Words are Not Hard
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. 1
Words are not hard, as they wend and wash their way through our mouths, and into the spaces between. The river which runs through language. The river which runs from its source to its sea and around again.
Words are not transparent: as Balzac noted, there are ‘mysteries buried in every human word’. 2
Yet, here, the mysteries of verbal and linguistic exchanges are played out through these apparently transparent words forming between these interlocutors. Into a small brick house we go — a house within a house, perhaps a tomb, perhaps an outhouse — to see a flow of words: mouth to mouth, female to male, male to female, one language to another, back and forth, round and around. Words of water, suspended in air, expelled and imbibed; flowing through air, languages, mouths.
However translucent, each word holds the mysteries of its language, if not also those of its speakers. The words — “sixty nine” — play through the migratory languages and scripts of the Liverpool Local Government Area: Fijian, Italian, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Putonghua, Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Bosnian, Maori. What else do you do with a strange word, but take it into your mouth, so that you can send it out again, having tasted its strangeness even as you try and mould it to your own tongue, and at the same time let it reshape your tongue? And what better with a stranger?
Playing through those languages, playing with those tongues, these words and their flows enact a translation more easily found in this house than outside. To be fluent, is to have words roll off your tongue. To dry up, is to lose speech. No place is dumber than that rock we find ourselves upon, between languages, unable to speak. Or, sometimes, no place more foreign than that in which we speak as a stranger. In Australia — a nation centred by a rock whose words most of us cannot speak — tight-lipped silence has served for a figure of speech. As still it might for our tone-deaf leaders, even if we now live among tongues of vibrantly varied timbres. The exchanges here, then, portray an ideal translation and comprehension, as if to hear or speak these strange words were as simple as drinking the waters of the world.
Words are not hard, and therein lies their difficulty. As Gaston Bachelard put it: “liquidity is … the very desire of language. Language needs to flow. It flows naturally.” 3 Yet, if flow is what language desires and what is desired of language, words sometimes run against rocks, on their way to the hard places of meaning. At times, a great force is required to make meaning flow. So, while words are not hard, understanding can be as hard as a blast from a water cannon. Hearts and ears may be hardened, damming any flow. Words are not hard, but communication too often is.
Words are not hard, they are the soft, flowing centre in the house of language. Their fluidity also forms the bonds that may protect us: a wall is not only a barrier, it also shelters and includes. Words build understandings; fragile, temporary accommodations. Settling upon a meaning, we build along river banks. Once settled, the challenge is to maintain the flow, not to be confined; to find an infinite space for movement within the narrow house of sense.
Just as this flow of words conjures with liquidity, labiality and orality, the words which flow connote that very erotic exchange and fluidity which itself embodies the archetypal figure of the Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail: a figure of consumption, consummation, and creation echoing the mutual head-to-tail of the Yin and Yang. Two into one, one into two: sixty nine, a figure of erotic mutuality and merging. Wet six, naiad nine.
Words, water, and dreams: however difficult, they are not hard. This work plays with Bachelard’s meditations upon water and words:
Water is the mistress of liquid language, of smooth flowing language, of continued and continuing language, of language that softens rhythm and gives a uniform substance to different rhythms. 4
Writing in August 1941, in Occupied France and at the time of the siege of Leningrad, Bachelard finds consolation in language’s liquidity. His is not a meditation walled off from the world, but one which locates suffering in the unsaid, in the failure of flows. Sixty five years later, by Georges River rather than by Dijon’s canals, fluency is no less a way of living through the challenges of community by making conversation.
If Bachelard is one of the chosen starting points for this work, its play with the circulations of words — passed mouth to mouth — evokes an earlier text of water and dreams: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a punning, linguistically compendious dream text set in the river city of Dublin. Joyce’s epic, riverine dream of language starts in mid-flow — as all epics must — to then run over 600 pages before it finds its start at its end: “riverrun” begins, and the book seems to end in a “the” which so closely resembles an archaic “thee” or “you.”
Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the 5
Take a kiss from me. But softly, remember me, till you send your lips. Given the keys to heaven. A love story runs along the River Liffey, past Eve and Adam’s, from him to her, and from her to eternity. A love story flowing through and over many tongues: heard, these words aren’t so hard. Spoken, they move from the page, and from their histories, back into life. The lips are the key, they take us to the river, to love, and to language.
From their drydocks in books, words flow. Over stones, they roll. Between tongues, they softly slip. Conjured, they melt into air, resolving into dew. Words are not hard.
Peter J. Hutchings, April 30, 2006.
1. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1939), p. 3.
2. Sean Cubitt, “Reply to Richard Misek,” Film-Philosophy, Vol. 9 No. 30, May 2005. The Balzac quotation is taken from Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, Oeuvres completes, ed. Marcel Bouteron et Henri Longon (Paris: L. Conrad, 1940), vol. 31, p. 49, as cited by Gaston Bachelard, Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Edith R. Farrell (Dallas: Pegasus Foundation, 1983), p. 188.
3. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, p. 187.
4. Bachelard, Water and Dreams, p. 187.
5. Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 628.