“I Can’t Breathe”: Attempting Conversation with Imperfect Language

While the BYU Humanities Center, as its mission statement declares, features the language, literature, thought, culture, and history of the human conversation, the overarching idea of conversation places language at the center of that mission. The commitment to language is evident in many Center activities, not least of which is the formation of a new faculty and student Translation Studies Research Group. Dale Pratt, Professor of Spanish and member of the Humanities Center Executive Committee, wrote the following short essay on language, with a special eye to recent events that have drawn wide national attention. –Matthew Wickman

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars”––Gustave Flaubert

“Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language”––Joseph Smith to W. W. Phelps, July 31, 1832

“Language is a virus”––Susan Sontag

We have seen many protests in the past few weeks, against the grand jury decisions to not indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The deaths of both men have led to explosions of words—I search for “Michael Brown” and Google finds in 0.42 seconds that Brown, who died this August 9th, is represented by approximately 1,280,000,000 results (that’s over one billion); Eric Garner, the man who died after being placed in a choke-hold by a Staten Island police officer, has 74 million Google hits. Clouds of words made up of conflicting eyewitness reports obscure the final seconds of Brown’s life; Garner’s three word statement, captured on video—“I can’t breathe”––repeated over and over, changes before our eyes from a fact to a plea to a dying confession to an epitaph.

The “hands raised” gesture is a silent sign, so pregnant with meaning that an NFL team and a police union must argue about it for days. “I can’t breathe” eloquently condenses all that seems wrong in the world into an “I” that means individual and group, a “can’t” communicating longing for all that is possible and good and yet somehow proscribed, and a “breathe,” a basic need, an inward rushing of the fresh air or supposedly free good that is the right and demand of every baby from birth’s first cry.

The word “multiplies” self-proves that the “cracked kettle” of our language is insufficient to describe how words function… One billion pages of words… Sontag meant that language lives within its human hosts, self-replicating and infecting. That the Brown and Garner stories “went viral” means differently, yet no less profoundly. Years before Liberty jail, Joseph Smith longed to be delivered from the “narrow little prison” of words as he recorded in language his visions.

Calderón de la Barca’s seventeenth-century sacramental “Loa al Divino Narciso” has the letters of Christ’s name dance around the stage forming words like “Redemption, “Charity” and “Eucharist.” Christ is the Logos, the Beginning and the End, not only of humanity but of the alphabet. With human language we set galaxies of signifiers spinning in our darkness of pen, paper and ink, yet make no poetical music to melt the stars. Our halting communications despite our proliferating words give us but more rhythms for dancing bears.

Human immersion in language is a deep baptism; as we swim, stretching our arms upwards, we repeat Eric Garner’s words.

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