Philosopher and poet Stephen Schroeder examines literary and philosophical approaches to the unspeakable, including divine suffering in Kierkegaard; the legacy of Auschwitz in Adorno; the female social experience in Virginia Woolf; and the history of slavery in the US in Toni Morrison. Looking at contemporary unspeakables, Schroeder has the following to say: “The only way to speak of the whole is to learn to say nothing – not to stop at the obvious, the incompetence of bureaucrats, the brutality of dictators, the spin of politicians, but to shake the system to its core, to say no to the process as well as the products it produces.”

One might read Elfriede Jelinek’s 2004 Nobel lecture as a reiteration of Wittgenstein’s assertions about the mystical in the Tractatus – particularly as it was interpreted by Bertrand Russell. Russell read it as an impressive exercise in logic culminating in the claim that no language could contain and communicate wholes but that, since such wholes exist, they must be apprehended in and through silence. Russell doubted the existence of such wholes and was inclined to answer Wittgenstein with an infinite matreshka of languages – “wholes” beyond the limits of one language always being accessible to another, meta, language in which one could talk about the other. All of this will be familiar from the mathematico-logical and linguistic discussion that danced around Russell, Whitehead, and G�del in the first half of the twentieth century.

I don’t think anyone would characterize Jelinek’s writing as an exercise in logic. It might, then, more accurately be called a variation on a theme rather than a reiteration. Variations on themes are particularly appropriate where themes are difficult – as this one is. Part of the difficulty lies, as Russell suggested, in the fact that it is possible to say so much about what one cannot say. Wittgenstein was a master, and the Nobel committee was convinced that Jelinek is as well. But the more important difficulty, I think, arises when silence is represented as a failure of language – as something that happens when language breaks down. Jelinek skates close to this when she calls her lecture “Im Abseits“, translated from location to action, as “Sidelined,” in the Nobel Foundation’s official English version by Martin Chalmers. Russell skates close when he implies that the proper response to silence is another language. Wittgenstein, though, ends the Tractatus with an elegant rhyming couplet that skates somewhere else:

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann,
darüber muss man schweigen.

An elegant poem to conclude an elegant exercise in logic, hardly a declaration of exhaustion or failure. “I have nothing to say,” as John Cage put it, “and I am saying it. And that is poetry.”

As a poet who is not quite ready to abandon philosophy, I find this end fascinating – and I propose to linger over it for a few moments. What is the significance for language when we embrace silence – take a vow, as it were, make a public profession…?

It goes without saying that this is not a new question. What is critical to the question is what is unspoken – or, more to the point, what is unspeakable. To the extent that the unspeakable is the focus of our attention, we are always looking at it from the corner of the eye, always approaching it via detour. And this is critical for language, both as a practical matter of communication and as a theoretical concern. It is more plausible to claim that words happen when silence is broken: language is a failure of silence. And a vow of silence is a sort of pledge of tikkun olam, a pledge to restore a world fallen into words. I believe that one of our difficulties in honoring that pledge is a morbid fascination with the obvious that prevents us reading through it.

I don’t mean to be cryptic, but an explanation after Wittgenstein would be trivial – so let me try to show, with reference not only to Wittgenstein, Jelinek, and John Cage, all of whom have already been cited, but also to Kierkegaard, Danielle Allen, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. Knowing that the spoken is expendable, let’s try to climb it while we listen to what is not said and watch for unobstructed glimpses of nothing.

What I find interesting about Jelinek’s lecture is its emphasis on an othering impulse inherent in language. Language is a dog always straining against the leash, always anxious to curl up in somebody else’s lap. At least Jelinek says this of her language. It is always out of control, leaving her perpetually on the sideline. So it is plausible to think of sidelining as what language does to the writer/speaker. But she also speaks of looking for the spaces beside the sideline – as though the sideline is constantly being devoured, leaving her nowhere to stand but in the middle. It would appear that the leash is pulled on both ends – creating a tension between writer/speaker and written/spoken that has an effect on the world, pushing the writer/speaker to clear new spaces.

This is an image with some promise: the written and spoken plunging into the world, not unleashed by a writer or speaker to penetrate it, but leashed by a writer or speaker never entirely in control, straining against it. And the straining is a perpetual plunging into silent sidelines that is the mirror image of the written and spoken plunging into the world. The image is a corrective to the often-repeated one of a poetry that resists “the pressure of reality” (a slightly distorted variation on Wallace Stevens). In Jelinek’s image, the writer/speaker and the written/spoken at the other end of the leash are equally “in” the world, though they are straining in opposite directions. The pressure is internal to the relationship between the written/spoken and the writer/speaker, not external to the writer, not an impediment to the writing, but a potentially explosive power within it – within language, which includes speaker, speaking, spoken, unspoken.

