I’m currently reading Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet. It’s a story told in a world where language becomes toxic, and the only people immune to the toxicity are children, who use their immunity viciously. I can’t wait to finish the book and post something about it here, but in the meantime, I will post about something it got me thinking about, which is the experimentation with language within pieces of writing.
Post-modern/experimental/counter-traditional literature is where you’ll find the most experimentation of this kind. This is because of the school of thought of post-modernism itself, which states (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica “Thoughts that Matter” page):
postmodernists claim that language is semantically self-contained, or self-referential: the meaning of a word is not a static thing in the world or even an idea in the mind but rather a range of contrasts and differences with the meanings of other words. Because meanings are in this sense functions of other meanings—which themselves are functions of other meanings, and so on—they are never fully “present” to the speaker or hearer but are endlessly “deferred.”
A fancy way of saying that language is like a hall of mirrors—you never know when you’re looking at something real or an endless reflection. And language can’t possibly break into the reality of the human experience; it is always a dead end or a mirage.
James Joyce (again, my conflicted relationship with this man) was one of the first writers to take on this task, beginning with the stream-of-consciousness of Ulysses but even more intensely in Finnegan’s Wake, the book in which he mixes 60 or 70 languages into something sometimes resembling English. An example, you ask?
riverrun, past Even and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus or recircluation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had apssencore rearrived from North Amorica on this side of the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war…
Heavy stuff, right? Oftentimes a little lighter are the experimental works of the group of writers called Oulipo. These writers are famous for doing things like writing the same inconsequential scene over 99 times in different styles, or writing a book without the letter “e” (which, to complicate things even more, was translated from French to English, all while avoiding that most common letter). According to the Wikipedia page for this last book (La Disparition in French and A Void in English), “This precludes the use of words normally considered essential such as je (“I”) and le (masculine “the”) in French, and “me” and “the” in English.” That’s one hell of a language constraint.
Still another experimenter of language was William Burroughs, who invented the “cut-up” style. This style famously allowed anyone with a pair of scissors to be a poet, and literally involved cutting up pieces of prose and rearranging them in random order. A snippet of Burroughs’ cut up work reads as follows:
Cold metal excrement on all the walls and benches, silver sky raining the metal word fall out- sex sweat like iron in the mouth. Scores are coming in. Rate shoe. Pretend an interest.
These styles certainly have a brand of poeticness to them that isn’t necessarily found in the average sentence. Often dismissed as gimmicky, they allow writers, through both constraint and complete lack thereof, to break into something new that the typically structured sentence bound to natural flow and meaning does not. They investigate language itself, its connection to other parts of language and its connection to us, our expectations of it, and its role in our lives. And for writers, experimentation down to the very letter is true mastery of our medium.
I am of the humble opinion that writers should experiment and experiment and experiment. Even if you don’t like the end result, it’s good for you. Here are some suggestions to get you started.