Andy in New York

We are addicted to language. By way of proof, Andy Martin – lecturer in the Department of French and author of books on Napoleon, Bardot and surfing – takes a vow of silence. Spending a day in New York without words, he discovers a liking for one of the most over-used expressions of the era.

It was a strange feeling, almost like walking down the middle of the street, naked, vulnerable, unarmoured, without crutches.

Dr Andy Martin

It was like Desert Island Discs, only without the discs, and no Bible and the works of Shakespeare either. And I was marooned on the island of Manhattan. Which made the experiment challenging or possibly insane, but I knew I had to try it anyway.

I was supposed to be doing research into the bitter philosophical duel between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (a “binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity” in Sartre’s memorable phrase). But one freezing January day I resolved to put to the test what Roland Barthes called the “degree zero” of writing. I had to set aside all books for 24 hours and relinquish entirely my tenuous hold on language. I would eschew not just books but songs, conversation, newspapers, the radio, television, any forms of communication that relied on words. I went out into the world again, on that cold, clear winter’s day, with only a hat, a scarf, and a coat: no books, no paper, no computer, no pen. It was a strange feeling, almost like walking down the middle of the street, naked, vulnerable, unarmoured, without crutches. As if I had just landed from another planet.

On any other day, how many conversations would I have had with random strangers on the subway? Today of all days they were lining up to have a chat, talking about the clothes I was wearing (“Cool jacket, man!” – on the platform at Bleecker Street), the weather, the economy, anything. There was no end to them, as if my very silence was a provocation. But I could say nothing in reply. Perhaps they even preferred it this way, as if having a one-way conversation with a dumb animal.

I wandered along the banks of the half-frozen Hudson River on the west side, then heading east into mid-town, I took the plunge into the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue, where I had an office, by way of testing my nerve. I didn’t read a single word of the billions on offer. Feeling I had resisted the ultimate temptation, I rewarded myself later with a jazz concert at the Lincoln Center, but only got as far as the door where complicated questions as to whether I would prefer the 8 or the 10 o’clock slot forced me to back off. Maybe it was better that way, there was always a risk somebody might break into song.

But in truth the siren call of words can never be silenced, only resisted. We live (as Camus said) in a “society of signs”. It was impossible to cross the street without seeing the word CROSS. Everywhere, street signs brandishing their information about parking and directions, word of bakeries, dentists, radio shacks, buns and burgers, pizzas galore, and Broadway smash-hits – flashing out, endlessly, inescapably, with or without neon. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote, there was “nothing beyond the text”, even if that now tended to suggest (in a deconstructive twist that he would surely have approved of) that everybody was fetishistically attached to their mobile phones. The next day I finally stumbled, stuttering, back into the realm of the library.

I found that experience of cognitive dissonance fruitful in addressing the rift between the symbolic and the savage in Sartre and Camus. But now, a year on, all the words that screamed out at me on my degree zero excursion seem to merge into just one – “like” – one of the most over-used words of our era, especially in New York. “He was like…” “She was like…” “I mean, like…” For some as irritating as a record stuck in a groove or a jingle you can’t get out of your head. But can we ever eradicate it?

Philosophically, it implies a degree of scepticism: everything is only approximately true, ‘like’ this or that, but never quite coinciding perfectly with the truth. But poetically speaking, there is a series of implied comparisons or similes: my love is like a red, red rose; the city lies around us (as Camus wrote) like a cloak of glittering shells; it was like Desert Island Discs. Everybody is always like something or someone, everyday discourse is shot through with alikeness, similitude, connectedness, bathed in an invisible continuum. Rub two human beings together, and comparisons fly up like sparks. Perhaps it is only fair that “to say” has now virtually been replaced by “to be like”.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that language originated in poetry. I want to bet that the first sentence uttered, probably in southern Africa, some 100,000 years or so ago, began: “Like…” Or something like that. And I fully expect my last words to be, “It’s like…” I like like.

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