Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Totalitarianism’s linguistic aggression.
Cristina and her Double: Selected Essays
Herta Müller, translated from the German by Geoffrey Mulligan
Portobello Books (cloth)
Language is like air. You realize how important it is only when it is messed up. Then it can kill you. Those working for totalitarian regimes know this better than anyone else: messing with language can be an efficient means of political control.
Such regimes don’t always need to lock people up; sometimes it is enough to invade and occupy their minds through language. In Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell spells this out brilliantly, but you can’t fully comprehend what this linguistic occupation means unless you’ve had the misfortune to be its victim. Then you come to realize how, once the regime has penetrated your language, it can do pretty much whatever it pleases with you. You are not yourself anymore; you are under political hijack. “You could open and shut your mouth for hours, talk without saying anything.”
It may have been this misfortune that left Herta Müller, whom I just quoted, so attentive to language, to its power and political dimension, but also to its vulnerability. Born and raised in Romania under Communism, the 2009 Nobelist in literature has had a long interest in totalitarianism’s linguistic aggression. Perhaps that is why she grants speech a special ontological status. In The Hunger Angel (2009), language is something alive, a creature that mingles with the other characters in the story. The narrator-hero notices that Russian is “a language that’s caught a cold.” He perceives language as a bully of sorts: “There are words that do whatever they want with me.” In The Appointment (1997) language alone has the power to induce a change in the real world: “Some things aren’t bad until you start talking about them.”
Müller’s interest in the relationship between language and politics is not, however, pursued to its fullest extent in her novels, but in her essays, as her new volume Cristina and her Double testifies. The pieces in this collection are profoundly autobiographical; in that respect they are essays in the true, Montaignesque sense of the word. “If my mind could gain a firm footing,” Montaigne writes, “I would not make essays, I would make decisions, but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.” If I could settle accounts with the past, Müller might say, I would be writing about other things, but the past keeps haunting me to such an extent that I’ve become an enigma to myself. To move on I need to go back.
• • •
After graduating from college, Müller was for years harassed by the Romanian secret police, the infamous Securitate. When she refused to become an informant, they orchestrated a campaign against her. She was subject to arbitrary interrogations, death threats, surveillance, and false rumors meant to discredit her, including the rumor that she was an informant. At its core this campaign was not about bruises, broken limbs, and shattered windows, but about things unseen. The regime’s violence was primarily mental, not physical. The battlefield here is not your body, but your mind and the language you speak; against such a regime you defend yourself not in the street, but in your head. It is Müller’s great achievement in this book, as elsewhere, to depict the individual’s confrontation with the totalitarian system as a fight over words, discourses (official or dissident), life stories (big or small), historical accounts, grand narratives, history textbooks, and archives. For totalitarianism, above all, is a linguistic project.
To help erase religion from public discourse, the country’s linguistic engineers renamed Christmas-tree angels 'year-end winged creatures.'
Even the most brutal episodes of Müller’s confrontation with the secret police are language-centered. She was investigated, to start with, because she was suspected of having made “pronouncements against the state.” In line with such an accusation, the interrogator would not use torture instruments against her, but words. “During the turbulent phases of the interrogations he called me a piece of shit, a piece of filth, a parasite, a bitch. When he was calmer, a whore or an enemy.” At the next stage there come the death threats. Yet that’s still bearable. “They are part of the only way of life one has, because one can have no other.” Facing death threats can make you stronger: “You defy fear, deep in your soul,” Müller says. Indeed, a death threat is a form of recognition: you are treated as an enemy, acknowledged as something the regime needs to take into account. Worse are the slanders that the regime fabricates and circulates to annihilate you socially. As Müller finds out, “slander robs you of your soul. You are completely surrounded.” This tactic does not offer you any trace of recognition—you are treated as negligible, as trash.
Such slander campaigns could make the secret police in totalitarian regimes look like literary workshops. For what they do is create characters; they make people up and release them into the world. When, years after the collapse of communism, Müller gained access to her secret police file, she discovered that in the archives she was not one, but two distinct people. “One is called Cristina, an enemy of the state, who must be taken on.” Except for the name, this character looked familiar to Müller, a version of herself as reconstructed by the regime’s spies and scribes. The second character was pure fiction. To compromise the real one, the secret police created a fake Müller, Cristina’s “double.” This literary product had all “the ingredients that would be most damaging to me—hardened Communist, ruthless agent, party member.” Working for the Party—or for its “Shield and Sword,” as the secret police was endearingly called—was often seen as a dirty job, something that could rob you of social respectability. Apparently the inner Party knew this better than anyone else.
• • •
Although they claim to be purely rational forms of political organization—“scientific socialism” was the term in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc—totalitarian systems often make use of irrational assumptions. One of them is the magical belief in the power of language to change things. In primitive cultures, for instance, people believed that you could bring something into being by the sheer act of naming it, just as you could change something by renaming it. The world was an enchanted place for these people; you could act on it and master it though spells, chants and incantations.
