The Damnable Lecture

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What soon follows is the transcript of an informal lecture given by the anthropologist and linguist Dr Stewart Hickle on May 20th in Lecture Hall 14b. I transcribed the lecture myself which was an easy, if time consuming, task as I had taken the trouble (needlessly, with hindsight I add) to record it on dictaphone and later listen to and type it verbatim.

The reasons for my immediate uncomplimentary stance will no doubt become clear to the reader after perusing the transcript in full. I will however preface the lecture with a brief explanation of how I, a law student at the time (now probationary legal secretary at Coigns & Associates), came to attend it.

I was halfway through my finals and had just finished a morning exam. The rest of the day was mine to do what ever I wanted as my last exam was scheduled for the following week, and I was confident I had it nailed already. That said, as it was the hottest day of the year so far, hottest day since records began in fact, I felt I had to cool down soon before I found myself drawn into a skirmish. I’d come too far to allow such a dismal situation to threaten my prospects so near the end of my degree.

Lecture room 14b was the place to be as it had the best working air-conditioning on campus, so there I strayed, and there I sat among listeners who had gathered for the lecture by Dr Hickle who was organising his papers at the podium, clearing his throat, ready to speak; these were his words:

I’d like to say thank you to Doctors Freda Mailyn and Ted Parr for inviting me to speak to you today about…well I was going to say — to speak to you about my recent researches on language and cultural shifts in urban society, but I could also achieve the same ends by telling you about a weeklong break I took last Spring. Both the break and my research were one and the same thing. I didn’t go too far, just a short distance outside the capital.

I booked myself into a quaint little hotel called The Tilings. Some of you may already know it; it’s a lovely place to stay. Anyway as I was sat in a large wicker chair reading my Wendt and Pondar, I looked out of the large windows — one ahead of me, the other to my left — and admired both the view of the cathedral in one, and the town centre in the other. One scene looked still and serene, the other busy.

The thought then came to me that — well it wasn’t really a thought it was a question; the question came to me and I framed it thus: what if the language we speak and understand right now — right now — was all the language we were ever going to be able to speak and understand? I’ll clarify this idea further; what if you went to sleep and woke up in a parallel world that was identical to the one you knew before in every respect but with one difference: no new words or terms can ever be defined or coined beyond those which already exist? Would you notice such a difference soon?

When would you know for sure that something wasn’t quite right with the world? I had with me a dictionary, thesaurus, a book on English idioms, and imagined the words between its covers were all we could speak with, and by implication all we could therefore think with. If that was the case, when and where would we come up against our own limits of expression; what would it be like to experience those limits?

I will add here that I’m not a superstitious man; I don’t believe in magic, nor do I care to. But something happened to me in that room in The Tilings that changed my life. I was one such hypothetical person who went to sleep that very night and awoke inside a world frozen in language and thought; and I am here to tell you that it was both fascinating and disturbing. I see some of you here are shifting a little uncomfortably in your seats as I speak and if I’m honest that’s exactly the reaction I expect, but I ask you to bear with me, especially as I’m being paid by the hour.

Now, the day before I awoke into the frozen-language world I spent some minutes in the hotel’s reception area passing the time with the receptionist and several other guests at the bar. You can imagine the kind of patter and pleasantries that passed between us at the time. We discussed the weather, the food, the rooms, the location; you know the kind of thing. Sayings ricocheted between us; maxims, idioms, catchphrases, clichés — we’re all guilty of using them, if guilty is the right word to use. I made a short list, a kind of ‘make a conversation using these words’ game I indulged in afterwards. Here are some:

Beauty sleep, powers that be, once upon a time, the greatest thing since sliced bread, storm in a teacup, mission impossible, just when you thought it was safe to [insert relatively harmless activity], the name of the game, the silver screen, big brother is watching you, every Tom Dick and Harry, straight from the horses mouth, rapturous applause, reach the point of no return , joined at the hip — shall I go on? Well though time is money it is also short, of the essence, the spoils of procrastination [this last phrase elicits a clearly audible: “what the fuck?” from the audience]. Yes you heard me right there. Please bear with me for just a little while longer.

