mardi 26 janvier 2010

The loneliness of language

Beer mats for wine


I cannot take credit for this photo, nor can I really feel free to give credit. It was taken by an artist friend (a real one), the creator of the beer mats, at a Paris brasserie where two old friends met two old friends to make a triangle of two architects and one artist in which the other two have been acquaintances as long. There were, in addition, one son, an art agent, and another person, who left nearly upon the arrival of my son and I, offering apologies for not liking me well enough to stay.

He joked. He had an EuroStar to catch across the rue de Dunkerque. They are very darkly and nearly meanly funny, those English. Spending enough time in England once upon a time to remark this helped me understand my grandfather, which 17 years in his company in the States left a puzzle. His English genes ran strong.

Missing were all three spouses, mine being the only one actually in the same country that evening and being missing because he does not speak English. I am always present because I speak both English and French, and this, I learned sometime into a bi-cultural marriage, makes for loneliness.

When I began this venture some years ago, this did not occur to me. I saw the project in the same sense he did: I was coming to live in France, and it would be easy for me to make the transition because I already knew many of his friends and a fair number from his large family, and I spoke French well enough to be allowed to say that I am fluent. We completely forgot about the other aspect of the situation, which is that he speaks English well enough to say that he does not, and he cannot even get to know my friends and family who can say they speak French well enough to say that they do not, which is nearly everyone.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. He speaks English well enough to communicate, but he does not consider this good enough or satisfying enough to bother if he thinks he can possibly get around the effort, which leads to a lot of avoidance. Avoiding nearly everyone I know, that is.

The consequence of the truth is that I feel lonely. And maybe a little resentful.

And, who'd have thought it?

Not only, however, are there friends of mine he will never learn to appreciate and enjoy as I have his, but there is an entire literature and culture that I make my pleasure-ground that he cannot access, while I can pick up a novel written in French and recognize fine writing, recognize the social and political cues and their underpinning in French culture, while he has only television programs, reports, movies and my accounts from which to judge US culture.

And not that he usually believes my accounts, which is a whole other story.

I can remember the beginning of marital tensions at a dinner party with friends and family. What we were all discussing over dinner, I can't even remember now; there are so many subjects possible as sources of friction. My (French) brother-in-law listened to my husband and I for a moment and then interjected, "C'est fou, mais toutes vos disputes prennent des proportions internationales tout de suite!" He wasn't wrong, our disagreements do have an international dimension of cultural conflict. Never did we have the luxury of simply disagreeing. We need the State Department staff in US-French relations constantly. Or, we needed to move him to the US for a decade right now, before his youngest children could be sure to get an experience in US education, too.

But, there are so many things at which I am merely hinting. It does get personal, and boring. To return to my point, what occurred to me and took me by surprise was how lonely this would be. Added to most of our lives spent apart and only shared in the stories we told one another long after the events had passed, but their consequences not necessarily dimmed, many aspects of our shared life could not be shared at all, and when they could, they pertained to his life, not mine. English would be required for that.

This is a stark realization into which to run. In many ways, my husband is like you. He knows of my life by my descriptions, not by personal experience of it with me, even when he is sometimes there. Mostly, he chooses not to be, and he is right. Not only would he be bored to tears, his bored-to-tears presence would diminish our experience; we'd have so much less fun, fun he'd like me to describe when I return home, but which I will not. Somewhat petulant, I continue to believe that if he cared, he would bother to learn and then to do. He would reach past the barrier that language imposes and erase it by using the English he does possess until it improved and allowed him to join us and participate, like I had to learn to do to be here and not be miserable.

It starts you along the path of considering all the things you cannot share, and have not shared, and as that list begins to grow far longer than the one of the things you do share, doubt sets in. What do you share? Doubt followed by a little panic. Is it enough that it goes in one direction? I thought so, until I understood that not everything can be translated and retain its value. You only need look at the poetry of Victor Hugo translated into English to start to grasp that. It makes something new, not Victor Hugo in English, but an approximate idea of Hugo for English speakers. My evening with an English-speaking artist and and English-speaking architect, two old friends, for French speakers who don't know much about art and architecture other than what personal experience as observers tells them.

It is my experience.

Which goes back then to the notion that we are alone. All of us.
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