Words and Flesh: Observations on the American Soul

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When you land in the United States, you can observe from a distance the world you are supposed to enter.

For more than thirty years I lived in the opaque world of Communism, where time meant nothing. In the absence of any real dialogue within its social and political structures, all we had left was talk among ourselves. In that Balkan atmosphere, our conversations—sometimes brilliantly lit by a ruined “little Paris” on a molded sky—were delightful, baroque, a never-ending chatter, spectacular and useless, over-full ashtrays and cheap alcohol, night-long discussions and hungover mornings when it would start all over again.

We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. We had no place to go.

The dictatorship seemed permanent. To keep our sanity we only had words, the language, airy imaginative phantasms, grim existential critiques, fable-making, hair-splitting. Bright ideas or dashing banalities. Survival. Words were powerless to change our destiny but were therapeutic in keeping us sane.

The Soul? No one mentioned it, but it was there all along, in the arabesques of our lamentations, in the last cigarette butt crushed at sunrise on a background of a hideous smoking factory on the outskirts of the city.

 

Meanwhile, time is everything in America. It is sold at each deli and hot-dog cart, on TV and by insurance companies, in the Have a nice day farewell everyone utters automatically to get rid of someone quickly.

Using concentrated formulas of conventional language does not stem from emptiness, but from fear of lingering too long in a syntagma that’s not likely to bring forth anything new against Have a nice day! Time is money.

The Soul? It is lying somewhere on a shrink’s chair.

 

When I fell in love in my adolescence I didn’t even dare to utter the word love from the fear that its magic would disappear. It was my secret, my hidden treasure. Our mentality back in those times was to protect it from the public eye. Was this cautious attitude part of our inhibitions inside a dictatorship or just a way to live one of the most powerful words?

In America love seems to be a word overused. Over here everyone loves, from dawn to dusk, and no one is shy about publicly showing his or her love. Before hanging up the phone, after speaking with a friend, automatically out comes “love you,” meaning actually more “talk to you soon” or “good bye, farewell.” Love extends to objects, dishes, landscapes, and situations. People say, Oh, my God, I love this, I love that…. without nuance, ignoring synonyms such as like, value, admire, appreciate, cherish, be attracted by, etc, which offer differences in intensity and emotions. While saying a few times a day I love… the mouth fills up with the vowel o, the word disappears, its meaning lost.

Love repeated carelessly and continuously becomes all but worthless. Tolstoy might turn in his grave and abandon Karenina’s in throwing herself before a moving train. Perhaps he would send her to a shrink instead and launch into a tirade on the harmony of mind, body, and soul in search of the interior child.

I can remember how difficult it was to articulate love words in my adolescence, the crazy pirouettes taken by our sentences, the way we weighed their intensity, graded their emotion, using an entire linguistically allusive arsenal. We were convinced that our inhibitions were due to education, that it would be indecent to dispel the mystery and force of the strongest word by saying it randomly; or that, once said, we would awaken exposed and vulnerable; or that we would strike sentimental chords.

What if, once uttered, the words hit a wall? Of all humiliations, ridicule is the worst. We lived then in a closed society. Discussing sex was taboo, contraception was interdicted, and love was confounded by the communist ideologues with either the party or reproduction. I feel as if all this happened a hundred years ago…

How easy it is today to deal with love as sex, although a huge gap separates the sexes in big American cities, where having a career and/or a status as single are highly regarded. At the end of the day, liberated women and successful men hunt each other in bars, laughing over cocktails and beer, exhausted from harrowing workdays. Their talk is often strident. What one says doesn’t matter, only being heard, giving an impression of being detached, sufficient, self-confident inside a political correct society. And they will start this game of flirting all over again the next day.

 

If you look closer and put your ear to the words, machined-gunned from one to the other under the pressure of communication the impression of a universal loneliness can be overwhelming, only the surface motivations shine. To love becomes a common verb, said without any special emotion, an expired ingredient random among ordinary recipes, without any flavor.

Happiness is another abused word. The entire nation chases after it—which wouldn’t be absurd, except that many pretend to find it several times a day in the most unexpected situations. Americans do not seem to experience moderate joy, contentedness, minor satisfactions.

To me, everything seems aimed at a fake mass euphoria that lacks any visceral feeling. A heavyweight word, filled with magic: happiness should make one feel as if one had wings or lift one to heaven. To answer the question, “What was the happiest moment in your life?” people often sit and ponder for a while to choose the most intense experience. For a moment, they are responsible for the power of a word. However, in this quick-paced daily life, ordinary speech gives in to pretense and bravado, displaying a self-imposed optimism.

