To Speak

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On Monday, the first words I spoke were to my suitemate at 6 p.m.: “This is the first time I’ve spoken all day.” I had been wondering twenty minutes earlier what words I would say when I finally broke the seal. I wanted to speak so bad, having made it all the way to the evening in complete silence, but then I didn’t know what to say. It had to be something good. It ended up being something practical. If I could break that seal over again, I would say something that sounds funny, like “barn yard,” or “boobs.” Everything I didn’t say could be explained by some things I read over the weekend: an excerpt from an article in the New York Times Magazine on author Yiyun Li and a few lines from a Bertolt Brecht poem. 

The excerpt in question from “How Yiyun Li Became a Beacon for Readers in Mourning” by Alexandra Kleeman in the New York Times Magazine

As we sat together on a smooth stone bench, we noticed an Asian girl of maybe 11 or 12 years old sitting a long arm’s length away, watching us silently and steadily. We paused to ask her the sort of small, uninteresting questions that adults ask children— Are you visiting campus? Are you with your parents?—and she stared mutely, giving only the slightest one-shoulder shrug in response… Long after we left, Li was still thinking about the girl who watched us silently, who was so comfortable declining to speak. ‘I think she was amazing,’ she said with reverence. ‘I wonder what life is going to be like for that girl.’” 

And the lines from “Solely Because of the Increasing Disorder” by Bertolt Brecht: 

“Some of us have now decided

To speak no more of cities by the sea, snow on roofs, women 

The smell of ripe apples in cellars, the senses of the flesh, all 

That makes a man round and human

But to speak in future only about the disorder

And so become one-sided, reduced, enmeshed in the business 

Of politics and the dry, indecorous vocabulary

Of dialectical economics”

Everything I have read during the past month has been about this action, “to speak” and the decisions that surround it. What does it mean “to speak” of art, something so visual and visceral? Is “to speak” to seek a listener, then “to speak to?” When you speak, what words should you use? What words will convey your meaning and feeling? Will words ever be able to convey what you mean, or do they just dance around it, creating an outline without reaching the depth of what you want to say? Even when I peruse a magazine to take my mind off existential questions about “to speak” and words, I land on an article that champions a young girl who declines to speak. But wait, that’s interesting. That’s a way out of this mess. Brecht says to speak no more of presently beautiful things and “all that makes man round and human,” but he also says that speaking in the future about practical things like the disorder of the world will make you one-sided, reduced, political, and dry. If to speak of present beautiful things is a no-go, and to speak of future disorder will make me dry, then what can I say, Brecht? Huh? I decide I will say nothing and decline to speak for all of Monday. I will see if I like that better.

In Monday’s intentional silence, everything was a threat. In French class, my professor asked me a question point-blank: I smiled, stared, and turned bright red. I was too embarrassed to emulate the steady, watchful silence that the article extolled, but I did not speak. Everywhere I walked, I dodged familiar faces like landmines. I felt like I was fighting to protect the silence until I was able to lock myself in my room. Then, I couldn’t tell the difference between defiant silence and being antisocial. It was very easy to be quiet in my room. It no longer felt like a practice. Every hour, I would cough and be startled by my own noise. 

My best friend Arden coined the phrase “breaking the seal” for the moment of finally speaking after a long period of silence. When I broke the seal, it was anticlimactic—one-sided, dry, business-like. I did not know what else to say, even after having the entire day to decide what “to speak.” I found my mission to remain quiet very comfortable. It didn’t inform my questions about “to speak” and words, though. Even in this article, I use “silence,” “quiet,” and “declining to speak” interchangeably. But don’t those all mean different things? 

Yesterday, an unfamiliar feeling washed over me, which I think was a product of my being quiet on Monday. Two hours after dissecting Brecht’s poems and talking about “to speak” in a seminar, I was wandering around in a group when I realized that I did not want to speak. It was a comfortable feeling, as though it was in my nature to be quiet. I’m not sure if that is what I mean. Maybe I will try Brecht’s words: the decision to be quiet felt like “the senses of the flesh, all / That makes a man round and human.” I don’t know if that’s what I mean either.

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