Friday, March 25, 2011

The Intimacy of Language

A shameful confession: I have carried on a long-time love affair with all things of the Hebrew persuasion without really knowing the language. A page of Talmud is beautiful to me--mysterious, compelling, intriguing. And it speaks to me. Or, at least, my translations and transliterations speak to me, read Talmud to me. Perhaps that space between the original and the translation also speaks to me, as ellipses often do.

But I've recently been learning Hebrew, thanks to someone special who gave me a gift of Hebrew classes at a local language institute, and I can't deny that I feel a new brand of intimacy when I look at a siddur in shul, or when I look at a page of untranslated David Grossman--as I feel my lips form knowingly around the sounds that become real words. Even if I don't yet know what all the words mean, I can start to read them. And it's a breathtaking intimacy that materializes even as one is in the beginnings of being able to recognize the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and breathe sounds into them.

Last week in shul, maybe for the first time ever, I did not choose the transliterated siddur. There's something about the sound of the language's voice that is emotionally evocative. It brings us back to the foundation of the world--to its chaos and creation. But especially to its chaos.

Creation is violent. God's words form a rupture that separates light from darkness, cutting them off from one another, putting enmity between them. And the world is all wild and waste. But this violence springs from language, which is, for me, the root of intimacy. Conflict, again. It's an intimate kind of violence, this linguistic rupture that births creation.

And isn't that what our words always do? They are violent because they are self-serving, often cutting us off from others despite the illusion of dialogue. The sharing and exchange of ideas is its own reward, striking with brilliant intensity. It allows us to experience intimate moments with ourselves.

But I don't think this is true for most people.

Language, for most people, serves a utilitarian purpose; it is a means to an end. One man writes a clever business proposal, hoping that potential investors will finance his project and so advance his lot in life. One woman writes a catchy screenplay, hoping to see her ideas materialize on theater screens across the country.

And then there are those who are immodest in the way they stand naked before mere words, eagerly awaiting the electrical charge of idea and intellect to come barreling into human desire.

I don't imagine that my love for language, for the sake of language, will be financially lucrative. But it's enough. It's enough.

1 comment:

Solveig said...

Yes, it's enough :)

I don't think your confession is shameful. Being fascinated with something is something one should be proud of. Good luck with your Hebrew!