Sunday, February 3, 2008

Right On

Never mind doing the right thing. That's for saints, philosophers, and third graders. The real meat of life -its juice, its gasoline- is saying the right thing. Or rather, it's the idea of saying the right thing. It's the notion that if you just think hard enough, if you harness your powers of concentration and drill down deep into the bedrock of yourself, the right words will well up thick and black as oil.

The right words are among our culture's headiest, most enduring myths. We craft campaign slogans. We write speeches. We watch the presidential debates waiting for one candidate or another to tell us, in exactly the right way, exactly what we want to hear. We think that the right words -this aside from Barak, that concluding argument from Hillary- will shove us in the back, send us sliding down the the long, happy slope of certainty.

And when we fight, when we spend hours arguing with our parents or housemates or colleagues or spouses, what we're really doing is digging desperately for the right words, the one irrefutable sentence that will bring the opposing party around, convince them that the world is ending or Classical Music is dead or one of us really needs to do the dishes.

The right words are like Godot: an invisible, vaguely irritating literary conceit we can never quite ignore. Anyone willing to fight with you is probably too emotionally invested to be swayed by words, and anyone watching the presidential debates has likely already made up her mind. But still, here they come, parading before us in book after book and TV show after TV show, in therapy and poetry and song. I found exactly the right verb, the poet says. She told us exactly what we needed to hear, repots the couple in counseling. Meanwhile, onscreen, mothers and daughters and fathers and lovers have moment after perfectly scripted moment, each person searching for, then mustering, the words that will heal the rift, stanch the wounds, make the other person understand.

The right words are magical, language's unicorns and dragons. They haunt our conversations, slip between the lines of our letters. We know they're out there. We know we could find them if only we were virginal and pure if heart, if only we believed.

But we're all fornicators and doubters. And so, those few brief times we do manage to glimpse a horn or a wing, we may not even recognize what we've seen. Months and multiple posts back, an ex left the following comment on my blog: I should have married you when I had the chance. It was a joke. It was in fun. It was joyfully and unapologetically false. It took me weeks to realize that, sometimes, meaning isn't the point. All I needed, five or seven years down the line, was the words.

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