23. Speechlessness

We have finished talking about vulgarity by saying that the mind left to itself is lazy and always takes shortcuts; in the field of language, these ‘shortcuts’ lead to speechlessness — the darkness of expression with the simplicity of content. Let us consider this speechlessness in more detail.

The spoilage of speech, produced by semi-education, obeys certain laws, partly as a social phenomenon, partly as a special dialect within the common Russian language.

The following must be said about the speechlessness as a social phenomenon. A semi-educated person does not simply speak badly. He speaks the way he thinks an enlightened person should speak. By distorting his speech, he wants to become higher than the place he actually occupies. These are the traits of the pretender, the nouveau riche. The aim of the cultured man is clarity and power of speech; the aim of the cultural nouveau riche is to impress. The subject of the speech is less important to him than the impression of ‘scholarship’ that the speech will produce.

As a deliberate spoiling of language, speechlessness obeys laws rather psychological. The semi-educated man has two desires: to appear more learned than he is, and to save mental effort by using ready-made schemas where the man of culture chooses the right word. A speech is developed that is rife with poorly understood foreign-language words, violating at every turn the rules of word connection accepted in the Russian language. ‘Haughty words with foreign, vague meaning’, as Zoshchenko said, are its basis. They supposedly give weight to any, the most insubstantial statement. And since the exact meaning of borrowed words is not clear to the speaker, each such word replaces a whole nest of native Russian words, which differ in shades of meaning, and thus kills these words, and with them the habit of accurate word-use.

This dialect was once called ‘chancery language’. It is not the chancelleries, however, that are responsible for its appearance. The chancery language of old Russia was quite national, i. e. full-blooded, if we do not speak of Peter the Great’s clumsy borrowings. However, the fracture caused by the Great War of 1914—1918 destroyed all ready-made forms, including literary forms. There came, as Pavel Muratov says, a ‘military scribe’.  [1]

The ‘scribe’ was not in itself a countercultural phenomenon. But his arrival coincided with the destruction of all accumulated cultural forms. It was a time of stylelessness, alien to any personal originality in the word.

What is style? A developed otherness, sometimes acquired, i.e. borrowed. Behind every style, even borrowed, is a personality or a chain of personalities. The opposite of style — impersonality, greyness, imitation of not outstanding, but mediocre. The era of broken continuity is struck by stylelessness, collective compulsive greyness. The development of the word at such a time is directed not upward but downward; not toward fruitful complexity but toward poor simplicity. This time is hostile to all otherness. The further consequence of this enforced uniformity is a sick curiosity for every deviation regardless of its cultural value, for the domination of the dump in the final result (the fate of Russian culture after the fall of Socialism).  ‘Style is difficult to separate from content’, says Walter Burkert. Styleless times are bound to be contentless.

By the way, it is a curious question: how does the rich and complex make its way to the heart? Why and for whom is it alluring — and who does not feel its call? In the field of culture, it would seem that the love of wealth is more natural than the love of poverty — especially since wealth and poverty here depend solely on ourselves. But no: the richness of thought and the ways of expressing it are not alluring to everyone. I think one of the most important reasons is that in complex expression, inseparable from the richness of content, the mind feels the keys to its own inner mysteries; the complex-beautiful is nourishing for self-knowledge. Without a sense of inner mystery, without perplexity before it, there is no attention to the complex; to style and the thought inseparable from it. Simplified education, reduced to the acquisition of skills without thought, extinguishes in man the sense of mystery (and inseparable from it the sense of community with the past — this eternally alive and eternally attractive mystery)… If the ‘I’ is not mysterious, there is no curiosity about itself. All curiosity is directed outwards, towards the technique of making and changing things.

The formative beginning, the craving for the higher and more complex, aristocratic in the end — flies away from man. Creativity also fades away, because everything truly creative is personal, complex and inimitable. Personality, its creativity, language itself — everything is made secondary, subordinated to utilitarian considerations.

But let us return to the arrival of the ‘military scribe’ and the revolution that gave him power.

