Interior Note:
Words in Common
8 August 2018

Words have very little in common with what goes on inside of you.
— Mother of a terrorist victim, quoted in Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, an oral history compiled by Svetlana Alexievich. (Bela Shayevich, trans.) (p 362)

Is this true? I think it is. The remark seems to be made a propos of nothing, like much in Alexievich’s interviews, merely a flash of the never disstant despair that menaces most of the people who speak in this very sad book.

To say that words have little to do with what goes on inside of us seems itself a judgment of despair.

Many of us grow up believing that there is something inside us that demands expression. Words are the most convenient medium, but they usually fail us. We believe that if we knew how better to choose words, or if we knew better words, or if there were better words, then we could really say what we mean. But we don’t really know what we mean. Paradoxically, it is speech that deludes us into assuming that our interior experience might be fully intelligible. We expect words that we have learned from others to articulate our strongly-felt uniqueness. Yet it is given to very few of us to express something that has never been expressed before. 

Words have little in common with our interior experience because we use them in common in our social lives. 

Yet we keep speaking — so long as we also believe that expression is not useless. What we say may never be adequate, but that we say something indicates that speaking itself is meaningful. Until, as happens to depressed people and to victims of trauma — it isn’t, and we fall silent.   

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