Communist totalitarianism operated with similar beliefs. When Müller’s first book was published in Romania, the censors removed, among other things, the word “suitcase” whenever it occurred. “Suitcase” hardly seems a politically charged word. Yet at the time, the early 1980s, the German minority was leaving Romania en masse and the regime wanted to keep quiet about it. In the censors’ minds, if you said “suitcase,” you meant “packing,” which meant “leaving,” which meant “leaving for good,” which meant that the country was not a socialist paradise that nobody would leave of his own accord. The irrational assumption was that if suitcases were not mentioned, people would not think of emigration. As in magical thinking, that which is not named does not exist.
This was the case not only in Romania, but in socialist states in general. East Germany provides Müller amusing examples—“word monsters,” she calls them, which “become unintentionally funny.” For instance, as part of a plan to erase religion from public discourse, the country’s linguistic engineers renamed Christmas-tree angels “year-end winged creatures.” Similarly, the language and imagery of death were thought to undermine the sense of endless happiness that citizens no doubt experienced in the GDR. Something had to be done. Instead of “coffin,” officials proposed “earth furniture.” In the same manner, the office in charge of arranging celebrations and funerals for the Party’s bigwigs was renamed “The Department of Joy and Sorrow,” which sounds remarkably, if not deliberately, poetic.
If the system’s power comes from its ability to affect people’s minds though language, resistance should come from language as well.
Behind all these efforts was the belief that language can change the real world. If religious terms are removed from language, people will stop having religious feelings; if the vocabulary of death is properly engineered, people will stop being afraid of dying. We may smile today, but in the long run such polices did produce a change, if not the intended one. The change was not in people’s attitudes toward death or the afterworld, but in their ability to make sense of what was going on. Since language plays such an important part in the construction of the self, when the state subjects you to constant acts of linguistic aggression, whether you realize it or not, your sense of who you are and of your place in the world are seriously affected. Your language is not just something you use, but an essential part of what you are. For this reason any political disruption of the way language is normally used can in the long run cripple you mentally, socially, and existentially. When you are unable to think clearly you cannot act coherently. Such an outcome is precisely what a totalitarian system wants: a population perpetually caught in a state of civic paralysis.
What can a writer do under such circumstances? She can create a space, within language, that the regime cannot invade or occupy. If the system’s power comes from its ability to affect people’s minds though language, any resistance should come from language as well. The regime may use magical thinking for its own purposes, but the writer can oppose it through an enchantment of her own. Müller’s style is often described as magical realism. In the village depicted in her first book, Nadirs (1982),people call things using a language of their own. We make the acquaintance of “the mayor, called judge in the village,” of the “alcoholics, called boozers in the village” and of “non-alcoholics and non-smokers who are feebleminded, which is called respectable in the village,” of “the barber shop, called the barber’s parlor in the village” and of “the cooperative store,” which is “called the emporium in the village.” The village has a life that can be grasped only if we use the proper language:
In the winter the plants suffer from frost, called freeze-to-death in the village, in the spring from sogginess, called rot-to-death in the village, in the summer from heat, called scorch-to-death in the village.
The language of this far-away place has remained unaffected by any political intrusion; the official parlance cannot enter the village. This autonomy, which must have been called linguistic freedom in the village, offers Müller a glimpse of hope: in her work, a writer could imitate these villagers and preserve a certain degree of independence from the system’s pressures. It is self-defense though writing. It may not be much, but sometimes it is enough to make her life, and others’ lives, livable.
• • •
Müller was born and grew up in a German-speaking village. She learned Romanian when she was fourteen, after she moved to the closest major city, Timişoara. It was not easy at first. Romanian, she says, “treated me like pocket money. No sooner had something in the shop caught my eye than my money was not enough to pay for it.” Whatever she meant to say “had to be paid for with the corresponding words and there were many I didn’t know, and the few I did know didn’t occur to me in time.” As she became fluent in Romanian, however, Müller developed for it that enchanted, unconditional love of which non-natives are sometimes capable when they discover a new language. Ever since, her passion for Romanian has shaped her formation as a writer. Even though she does not use it for literary purposes, the language “always accompanies me as I write, because it has grown into my own seeing.”
Romanian is a Romance language, but it has continuously borrowed from others: old Slavonic, Turkish, Hungarian, and German, to name a few. The result is a multilayered language, where the speaker can employ different regions of the vocabulary to make her statement appear at the same time serious and ironic, friendly and threatening, mocking and genuine. The philosopher E. M. Cioran could get drunk on the savage beauty of this language; it had, he said, a “barbarian genius.” What the teenaged Müller experienced in Timişoara, then, was a gradual seduction, with the new language circling her mind closer and closer. Romanian was “sensual, impudent and surprisingly beautiful.”