This revolution demanded freedom only to take it away. The aim of Socialism is by no means ‘freedom’, but ‘the reasonable ordering of life’. And since reasonable rules are the only true rules (it is unreasonable to assume two truths about one subject), one should desire their unquestioning fulfilment. Unquestioning fulfilment can only be achieved by violence.

In the field of language, the Russian revolution began with brutal violence (spelling reform, carried out in spite of the literate and without their consent), and continued with attempts to introduce rigid rules in areas where the author’s will had previously been the law. Once it was argued about the persons of the Trinity, now it was argued about the ‘only true’ rule of commas.  A whole dogmatic literature has arisen, devoted to the subtleties of written speech. And it cannot be said that the language of Russian prose in the meantime rose from step to step. Quite the contrary. Russian authors wrote simpler and simpler… Literature emerged from the realm of triumphant complexity, i. e., a seething excess of possibilities. However, the transition to ‘tickling the heels’ of the reader came later. The purpose of ‘Socialist’ literature was only service, not stultifying and entertaining.

The ‘old world’, in comparison with the new, was characterised by an undoubted excess of freedom, and in particular of freedom of opinion. ‘One truth about one subject’ — that was the belief even then, but the old world got its values from two sources: from religion and from science, which thought differently about almost every subject, so that the mind was accustomed from childhood to the existence of two parallel series of truths about the same things.

In the culture to which we belong, to recognise several truths about one subject is to confess to double-mindedness, or at least to excessive moral flexibility. Christianity makes all questions moral questions…..  It is curious, by the way, that Christianity’s direct heir, the leftist worldview of our day, preaches a ‘tolerance’ that has no basis in the world of ‘one truth’. Tolerance is a pagan virtue. It is in no way peculiar to Socialism. It demands tolerance today for the same reasons that it demanded unlimited political freedom on the eve of the end of the Old World. Freedom is unleashing. We have, however, wandered away from our subject.

The arguments about commas that became possible after the magnificent, diverse edifice of verbal culture was rebuilt into a barracks were a tribute to the same ‘one truth’ that Christianity, and then its enemy and heir, Socialism, once cherished.

The richness of written and oral speech implies its multiple layers, different rules for different people and conditions. All the chambers of the literary building, from the works of the ‘first poet’ to the lubok (popular print), in the Old World differed in the selection of words and even in spelling. What is proper for a lubok is not proper for a poet, but a poet can also recall a lubok.

There is no ‘only correct’ spelling — there is a common basis, a set of possibilities, on which and from which one can build both a palace and a barn. The revolution chose the barn.  The only condition is that the boundaries of this common basis must be delineated not by the simplest, but by the most complex usage. As I have already said, no one thinks more complexly than he expresses.

Speaking of which: if there is no ‘single truth’ with regard to language, but only an unshakable foundation and a tiered building on it, where the top level, speaking conventionally, is Pushkin and the traditional Russian spelling, and how many tiers below it is a ‘lubok’, then perhaps the current Internet is a ‘lubok’ in new conditions, and we can demand no more from it than from the latter. We expect neither form nor thought from the lubok.

What is considered ‘modern culture’ is only the lower, common people’s layer of some possible culture, this popular print. The ‘universality’ of this easy culture is only apparent; simply, according to natural law, there are immeasurably more connoisseurs of popular prints than connoisseurs of Pushkin. Under ‘normal’ conditions, the latter exist on an equal footing with the former (or rather, on the overlying cultural tiers). They are few in number, but they determine the cultural image of their epoch. The lubok does not remain in the history of mental development, although it gathers the greatest number of admirers.

Am I not preaching arbitrariness under the guise of defending the author’s will? If there is no ‘single truth’, no single all-applicable rule, is not everything allowed? And if ‘everything is allowed’, what kind of spoiling or improvement of language can we talk about?

It may be answered thus. The internal laws of language, its love of fruitful complication and growth do not depend on anyone’s ‘permission’. A healthy personality obeys the same internal laws: development is natural for it.

