Dead Languages

Dead Languages

by David Shields

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In Dead Languages by David Shields, Jeremy Zorn's mother tries unsuccessfully to coax him into saying "Philadelphia," and his life becomes framed by his unwieldy attempts at articulation. Through family rituals with his word-obsessed parents and sister, failed first love, an ill-fated run for class president, as the only Jewish boy on an otherwise all-black basketball team, all of the passages of Jeremy's life are marked in some way by his stutter and his wildly off-the-mark attempts at a cure. It is only when he enters college and learns his strong-willed mother is dying that he realizes all languages, when used as hiding places for the heart, are dead ones.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555970307
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 07/05/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 246
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David Shields's other books are Remote, A Handbook for Drowning, and Heroes. His stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Vogue, Details, the Village Voice, and Utne Reader. He lives in Seattle, where is a professor of English at the University of Washington.

David Shield's other books are Remote, A Handbook for Drowning, and Heroes. His stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Vogue, Details, the Village Voice, and Utne Reader. He lives in Seattle, where is a professor of English at the University of Washington.

Read an Excerpt

Dead Languages

A Novel

By David Shields

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1989 David Shields
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-030-7


I UNDERSTAND that whenever Demosthenes got a little tongue-tied he'd leave Athens to camp out on the Mediterranean coast where, with pebbles in his mouth, he'd rehearse his oration against the sound of the Aegean Sea until his rather unGreek diffidence ceased and words became waves within him. Then he'd return to Athens to deliver a very authoritative, unhesitant speech which always concerned the sanctity of the Greek city-state and never received anything less than unrestrained applause from the rude multitude. The trip to the Mediterranean, the swim at sea, the favorable reception in the senate: it's a delightful tale complete with moral in tow. And yet there are those — surely, Sandra, you are one of them — who will want to insist that Demosthenes, forced to flee Athens and lecture inattentive fish every time he was scheduled to speak about the city-state, should have drowned himself at high tide, whereas I'd want to emphasize that Demosthenes never left the coast until he was speaking so loud he could no longer hear the Aegean arriving on the rocks.

The big city boy, who hates the city, leaves the city to perfect a speech in praise of the absolute supremacy of the city. The audience, impatient to applaud, doesn't perceive that the greatest orator in Western civilization often speaks with seaweed sliding out his mouth. Why would someone for whom talking was torture want to talk all the time before thousands of Athenians? Because otherwise he'd have drowned himself at high tide. My sister — so shy, so sincere — once wanted to be an actress. The best jazz drummer I've ever heard had only one arm. We all choose a calling that's the most radical contradiction of ourselves.

And what's my calling? I am not a postal clerk. All I've ever had are memories; metaphor is only an escape from error into elegance. No imagination, only memory. More specifically: Lido Isle the summer of 1960. I remember Father reading about the Rosenbergs in a wooden chair chained to a steel stake in the sand; Mother sitting at her black typewriter in her black swimsuit, inhaling Kents and exhaling black smoke while writing a retrospective on the Hollywood Ten for The Nation ("Perhaps the whole intent and purpose of the loyalty orders was merely to collect evidentiary leads — like a boy collecting wads of string in the hope that someday he will have enough for a noose"); Beth, too fat to have fun, never failing by lunch to complete the crossword puzzle; the hideous sand dunes in the distance, slime mold clinging to the four legs of the dock, the muddy shore at morning, but all that recedes and I see myself, absurdly small, seated in a white rowboat that later is to become much photographed by Father because it's the source of all mystery. It's the source of all mystery because, although it's without oars or owner and isn't moored, it never leaves the shore. Never. It's always there, always white, rusted, pure, austere.

The rowboat isn't only the Source of All Mystery and the Vehicle of the Voyage. It's also an Icon of My Own Isolation. C'est moi. I never leave the shore. I don't know how to swim. Tears lift the waves to high water. The horizon is Hong Kong. I decide to cross the Pacific so I can stop speaking English, with which I am having considerable difficulty, and learn Chinese, which seems so much faster, so much more natural. No pauses, just jabbering. I decide to row across but have no oars. I decide to swim across but don't know how to swim. I can't even float. Though I haven't yet heard of Demosthenes, I speak to the Pacific, love how dark it looks as night nears. I want from the waves what he wanted: a little bit of cruel constancy. I orate to the ocean what I've heard about all day — that neither of the Rosenbergs and none of the Hollywood Ten were guilty — and, all alone in the night, I become witty, jocular. I explain to the Pacific how helplessly attracted I am to Ruth Greenglass's red hair, how erotic her betrayal of the Rosenbergs is for me. My voice picks up power, I'm drowning out high tide, I can't hear it any more. The Pacific is puny. China is mere chimera. I start to stand in the boat, bellowing at the waves, but as I rise I lose my balance and fall overboard. I learn how to swim: the water is not warm.