If the teenaged Müller was enchanted by the odd, barbarian beauty of Romanian, the adult writer is struck by its implicit politics. She discovers its “daredevil imagery” and notices how its “words came across as inconspicuous, but concealed an unerring political stance.” It is a stance of survival amidst recurring historical disasters—invasions, foreign occupations, dictatorships. Life is too short and these disasters too big to face in a more heroic fashion, but poking some fun at them, crafting a good political joke, could amount to a political attitude. The Communist regime snuck into the country amidst the Russian tanks at the end of World War II. Romanians didn’t rebel, but they called cockroaches “Russians” and developed an industry of political jokes in which the Soviet Union figured prominently. Somehow that helped them survive, if precariously. Through their language, Romanians tiptoe their way through history.
In the Romania of the 1980s, it was rumored that political jokes were disseminated by the secret police as a way to ease social tension
Of particular interest to Müller is the endless capacity of this language to generate curses. She delights in studying the wide assortment of Romanian curses, the mechanisms whereby they are produced, and the political attitudes they embody. As in most languages, sexual imagery plays an important part. In Romanian, she notices, “When people are angry they say get fucked in the ear, the nose, the head.” When someone “interfered in matters that didn’t concern them the Rumanians said: ‘Sorrow fucks you.’” What fascinates Müller above all is the inoffensive, good-natured side of the whole process. Romanian cursing could be a form of conviviality:
At a company meeting a woman said in a rage; ‘What the devil, my prick, do you want?’ After the woman had calmed down she apologized for the word ‘devil.’ The people in the room laughed. Then the woman asked, offended: ‘Why, my cunt, are you laughing?’
Müller is enthralled; she cannot get enough of this linguistic feast. The way Romanian curses can accommodate opposing elements, mix vulgarity and beauty, and navigate between offense and good-naturedness, earns her unconditional admiration: “I have always envied this language for its vitality,” she says. Indeed, Romanian cursing turned out to be addictive. When she left the country, Müller managed to smuggle it out among the few belongings she was allowed to take with her: “Even now when I curse I speak Rumanian, because German has not curses so picturesque. The words are all there in German, but they aren’t up to the job.” Similarly, long after he moved to France and adopted the country’s language, Cioran would still resort to Romanian for curses. French was of no help to him in that regard, even though by then he had become a very good writer in that language.
But there is a downside to all that cursing, and it’s not just the offense it may cause among the more sensitive. The problem is in the complacency it breeds. “That’s why people in this dictatorship don’t rebel,” Müller says. People curse the government and the Party, the Securitate and the City Hall, the poor roads and the traffic police, they curse the Russians and the Americans. And then they feel they’ve done enough politics for the day, and it is time to move on. When cursing becomes such an elaborate art, the political stance that it presupposes exhausts itself in performance, and not much is left to feed real protest.
In the Romania of the 1980s, during the most oppressive phase of Ceausescu’s regime, it was rumored that political jokes, which mushroomed in those years, were in fact created and disseminated by the secret police as a way to ease social tension. A well-told joke, like a well-told curse, could give people such a sense of satisfaction that they would feel as though they had done their share of resistance. Such was the rumor, but perhaps even this rumor was fabricated in the secret police’s labs. For, again, totalitarianism is a linguistic project.
• • •
When Müller retrieved her secret police file, she discovered not only that the agents had fashioned a “double” for her, but also what a fascinating subject she and her literary work had been to them. For sure, those people had a passion for literature: her file was almost a thousand pages long. At the same time, before Müller got the Nobel Prize, she presented almost no interest to the Romanian literary establishment. In a massive “critical history of Romanian literature” published in 2008, her name is not even mentioned. What kind of place is that, where the secret police enthuse about a future Nobelist, while literary scholars ignore her? That is Central-Eastern Europe, where the absurd was born and thrives, and where such figures as Cioran, Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, Milan Kundera, and Jaroslav Hašek found inexhaustible inspiration. The place where almost nothing seems to happen in real life, even as a lot happens in literature and in people’s minds.
It is the same place where people have survived for centuries through crafty cursing and the art of the political joke. They’ve made jokes, bought time, and practiced patience. Jokes like this one, which I remember from a distant, yet recurring, past. A French, a German, and a Russian are talking about what they drive. “Well,” says the French, “when we travel domestically, we use our Renault cars—abroad we take the Peugeot.” “We do something similar,” says the German. “Within the country we drive the Volkswagen, but when we go abroad we use the Mercedes.” The Russian keeps quiet, making the other two more and more curious. “When we are in Russia,” he says eventually, “we drive our Lada cars. Abroad we always go with our tanks.”
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.