What do we mean by ‘development’ (assuming freedom from ethical judgements, i.e. excluding such definitions as ‘striving for goodness’ etc.)? Growth and complication of means of expression (measured by the complexity of thoughts that can be expressed), provided that they are faithful to the internal laws of language, be it the rules of word combination or euphony. Let us say at once that the development of language does not exclude borrowings, but any borrowing must pass the test of living speech, sometimes — to change its appearance or join with non-borrowed parts of the word, and the most common its fate — to be discarded and forgotten. It is not so important to borrow as to digest and assimilate what has been borrowed. Borrowings that are swallowed but not assimilated only clutter speech and obscure thought.

What is dark in expression and poor in thought does not lead forward and upward, whether we are talking about a person or a book.

The lack of attention to and interest in the word is in some inner, secret way connected with the lack of attention to and interest in man. The speechless epoch is the epoch of the soul trapped in the absence of quality. And yet we understand things exactly as much as we can express them… worse than that: we become what we can express. Not more complex, not better, not higher.

Of course, close attention to the word and the book is a trait of us Europeans that is Christian, that is, Greco-Pagan in Christian refraction. For Hellenism, the person is the word, at least as it interacts with society and the gods. ‘I am what I am able to express about myself, and something else secret, unknown to myself’. The power of Christianity, the heir and gravedigger of Hellenism, was the power of the word, both in a high sense (the power of poetry) and in a lower sense (the power of rhetoric). In this latter respect it is a child of an age when there were no longer philosophers, but only rhetors…

Christianity began the education of the individual by awakening sensitivity to the ‘inner self’ and by finding words to express it. The daily school of prayer, with ready-made deep and rich patterns, gave words for expressing the subtle shades of the inner life. The prayer book is a desktop psychologist — and at the same time a poet. Having said this, let us also say that education with the prayer book alone is not a good education. To see the beauty and depth of Christian prayers, one must look at them with a secular, i. e. pagan, eye.

Here we return to what has been said many times before: the power and depth of the Old World, i.e. Europe (and Russia, which is inseparable from it) of the 19th century, came from its multiple sources, from the fact that the ‘prayer book’ was neighbouring a secular book. The Bible, fortunately, was not the only book of the century. It was a dictionary of soul life for anyone who began to awaken to it.

And now… Now we see that the ‘liberation’ of man from overly complex ways of expressing thoughts liberates not thoughts, but from thoughts. Culture is the opposite of mental laziness. ‘Science’ in the applied, newspaper meaning, i. e., ‘technology’, is in no way the opposite of laziness, since it strives for conservation of effort, for simplicity — when new complexity is needed.

This complexity will require a new culture with multiple foundations — with different, independent, equal sources of truths. The difficulty is that such sources cannot be ‘created’, only inherited, because all good things are inherited — never borrowed.

Will we be able to restore the thread of the destroyed continuity?

Then we will still see a rich and complex language that both reflects and creates a rich and complex personality.

[1] ‘The psychological home of Bolshevism was the administrative and economic part of war, that military order which subordinated tens of millions of people to the management and leadership of countless hierarchically dependent military chancelleries. The real alma mater of Bolshevism, the real academy of Bolshevism, is not even a large headquarters of any kind, but an endless regimental, battery or company chancellery.

The semi-intelligent military scribe appeared to us not without reason in 1918 as the first messenger of Bolshevism, and it seems that he has remained, with all his bruised, wounded and infringed ‘interiority’, as one might say, the ‘eternal type’ of the Soviet statesman…

It would be interesting to make a statistical study of the number of modern Soviet functionaries who first appeared in the notorious regimental and similar committees. I think that the number of people who felt their ‘state vocation’ for the first time at that time is great. Then they began to talk, write, gesticulate, act, and the style of this talk, these writings, these gesticulations, and this action in general, has remained unchanged to this day. That is why the military jargon of the rear is still so alive in Soviet life, that is why Soviet Russia not only writes, not only speaks, but also thinks in such a wooden bureaucratic language.’

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

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