Language in the tides of time

„The job isn’t to catch up to the status quo; the job is to invent the status quo.” – Seth Godin

In my hometown, Vienna, Austria, there’s a particularly beautiful building, a pavilion with a golden leaf dome. It’s located just a short walk afar from the very center of the city. The building’s name is The Secession Building (Secessionsgebäude). Inside, on permanent display in a specially built, climate-controlled basement room, it features the Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt, one of the most widely recognized artworks of Secession style (a branch of Art Nouveau, also known as Jugendstil). The building was financed by Karl Wittgenstein, the father of Ludwig Wittgenstein (the philosopher).

The motto of the Secessionist movement is written above the entrance of the pavilion: “To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.

Okay. Now. This blog post is a string, woven into a quilt, a puzzle piece in my blog, and as such part of my previous and future blog posts. I need to think and talk more about language and reality. When I lie awake at night I often think about language, and how we use it in reality. It’s genetic. Being Viennese, an Austrian born human, language skepticism is part of myself just like the wings are part of a chicken, or the appendix is part of the human intestines.

Language skepticism is a form of doubt. To the philosophers rooting for it, it’s the deeply seated doubt that reality can be represented with linguistic and literary means. The traditional role of language is put on trial.

Historically (and theoretically), language skepticism is based on the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Fritz Mauthner. Friedrich Nietzsche (although not Austrian) also played a role in this, above all with comprehensive critique of perception and knowledge.

When language skepticism first became a thing it was so profound and serious, that consequently some of the great poets and writers of the 18th and 19th century gave up writing literature altogether.

Now, almost 100 years later, the great marketeer and cultural icon Seth Godin – and his millions of followers – swung in the opposite direction: They use language as a tool to describe the world. Seth Godin very obviously took language literally as what he found it: something he can work with. To identify, name, and talk about things we find remarkable. Seth Godin, and many modern marketeers alike, make the elusive obvious. With their particular use of language they enable us to see cultural trends, better, to navigate the world, better, to survive and to thrive, better. Seth Godin observed, critically: „Never in doubt is more important than being right.” (quoted from Seths.blog, Certainty, accuracy and leadership, 24.3.2021)

We, the people, we humans, as a cultural whole, thus went through two extremes: Language Skepticism on one end and Language Ultra-no-doubtism (or whatever future historians will call this) on the other end.

And thus we defined the middle grounds.

It’s almost poetic, beautiful.

But I won’t end today’s writing just yet. Here’s to language skepticism, my translation of Rainer Maria Rielke’s poem „Ich fürchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort”:

I’m deeply scared of how they use their words 

I’m deeply scared of how they use their words.
They’re too certain in how they make them sound:
This they call house and that they call hound,
This is the start, and that is the end, their precision almost hurts.

I’m scared of their intentions, the contempt they maintain,
They know it all, the past and all things that will be.
To them no mountaintop is mysterious to see;
Their possessions are much alike God’s own domain.

Pay heed to my warning: from this do retreat.
The real things, not words, they are what’s sweet.
Through being defined they become mute, rigid and gray,
their spirit crushed, murdered and drained away.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, November 1898, translation by Alfons Grabher in 2021)

Ich fürchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort

Ich fürchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort.
Sie sprechen alles so deutlich aus:
Und dieses heißt Hund und jenes heißt Haus,
und hier ist Beginn und das Ende ist dort.

Mich bangt auch ihr Sinn, ihr Spiel mit dem Spott,
sie wissen alles, was wird und war;
kein Berg ist ihnen mehr wunderbar;
ihr Garten und Gut grenzt grade an Gott.

Ich will immer warnen und wehren:
Bleibt fern. Die Dinge singen hör ich so gern.
Ihr rührt sie an: sie sind starr und stumm.
Ihr bringt mir alle die Dinge um.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, November 1898)