about the meaning.”

“Go on.”

“Now it’s not clear to me that a referent for something like “what I really think” could even exist – in the sense of a discrete entity in my mind – but, if it did, the referent would now have a lower status than the bid to refer. Even if it turns out that you mean what you say, do you really mean what you mean? And so on. There’s a problem of infinite regress. It doesn’t commit me to behaviourism, but it does commit me to something in that vicinity. All bets are off. I might still be a reasonably pleasant person, but I might not. I have no privileged way of knowing.”

I nodded. Vikki and Carole were good, but they needed a bit of time to warm up sometimes. I decided to encourage them by coming in with some experiential noir of my own. Now there was a phrase I’d be using for the rest of my life!

“I agree entirely. I can know I’ve sacrificed a personal pleasure – a special concert – to allow me to make someone else happier, and I can think that I wouldn’t have bothered if I could have concealed my selfishness from that person, or from someone whose good opinion of me I wished to cultivate. Of course it might be that I’m being hard on myself. Or, then again, maybe not. I can’t know because there’s nothing to know – or nothing to know in that sense. There’s a flux of intelligible ideas, including my previous behaviour and so on, and then there’s what I did. I could be affecting concern all evening and thinking about the concert – and then, out of the blue, feel tears welling up that this is my mother, dying. We don’t know what’s going on, and we should stop pretending we do.”

Vikki picked up the baton again.

“If what we said was connected securely to what we meant, we’d then have to satisfy ourselves that what we meant was in line with what we really meant, and so on. So, in a very important sense, we don’t say what we mean, or mean what we say. That isn’t to advocate not caring about Third World famine or the homeless or the poor, or feeling ambivalent about your friends, or your mother or father. But maybe I don’t care about people less fortunate than me. Maybe I’m deeply ambivalent about people I say I like and love. Or maybe not. For all I know, my feelings about these things wax and wane in accordance with a wide range of moods, and differ from day to day. And so on. The point is that the play of words is unlikely to help – in fact it fools us into cliché and sanctimony – unless conversations achieve that poise and balance I was going on about earlier. And they don’t. Or it’s pretty well a miracle if they do. What was it you said earlier, Dr Critchley? We shouldn’t resent the weakness that makes us what we are – or something like that? But, for you, the weakness was in the difficulty of saying what we mean – of owning up to our words – whereas, for the rest of us, it’s in the impossibility of it. Even if we try to stay on rougher ground to have as much traction for our words as possible, we never mean what we say in the sense that counts, and so, although immediacy in speech definitely feels better experientially, it brings about its own bewitchments in the end.”

“Most stimulating, Miss Cartmel. And I enjoyed listening to Miss Wilding too. We know Miss Samuels is a bit of a virtuoso – and she has spoken honestly about the dark side of that – while Mr Salisbury is often our strongest contributor. But the two of you are equal to them. You have to stop hiding your light under a bushel. My only concern with what you have said is that this idea of linguistic scepticism sounds a bit pseudo-scientific and over-theoretical. You also seem to be getting an awful lot of it from Wittgenstein, and, as Miss Samuels has said, I’m not sure he fits all the way along the line. But no matter. I felt I was hearing something about the truth about things. It was deeply moving.”

“Thank you, Dr Critchley.”

“Of course I could say that each of you is a defeated idealist who has decided to blame optimism for its frailty instead of blaming pessimism for its strength. But I won’t say that. Perhaps each of you is simply getting ready to do what Zarathustra enjoins the prospective Ubermënsch to do.”

“Ah! Nietzsche. Now he hasn’t cropped up all that much.”

“Well, maybe I’ve been keeping him back. In a bleak moonlit forest, Zarathustra sees a young shepherd lying on the ground, writhing and gagging in spasms. Out of his mouth hangs a heavy black snake. While the shepherd has been sleeping, the snake has crawled into his throat and bitten itself into the tissues of his neck. It cannot be pulled away; it has bitten itself in too deeply. The only possibility is to bite its head off. The shepherd braces himself – and does it. He spews the head out and jumps up, ‘no longer a shepherd, no longer human – one changed, radiant, laughing!’ And so – “

“ – that’s marvellous. I’ve never tackled Nietzsche. What an admission! But there you go.”

