No Comment, Quotation — August 23, 2007, 12:00 am

Klemperer on Language as Poison

But it’s not simply that language composes poetry and thinks for me, it also drives my feelings, it directs my entire spiritual being, the more self-evidently, the more unconsciously I give myself up to it. So what happens when the language of the educated is composed of poisonous elements, or bears poisons? Words may be little doses of arsenic: they are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.

After a while when one uses the word “fanatical” for “heroic” or “virtuous,” he actually comes to believe that a fanatic is a virtuous hero; that without fanaticism one can not be heroic. The words “fanatical” and “fanaticism” were not created by the Third Reich, but it did transform the essential meaning of these words and it made more frequent use of them in a single day than in other times they would have been used in a course of years…

It is more than just the stuff of a schoolhouse pedant to expose the poison of the language of the Third Reich and to warn about it. When a believing Jew believes that a piece of tableware has been used in a ritually impure way, then he will bury it in the earth in order to purify it. In the same way the many words which were placed in common linguistic usage by the Nazis must be placed in a mass grave for a long time, and some of them forever.

Victor Klemperer, Lingua tertii imperii ch. 1 (1947)(S.H. transl.)

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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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(1) To need his glasses and be struck by an awareness that they are not at hand, an ordinary enough circumstance for Frederick Douglass, except sometimes it’s accompanied by a flash of extraordinary dread. If not quite panic, certainly an unease disproportionate to a simple recurring situation. Dread that may be immediately extinguished if he locates his horn-rimmed, owlish-eyed spectacles exactly where he anticipated they should be. He sees them and almost sighs. Nearly feels their slightly uncomfortable weight palpable on his nose. Finding the glasses enough to reassure him that he remains here among the living in this material …
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