We English professors are besotted with books, of course, but our recent interests have also included how we read them to ourselves. A fairly new subject of study, dubbed “Subvocalization,” has emerged, and theoretical critics have flocked to it, bringing with them what they do best: inventing $50 words for what is basically about $5 worth of content.
If we were to define “subvocalization” in a way that professors wouldn’t recognize because of its lack of pretension, it is simply the silent speech that we all make when we read. It provides the sound of the word as we read it. It was not until the 1960’s that electromyography (now that’s a $50 word for a $50 concept) was invented and proved that we do indeed speak to ourselves when we read.
Electromyography is used to measure electrical activity in the muscles of our voice box ($1 word), or larynx ($10 word), which we use for articulation. It shows that we do indeed pronounce each written word. If you were like me as a child, you worried that people would see your lips move as you read and would assume that you were an idiot who also probably breathed exclusively through your mouth. And so if anyone was around when I was reading, I kept my mouth tightly shut. Who knew that my larynx activity would have given me away?
And now for the first time in forty years, as I live by myself since my partner died last month, I am talking TO myself — out loud and, let me add, REALLY loud. I do it when I move through my new, lonely routine. I am noticing that I only speak aloud during one event: when I do something very stupid and immediately chastise myself for my boneheadedness. Given that my sadness has left me in a fog that shows no signs of lifting anytime soon, I would be embarrassed to share with you exactly how many times a day this occurs.
But whenever I do achieve another absent-minded bungle, I always exclaim the same two-word epithet. If you glance up at the title of this essay, you might assume it is that very phrase. Well, it is and it isn’t. Yes, those are my two words of self-derision. But the words hardly do justice to how I exclaim them. I never merely say them; instead, I shout them out as follows: “Elliot — YOU IIIIIH-dee-yut!”
During these last few weeks, that phrase has become my serenade of self-censure. Be it misplaced keys, glasses, my always ever-more-remote remote control, or a piece of just-buttered toast (please, don’t ask), I hear me addressing myself in the same tone and volume that the television-series Sergeant Carter “addressed” Gomer Pyle.
And yet…and yet if you were somehow able to hear me harangue myself, you probably would notice the same oddity that I have noticed recently. For all the bluster I direct against me, there is in my exasperated tone just a tad of humor and even warmth. I remember when as a child I’d do something especially ridiculous in front of my dad, he would grin, shake his head, and chide: “You little meshuggener!”
Meshuggener (pronounced in Yiddish “Mish-SHUG-guh-nur”) means “crazy person,” but in my dad’s tone there would be a tenderness that I now hear in my own voice as I search for whatever I’ve misplaced in my brain-fog of grief. I do believe that I am learning to be kinder to myself.
My teachers of kindness these past few weeks have enveloped me: my sister and nephew; LeRoy’s children and grandchildren; my dear friends and acquaintances; neighbors with unending meals delivered or served to me in their homes; even former students (alas, my former teachers have all convened at that Big Chalkboard In The Sky). I have been “succor punched” and truly knocked out by all those raining blows of benevolence. If dear people can ladle on such unending affection for this pitiful grieving widower, then I can try to emulate them by sparing myself a scolding or two.
Perhaps an English professor might label my finding myself so comforted as “fortuitous.” Let’s agree that the term is perhaps a $10 word. But how this meshuggener feels, even through all this sorrow, is truly “blessed”— and that, my dear readers, is priceless.
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