and if, then

a phantasmagoria’s revenge


‘To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against life with a phantasmagoria of “another”, a “better” life.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “Reason in Philosophy”

The Courage of Words


I see.

I speak.


“And your point is?”


To stay silent—no.

I do not think that I

could stand the pain.

Speech is an act of violence. Speech is an act of revenge.

Words sub-create worlds. An act of speech in an act of conjuring, drawing for a moment a vision of the world as it appears to eye, to heart, to reason, to hope. To despair, perhaps. The world may have no real correlation with our vision of it. Or we may be unmasking a real world often unnoticed. Or we may be parodying one or the other or both. Either way, that sub-created world exists in a very real way in our words.

A grammarless world—a world without words—is an isolated world. It must only be itself. Without the power to communicate vision, there is no power to dream. The world as it is, is. Whatever that is. It cannot be other. Our perception of the world would remain, despite our inability to express it.

As if,

if we fulfilled his wish to live without grammar we’d be free from the agony we suffer knowing that we suffer.

As if,

if we lived life as if it were death we would suffer any less if we couldn’t express our suffering to one another.

There is, McDuffee explains (and these lines remain unaltered in the revision), a distinct, acute suffering in the knowledge of suffering. In other words, ‘knowing that we suffer’ is a form of suffering in itself. It is not simply physical pain, nor simply emotional trauma, but the awareness, stark and simple, that ‘I am suffering. I am in pain.’ It dominates, cows, terrifies.

This suffering awareness exists independent of grammar. Infants and the mentally challenged know—even if they do not ‘understand’, as we know the term—when they are suffering. Animals know when they’re mistreated or threatened or in pain. Even plants bleed. It is an awareness deep-seated in the fabric of the universe, filling the hollows and echoing through the chasms, that the world is somewhere not right.

Other, better thinkers than I have explored this dislocation. I will not attempt to build on their work here.* Their main concern in dealing with it is to discover why we feel. My concern is what to do about it once it’s felt.

McDuffee moves from this awareness to its context. Nietzsche, he argues, by hammering grammar into microscopic power, creating as he hoped the isolated being, would smother expression of this awareness. The idea might be that if a man is enclosed, he will rise at last to the level of the oyster and overcome his suffering through containment. ‘[L]ife as if it were death’—that is, the downward cast of the eye, the inward gaze, the lack of movement forward—no after. ‘Always then, never now.’ In this asphyxiated state, the awareness of suffering would theoretically turn in on itself and conquer itself, to let the ensconced being rise pearled.

The absence of speech, however, McDuffee insists, does not negate suffering. Robbed of our phantasmagorias of otherness—that is, of our words—simple accentuates the suffering here. Expression of suffering—the creation of another world where that suffering exists in isolation, a world outside our heads where others can enter and grieve with us—leads to healing.** Enfolding suffering on itself leads only to a healing worse than healing. A broken bone never set, never heals whole.

As if,

if in such a non-speaking state of being human we would care any less about whatever it might be that gives, as in the words of a self-loathing French philosopher, “people the courage to stand up and die in order to be able to utter a word or a poem.”***

Even without grammar, McDuffee insists, the urge to create remains. We suffer. We know we suffer. We cannot, must not, will not suffer silently. We speak to create to others the suffering we feel. We speak to create a world without suffering. We speak for those who know they are suffering yet cannot speak for themselves.

The courage of words is the courage to die for the sake of utterance. Perhaps the courage of words does seem to be ‘an instinct of slander’ to those who insist that the world as it is, is right. No government is more anxious to suppress criticism than a corrupt government. Yet the courage to die for the sake of a poem is the belief that the poem can change a world in need of changing. As plural beings we reach to one another, to speak and to hear. We conjure the caprice of art to show us world outside our own, worlds that shouldn’t be and worlds that should. The courage of words is the courage to claim those worlds as ours. Through sub-created worlds of despair and hope, of dark and light, of silence and music, this world can be reborn.

*See G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908), ch. 5.

**Thus the importance of art therapy of all sorts. But that’s another discussion.

***Michael Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (1972-1977)

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