THIS WEEK IN NYC 
 
 
 
MANHATTAN CHRONICLES ESSAY
FLESH  of WORDS
By CARMEN FIRAN
 
Summer 2010 Issue
 
When I came to America I felt like Columbus. I had been conquered and I was, in turn, conquering.  New York was the right place for high altitude immersion.  I started by liking it all-- the green chairs in Bryant Park, the fire escapes in Soho, the squirrels and dancer Thoth in Central Park, the steel and the glass, the flags around the Rockefeller Center skating rink, the champagne drunk during intermission at the Met Opera, gazing over the fountain at Lincoln Center all the way to the Fiorello Restaurant and the art cinema across the street, the subway entrances and the surface grates, through which warm steam and a stale smell of crumpled cardboard emanated in winter, the sirens of police cars and the lugubrious yelp of fire trucks, the yellow cabs and the ceiling of Grand Central Station where artificial stars shone in turquoise circles during the holidays, the vibration of asphalt under streets girded with bodies rushing toward intersections with cell phones hanging from their ears, the purple nails and gold clinking bracelets of supermarket cashiers, the extravagant shop windows in the Village and the factories turned into art galleries in Soho. I was in love with everything, without discrimination, with the joy of beginning and a feeling of being the ‘chosen’ one, and therefore allowed to love generically.

For almost two years I devoted myself to discovery. I couldn’t write anything but hugely enthusiastic articles glorifying the new world in which I was learning to live, for journals in my native country, where already everyone had figured out I wasn’t coming back.  My imagination already had built a place of my own in the engulfing belly of this city.

After a while I calmed down and started to look closer. By then, I had willingly anchored myself to the millstone, turning rhythmically with everyone else, my social security card sheltered in a closed drawer.  I opened my eyes and pricked up my ears, as if awakening in a strange place after the party was over, the lights were turned off and the last guest had closed the door behind him.  

As a new immigrant, I wasn’t feeling displaced, neither was I experiencing identity crises, or nostalgia. All my senses were intensely awake and alive here.

I was pulling my new life over my head like a shirt which I knew would fit since I had carefully tailored it.  At least I did not have the perfidy to let myself be disappointed by fulfilled dreams.  This time, from inside the whale’s belly, where I had found a comfortable place, I started my inside-out exploration.

*

When you land here from a different culture, you can uninhibitedly observe from a distance the world you are supposed to enter.  By comparing, weighing nuances and differences, specifics and similarities, you can place yourself in a favorable situation freely chosen, that of a referee who wants to prevent errors and unnecessary penalties, only blowing his whistle when the game becomes chaotic.  What happens to you in the scenario you have created really matters, whether the usual spectators are passive or alert, much too used to the routine and rules of the game.

For more than thirty years I lived in the opaque world of Communism, where time meant nothing. In the absence of any real dialogue within its social and political structures, all we had left was talking among ourselves.  In that Balkan atmosphere, our conversations, sometimes brilliantly lit by a ruined “little Paris” on a molded sky, were delightful, baroque,  a never-ending chatter, spectacular and useless, over full ashtrays and cheap alcohol, night-long discussions and hung-over mornings when it would start all over again.  We weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. We had no place to go.

The dictatorship seemed permanent. To keep our sanity we only had words, the language, airy imaginative phantasms, grim existential critiques, fable-making, hair-splitting.  Bright ideas or dashing banalities. Survival. Words were powerless to change our destiny but were therapeutic in keeping us sane.  The Soul? No one  mentioned it, but it was there all along, in the arabesques of our lamentations, in the last cigarette butt crushed at sunrise on a background of a hideous smoking factory on the outskirts of the city.

Time is everything in America.  It is sold at each Deli and hot-dog cart, on TV and by insurance companies, on slot-machines and with Staten Island ferry tickets, in the Have a nice day greeting everyone utters automatically only to get rid of you quickly. Using concentrated formulas of conventional language does not stem from emptiness, but from fear of lingering too long in a syntagma which is not likely to bring anything new when weighed against Have a nice day! Time is money. The Soul? It is lying somewhere on a shrink’s chair, or in the schedule of TV talk shows.