The poem is not a resistance to but an instance of the pressure of reality.

Theodor Adorno is often misquoted as having simply declared poetry impossible after Auschwitz. But he came to this only after saying that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric – a more subtle claim, certainly, and more consistent with the body of Adorno’s thought. When a critical philosopher who is himself a musician associates lyric poetry with barbarism, something is afoot. Auschwitz is the paradigmatic unspeakable of the twentieth century, an instance of inhumanity at once incomprehensible and undeniable, an explosive combination. And Adorno says it renders lyric barbaric – not simply impossible, but barbaric. What could this mean?

In its origin, barbarikos is a linguistic term – a crude imitation of language that is not hellenikos and therefore is neither civilized nor articulate: ba ba ba… If Auschwitz places the music of poetry – lyric – with the barbaric, it makes the language of that music something other than the language of “civilization”. It must be something else, something spoken outside the city, outside language.

This is a reminder that barbarikos is also a cultural and political term: it draws a line between labeler and labeled, erects a city wall against a practice so named, a practice rendered wild, uncultivated. Thinking of Levi-Strauss and where he went with pens�es sauvage, it is tempting to say “half-baked”.

Kierkegaard made much of concealment, which is an act of will. But the unspeakable is not an act of will, not a concealment, not an act. It is, in language Kierkegaard also used for faith, a passion. And it is placed on Abraham in much the same way as it is placed on Ismael and Hagar, though each has different tools with which to respond. Driven into the wilderness, Hagar leaves her child in despair when the water runs out. How can she watch her child die? She weeps. This is not concealment, but the end of language. Unable to watch, she averts her eyes – not an uncommon response to unspeakable suffering. She has nothing to say; she says it; and that is what God hears. The child, alone in the wilderness, cries. He has nothing to say, he says it; and that is what God hears. With open ears, God opens Hagar’s eyes; and she gives the child water. But he promptly forgets mother and child when he next speaks to Abraham. He orders Abraham out, with his “only” son, Isaac. Hagar left her son because she could not watch him die. Abraham prepared to murder his son because he believed it was God’s desire. The cry of a child abandoned in the wilderness opened God’s ears to speech. A divine word opened Hagar’s eyes to what she needed to keep her child alive. Abraham looked up at the cry of an angel and saw what he had promised God would provide. He said nothing. He did nothing. And the child lived. Everything turns on the cry of a child and the cry of an angel. Ears open, eyes open, they return to tell the tale.

Kierkegaard made much of silence. Abraham was silent because to murder one’s child is unspeakable, to do it in the name of God doubly so. How could he name such an act? He can no more tell the story of murdering his child at God’s command than Hagar can watch her child die of thirst in the wilderness. He can tell the story of not murdering his child, and Hagar can watch her child not die. Each character is driven out of speech into the unspeakable. Each returns to speech with an eye-opening story – that is, a story of eyes opening as well as a story to open eyes.

And that is interesting.

Kierkegaard called the interesting a border category between the aesthetic and the ethical, between taste that strains toward the personal and rule that strains toward the universal. The story, driven by interest as well as intelligibility and truth, takes place on the edge between local and global where world falls into word and word emerges into world.

He is quite right to place the interesting on that border, between particular and universal. And we are quite right to associate story – the telling of the tale – with the interesting. Driven out of language, Abraham returns to it in story, and story is driven by interest more than truth. That it strains toward the universal is evident in the telling, but it cannot go there without the particular. It is a matter of taste, an aesthetic matter.

But Kierkegaard locates the ethical in the universal, with language, on this side of silence, and that is another matter. Addressing Abraham’s silence, he evokes a religious sphere, a self grounded transparently in the power that posited it, suspending the ethical (the universal) in response to the will of God. But this underestimates the passion of the divine, the divinity of passion. Abraham passes through a word (ten words?) of God into silence. And in silence, there is no rule, only a nameless sense that impels action, a pressure in reality that makes one move. When Abraham returns to word, it is by way of the interesting: his eyes are opened like Hagar’s, and the tale is told because it is eye opening.

