Men create oppositions, which are not; and put them into new terms, so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning.
(Francis Bacon, Essays, chap. III)
The manipulation of language to the needs and use of power, is part of human nature since humans exist. As far back as the Bible, God is associated with the Verbum, that is, with the word: The Word was God, designated as wisdom in the Holy Scriptures and then defined by Latin grammarians as that which denotes action in all its occurrences. Moreover, it is interesting to highlight how etymologically we can find traces of this term in oriental languages (Old Persian and Avestan) with the additional meaning of to teach, to announce.
The corruption of language as a danger to individual conscience, and even more so to common conscience, is therefore not a problem just of our time, but it belongs to the very existence of society. Not surprisingly, in recent times (and, especially in contemporary times more than any other), Nazi Germany organized one of the largest Bücherverbrennungen1 in the Opernplatz of Berlin: it was May 10th 1933. And that was not, and is not , the only example of biblioclasm.
What is disconcerting, however, is today’s absence of discussion in the classrooms of life, the absence of intellectuals who do their job; the absence or the shortage of an organized counterculture that displays its indignation and, above all, alerts us to the dangers of an impoverishment of language: a new system of slavery of men in a society subjected to the dictatorship of a neoliberal culture, hidden behind the illusory banner of democracy as a bulwark of freedom.
We are totally free to obtain all the information that we want, to access, to buy and to consume all knowledge, to believe ourselves experts and updated know-it-alls thanks to a five-line post on a social network. Five, because the sixth line would be too much of an in-depth analysis and incompatible with the speed and flexibility of the skills required by the market.
In the digital age we can cross all boundaries. And be found at every turn, so that power – just in case we have to work hard to obtain information to show us new paths – might rescue us, in bit time, and let us choose – freely, of course – if we should return to the fold of media distraction or be shredded by the scissors of censorship, in whatever form we prefer. And this is simply what happens: by annihilating the word, consciousness is annihilated.
Paradoxically, the counterculture that fought power, that travelled from village to village on stencilled papers, was able to create awareness, to create revolution, to win social battles. The network of censorship is now so dense and technologically advanced (progress was not born to benefit man, at least not primarily) that society vegetates into a permanent state of hallucination, wandering through the illusory vision of being free and master of its conscious and knowledgeable being. Orwell predicted what we are now experiencing, because Orwell simply did his job: he gave the word its meaning.
Some say that our digital age is coining new terms, new forms of communication which narrate reality, adhering to it and recognizing it also in its linguistic evolution. A new writing for new writers, of the now, who are able to talk about their time using its language. And should we define as conservative those who are horrified in the face of the use of “ke”2, in the face of the disappearance of subjunctives, in the face of the improper use of “rather than”; in the face of a poorer and poorer vocabulary, under the always less rarefied threat of a linguistic and human involution that is losing the sense of the word as the creator of wisdom and consciousness, the word that announces and teaches.
A writer is not the preserver of the word. A writer, as such, recognizes its power, its vitality, its dynamism and its possibility for continuous change. The word is itself part of the future because it contemplates it: it holds within it the memory of history, the structure of the present and, thanks to the union of these, it holds within it the possibility of becoming something else, of attempting to relate beyond the present whilst relating the present. The word itself teaches us this in those books which we consider modern and which we can all identify as examples of literature without being able to say exactly what literature is.
A writer, as such, does not confuse current time with the use of the language imposed on it, but instead bows to the language, pays homage to it, respects it, honours it, and proposes it to the reader with honesty and meaning.
The few authors who manage to do this not only fascinate us, but leave behind a pearl for us to cultivate. They bring us life.
1 book burning
2 [instead of che, “that”; translator’s note]
Translation by Irene Lami (edited by Ester Tossi)