March 13th, 2013



“you see, the world is in fragments, sir. not only have we lost our sense of purpose, we have lost the language whereby we can speak of it. these are no doubt spiritual matters, but they have their analogue in the material world. my brilliant stroke was to confine myself to physical things, to the immediate and tangible. my motives are lofty, but my work now takes place in the realm of the everyday. that's why i'm so often misunderstood. but no matter. i've learned to shrug these things off.”

“an admirable response.”

“the only response. the only one worthy of a man of my stature. you see, i am in the process of inventing a new language. with work such as that to do, i can't be bothered by the stupidity of others. in any case, it's all part of the disease i'm trying to cure.”

“a new language?”

“yes. a language that will at last say what we have to say. for our words no longer correspond to the world. when things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them. but little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. and yet our words have remained the same. they have not adapted themselves to the new reality. hence, every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent. it's made a mess of everything. but words, as you yourself understand, are capable of change. the problem is how to demonstrate this. that is why i now work with the simplest means possible—so simple that even a child can grasp what i am saying. consider a word that refers to a thing—'umbrella,' for example. when i say the word 'umbrella,' you see the object in your mind. you see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a waterproof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain. this last detail is important. not only is an umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function—in other words, expresses the will of man. when you stop to think of it, every object is similar to the umbrella, in that it serves a function. a pencil is for writing, a shoe is for wearing, a car is for driving. now, my question is this. what happens when a thing no longer performs its function? is it still the thing, or has it become something else? when you rip the cloth off the umbrella, is the umbrella still an umbrella? you open the spokes, put them over your head, walk out into the rain, and you get drenched. is it possible to go on calling this object an umbrella? in general, people do. at the very limit, they will say the umbrella is broken. to me this is a serious error, the source of all our troubles. because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella. it might resemble an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else. the word, however, has remained the same. therefore, it can no longer express the thing. it is imprecise; it is false; it hides the thing it is supposed to reveal. and if we cannot even name a common, everyday object that we hold in our hands, how can we expect to speak of the things that truly concern us? unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.”

“and your work?”

“my work is very simple. i have come to new york because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject. the brokenness is everywhere, the disarray is universal. you have only to open your eyes to see it. the broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. the whole city is a junk heap. it suits my purpose admirably. i find the streets an endless source of material, an inexhaustible storehouse of shattered things. each day i go out with my bag and collect objects that seem worthy of investigation. my samples now number in the hundreds—from the chipped to the smashed, from the dented to the squashed, from the pulverized to the putrid.”

“what do you do with these things?”

“i give them names.”


“i invent new words that will correspond to the things.”

“ah. now i see. but how do you decide? how do you know if you've found the right word?”

“i never make a mistake. it's a function of my genius.”

- paul auster, city of glass (1985)