It would be presumptuous of me and it would certainly be pointless to tell you what we owe to language. I am only a guest in the German language, which I learned at the age of eight, and the fact that you are welcoming me in it today means more to me than if I had been born in its realm. I cannot even regard it as a credit that I held on to German when I came to England over thirty years ago and decided to remain. For continuing to write in German was as much a matter of course as breathing and walking. I could not have done otherwise, another possibility was never even considered. Furthermore, I was the willing prisoner of several thousand books that I had been fortunate enough to bring along, and I do not doubt that they would have viewed me as an apostate from their midst had I made even the slightest change in my relationship to them.
But perhaps I can tell you something about what happens to language under such circumstances. How does it resist the unflagging pressure of the new environment? Does anything alter in its aggregate state, in its specific weight? Does it become more domineering, more aggressive? Or does it turn into itself and hide? Does it grow more intimate? After all, it might conceivably become a secret language, that one uses only for oneself.
Well, the first thing to happen was that one confronted it with a different sort of curiosity. One compared more, especially in the most everyday phrases, in which the differences were conspicuous and palpable. Literary confrontations turned into very concrete encounters in socializing. The earlier or chief language became odder and odder, namely in details. /Everything/ about it was conspicuous, whereas earlier only a few things were that.
At the same time, one could sense a lessening of self-complaisance. For one personally saw cases of writers who had given up and gone over to the new country’s language for practical reasons. They lived, so to speak, in the vanity of their new effort, which was meaningful only if it succeeded. How often did I hear both gifted and ungifted people say in almost silly pride” ‘I now write English!’ Yet the man who clung to the earlier written language, and without any prospect of achieving some external goal, must have regarded himself as abdicating in terms of the public. He competed with no one, he was alone, he was also a bit ridiculous. He was in a predicament, it seemed hopeless, the people sharing his fate might consider him a fool, and the people in the host country, among whom he did have to live, viewed him for a long time as a nobody.
Under such circumstances, it can be expected that many things become more private and more intimate. One says certain things to oneself that one would otherwise never have let pass. The conviction that nothing will ever come of it, that it has to remain private – no readership is conceivable, after all – gives one a bizarre sense of freedom. Among all these people who speak their daily things in English, one has a secret language for oneself, which serves no outer purposes anymore, which one utilizes nearly alone, to which one clingsmore and more obstinately, the way people may cling to a faith that is taboo in their greater environment.
Well, that is the more superficial aspect of the matter; there is a further aspect, that one realizes only gradually. A man with literary interests tends to assume it is the works of writers that represent a language to one. To some extent, that is certainly the case; and ultimately, one does live on them. But the discoveries one makes by living in the realm of a different language include a very special one: namely, that it is the words themselves that do not let one go, the individual words per se, beyond any larger intellectual contexts. The peculiar strength and energy of words can be felt most strongly when one is often forced to replace them with others. The dictionary of the hardworking student who has striven to learn a foreign tongue is suddenly reversed, everything wants to be named as it was named earlier and actually. The second language, which one hears all the time anyway, becomes banal, it is taken for granted; the first language, defending itself, appears in a special light.
I recall that in England, during the war, I filled page after page with German words. They had nothing to do with what I was working on. Nor did they join together into any sentences, and naturally they did not figure in the notes I jotted down in those years. They were isolated words, never yielding any sense. It would suddenly take me by storm, and I would cover a few pages with words, as fast as lightning. Very often they were nouns, but not exclusively; there were also verbs and adjectives among them. I was ashamed of these attacks and concealed the pages from my wife. I spoke German with her; she had come with me from Vienna. I know of very little else that I ever concealed from her.
I viewed these word attacks as pathological and did not wish to make her uneasy; like all other people, we had enough things to make us uneasy and that could not be concealed. Perhaps I should also mention that it really goes against my grain to smash words or warp them in any manner, their form is inviolable for me, I leave it intact. Thus, one can hardly imagine a more foolish occupation than stringing together unscathed words. When I sensed that such a word attack was imminent, I would lock myself in as though to work. I ask your forgiveness for bringing up such a private absurdity, but I must add that I felt extremely happy during such fits. Since then, there has been no doubt for me that words are charged with a special kind of passion. They are really like human beings, they refuse to be neglected or forgotten. However they may be preserved, they maintain their life; they suddenly spring forth and demand their rights.
Word attacks of that sort are certainly a sign that the pressure on language has gotten very great, that one not only knows – in this case – English well, but also that it very often forces itself upon one. A rearrangement has formed in the dynamics of words. The frequency of what one hears leads not only to one’s noting it, but also to new inducements and suggestions, motions and countermotions. Many an old, current word freezes in the struggle with its adversary. Others rise above any context and radiate in their irreplaceability.
This is not a case – as must be stressed – of mastering a foreign tongue at home, in a room, with a teacher, backed up by all the people who speak as one is accustomed to hearing in one’s own town, at all hours of the day. Actually, one is at the mercy of the foreign tongue in /its/ precinct, where all people are on its side, and together and with a semblance of legality, they smash in on one with their words, heedlessly, steadfastly, and incessantly. Furthermore, one knows one remains, one does not go back – not after a few weeks, not after months, not after years. Hence, it is crucial to understand everything one hears; that, as everyone knows, is the hardest thing at first. Then one keeps imitating until it too is understood. In addition, something happens in reference to the earlier language: one has to make sure it does not intrude at the wrong time. So it is gradually repressed, one encloses it, one propitiates it, one puts it on a leash; and as much as one secretly fondles and caresses it, in public it feels neglected and rejected. No wonder that it sometimes takes revenge and ambushes one with swarms of words, which remain isolated, do not join into any meaning, and whose onslaught would be so ludicrous for others that it merely forces one to be even more secretive.
It may seem highly inappropriate to make such an ado about these private linguistic situations. In a time when everything is getting more and more enigmatic, when the existence of not just individual groups but literally all mankind is at stake, when no decision turns out to be a solution, for there are too many mutually contradictory possibilities, and no one is capable of even sensing most of them, because too much is happening, and we find it out too soon, and before we have even grasped it, we are already finding out the next thing – in a time that is swift, menacing and rich, and developing more and more richly because of that menace, in such a time, if a man takes the liberty of thinking, one would expect something different from him than the tale of the agony of words, occurring independently of their meaning.
If, however, I /have/ said a little about that, then I owe you an explanation. It strikes me that today’s man, charged with more and more in his fascination with the universal, is seeking a private sphere, which is not unworthy of him, which is clearly distinct from the generality, yet is perfectly and more accurately reflected in it. What I mean is a kind of translation from one into the other, not a translation that one selects as a free game of the mind, but one that is both incessant and necessary, forced by the constellations of external life, and yet is more than a compulsion. For many years now, I have been involved in this translation; however, the private sphere in which I have settled now, albeit not comfortably, and in which things should be conscientious and responsible, is the German language. Whether I shall succeed in satisfying it in this fashion – I cannot say. But the honour which you have paid me today, and for which I thank you, is something that I shall take as a propitious omen that I might still succeed.