I hope it's clear this is no mere tale of a four-year-old finding his first flippers, even if swimming is finally only swimming: an undertow here, a red tide there, a scorpion in the sand. And a family is only a family. My family was only a family. It wasn't a nightmare. It wasn't a concentration camp. Each of us isn't the sum total of all the faults of his family. That's impossible. That can't be who we are. So I suppose I selectively remember that Mother was writing an article, Father was reading a book, and Beth was completing crossword puzzles, while I wandered the island, wondering whether I should cut off my tongue or simply put a pistol to my head. My family was living in language whereas I was dying in it, and I understand such a situation is classical, not in the sense of Demosthenes but Herr Doktor: the opposite of success is suicide.

Beth had done so well in a high school course called Psychoanalysis and Literature that when the teacher — a handsome man who wore loud blazers and said such things as, "Have any of you ever seen a picture of Kafka? He looks like a criminal. Do you know why he looks like a criminal? Because he was an artist. Do you know why the artist is a criminal? Because he steals our secrets" — got tired, he'd let Beth lead the discussion. So well dressed, so seraphically smart, she'd stand up and say, "Did it occur to any of you that Gertrude's last words —'O my dear Hamlet'— are not without meaning for us?" Years later, of course, I wanted to do even better than Beth had done, but when Loud Blazer called on me I'd shake my head No, or maybe nod Yes, then after class he'd come up to me and say: "Are you sure your last name is Zorn?"

Place-Names: The Name. Zorn, Germany: Zorn. Three hundred years ago: "Are you Zorns from Zorn?" "Why, yes, of course, all Zorns are from Zorn." German; Jew. So the secret has been stolen, and not by Kafka. So I am not Demosthenes. Which is why it's curious to me that Mother often said she never trusted German-Jews because their loyalty was divided between culture and country and, in some of the last articles she wrote, attacked Kissinger, really quite viciously attacked him, for that very reason. Didn't she trust Father? Is that what this means? Who knows? Maybe that's why Father always insisted we were Russian. He liked to see himself as one of those who would have contradicted the Cossacks if he had had the chance. I can't believe Mother had any reason to mistrust Father or that, on the other hand, Father would have listened to such a harangue against his lineage. If memory serves, though, that's precisely what happened. The discovery that I'm a descendant of the Zorns from Zorn was a recent product of my own research.

I've never been exactly sure what part of Europe Mother's people came from, but wasn't she always the Cossack and Father the cowering Jew? Wasn't this his chance to be tough and didn't he bow and scrape? It's fashionable these days to equate marriage and murder, and I don't mean to invoke such a simple formula, but it would be a lie to say Mother was ever anything less than a tyrant or Father anything more than a mole. Mother often gave dinner parties for the West Coast correspondents of other magazines — very lavish affairs at which they drank a lot, talked very loudly and learnedly about everything in the world, and told me Mother was a marvelous writer as well as a "great gal," but which were always being interrupted by a call from someone's copy editor "back East" who wanted the entire article on Governor Reagan rewritten by midnight. It was all very exciting.

It's one party in particular I remember. I don't remember what year it was or what season. Instead, I remember those terrible gingham curtains drawn back so the picture window presented rather spectacularly: the Bay and the Bridge, with a Moon. On one wall was a Klee print, and on the other wall was a black-and-white photograph, mounted and framed, of two children kissing, which, if you looked at it in the wrong light or without, say, love in your heart, you might take for nothing more than two water glasses touching. The first time Father saw it he thought it was waves, dark waves at dawn. Even now I cannot convince him those are lips. The party people were reading one another's articles in one another's magazines, as they spooned chocolate mousse, which Beth had been so good to make, and sipped coffee. They were praising one another extravagantly and meditating upon the power of the written word, the nature of attractive typography. Oh, I don't know, maybe a few candles flickered in the black wind.

Then Father found something offensive about one of the articles, and the moon dissolved. He read aloud the first paragraph of the story, which was written by an Englishman for Reuters:

At a $100-a-plate dinner last night sponsored by the San Francisco Jewish Welfare Fund, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir called for Jewish-American men and women to contribute one percent of their paychecks to the war effort, and all Jewish-American boys over the age of eighteen to enlist in the Israeli Army. She assured the affluent audience that visa applications would be waived for all potential soldiers. Alluding to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's boast that "our aim is to drive Israel into the Red Sea," Prime Minister Meir said, "The people of Israel have never had, do not now have, and shall never have any intention of residing underwater," drawing a sustained, standing ovation from this charming city's ethnic elite.

"'Affluent audience,'" Father said. "'Potential soldiers.' 'Ethnic elite.' You call this objective reporting?"

Reuters, who was tapping the ashes of a sophisticated cigarette into his empty mousse dish, said, "For godsakes, chap, cheer up, will you? We call it 'in-depth analysis.' "

On the few occasions Father became furious, I always had the sense thirty years were receding before my eyes, and this time was no exception: the voice a vibrato; the face, quite literally, crimson; those thin legs very suddenly tight and mighty. Father stood, spilling his mousse.