What is called happiness oscillates between entertainment, having fun and enjoying, palliative obsessions to convince one that life is worth living. The vocabulary associated with this ambition is marked by superlatives and exaggerations to support enthusiasm, a necessary accompaniment to experience. Reactions also are disproportionate.

On Broadway, humor is pursued in every word and gesture. I was fond of the American comedies in the seventies and eighties, but today I find hardly any authentic humor in American theater, film, or TV shows. In today’s entertainment there is a dose of hysteria fueled by the desperate need of marketing in an environment more and more anxiously searching for cultural milestones, or, rather, for the lack thereof.

In spite of this obsession with happiness, sought through wealth or the comforts possible in a well-regulated system, there is so much sorrow, grief, and poverty in America. How often do poverty and violence rise to the surface like tragic alarms? There exists another America, not the picture-perfect one, but the one hidden in silence, shoved under the rug, projecting an uncomfortable image in contradiction to the values of the American dream—a dream more and more pragmatic, without poetry or idealism, but designed to be profitable.

 

My first month in New York I was touched by the phrase How are you, a salutation more than a question, used by everybody, friends and strangers, to greet me everywhere. Not to mention the most wonderful and warm expression, one that broke my heart each time: Take care!

I could have developed a certain vanity driven by the feeling that everybody wanted to find out how I was doing, caring about me. But so often before I could answer my interlocutor was gone, time is money, displaying the same open smile, consistent with the entire front put up by everybody in New York, which made it look like they all had white teeth and optimism.

In my country, I was fed with the eternal lamentation of people on every topic. They would complain any time they had a chance. They felt almost guilty doing well and were embarrassed to admit it. If you praised them, you would be contradicted with extensive explanations of how looks can be deceiving. In fact, it went without saying that they are not doing well at all… They wished to be miserable, pitied.

A New Yorker, even one with a foot in the grave, when asked how he was doing, would calmly answer: Thank you, I am fine, great, okay. The answer, beyond its formalism, implicitly means they’re not sharing their problems with you. For an outsider, this sparse formal language seems to produce alienation, seclusion, superficial relationships. For an American it’s the result of decency and a desire not to burden other’ with their problems.

On the other hand, the excessive of strong words (love, happiness, God, etc.) are indeed pretexts to avoid living profoundly. Speech is used in reverse, not to be open and communicative, but to hide and protect oneself—an isolation imposed by standardization.

As I started to understand the spirit of the place, I felt like placing in quarantine depreciated and tired words, clichés replacing specifics, standardization choking refreshing, enigmatic, dilemmatic, pure quintessence.

Left to its own devices, living its full intensity and depth, words overturn order. It’s no surprise that official speech intends to erase from the collective subconscious any metaphysics or philosophy. How can you possibly breathe in a word, fill up on its significance, when this world’s performance is the non-dissimulated agreement with the mass media, the skillful politician, the overwhelming commercials, the evangelical preacher? They all know better and tell you exactly what you should feel and how you should think when hearing or uttering any word.

Communication in America is overseen by other rationales: efficiency, competition, leadership. It is patriotic to opt for superficial dialogue. There is no time to either split hairs or choose fantasies that could derail and mislead you spiritually from the standardized society. Swimming against the wave is not encouraged. And if, by any chance, you are derailed, exhausted, there is a well-devised mechanism, functioning perfectly, ready to come to your rescue. All types of therapists offer advice, solutions, and prescriptions with the intention to save the social mechanism from failure, even as parts of it fall apart.

Is this the price individuals pay for this competitive, successful world, for their comfort and achievements? A huge quantity of antidepressants, slipping pills, painkillers, swallowed in response to fear, depression, stress, anxiety.

Tonight an anchorwoman informs us about the latest scientific findings. They show that shopping is therapeutic. That it cures neurotic behavior. That it lessens depression—can even make you happy, especially if you pay cash and not credit. She interviews a psychiatrist, a distinguished academic, who confirms the benefit of shopping for a soul adrift. Her piece ends with the words of an old man sharing his happiness over roaming the shopping malls and buying indiscriminately.

He gives a quirky smile that could be out of happiness, irony, or just plain neurosis.

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About Carmen Firan

Carmen Firan is a Romanian-born poet, a fiction writer, and a playwright. In her native country, she has published 20 books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Since 2000 she has been living in New York. Her writings have appeared in translation in many literary magazines. Her recent books and publications in the United States include Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), The Second Life, a book of short stories, (Columbia University Press, 2005), and The Farce, a novel, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2003). She is a member of the editorial board of the international magazine Lettre Internationale, as well as a member of the PEN American Center and The Poetry Society of America.