“He got sanitised,” said Carole. “Like a lot of the people we discuss.”

“Quite. Anyway, later on we hear that the shepherd was Zarathustra himself, and that it had been his great disgust with men that had crawled into his throat and choked him. And, in biting off the head, he internalised the disgust – or at least he did so to a much greater extent than would have been the case had he merely torn it out. And, in any case, tearing it out would have suggested comparable strength, and wilful resistance. No. He almost swallowed it. In fact I’ve always wondered why Nietzsche didn’t just have him swallow it. Maybe he thought that that would have been too pat. Do you fancy biting off a snake’s head and then just getting on with life as if it had never happened? Maybe it’s enough to know that some tissue and fluid from this fearsome black thing would have been swallowed. Isn’t that enough? So, if you replace nihilistic disgust with wordsickness – and they’re definitely not the same thing – we’re in business!”

“Have you seen the time?”

“Oh I know. But this has been good, though. This has been worth it. What do you really think Dr. Critchley? If we can wager on transcendence for the really! The common law verdict has to be that we’re up our own arses, and that we wouldn’t worry about any of this if there was a war on, or if we were in prison, or hungry and cold, but that’s facile, isn’t it?”

“It’s facile if you’re a Kafka, wondering how someone can say I’m having tea on the lawn as if there was nothing to it! It doesn’t have to be facile. But the thorny question I was going to raise was whether you were all heading for political conservatism – like Waugh or Larkin.”

“Do you think we are?”  

“I think it’s likely but not inevitable. There’s a clear susceptibility. And that’s OK. But my take on it would be that conservative ideas are a handy bucket for bailing out sentimentality and sanctimony, but that it’s the boat that matters in the end, not the bucket. And that all of you know that. So don’t end up adoring Mrs Thatcher just because hating her is a cliché. It is a cliché. A truly dismal one. But you can probably trust Kafka more than Larkin, so don’t choose Larkin just because Kafka became his admirers. There are a lot of clichés out there. You can try to avoid them all, but you won’t succeed. And that’s all right. It’s all right to say dull things, things that feel stolid or repetitious. We all do. Graham Greene said it was his obligation as a writer not to say that a brook babbled, and no doubt it was. But putting bad clichés out of business is one thing – taking to heart every laboured remark is quite another. And that ghostly manipulativeness we were talking about. Yes. It’s real. For people like us. You have to live with it. And move on. That’s part of what Helena – first names now perhaps? – was saying earlier. Words are a malady, and – memorable phrase, Helena – felicitous speech no more redeems the insufficiency of conversation than a lovely day in the country means we’re going to live forever. You have to admit defeat. But admitting defeat may be the only step on the road to recovery. And it has to be accomplished individually. Anyone for whom this means anything will be confronting idiolectical peculiarites from which no common principle can be drawn. Helena is not Kafka. Nor was he Wittgenstein. I am not Kierkegaard. Carole was right about all these people being different. And also, if our sentences are clipping the tops of the trees, then we’re on a plane that’s going down, and the only thing we should be thinking about is getting it back up again – not back up to cruising height but just up again. Eventually, for some of us, an unexamined life may be the only kind of life possible. And that idea can definitely pull you to the right. But then you’d be getting drawn into another cliché. All of these thoughts are attractive parcels, and, when the music stops, you’ll be holding one of them. But you know right now that you don’t know which one it’ll be. So try to relax more. It’s almost mid-day. You should all be somewhere else.”

David Wemyss graduated in law from the University of Aberdeen in 1977 and worked in local government in that city until he retired in 2011. He continues to live there with his wife and son. Having been particularly taken with “The Mystery of the Capriccio Papers” in the New English Review of February 2012, and having discussed with its author Lucy Beckett how her piece referred back to a mysterious tutorial group that might – or might not – have really existed at an unknown British university ten years earlier, he tries here to imagine what such a tutorial could have been like, drawing on Miss Beckett’s work with her enthusiastic agreement.

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