James Joyce, in his famous and critically acclaimed novel Ulysses, talks about “foot-and-mouth disease,” a condition which plagues one of the novel’s protagonists, Stephen Daedalus. The characterization was surely a goof on the scientific correctness and the humorless exactitude of the medical field. But it was more than that.
The English language is huge, with words we are bound to never know. Its breadth will always be larger than our vocabulary and therefore, whether we like it or not, we can never really consume language the same way we can consume something more finite. We will always swim in it without ever knowing more than a tiny fraction of the larger ocean.
Joyce, perhaps better than any other writer, understood this. He knew that language was glacier-like, because more than any other artist he took on its meaning and structure. He recognized its beauty and usefulness on the one hand, but also its capacity to overwhelm, overpower, and drown out one’s voice on the other. Hence “foot-and-mouth.”
I first started reading Ulysses (or at least attempted to) at a point in life when I didn’t really understand language. Growing up, I was given a “formal education,” so to speak. I was taught that speaking certain ways, ideas aside, gave you authority; the words you used were as important as the ideas you espoused. Words, don’t get me wrong, are hugely important. Using words that fit, that enhance the style as well substance of whatever you’re saying, is essential.
But that wasn’t what my education was really teaching me. It wasn’t the fitfulness of the word, but the word’s size and prestige. Using the word “incentivize”, for instance, would turn more heads than “encouraged,” or “persuade,” or even “provide incentive.” And the fact that I knew that word, moreover, meant that I likely came from a place of privilege.
Which begets another point Joyce was getting at: language is power. Stephen Daedalus, like Joyce, was educated in British schools all his life, where he read writers like Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, and Donne, and ultimately learned to talk, and act, like the British. The way he spoke gravitated him toward a sphere that, although not his own, would grant him social and cultural capital for the rest of his life.
The Irish independence movement was about getting the Irish out of this mindset, and freeing themselves from the British; a process which started with language. Joyce, in his later works, defies the traditional rules and structures of English because, while a master of the language, he was, at the end of the day, an Irishman toiling within a language that wasn’t even his. He didn’t want social and cultural capital; he wanted freedom.
I didn’t really get Joyce’s point until I heard a particular song. “Kid A”, by Radiohead, it is sung by what sounds like a machine – or a man’s voice buttressed by a machine. The man has difficulty finishing his sentences. He sounds like he’s desperately trying to get something across – maybe trying to tell someone that he loves them – and yet his words hold him back. He can’t quite pick out the right ones. He can’t quite finish his thoughts.
It always reminds me of my own continual struggle with speaking – whether it is in conversations, discussions, or interviews – the difficulty I often have expressing, outright, what I mean. This is why I love writing; I don’t feel rushed expressing an idea or sentiment that is yet ripe, that is need of development, or which merits far more eloquence than I’m giving it.
It also reminds me of how I’ve been taught, and have taught myself, to speak in the wrong way. I think differently than I speak, and I speak differently than I write. What’s worse, I speak and write differently around different people. In some ways, this is a good skill to have, and signifies that you know your audience, and that you pay attention to detail. But it also makes us insincere, transforming us into social chameleons. We sometimes get so good at being different people around different people that we cease being conscious of it.
Part of Stephen’s greater journey in Ulysses, as an aspiring artist, is to master language; to talk the way his brain thinks and his heart feels. Politicians excel at this exact skill when it comes to public speaking. And really, it’s a skill that everyone should aspire to. Possessing it means that you’re expressing yourself effectively, and makes you feel, rather than a machine or the language of a colonist, that it’s you who inhabits your body.
Speak the way you think, and write the way you speak. Be brashly human and inhumanly eloquent all in one. Be you.