Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Language Shapes Us

In the recent collection, The Brilliant Art of Peace, the U.S. Institute of Peace press collects a series of lectures given in the Kofi Annan Series at UN between 2002-2006. I haven't read them all, but if the first, by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, "Humanities After 9/11" is any indication, this will be a great little addition to your reading list.

Morrison deftly connects ancient literature of Beowulf with our time today weaving in snippets from Hemingway and others to show how the language of war has evolved. It's important to recognize this was delivered before the US invasion of Iraq. A glimpse of it here:

"The language of war has historically been noble, summoning the elevating quality of warrior discourse, the eloquence of grief for the dead, courage, and the honor of vengeance. That heroic language rendered by Homer, by Shakespeare, in sagas, and by statesmen is rivaled for beauty and force only by religious language with which it frequently merges."

Morrison goes on to note that language was challenged by authors like Hemingway, whom she quotes "I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, and I would see nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.There were many names you could not bear to hear, and finally, only the names of places had dignity."

She manages to find some hope that "war is finally out of date, that it is truly the most inefficient method of achieving one's long-term aims." Yet recognizes the limits of that hopefulness:

"I understand that my comments may appear disjunctive on this date in 2002, when legislatures, revolutionaries, and the inflamed do not declare war, but simply wage it. But I am convinced that the language that has the most force, that requires the more acumen, talent, grace, genius, and yes, beauty, can never be, will never be again, found in paeans to the glory of war or erotic rallying cries to battle. 

          The power of this alternative language does not arise from the tiresome, wasteful art of war, but, rather, from the demanding, brilliant art of peace."