(This Rant was written after reading Salman Rushdie’s story, “The Old Man in The Piazza”. Whether or not you read what follows, do read Rushdie!)
Every now and then we are moved by what we read. Only this once, we’ve come to the morbid realization that we are seated in squares – piazzas, if you will – with the words of Rushdie making a lot of sense of our situation: “It is unclear what we must do now. What will become of us? We are at a loss to know how things will proceed. Our words fail us.”
His short story, “The Old Man in The Piazza”, on the eventual, exasperated exile of language from our lives, is a requiem to free speech – the possibly wonderful and dreadful capacity for dissent, quarrel and reckless expression.
“It appears there is nothing that unites our people except their love of the quarrel itself, the quarrel understood as a public art form, as the defining heart of our culture.”
The irony is that we come from a dark age – “a “so-called time of the “yes”, (where) we were obliged to agree, at all times, (where) it was forbidden to debunk any proposition made. It was necessary at all times to assent.”
When it became too hard to breathe, our language, who once “wore tight clothing that constrained her movements, and uncomfortable shoes,” decided to get up from a corner in the piazza and “let out a long, piercing shriek that drove into our ears like a stiletto. No sooner had it been uttered than all our words were unleashed. Words simply burst out of people and would not be held back…”
If we sat with language, with “her long hair and skirt flowing loosely around her”, we’d find “a natural impulse toward dissent, toward sentences that began “But on the other hand…” or “But isn’t it true that…” or “How can you possibly…””
If we sat with language, a seductress unrivalled, ravishing her, no matter how loose her morals may be; no matter how promiscuous, we wouldn’t save our breath and we certainly wouldn’t keep our words to ourselves. And yet, we would “let her be whatever she wants! Let her do as she pleases!”
But we went looking for judgment to an Old Man in The Piazza, leaving our language, almost suddenly alone in her corner. She knows and warns this will not end well.
“Times have changed. The people care less for our beautiful complex language than they do for the great, crude questions of what is correct and what incorrect. We have ceased to be the poetry lovers we once were, the aficionados of ambiguity and the devotees of doubt, and we have become barroom moralists. Does the thumb point upward? Does it turn down? The old man in the piazza is our arbiter…We are all now gladiators in the Colosseum of the Thumb.”
Having fought a time when the word “no” was unutterable, our language begs and pleads, “the old man may be leading us toward a new version of the time of the “yes”, in which even more words may be placed off limits.
The verdicts of the old man’s thumb rule leave her aghast! “She cares only for words of many-layered beauty, for fineness of expression, for the subtlety of what is spoken and the resonance of what is better left unspoken, for the meanings between words, and the illumination of those meanings.
And she didn’t mind when the words were like explosions, hammering down on the piazza, making it full of passionate nonsense. It all counted – the rough, the crude and the excessively emphatic. There’s no harm in it, after all!
While our Old Man sits “making himself a judge not only of rightness but of rectitude”, some of us are worried. “But we are unwilling to express our worry.” And while we can’t find the words or the courage to utter those words, “our language, languishing in the corner, is perturbed…She worries about herself. For as long as we have known her she has been sprightly, energetic, vivid…but she has to admit that of late she has begun to feel unhealthy. She hopes that it isn’t anything serious. But she is our language, after all, and so she feels it is her duty to inform us of her condition. She fears she may be decaying. It’s even possible – though it’s hard for her to admit this, even to herself – that she may die.”
When nobody listens and nobody cares, “she rises to her feet, as she has risen just once before, and shrieks” to a point where “The piazza is broken, and so, perhaps, are we.” Only this time, she gathers up her skirt and walks out of the piazza, forever abandoning the corner she had made her own for more years than anyone can recall. She holds her head high, our language, and then she is gone. And after her departure nobody in the piazza can talk.” Suddenly aware of their own sounds – shapeless and devoid of meaning, the people turn their backs on the old man and walk away, making him at once, all over again: insignificant.
“The cracks are there. We can all see them…That is the truth.”
When freedom is ruptured, it’s hard to know how to protest. Particularly when, judgment, in delivery and receipt, has percolated the smallest cavities of our being.
And “it is unclear what we must do now. What will become of us? We are at a loss to know how things will proceed. Our words fail us.”
Rushdie seduces us with words that keep us spinning in melancholy. If we ever find the words to spin in reverse, may they bring back the passionate nonsense to the piazza; in one corner, an insignificant old man watching our “disputatious citizenry” debate subjects that remain unresolved and in another, our very old but young, beautiful, sometimes tousled, sometimes elegant (nonetheless attractive) language still there – a long skirt flowing and free.
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