Casey – “The Oxford English Dictionary: Thomas Bernhard in Philadelphia”


When I was ten, it fell to my mother to care for my dying grandfather. Not knowing how long she would be away, and afraid that I would miss too much school if I accompanied her, she sent me to stay with a cousin of my father’s, whom I had never met, who was not on good terms with anyone in the family, but who happened to also live in Center City Philadelphia, conveniently close to my school.

The woman’s last name was Adams. I have no idea what her first name was, and I would still guess her age as anywhere between 25 and 50. I remember that she asked me during our first meeting what I thought about the institution of the family (I said family is the most important thing), if I knew what kind of trees grew in front of my house ( I said tall ones), who was my favorite English poet from the Early Modern period (I said nothing), and then had me write a description of what I had done that day. She then informed me that I was a functional illiterate, but that that was probably an advantage in this country: it made me a more desirable employee.

Over the next few months, we would have long conversations after school. Adams talked to me about literature and philosophy and music (she was a professional violinist), and warned me against the perils of the church, the state, the public education system, the private education system, weddings, the theater, and all art museums, without exception.


You are short, said Adams, go fetch the Oxford English Dictionary and place it on your chair and then sit on top of it, in that way we can see eye to eye across the table, but before you sit down, turn up the volume of the music, it will help muffle the sound of the perpetual construction on the street, it is always noisy in downtown Philadelphia because it is always under construction, it is never good enough, the center of our discontent, that’s a line from Shakespeare, said Adams, you don’t recognize it do you, all the better really, no author has been more thoroughly besmirched and defiled than Shakespeare. Not long ago, while I was listening to the news I heard an advertisement for the so-called American dream car, “we are the stuff dreams are made on”, that is also a line from Shakespeare, quite a good one, the news is the only production in which the commercials are preferable to the so-called content, there is nothing worse than the news, it is like an eternal train wreck, ghastly and revolting and yet we cannot keep ourselves from slowing down to stare at it, gape at it, every morning, day after day and year after year, we stare at this train wreck, this base and mendacious litany of human depravity that is the news, interspersed with Shakespearean car commercials.

Though really, continued Adams, there could be no more fitting destiny for Shakespeare than car commercials, that is of course what would happen to the greatest writer in the English language, because English is the worst language, the lowest point in the history of the evolution of languages, no other western language has so many words of a single syllable, and that is why English is the perfect language for advertising, it may have a vast vocabulary, at this very moment you’re perched atop its vast vocabulary, but that is not why English is the lengua franca; it is the lengua franca despite its vocabulary, the rich English vocabulary was an obstacle that had to be overcome so that it could become the language of car commercials, said Adams, and this cannot fail to astonish us when we reflect that the purpose of any advertisement is to captivate people’s fantasies and play on their desire for luxuries, and nevertheless it is impossible to imagine a less sensual or luxurious language than English, in the great family of languages English is the spinster aunt whose only hobby is attending church and undertaking perversely unnecessary knitting projects.

English is a dry, spinsterly language, a fact which is amply demonstrated anytime any one of the so-called great writers of the English language is translated into another, superior language. Edgar Allan Poe is more terrifying in French (his prose I mean–of his unbearably infantile singsong poetry the less said the better), Milton’s pandemonium only attains truly epic proportions in Italian, Faulkner’s decaying southern gentry is more southern and more decadent in Spanish, and every other English writer is better, much better, in German, where at least they sound as if their words might possibly have some sort of substance and consequence, admittedly a grim consequence, but even that is better than the English language’s unflagging iambic pentameter imperative to buy or pay or eat or grope or play or kill or fuck or brunch or, worse, do brunch, now that is a truly terrifying proposition, to do brunch, never consort with anyone who does his meals instead of eating them, especially when those meals that he does are not proper meals at all, it is extraordinary how English has, in a few brief centuries, managed to reduce the whole range of human action to this grey leaden menacing do, said Adams, and just as the English-speaking peoples of the world sally forth to do Paris or do Rome or do the islands of the South Pacific, so too do they do brunch and those other absurdly-named meals in which they pause from their tedious monosyllabic activities to take some nourishment so that they might continue to do other, equally tedious monosyllabic activities, because to act in English is always tedious and monosyllabic, like so many raps on the knuckles or barks of a foreman or beats on the galley-slave drum.


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