Ben Marcus envisions a world where language is a disease

Flame Alphabet
Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

Imagine a World Spirituality in which language is not seen as merely an obstacle to enlightenment, but a vehicle to a non-dual relationship with our true nature. The sacred breath of God would emanate from our own lips, its energy infusing us with the potential for greater health, well-being, and right relationship with nature.

Or maybe that’s ridiculous and language is just a deadly, nauseating virus. Paul Constant of The Stranger reviews the novel The Flame Alphabet:

[Ben] Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is the story of what happens when language transforms into an epidemic. Words are making people sick. But not all words—adults only develop painful, flulike symptoms and start slipping toward death when they hear children speaking. Marcus’s perverted grammar, written in his deliberate, loping voice, makes you wonder, in some superstitious corner of your brain, if his alien prose can infect your body on a microscopic level, change you fundamentally from what you were before, somehow weaken you. While reading, you become infected by a quiet inner monologue of concern for your own health.

The Flame Alphabet begins with Sam, our narrator, packing a bag full of “sound abatement fabrics” and “enough rolled foam to conceal two adults,” along with “a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills, a child’s radio retrofitted as a toxicity screen, an unopened bit of gear called a Dräger Aerotest breathing kit, and my symptom charts. This was the obvious gear.”

Constant continues:

Finally, he discovers a heretofore- unrecorded Hebrew letter that has a particular power—it doesn’t make him sick to contemplate it. (In this ruined world, people become ill whenever they think of language.) Sam reflects that the opposite of illness is not wellness but apathy:

My gag reflex was not triggered. I felt a mild revulsion and that is all. This is what I wanted. It is what our old poisonous alphabet must look like to an animal. Unpromising, of no interest… When I studied the letter, looked at it from every angle, I was indifferent, unmoved. I just did not care. This was, if you’ll accept the phrase, a breakthrough.

The idea of language as a sickness is nothing new. The excellent low-budget linguistic zombie film Pontypool, based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, recently explored the idea, but the Patient Zero of this concept is William S. Burroughs, who famously declared language to be a virus. It’s an inexact but potent bit of symbolism…

via An Epidemic of Words. Caveat: I haven’t read the book, and this short musing isn’t a review.

Postmodernism is really the first wave of thought to not only deepen awareness of language, but also to attack it verbally with a lovely sort of performative contradiction. The notion of language as epidemic is very much at home within this intellectual school. There’s a powerful thread of theological nominalism and mysticism involved in this postmodern turning away from language, but as in Ben Marcus’s vision, seemingly in the end you are left with a spirituality only so tolerant of language that one’s “gag reflex” is not triggered.

The postmodernist’s impulse is to latch onto that moment when a new, non-poisonous relationship with language can begin and accept it as a mystical breakthrough. It truly is, but its journey out of deconstructive (poisonous) phase of postmodernism into a constructive phase is just beginning.

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