"Teddy, sit down," Mother said.

Teddy — Father — sat down, then said, "In-depth analysis? What, are you kidding? This is slander."

"I found it — as a lead paragraph — wonderfully terse, wonderfully, really quite wonderfully, to the point," someone said.

"It's a nice mixture, Taylor, of reportage and local color," Mother said. "It really is."

"Annette, how can you say that?" Father pleaded, tugging on the tablecloth. "It's subtly, or not so subtly, anti-Semitic. I demand an apology."

And then, amid all the West Coast correspondents, Father put his napkin down on the table and just started weeping. Huge convulsive heaves of the shoulders and slobbering gasps for breath. While the discussion returned to more civilized concerns (international politics and pay raises and that kind of thing), Father got up and left, taking his mousse and a bent metal spoon with him into the bedroom. I'd like to say I went with him, helped him eat his mousse, held his hand, and told him I thought they were wrong, all wrong, but Mother stared at me to sit perfectly still, so I stayed. The control she had over people was really rather extraordinary. Maybe Father was bored silly with the conversation and just wanted an excuse to leave the table so he could sit up in bed, scoop pudding, and read some more about Sing Sing, but I imagine he squeezed a pillow tightly and cried the night away. He used to be such an emotional man.

And yet I don't see how he could have been expecting anything terribly much more from Mother, as it was just not her way to rush to Father's defense. She didn't do that sort of thing. Father was so helpless he would have needed the Russian Army as a defense and, although Mother was the Russian Army, she was never especially prone to eliminating the enemy for him. Or, rather, she was the enemy for him. Why was she always so sweet to strangers and so tough on Father? I wish I knew. The more helpless he became the more unhelpful she became and then, when she finally needed some attention, Father was nowhere to be found.

I don't mean to imply the sheer agony of watching Mother and Father argue was the sole cause of my curse. Sometimes, though, when I'm playing tennis I'll know I can't quite reach the ball if I hit it with a backhand, so I'll shift the racquet and return the ball lefty — a maneuver I didn't so much learn from Father as inherit from him — or when hurriedly filling out a form I'll realize my "Z," with its wicked horizontal slash, might just as well have been written by Mother. It's times like these when I acknowledge that if my parents affected my tennis game and my penmanship they must have had some influence upon my mouth as well. I recently learned that Mother wasn't the first person ever to say: "The past is but prologue to the present," although probably no one ever said it as often as she did. It's a very nice if somewhat too alliterative axiom, and it might serve well as my emblem throughout these episodes. The past is but prologue. I suppose I should begin at the beginning.


CONTEMPORARY pathological theory — Sandra tells me — has it that "the stuttering problem begins in early childhood and develops as a negative reaction by the child to disfluencies while speaking." Right around age three, children find language for the first time. In their eagerness and anxiety to master the communicative process by morning, almost all little ones encounter considerable difficulty at one time or another with their diction. Every day they add dozens of new words to their vocabularies and, impatient for progress, they trip over this t, fumble with that f. If just about every child babbles occasionally from age three to age five, only a very select one half of one percent go on to make a nasty adult habit out of it.

Why do some "develop a negative reaction to disfluencies" while others do not? Why is every stutterer I have ever met a man? And why are his eyes always rimmed with fear? The reason ninety percent of all impeded speakers are male is, according to Sandra, that little boys feel more pressure than little girls to perform verbal magic. In some ways it's an attractive theory, but I have my doubts. Beth claims she was already reading Nancy Drew mysteries when she was four, whereas I'd never pretend that at such an early age I was doing anything more ambitious than attempting to master the alphabet, that terrible catalogue of unspeakable sounds.

Still, I did always feel a certain subtle pressure to produce perfect speech, and for that I suppose I should blame Mother and Father, since Sandra is so convinced the origin of all stuttering is a scene in which one of the parents calls the child's attention to and scolds him for what is normal, everyday disfluency. The example Sandra uses is always the same: a boy and his mother lean out the second-floor window of a burning house, waiting for the boy's father to line up the ladder with the ledge of the window. The boy turns to his mother and says, "I-I-I'm afraid, Mommy." Sandra is certain that if the mother in such a situation says, "Don't worry, Melvin, Daddy will have us out of here in no time," Melvin will turn out all right, but if the mother says, "Don't say, 'I-I-I'm afraid,' Melvin, just 'I'm afraid,'" Melvin will try not to stutter on "I" the next time he says it. This, as we all know, is the beginning of the end. He will, as Sandra says, "develop a general orientation toward speech of 'what can I do not to stutter' instead of 'what can I do to talk.'" Poor little Melvin. I've always assumed his only hope was for the house to go up fast in flames.


Excerpted from Dead Languages by David Shields. Copyright © 1989 David Shields. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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