While inside the whale’s belly, I quickly sketched the steps of loneliness: from the chosen isolation, where you have the revelation of your own interior beauty, to the imposed solitude, where you look at the tops of the buildings and can’t see the stars because of the roofs; from seclusion, where a good book still keeps you warm, to estrangement, where the language becomes a powerless being, swallowed by the first carnivorous flower; and even further on, to alienation, where words lose their meanings and weight, the godly effort fails on a computer screen or in a cell phone you use only if there are people around to hear you.

The essence of communication slips into the ridiculous, not out of emptiness, but from fear of doing something forbidden, lingering on a syllable, rolling around the word love until your chest is pumped up and your nostrils dilate, a page from Henry Miller stays with you and you actually feel love piercing you with scents and tactile sensations.  Isn’t it easier to watch Sex and the City, or, if you are more subtle, Dr. Phil, who has a solution for everything?
 
*

When I fell in love in my adolescence I didn’t even dare to utter the word love from the fear that it’s magic will disappear. It was my secret, my hidden treasure. Our mentality back in those times was to protect it from the public eye. Was this cautious attitude part of our inhibitions inside a dictatorship or just a way to live one of the most powerful words?

In America love seems to be a word overused. Over here everyone loves, from dawn to dusk, and no one is shy about publicly showing his or her love. Before hanging up the phone, after speaking with a friend, automatically out comes “love you”, meaning actually more “talk to you soon” or “good-bye, farewell.”  Love extends to objects, dishes, landscapes and situations.  People often say, Oh, my God, I love this, I love that…. without nuance, ignoring synonyms such as like, value, admire, appreciate, cherish, be attracted by etc which offer differences in intensity and emotions.  And while saying a few times a day I love… the mouth fills up with the vowel o, the word disappears, its weight is cancelled, the meaning lost.

Love repeated carelessly and continuously becomes all but worthless.  Tolstoy might turn in his grave and abandon Karenina’s in throwing herself front of a moving train. Perhaps he would send her to a shrink instead and launch into a tirade on the harmony of mind, body and soul in search of the interior child.

I can remember how difficult it was to articulate love words in my adolescence, the crazy pirouettes taken by our sentences, the way we weighed their intensity, graded their emotion, using an entire linguistically allusive arsenal. We were convinced that our inhibitions were due to education and that it would be indecent to dispel the mystery and force of the strongest word by saying it randomly, or that once said, we would awaken exposed and vulnerable, or we would strike sentimental chords. And what if, once uttered, the love words hit a wall? Of all humiliations, ridicule is the worst. Furthermore, we lived in a closed society where discussing sex was taboo, contraception was interdicted, and love was confounded by the communist ideologues with either the party or reproduction.  I feel as if all this happened a hundred years ago…

How easy it is today to deal with love as sex, although a huge gap separates the sexes in big American cities, where having a career and/or a status as single are highly regarded.  At the end of the day, liberated women and successful men, castrated by the fear of sexual harassment, hunt each other in bars, laughing over cocktails and beer, exhausted from harrowing workdays. Their talk is often strident. What one says doesn’t matter, only being heard, giving an impression of being detached, sufficient, self-confident inside a political correct society. And they will start this game of flirting all over again the next day. 

If you look closer and put your ear to the words, machined-gunned from one to the other under the pressure of communication the impression of a universal loneliness can be overwhelming, only the surface motivations shine. Love is reduced to sterile reflexive language, incapable of sustaining its meaning.  To love becomes a common verb, said without any special emotion, an expired ingredient random among ordinary recipes, without any flavor. 

*

            Happiness is another abused word.  The entire nation is chasing after it, which wouldn’t be absurd, except that many pretend to find it several times a day in the most unexpected situations. Here, people do not seem to experience moderate joy, contentedness, minor satisfactions. Instead, when something is just O.K. or funny, they appear happy and they are encouraged to praise happiness for each positive thing.