Wittgenstein is right: “The world is independent of my will,” a proposition that can be stated by any subject in any world – including God. “There can be no ethical propositions… Ethics and aesthetics are one.” The point is to relocate the ethical beyond language in particulars that – like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith – are indistinguishable from the aesthetic. The universal draws us back into language through the interesting, into story – and, like Jelinek, we strain against the inclination of language to contain. Like the dog straining on the leash, we cannot contain ourselves. We will not be contained.

What lies beneath the narrative of Ismael, Hagar, Abraham, and Isaac is not the will of God but the cry of Ismael, the cry of the abandoned child – passion, not action, opens God’s ears and our eyes.

As a Christian writer and, more particularly, as a Lutheran, Kierkegaard was inclined (in the spirit of sola scriptura) to take stories that contain God seriously and to defend the God contained in them. It goes without saying that obedience to God’s command is right, whether or not it violates an ethical principle. Hence the teleological suspension of the ethical in Fear and Trembling and the account of Abraham’s silence. But if we abandon the defensive posture and confront the abject terror barely contained in a narrative of a god driving the faithful into the wilderness to watch their children die, we may be in a position to rethink accounts of God and of sacrifices performed in God’s name – a worthwhile project, given the frequency with which sacrifice and human being vis-�-vis god are entangled with the unspeakable.

It is important to be clear that I am speaking here of stories, not God. The question involves the stories we tell about God and about the sacrifices we confront with depressing regularity. Like Hagar, we cannot watch our children die. But we do. And, in one war after another, we repeat Abraham’s silent acquiescence. We tell stories that cannot contain these unspeakables but enfold us in words that make it possible for us to go on when it should not be possible. It is the relationship between the unspeakable and words that interests me, and, in that, I don’t think I am departing radically from the classical philosophical interests of theology. Aquinas, for example, did not offer proofs for the existence of God but arguments that led to what “everyone understands to be God”. What does everyone understand – and what does it mean when, in the silence beyond language, we understand nothing?

While the sacrificed is named in the narrative of Ismael, Hagar, Isaac, and Abraham, she is unnamed in the narrative of Jephthah and his daughter. Reading this narrative, Danielle Allen follows a tradition of political philosophy in the West (including Locke) that sees Jephthah as an heroic figure. But, drawing on Ralph Ellison, she turns attention to the self-sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter as an instance of “ordinary” sacrifice that is uncelebrated. Jephthah’s daughter in this case becomes a figure for the young people put on the line during the Civil Rights movement in the United States – particularly Elizabeth Eckford, who was turned away from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on 4 September 1957. Elizabeth is not generally included among the heroes in standard accounts of the movement – but the picture of her being turned away, among the most famous of the era, effectively reconstituted the United States according to Allen.

The particular case is interesting as an eye-opening instance – along the line of images of unnamed African-Americans abandoned in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which leaves those abandoned on the Mississippi Gulf Coast also unnamed and largely unimaged, like children who were turned away unphotographed). But the association with Jephthah and his daughter is my main concern here.

The standard account has almost always read the sacrifice as Jephthah’s – the “heroic” act of giving up a child for the greater good of the community. This is a factor in the argument between Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison about the events in Arkansas. I think Allen is right to highlight Ellison’s emphasis on sacrifice as a category for political theory, particularly in a democratic polity. But Arendt’s dis-ease with the use of children in a political struggle is justified. Allen correctly reads the sacrifice in the narrative of Jephthah and his daughter as the daughter’s sacrifice – a reading that comes close to Muslim interpretations of the Koranic version of the Abraham narrative in which it is Ismael, not Isaac, who is to be sacrificed and who willingly submits.

Allen responds to dis-ease with sacrifice as a category in political philosophy by saying that it is already happening and we need to find a way to acknowledge it – to turn our attention from “heroic” military and quasi-military sacrifices to the everyday sacrifices of ordinary people. This turn may be part of what has gone on with the response to Cindy Sheehan over the past few months in the United States. Her son’s death is understood as a sacrifice she made, and her quest to give it meaning arouses widespread sympathy.

But I fear this neglects the senselessness of Jephthah’s vow and the namelessness of his daughter – both of which occur in silences that define the limits of this narrative. Those limits, in turn, may help us think about “little” murders on which we build our cities, a subject that has gotten some attention in stories from Virgil to Toni Morrison.

We cannot acknowledge a sacrifice without being haunted by it.

Virginia Woolf was acutely aware of the gender-driven shift from the sacrifice of named sons to the sacrifice of unnamed daughters in narratives that made fathers heroes, mothers invisible. She created Judith Shakespeare to counter the shift and explore the kinds of space it constructed for writers. One of the most important insights of A Room of One’s Own is that the social indifference male writers enjoyed in Western culture resulted in space for writing closed by the hostility that drove women into anonymity.

