Broken Words, In Four Parts

‘The Tower Of Babel,’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

The dark joke at the heart of the Harry Potter series is the fact that an eleven-year-old boy is more willing and able to name evil than the adults that are sworn to protect him from it. He’s routinely castigated for daring to utter the name “Voldemort,” and the grown-up placeholders for Voldemort are comically murky: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, You-Know-Who. Even when Voldemort unequivocally returns and kills a Hogwarts student in front of Harry, he is not believed. He is ignored, even silenced by adults (specifically by the politicians—author J.K. Rowling makes a magical world that nonetheless functions much like our own).

The Harry Potter series subtly echoes “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, swindlers dress the emperor in imaginary, unseeable clothes, and his subjects ignore this fact even though they can see the “clothes” are false. Finally, a child speaks up, pointing out to a crowd that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That’s where I remembered the story ending, illustrating the bravery and intelligence of children. But the original text ends on a sadder note: after being called out, the emperor walks “more proudly than ever” in his invisible clothes.

At the end of the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Spells, after all, are conjured through words, and across the books, misspoken spells have a habit of inflicting harm on the speaker themselves. But broken words—words used to misinform, obscure, or degrade meaning—are still incredibly powerful. Over time, they erode tongues, minds, and hearts. They can fracture societies. The once-sturdy foundation sinks into quicksand, into a routine of recrimination, half-truths, and lies.

It is staggering how normalized this kind of spellbound discourse has become in American life. You feel crazy for seeing so much craziness in everyday communication, and speaking out against so much craziness starts to feel even crazier. You get to a point where you can’t even trust your own words anymore.


“To what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent.” Paul Auster, City Of Glass

In his poem “Big Grab,” Tony Hoagland points to the way the meanings of words are subtly eroded over time, not just through common speech but through advertising, commerce, and politics. A corn chip bag intentionally contains a few less chips than before but it’s still called ‘The Big Grab.’ An absurd billboard sells “a beautiful girl / covered with melted cheese.” It feels like such an American poem, until Hoagland zooms out:

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
 
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

Does Hoagland include himself as a “trickster”? Does making art give artists cover to deny their involvement in this crooked situation? Are advertisers, businessmen, and politicians the ultimate artists, toying with language until it breaks apart? Imagination is not a benign thing.


still from La Antena

“The present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

In La Antena, an Argentinian silent film, the voices of an entire city’s people are stolen by a malignant media mogul named Mr. TV. The people can still talk, but their words are spelled out above their heads, like text messages. Mr. TV doesn’t stop at stealing voices. In the final act of the film, he steals the words themselves as the people are lulled into a kind of hypnotized stupor by his television broadcasts. Random words flood the screen, floating into the air like let-go balloons.

La Antena was released in 2007, just before Twitter debuted, but it nonetheless feels like an early glimpse of social media’s cancerous growth on society. Social media advertises itself as giving “voice” to everyone, but it is a new Tower of Babel where context collapses under the weight of so many voices: a cat meme, followed by a police brutality video, followed by a photo of your friend’s delicious brunch, followed by an advertisement, followed by a political half-truth, followed by a link to an Article You Have To Read Right Now, ad infinitum. In this world, so many voices and words are rendered meaningless, which is the same as stealing voices and words.


City Of Glass, Paul Auster’s first story in his New York Trilogy, is nominally a detective novel, but one interested in the mystery of language. His characters are trapped by words and definitions, every dawning truth leading to another room in an endless, onion-like maze. At one point, Peter Stillman, the foil to the writer-turned-detective Daniel Quinn, declares that “unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.” He asks, can a broken umbrella still be named an “umbrella,” or does it need a new name to describe it? Stillman, by the way, is also an insane, religious quasi-criminal, hell-bent on tearing down the Tower of Babel that invisibly surrounds all of our speech and spirituality. He later commits suicide, but it’s offscreen, and you’re not sure if you can trust that information.

How do we repair broken words? Is an umbrella still called an umbrella if it lets in the rain? Auster repeatedly points to the Old Testament command to name all the animals and plants in the world; the very act of naming gives them life. It appears that it is up to us to rename the world.

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