Thursday, May 17, 2007

The importance of destroying a language (of your own)

The myth about the Icelandic language among the population – the myth that is propogated in the school system, from kindergarteners to doctorates – is that in some ways it is a purer language than that spoken by our brethren in Scandinavia, which at best is considered to be some sort of pidgin Icelandic, “broken Icelandic”, languages not really fit for proper discussion – let alone poetry! – simplified and almost childish in their limited capacity for the use of cases, inflections or the melding of new words. This point of view, whatever merit it may have, has yielded a rabid conservatism within the Icelandic writers community that, despite what people might think, and despite the “official” view, is ever increasing: The idea is partly that we must not fall into the blackhole of becoming scandinavians.

Anyone that reads Icelandic books from the first fifty years of the last century – let alone older books - will notice the lack of uniformity in the use of Icelandic– the grammar is regional and personal, the idioms are regional and personal, the spelling is regional and personal, etc. In the years since there seems to have been a steady movement towards a uniformist coordination – linguistic scholars will often, although it is not fair to say always, mean that one usage is right and the other wrong – often this is a battle of cases and idioms – and believe-you-me, Icelandic professional proofreaders are among the most anal of the lot, scoffing at those who take liberty with language: “What silly mistakes!”

The general consensus seems to be: If you don’t do it the way the rulebooks say you should, than that’s because you don’t know how to – a peculiarity is written off as a mistake. I have even found the need to justify the use of the few colloquials that originate from my own home area – which are mostly about which prepositions to use – in my work as a journalist in my very own hometown, as well as having had battles with proofreaders from the south of the country. The conservative uniformism is so strict that there is quite literally no room for lingual diversity – be it experimental or traditional.

There are of course exceptions, the Icelandic literati – if indeed there is cause to call the half-illiterate a literati – will now and again ordain a poet or writer into a freedman, one that should no longer be revered as a mere servant of the language but as a genius (often rightly so) and granted permission to play – normally though, this permission is given afterwards, and it’s nearly a matter of coincidence who gets it and who doesn’t. To name two brilliant experimental writers, Megas has been ordained, while Steinar Sigurjónsson has not (outside a very small lit-clique).

The need in Iceland to overthrow the language regime is quite dire (“Tear this wall down!”). Viewing a language as such a rigid object does not only promote idiocy, it is literally a pathway to fascism (“No pasaran!”). A postmodern fascism, of course – where people are culled into action rather than forced (“Make love, not war”). A father saying to his child: „We really do have a great need for protecting our language, we are such a small nation. Now, you wouldn’t want to live in a world where noone spoke Icelandic, would you? You know, maybe then we would all speak Danish, and the pronunciation is not very easy.“

And the child whispers: „Yes, daddy, I promise to rid myself of dative-illness.“

Yes, it’s called „dative-illness“ – and it means that you have a preference for the dative instead of the accusative, or in some cases, the nominative. According to Icelandic parents and elementary school teachers, this is a life-threatening condition.

Enter: Avant-garde poetry. The eternal fucking with language – in the sense of disturbing it and loving it at the same time. Fooling around with it. Cheating on it. Taking it apart and putting it back together again – inverted or otherwise malformed.

Iceland doesn’t not have a particularly rich tradition of experimentation. Not to say that people haven’t experimented, not to say the experiments haven’t at times been brilliant – but mostly they’ve been discarded as momentary flippancies, and the postmodern fascist’s answer to the artist’s weeping is: „Now now, you are very talented, we know. But you should focus on something more suitable, perhaps...“ – And the most talented of people turn to rewriting Knut Hamsun or Halldór Laxness.

Experimental writing isn’t thrown out with brute force, it’s thrown out with the pathos of the understanding, yet ultimately intolerant. Like when the Icelandic police a few days ago „removed“ two dozen gypsies from Reykjavík – by showing up in police uniforms, giving them plane-tickets and driving them to the airport. Officially noone was deported, officially noone was forced to go anywhere – even though it seems the police hinted that they could deport the gypsies if needed – but still they went. Apparently there was a need to clear the streets of musicians for the Reykjavík Art Festival, that has just started.

The same social-democratic-postmodernist/diet-fascist – or whaddyawannacallit – approach is used on anything else that annoys the precious middle classes, the burgeoning structural enthusiasts that now populate Iceland to such an extent that rebellion doesn’t only seem hard, it seems futile. Like storming city hall is pointless for todays revolutionaries – the powers that be don’t need no city hall. And picking apart language as if it were a grandfather clock, is not really either a practice anyone hands out Nobel prizes for. But yet it seems that ever more poets find a calling within exactly those structures, or non-structures, of taking language apart and putting it back together, inverted or otherwise malformed. It is what defines most experimental poetry, and to a lesser extent probably almost all poetry worthy of the name. From TS Eliot to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets to the Flarfists, from the silliest of slam-poets to the Four Horsemen.

The infinities of the world, every word and every meaning, all the meanings behind every word and all the words behind every meaning, have been divided into categories of right and wrong, and questioning those categories is nigh pointless – the machine will in all probability have it’s way. Yet, it’s probably the only possible course of action for anyone who actually cares for a language or for language itself.

(This text was written as a mini-lecture for the seminar Alternativ publicering/litterær innovation in Biskops Arnö, Sweden, 10.-13. may, 2007 - but never read, since I was displeased with it, and decided these ideas needed much more than the 15 minutes given in Sweden. This will probably be expanded upon at some later date --- Instead I wrote another mini-lecture, about Nýhil and Tíu þúsund tregawött).

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