And so I had my control group for the experiment I decided to perform the following morning. I cleaned up, got dressed, and went down for breakfast where some of the other guests were already dining in the restaurant. Well, the waiter comes up to me and asks me what I want. Under ordinary circumstances I may have said “an O.J and a round of toast and jam please.” But I didn’t, instead I asked for ‘a whole orange with a knife.’ Such a harmless sounding sentence to utter, I would have thought, but on this occasion the response was a visible bristling in the waiter’s manner.

I hadn’t spoken condescendingly or used flighty language, not at all, but the deliberately altered syntax I adopted fell upon ears that were not deaf to it but were — I surmised — entirely insulated from it. In other words I may have well spoken a different language for all the sense he was able to make of me. Anyway, I resorted to the vernacular and was soon served my breakfast but the ‘damage’ had been done. He distrusted me with the strangest air of contempt I have ever witnessed. And things only got worse.

After breakfast I approached the receptionist as she scanned the guest records and instead of asking “What’s new?” I asked “What’s been novel this morning?” Such a harmless pleasantry was met with a visible oscillation of her pupils which were slightly magnified behind her spectacle lenses. She paused, her lips moved to speak, but she looked back at the screen and turned her seat round more to keep her back to me. It didn’t stop her from sneaking a distrustful glance in my direction just before I turned to leave after grabbing the morning papers from the pile on the desk.

I sat in the restaurant corner, which doubled up as an in-house cafe, and focused on the news. The papers were filled — as you may expect — with clichés, old chestnuts, and ‘scorchers’, and I felt in myself a sudden relief as I read them, as well as a strong sense of loss too for a world I began to feel alienated from. In fact I abandoned the papers not long after flicking through them as I couldn’t shake off this feeling of loss. I felt myself a stranger both to the world as a fixed and frozen culture, and to myself as an entity with a naturally unbounded capacity for introspection and concept coinage. I didn’t belong to it and it didn’t belong to me, and neither of us wanted it to be otherwise.

Understandably I spent much of the rest of my stay in my room, hoping every night that I would wake up, get cleaned up, get dressed, go downstairs to the restaurant, ask for a whole orange with a knife, and be met with a quizzical shrug and an “ok”. But such a moment never arrived and then it was time for me to book out and hand my key in. You may imagine the disturbance I felt.

I handed my room key to the receptionist, who now regarded me with the most fearful and yet frostiest look I’ve ever seen, and turned to pick up my case whereupon the other guests and the waiter were standing around the doorway, all eyes fixed on me. Worse still, as I approached and ran the gauntlet (sighs from the audience at these words) of silent hostility, the waiter strode forth and hauled the main door open for me with a look I couldn’t wait to escape from.

So there I was. And here I am a year later, trapped in the same world, surrounded by people who look and act normal, who say familiar things all the time, who sometimes use technical words, long words, short words, clever sounding, vulgar sounding. I’ve heard them all, and I’ll hear them for the rest of my life if nothing changes. And if you’re looking at me and wondering ‘who the hell is this lunatic and why is he here spouting this insane nonsense’, my response to you will answer that question fully, even if all you hear will instinctively sound like threatening curses and provoke you to rage.

You’re laughing now so, are you ready? Here goes: All I see before me are phrase-hounds, singers of mind-songs, sun-drunk-up-heat-soakers, clever beparsers, rule-barks of that which is writ large and writ-writ-large…and of that which is writ-writ-writ writ large…(some members of the audience can be heard ululating and barking at this point; sounds of scraping chairs)…

*

The transcript ends here and I should add that I was one of the members of the audience, along with Mailyn and Parr, standing and ululating on the chairs. And though it was cool enough in the auditorium to remain comfortably indoors many of us felt it best to leave after hearing the welcome strains of The Entertainer threading its way around campus, bringing with it the promise of much needed temper-dampening refreshment. This dwindling of audience members, I believe, made it easier for Dr Hickle also to leave in one piece as his departure required him to walk all the way back through the single, narrow aisle between the chairs, before he could reach the only exit other than the fire door.

In conclusion, regarding Dr Hickle’s claims I feel duty bound, compelled, to state for the record that I believe my own capacity for introspection is sufficiently adaptable, if not unbounded, to the extent that the very fact that I can hear his claims and subsequently reject them — at least those parts of them which I can understand — discredits his thesis entirely. His claims are subjective to such a degree as to render them purely metaphysical at best. Just thinking about them makes my hackles rise.

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