Indifference, though unspoken, is not unspeakable; and it is distinct from the silence and anonymity that result from being shouted down. But the anonymous woman writing, the invisible mother crying, the unnamed daughter sacrificed, together with the named son sacrificed and the heroically decorated father all contribute to Woolf’s pacifist analysis in Three Guineas. The little murders and everyday sacrifices of ordinary existence are the assembly lines on which Il Duce is manufactured. And this calls for something more than regime change, something more than the necessary patricide of toppling a dictator.

Woolf is routinely criticized for being patrician, but her reading has significance beyond the privileged class into which she was born, because she connected the little murders of ordinary existence and the manufacture of dictators. Jephthah, the military hero, is the type as surely as Il Duce. Saying “what have you done?” (not “what have I…”) he rises to the top on the sacrifices of named sons, unnamed daughters. Naming the daughter is important (which, I think, is why Woolf imagined Judith Shakespeare rather than simply writing about the anonymity of women who wrote), but turning her into a hero is no more than a sex change for the dictator. The narrative, as Woolf recognized, is flawed. It demands new words, new methods – not new heroes.

This turned Woolf to the “cotton wool” of ordinary existence as it turned Wittgenstein to what man nicht sprechen kann.

In Moments of Being, Woolf notes that there is more nonbeing than being in everyday life, which makes the question of how to depict nonbeing unavoidable for anyone writing on everyday life. The difficulty of the question tempts writers away from the everyday and may partly explain our obsession with heroes. While Woolf speaks of a pattern “behind” the cotton wool of nonbeing, she resists the temptation to describe it directly. Instead, she weaves the cotton wool with the shocks that punctuate it, lifting human existence into a metaphor: we are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself.

Fascination with the ordinary permeates Woolf’s writing, but it is nowhere more evident than in her final novel, Between the Acts, published posthumously in 1941 with a note from her husband and editor Leonard informing readers that the manuscript had been completed but not fully revised at the time of her death. Leonard’s judgment was that she would not have made “any large or material alterations” but “would probably have made a good many small corrections or revisions before passing the final proofs”. It is appropriate that Woolf’s “final” novel not be final, that it be unfinished, and that it be unfinished particularly at the level of small corrections and revisions. That is the level at which she was convinced the “unfinished” and “unseizable” character of human life most fully manifests itself – the ordinary, the everyday, the small. At the end of Jacob’s Room, “they” (whoever “they” are) say that we live driven by an “unseizable force” that cannot be “caught” in the character drawing of novelists. But Woolf knew that what was unseizable was not the force of arms and of commerce so much as the force of the ordinary, the terror of the present moment. And so her “final” novel, written in the midst of a war that threatened to end the world as she knew it, begins with a discussion of a cesspool and ends with a curtain rising on a play that is just beginning.

The novel is built around another play, a village pageant, that is a sweeping history of England – but a sweeping history told as the story of a particular community. This play, like discussion of a cesspool, forces us to look at details we might otherwise overlook. We are most likely to become conscious of cesspools and sewers only when they fail. In this play, Woolf makes us conscious of the fluidity of time and persons because history has failed.

In the beginning, Mrs. Swithin is reading An Outline of History. She envisions a prehistoric scene, and, interrupted by a servant who arrives to serve tea, “it took her five seconds in actual time, in mind time ever so much longer, to separate Grace herself, with blue china on a tray, from the leather-covered grunting monster who was about, as the door opened, to demolish a whole tree in the green steaming undergrowth of the primeval forest. Naturally, she jumped, as Grace put the tray down and said; ‘Good morning, Ma’am.’ ‘Batty,’ Grace called her, as she felt on her face the divided glance that was half meant for a beast in a swamp, half for a maid in a print frock and white apron.” Past, present, and future are superimposed in the present moment, and Mrs. Swithin is one of many Woolf characters who struggle to deal with this simultaneity. The struggle is often interpreted as a kind of madness that results in a “divided glance” rewoven only in encounter with others. But I read it as “divinest sense”, one of the ways in which human beings are depicted as being in the image of a god who is in the same boat vis-�-vis time. It is not history that has failed but the processes by which we “normally” dispose of it and keep it out of sight. History is a “natural” process like the excretory processes cesspools and sewers are designed to address. These processes only become “problems” to be “addressed” in the context of civilization. When the sewer backs up, it is not terribly useful to blame it on the excretory system; but it may be useful to ask what is wrong with the sewer.

In the first third of the novel, people gather for the pageant. As we observe this gathering, we gain insight into “nature” and “culture” by way of conversations (“not shaping pellets of information or handing ideas from one to another, but rolling words, like sweets on their tongues; which, as they thinned to transparency, gave off pink, green, and sweetness”); the building of houses and barns (“Nature had provided a site for a house; man had built his house in a hollow”); the difficulty of being alone (“Utterly impossible was it, even in the heart of the country, to be alone? That was the shock. After that, the rock was raced round, embraced. If it was painful, it was essential. There must be society.”); and the family (which “was not a family in the presence of strangers”). Families and other societies are constructed in part out of repetition, in part out of solitude, and in part out of the unmistakable contribution of silence to talk. That last element, the contribution of silence to talk, is one of the repetitions that we race around and embrace in this novel.

On the day represented in the novel, “words ceased to lie flat in the sentence. They rose, became menacing, and shook their fists at you.” They became “symbolical,” and it is not clear whether Mrs. Swithin refers to the nursery or the words themselves when she “seems” to say “the cradle of our race”. But it is clear that the origin of human persons and human society lies somewhere in the tension between silence and speech embodied in words and the spaces between them, inadequate though both must always be.

It is not clear to the audience when the play begins, partly because it is a history of England – the place where they are, and must therefore begin (wherever it begins) in the middle. The gathering may be the most important part of history and therefore the most important part of the play. As a gramophone needle ticks away behind the play’s beginning, Oliver (speaking under his breath) says it is “marking time” – at which Lucy murmurs, “Which don’t exist for us�We’ve only the present.” We’ve only the present, but we make time, not by means of the plot (“Don’t bother about the plot,” Isabella says, “the plot’s nothing.”) but by means of the people. The poetry of the conversation has the effect of integrating the audience into the play, as does the dual role of each actor: they play parts on the stage, but they are also identifiable by their parts in the life of the village. What happens on stage is a history of England, but what happens in the audience – and most especially what happens between the acts – is a history of England as well.

This is highlighted with a macabre commentary during the intermission: “There, couched in the grass, curled in an olive green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth. The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round – a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, [Giles] stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas on his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him. He strode to the Barn, with blood on his shoes.” The snake and the toad constitute a monstrous inversion, but they also serve to remind us of the reversibility of time. Death is an inversion of birth, birth of death – and the future flows through the present into the past as surely as the past flows through the present into the future. It is the present – or, more accurately, being present – that makes both. Action relieves Giles, but it is the shape that emerges between actions that constitutes a world.

Returning to the play, we are told that “music wakes us”, that it “makes us see the hidden, join the broken”. The pattern constituted by the acts and what is between them is the music: the play, the music, and the cows all say the same thing, folding the audience in “a triple melody”.

The play’s author, Miss La Trobe, confronts the audience with “present-time reality”. She had written in her script to try ten minutes, but she fears that reality is “too strong”. “She felt everything they felt. Audiences were the devil. O to write a play without an audience – the play”. The rain, which fell “like all the people in the world weeping”, sustains the confrontation with present time until the actors can position themselves with mirrors of all shapes and sizes, confronting the audience with itself, with “scraps, orts, and fragments�”

Confronted with ourselves, with scraps, orts, and fragments, we each see something different – and the present moment is constituted not of sameness or of commonality but of difference, the weaving together of visions, the particularity – and the beauty – of the fragments of humanity that constitute human worlds.

And now?

The weaving together of those fragments can itself never be anything other than fragmentary, because it can never be anything other than particular.

Throughout her work, Woolf identified and probed the problem posed by the difficulty of focusing on the present – as embodied in persons, in places, and in times. The force that she associated equally with war and with commerce at the end of Jacob’s Room is largely an effect of the drive to be elsewhere, to be other, and (as her descriptions of conversion and proportion reveal) to control. This “unseizable force” is the force of occupation and of Empire; it takes place, and it puts others in their places. It is equally a colonial and a missionary impulse, most often carried out for the “good” of those it seeks to colonize and convert.

The alternative begins in the four teachers of the daughters of educated men described in Three Guineas: poverty, chastity, derision, and freedom from unreal loyalties. The first three of these, imposed from outside, are instruments of oppression, long employed against women and other colonized people. But as “vows”, these teachers become cultivators of non-attachment and integrity. Taken together, they may facilitate being present by cultivating detachment from social rewards that are also means of social control (other places and other times that are “ends” for which this place and time are only “means”). They may also facilitate being present by cultivating an integrity manifested both in the refusal to feign loyalty and in the insistence that the whole be present in every part even though every part is particular rather than universal. The Outsiders’ Society is characterized by experiment with “private” means in “private”, but the experimentation blurs the boundary between private and public. The “public” is constituted in being present, an intensely private act – an act that, once again, circulates around story and the border category of the interesting. Even an Outsiders’ Society is formed around story; and the limit of story is the unspeakable.

The contribution of silence to talk, the relationship between being haunted by something and remembering it, aspects of the unspeakable, are themes addressed in Toni Morrison’s sacrifice narrative, Beloved, a work of fiction erected around a news account of a woman who slit her child’s throat rather than see her in slavery. This is a sacrifice of an unnamed daughter more dramatic than Jephthah’s. And it is a particular history of the United States as surely as Woolf’s novel is a particular history of England. The level of violence is deeper, as is appropriate to the place. There is no way to commemorate this sacrifice without being haunted by it, so Beloved is a ghost story – as is the history of the United States. Being haunted, as Morrison and her characters know, means struggling with rememory, with which stories to pass on. Which ghost stories do we tell? When, where, and how do we tell them? Who speaks? Who is silent? Who is named?

The “sixty million and more” of Morrison’s dedication are undeniable, but who can name them? She evokes Hosea by way of Paul. There is a whole theology in that palimpsest, and it turns on the appropriation of stories as much as the telling of them. It is not only a question of who tells the stories but of whose stories we tell and how they come to be ours.

Adorno’s comment about poetry grows out of a judgment that Auschwitz, as the paradigmatic unspeakable of the twentieth century, is consistent with the logic of Capitalism. In discourse driven by such logic, the assertion of humanity is outside civilization – barbaric. Unspeakable.

Virginia Woolf spoke of criticizing the whole society, and this recalls Wittgenstein. To speak of the whole is to speak outside the part of language constituted by words: it is to say nothing. This is not not speaking. It is speaking outside the logic of slavery, the logic of Auschwitz, the logic of racism. It is Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical detached from will. And, as Wittgenstein suggested, this is not an act of “teleological” suspension but an outside where ethics takes place.

The sacrifice with which Kierkegaard had to grapple because it was contained in a constitutive story of his faith community is much like the sacrifices with which Allen would have us struggle because they are givens within our history and constitutive of our understanding of ourselves as a people. But struggling with them is precisely the point. To speak these sacrifices is to be haunted by them, and the task of the speaker/writer is to haunt society with them – not to make it possible to go on, but to make it impossible.

To return to some current unspeakables… When Cindy Sheehan demands to know why her son died, speech tempts us to explanation. But there is no reason. When the people of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast demand to know why so many were abandoned to die, speech tempts us to explanation. But there is no reason. Speech tempts us to contain those unspeakables, to domesticate them. But they cannot be contained. Beyond the city walls, they are barbaric – and to “civilize” them is a crime. To “civilize” them is to send the city itself into exile, to make it barbaric.

The only way to speak of the whole is to learn to say nothing – not to stop at the obvious, the incompetence of bureaucrats, the brutality of dictators, the spin of politicians, but to shake the system to its core, to say no to the process as well as the products it produces.

George Bush finally said he could not imagine America without New Orleans, though it seems he tried. The question is whether we can imagine a city that does not drive its population into poverty and leave its children to die, an imagination to which no angel has yet appeared to open our eyes. It remains to be seen.


Theodor Adorno, Prismen: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, Berlin, Suhrkamp Verlag 1955.

Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2004.

John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing”, in Silence. Wesleyan University Press 1961. [The lecture was first printed in 1959.]

Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Lecture 2004, “Im Abseits”, translated as “Sidelined” by Martin Chalmers, PMLA Volume 120, Number 3, May 2005.

Tony Morrison, Beloved, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1987.

Wallace Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”, in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination, New York: Vintage 1951. [The essay was first published in 1942.]

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, German text with English translation by C.K. Ogden. Introduction by Bertrand Russell, Routledge 1922. [First appeared in German in 1921.]

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World 1929.

Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, New York: Harcourt Brace 1941.

Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room, New York: Harcourt Brace 1923.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being, Second Edition, Edited by Jeanne Schulkind, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1985.

Published 31 March 2006
Original in English
First published by Kulturos barai 3/2006 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Kulturos barai © Steven Schroeder/Kulturos barai Eurozine


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