Everything here looks for me focused on a fake mass euphoria that lacks visceral feeling.  A heavyweight word, filled with magic, happiness should make one feel as if one had wings or lift one to heaven.  To answer the question, “What was the happiest moment in your life?” people often sit and ponder for a while to choose the most intense experience. For a moment, they are responsible for the power of a word. However, in this quick-paced daily life, ordinary speech gives in to pretense and bravado, displaying a self-imposed optimism.

What is called happiness oscillates between entertainment, having fun and enjoying, palliative obsessions to convince one that life is worth living.  The vocabulary associated with this ambition is marked by superlatives and exaggerations to support enthusiasm, a necessary accompaniment to experience. Reactions also are disproportionate. 

On Broadway, humor is pursued in every word and gesture. Although I was fond of the American comedies in the 70s and 80’s, today I can hardly find authentic humor in American theater, film or TV productions. The more discordant is the spectator’s laughter. They are looking for fun no matter how.  In today’s entertainment (from cartoons all the way to stand-up comedy) there is a dose of hysteria fueled by the desperate need of marketing in an environment more and more anxiously searching for cultural milestones, or, rather, for the lack thereof.

All languages have routine expressions that characterize the mentality of the people at a given point.  For example, in the country I come from, speech often operates thrash diminutives, signifying a familiarity of communication and intimacy, but also the vulgarization of the language spoken by ordinary people who aim to be fun, ironic or by case, humble.

On the contrary, in America, the hyperbolic rules, serving a need for the grandiosity; everything is oversized here following a tonic approach and emphasizing the positive thinking.

At first, that positive American spirit energized me. Coming from a Romanian fatalistic mentality: things could be worse, I found an optimistic, serene approach: don’t worry, be happy, or, in other words, there is always room for something better.

I enjoyed the frankness of my new friends or casual acquaintances asking naïve and sincere questions, beyond any knowledge of history or geography, about my country and the dictatorship I had lived in. Many knew about Dracula, very few about the Romanian culture but they were curious and open to find more; they would listen to my stories in profound and honest astonishment and I felt encouraged by their warm welcome.

My first month in New York I was touched by how are you, a salutation more than a question, used by everybody, friends and strangers, to greet me everywhere. Not to mention the most wonderful and warm expression that broke my heart each time: “Take care!” I could have developed a certain vanity driven by the feeling that everybody wanted to find out how I was doing, caring about me. But before I could answer, my interlocutor was gone, time is money, displaying the same open smile, consistent with the entire front put up by everybody in New York, which made it look like they all had white teeth and an apparent optimism.

In my country, I was fed up with the eternal lamentation of people on every topic.  They would complain any time they had a chance. A New Yorker, even one with a foot in the grave, when asked how he was doing, would calmly answer thank you, I am fine, great O.K., and the answer, beyond its formalism, implicitly means he is not sharing his problems or uneasiness with you. For an outsider it looks like this sparse formal language produce alienation, seclusion and superficial relationships. However, for an American it can result from decency and a desire not to burden other’ with his problems.

On the other hand, the excessive of strong words (love, happiness, God, etc.) are pretexts to avoid living their meaning profoundly.  Speech is used in reverse, not to open up and communicate, but to hide and protect oneself, an isolation imposed by standardization.  As I started to understand the spirit of the place, I felt like placing in quarantine depreciated and tired words.

Are our words a pure reflection of the thinking and of the self? On the other hand, how much dissimulation is needed, how many masks, subliminal implications, and metaphors must we use to put our life into words without exposing our vulnerability, weaknesses, fragility, and fears? What is the power of words in the information era of cyberspace, technology, and globalization, when the image tends to dominate and synthetic suggestion is gaining ground against ample linguistic display?

Manipulation, emptiness, vulgarizing through devaluation, loss of the predictive and enigmatic norm, the dregs and defects of language in today’s sophisticated, but not necessarily spiritually profound world, affect communication from a double perspective-- words that swallow us and our tendency to devour their meaning. 
 
                                                                                                                              Carmen Firan is a poet and novelist born in Romania and living in New York City