Some time ago, newspapers reported the results of an inquiry conducted among the general public to determine “the hundred most beautiful words in the English language”. Predictably enough, Motherhood, Peace, Love, Liberty, Spring etc. duly appeared on the list. Yet from the outset this rather silly exercise was doomed to insignificance, for the simple reason that it was predicated upon the illusory notion that words can have a value by themselves. Actually, words are to some extent like colours, of which Delacroix could say: “Give me mud, I shall turn it into the most luminous female flesh – as long as you let me free to choose which colours to put by its side.”
By their very nature, words are neutral and indifferent. It is only from their context that they draw their most pungent emotional charge. Racism and sexism are a form of leprosy of the mind and should be mercilessly fought; yet for the most part the fight against racist and sexist language aims at the wrong target. I know of a righteous American journal that censored a contributor who referred to The Nigger of the Narcissus. And some equally righteous French publications endeavour to feminise words such as auteur (author) and écrivain (writer) into the hideous monsters “auteure” and “écrivaine” … Yet words are innocent. No perversions are to be found in dictionaries; they lie solely in people’s minds – and that’s the battlefield where the good fight ought to be fought.
It is not the words themselves, but the circumstance and manner in which they are uttered that give them meaning and impact. Stendhal (who served in Napoleon’s army) liked to recall that when General Murat was charging the enemy at the head of his cavalry, he used to stir the spirits of his horsemen by shouting to them: “My arse is round, round as an apple.” Under enemy fire, in the heat of battle, these idiotic words became simply sublime – and the men were all willing to get themselves killed, just for the privilege of following such a hero.
In his first theatrical triumph, La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano), Ionesco exploited with great originality – and to splendid effect – the dichotomy that can exist between, on the one hand, the original meaning of words and, on the other, the meanings suggested by the tone, intention and gestures of the speaker. A good half a century earlier, Anatole France made use of the same conceit. In Le Livre de mon ami, the narrator recalls an episode from his adolescence: he had developed a passionate admiration for a beautiful female pianist who gave private recitals in his parents’ house. One night, at the end of a piece, the pianist suddenly turned towards her young admirer and asked him: “Did you like that?” “Oh yes, Sir!” the hapless boy stuttered, overcome with emotion. His blunder plunged him into such a distress that he swore never to appear again in the beautiful musician’s presence. Forty years later, however, he met her perchance at a social gathering. Chatting about the successes of her long and brilliant career, the pianist confessed that eventually one became blasé about applause; yet once, in her earlier days, she received a compliment that she never forgot: a young man was so moved by her music, he called her “Sir”.
The circumstance that lends words their greatest weight is the proximity of death. The “swan song” image does not pertain to the Western tradition alone. It is there already in The Analects of Confucius: “When a bird is about to die, his song is sad; when a man is about to die, his words are true.” Shakespeare seems to echo it: “The tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony.” Besides, in Anglo-Saxon common law a statement made by a dying man possesses a special evidentiary status, since “a dying man is not presumed to lie”.
No wonder the last words of the great are piously collected. The famous “Mehr Licht” (“More light”) of Goethe – assuming that he actually said it, and that he did not merely mean to ask that the shutters be opened – seems to suggest a lofty aspiration towards enlightenment and wisdom. By comparison, Thomas Mann’s ultimate query, “Where are my glasses?” sounds rather flat. At the moment of giving up the ghost on a hospital bed, the colourful Irish playwright Brendan Behan still had the wit to thank the nun who was wiping his brow: “Thank you, Sister! May all your sons become bishops.”
I am especially moved by the way old Countess de Vercellis died. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who witnessed it, describes the episode in his Confessions: “With her serene mind and pleasant mood, she made the Catholic religion attractive to me. In the very end, she stopped chatting with us; but as she entered the final struggles of agony, she let off a big fart. ‘Well,’ she said, turning over in her bed, ‘a woman that farts is not dead.’ These were her last words.”
The most heartbreaking last words are those of Pancho Villa. As the Mexican revolutionary was about to be shot, he found himself suddenly lost for words. He begged some journalists who stood nearby: “Don’t let it end like this! Tell them I said something.” Yet this time the journalists, instead of making something up, as is their usual practice, soberly reported the failure of inspiration in all its naked truth. Trust journalists!
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription