The silence in words of violence
what difference does it make to who you are?
I’ve been inspired by’s beautiful book One-Sentence Journal, and his practice of writing down one sentence each day. I don’t always make it every day, but the frequency has been increasing as I continue to do it, and it is surprising to find the nuance of the day staring back at you from the page in one sentence.
Some days my sentence becomes filled with run-ons, dashes of thoughts that struggle to stay within the bounds of a line. I’m still trying to find that beautiful mix of observation and sardonic humor that so often hits me reading Chris’ work, how poignant those statements become. This was my attempt on the second of November:
Struck to read a headline that wrote: ‘What it’s like to grow up amidst falling shells,’ and for one second had visions of falling scallop shells from oceanic clouds until reality muscled in and turned to the real vision of falling bombs—one vision in an instant reminding me of pilgrim badges from the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, of pilgrimage, people walking in holy contemplation—the other the reality of horrific violence, of refugees fleeing with their children in arms—arms, yet another word for something that is organic, of the body, that has also been used to name the violence of metal, explosion, destruction, annihilation of life.
In those two images—one of shells from the sea falling from clouds, and arms that hold with care—I thought about how we move from words that name what arises and is of the earth, to using the same words for objects made by human hands with the intent to destroy that same life. Maybe by claiming the names of the things made and arising from the earth, humanity convinces itself that we too are gods of creation—and destruction.
Anne Carson writes, in her book Nay Rather:
…if there is a silence that falls inside certain words, when, how, with what violence does that take place, and what difference does it make to who you are?1
There was a silence, a turn where the shifts of meaning in shell and arms occurred—when the meanings folded in on themselves, and were used instead to describe concepts of weaponry.
What violence takes place—to know what it’s like to grow up amidst falling shells. Words twisted into negative images of what once was an emblem of life into a threat of death. What difference does it make to who we are?
Shells have a long history of meaning and symbolism. Held concave they were the symbol of Aphrodite, who arose from the sea in a scallop shell. In medieval times the shell became the emblem of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela—worn as evidence of status as pilgrims, thought to have been collected from the beaches at the final end of the journey at Finisterre, which at the time was thought of as the edge of the world—as in Latin, finis terrae.
Yet Finisterre is nearly 90 km farther than the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. And the reason this is still an important route of the journey is that it has ancient roots. The route was a popular pagan destination to reach the end of the world, believing that the entrance to the otherworld lay beyond the sea, where the sun sets beneath the unending horizon. Some believe that the shell is a symbol of this belief, resembling the setting sun before it returns to the dead at night. Carvings in stone and prehistoric dolmens around Finisterre bear witness to the antiquity of these beliefs, a time when the sun and ocean were revered. Celts in the last centuries before the common era built Ara Solis, the altar of the sun, where rituals would be performed for fertility and resurrection. Romans arrived, and they too built temples to Berobreus, the Galician god of the Otherworld.
And maybe this deep history of the shell as a symbol—an object that holds life and love and ideas of fertility, and the later badge of the pilgrim, the penitent—is where the shift began. A symbol of the setting sun and the endless horizon to the other world. But as centuries moved, the range of meaning grew narrower. A symbol of life, love, resurrection, the sun setting on a horizon only to rise again, turned to become a name for something that falls to earth only with the intent to destroy life.
What a difference it makes to who we are.
Arms have been used to measure across time and cultures—measuring lengths of clothing, yarn for weaving by the space between elbow and palm. Raising the arms is an ancient gesture of invocation—Ancient Egyptians believed it governed and symbolized the receipt of cosmic power, the blessing and power of the sun god. In etymology, arm comes from an older root that means “to fit together.” Like the embrace of two people, of food lifted from a plate to a child’s mouth. Hands held together in prayer, greeting, affection, fitted together.
And yet the same roots inform the etymology of the word armor, and this might be where arms as a term for weapons is first drawn from—arms covered in armor, weapons held in arms. Tools of war fitted together—arm holding shield, sword, armor, weapon. Metal clad to skin. The arm itself then became unnecessary—that which would be able to offer a greeting, an embrace was obscured, made impossible in the movement of an armored body or a disembodied weapon. There is the barest hint of connection to that other arm when we speak of arms, armament—metal and chemical made automatic, manifest, no longer needing to fit to human arms.
In another instance of the same essay, Anne Carson relates the etymology of the word purple:
Our English word 'purple' comes from Latin purpureus, which comes from Greek [porphura], a noun denoting purple fish. This sea mollusc, properly the purple limpet or murex, was the source from which all purple and red dyes were obtained in antiquity. But the purplefish had another name in ancient Greek, namely [kalkhē], and from this word was derived a verb and a metaphor…The verb (kalkhainein), 'to make purple,' came to signify profound and troubled emotion: to grow dark with disquiet, to seethe with worries, to harbour dark thoughts, to brood in the deep of one's mind.2
I find the parallel haunting—that a shell of a mollusk, able to dye cloth the deep reds and purples of sunsets falling on the horizon of the sea’s surface, also was once a metaphor for troubled thinking. Purple thoughts that live below the surface, submerged into darkness—profound thoughts, feelings, emotions kept in the darkened depths of disquiet. Maroon emotions the color of iron-rich blood that should stay contained beneath the boundaries of the skin.
Like so many of us, I have a mind filled with purple thoughts of late. Shades that are always present at some level, that doubtless help to keep us steady in better times, deep in the soul.
The language used to describe the time we live in feels constricted, with only ghosts of meaning—words that aren’t allowed to carry a deeper or more expansive present. It’s a language that insists we should already know what to think about this. Language that demands an answer rather than a question, sound over space, or a pause for silence.
Is there silence before a shell hurdles with gravity towards the earth, armed weapons that were never made for a human body, that explode and deafen?
If we could stop when a word turns in on itself, the pause before it switches meaning—what could be heard in that silence? Would the world find space for something new, to push into a different meaning altogether? Purple thoughts, dyed with meaning, reaching for a new surface only to be submerged again.
Anne Dufourmantelle, in her meditation on the Power of Gentleness, writes:
To pervert a meaning is to turn it into its opposite under the guise of serving or admiring it. It is above all the twisting of language and mind that we are made to believe is necessary.3
This reminds me of the attempts to twist the mind of Joan of Arc by her inquisitors, demanding that she describe the voices she hears in their religious language, yet she would only reply in cryptic statements:
The light comes in the name of the voice.4
Or even more to the point, the feeling of words failing to describe the time we live in—when they asked her:
In what language do your voices speak to you? and she answered: In better language than yours.5
When I had that momentary split of thinking of shells as shells, arms as arms, it surprised me. Like the surprises of poetry at times, or the serendipitous misunderstanding of a word, or a child using a word in an unexpected way, flipping it on its head. I paused. I laughed at myself darkly, sheepish that for even a second such a ridiculous image came fleeting through my mind. And then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
I’m fascinated by the way words create a world, how metaphor leads to new concepts, how words can grow and branch into different meanings. What that does to the worlds we inhabit, create, witness. Dufourmantelle goes on to write:
When we forget etymology it is not merely a question of lack of culture, but a question of relation to the collective memory. It is to be unaware that the misappropriations, the erasures, the substitutions of meaning are also the instruments of political and societal censorship.6
Is that not what we see when language becomes lazy, when words become weapons, narrowed to a smaller, uglier meaning, that doesn’t allow space for a word to be both a symbol of light and dark, myth and metaphor?
The world becomes smaller when we demand certain words mean only certain things. It’s why poetry has been such an ancient practice—conjuring new meanings between word and silence, pause and sound—why it was thought to be a spell as much as a prayer. It creates something new in its lacing of words, sound, and silence. And it can be powerful. Anne Carson again writes:
Of course linguistic invention is a risk. Because it comes across as a riddle and it poses the problem of pure origin: you cannot get behind the back of it, any more than you can find the source of the Rhine….7
Language can be a risk—but far more of one when we don’t allow for the silence and pause to define the truth of what we witness, to not allow others to define it for us so readily. Shells turn into bombs, pilgrims into refugees when language becomes twisted, smaller. New language is essential—we have to remember how to speak words that create and generate space, not confine it. Space for different languages, and words from the past as much as the present, so that we can speak to a time and world we want to see. As Dufourmantelle writes:
When we are seized by the feeling that nobody will ever come to us, ….we must still find the strength to extend our arms, to kiss, to love. To say it, to start again, to hear the whisper of that wild voice that calls you from well before your beginnings.8
Ibid. p. 18
Dufourmantelle, Anne. Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living. Translated by Katherine Paytne & Vincent Sallē. Fordham University Press, 2018. Print. Pp. 24-25.
Carson, Anne. p. 10
Ibid. p. 26
Dufourmantelle, p. 27
Carson, p. 32
Dufourmantelle, p. 98