Wordherders, gather your flock

Speaking of Reich-Ranicki, I happened to see him on a talkshow. The motto for the evening was “Deutsch for Sale – Verraten wir unsere Sprache?” (“German for sale – do we give away [=betray] our language?”), and that was to put heaps of tragedy (the way that only Germans can turn even the pettiest thing into something that the UN General Assembly had better look into real, real quick) on a pretty trivial and boring evening. The thesis: there are too many English words in the German language, and even though that may be legitimate to some extent, because words like cool don’t have exact equivalents in German, it requires a serious effort to preserve the language as undefiled as possible. Reich-Ranicki made the case (coyly claiming that he was using a dictionary whenever writing, so as too avoid foreign words) and had unlikely back-ups in conservative secretary-general Markus Söder and poppsy-emo singer Reinhard Mey. The counterpart was manned and womaned with Christian Ströbele and entertainer Gayle Tufts – in short, the plenum belonged to a bunch of media regulars invited more for their connotations in the media than their positions on the topic.

The group had its constellation just right – pseudo-democratic, and therein reminiscent of the “Rechtschreibkommission” – the “Orthography Comittee”, that had been the governing body of that terribly botched spelling reform until its timely dissolution in 2004. Of course, the people re-claimed power over their language, and countless tomes have been composed, or will be composed, I’m sure (if not here, in some alternative dimension that is deeply into atrophied Sisyphean tasks), on the valiant struggle. I remember myself acting out my disapproval by massive waves of civil disobedience: I didn’t use it, IT, the new spelling in one of its myriad versions that the chaos reform produced. I even considered finally making that move to a forest cabin, if for nothing else, in compensation of the fact that I found (and still find) Thoreau heartrenderingly boring. Nothing happened. I finally succumbed…and here I am…writing in English, anyway.

The argument discussed by the five was laughably old, over-discussed – but as I saw Reich-Ranicki lecturing on the ideal of decent German – and who else could do that, if not him – I saw him morphed into, quite prosaically, Lovecraft. The comparison doesn’t stick easily – both men are so far apart in thought and writing, but they share one over-arching impulse: they are wordherders, nurturing the vestiges of languages that people will no longer go into, by simply writing them out into the open in an act against oblivion – Lovecraft’s “purple prose” is really not so purple, but rather grey with dust because it fishes for the unlikeliest words in the remotest corners.

Lovecraft and Reich-Ranicki were/are the Ents of their respective literary establishments. Ents, of course, belong to the stock of JRR Tolkien’s menagerie of creatures – they are the treeherders of old looking after the forests of Middle-Earth, phenomenally old, and so slow and well-reflected in each single one of their moves like a tightly packed computer hard disk on the verge of a sudden death – that’s just what they are.

Living, wandering memories of a world they are no longer part of, until they are re-summoned into the historical narrative to do their last and worst. They are extremely conservative figures, in a very literal sense: virtually immortal, sentient, highly intelligent, and blessed with archival memories that make it impossible for them to just say and name a thing in one concise phrase; rather, they describe things as they really are, as they came to be, and in what relation they are to all other things around: a perfect genealogy for every single logical relation available: that Lovecraft shtick taken to its utmost consequence. And they go down with a bang – in one last, goresome battle against the evil forces of modernity and industrialization (aka, orks). Their motives are never so very clear or outspoken – there’s a vague sense of allegiance with the human residents of Middle-Earth and a distinct aversion against these tree-slaughtering orks (the humans cut wood, too, of course). These most highly refined conservatives, preserving all and everything down to the last letter, can’t just stand back, let things rest, and fade into the past. Driven by a lofty sense of moral, their departure from the stage needs tragedy, grandeur – in short: a battle.

Tragedy – the desire for it is so close to the heart of Lovecraft’s narrators, conservatives to such an itching degree in all their academic self-assurance. Their world is tumbling, that is for everyone to see – Lovecraft’s use of decay (in countrysites as much as in physiognomies) has been variously noted as one of his most obvious topics. It has never been described in a context of apocalyptic interpretation, though – the notion of the end, so pervasively argued in all of his stories, has simply not adequately been acknowledged, and periodic pointers to “decay” in the sense of a Gothic motive won’t help here.

Decay, as read by Lovecraft scholars, cannot bear layers of meaning that surpass the physical (or sexual: won’t somebody enlighten me on, really!, the phallic nature of Cthulhu’s unwholesome tentacles?), because it is operating against the one master trope of Lovecraft interpretation: cosmicism. The planet is meaningless, its inhabitants are meaningless, and if they are haunted by super aliens, which to engage directly implicates physical decay (or outright death), this just proves their miserable meaningless – so goes the chorus that has been refined over the decades into the default argument for so many interpretations of Lovecraft’s works. I’m not disqualifying cosmicism – his prose benefits from the ontological status that the vast, menacing outside grants to his characters, no doubt. Still, it’s not the panacea it’s been made out to be. [to be continued]

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