It’s true I think, as Adam Phillips remarked in one of his later essays, that we continually speak each other’s unspoken thoughts. We are not as discrete as we appear to be. There are many things in our lives that get spoken over and over, that we can’t stop speaking of, that are, in a sense, barely intelligible markers of things we don’t really know we are turning into utterance. It’s as if there is always something unspeakable inside us.
We all have pockets of unintegrated stuff hidden away within; autistic bits, psychotic bits, dissociated bits, and so on. They try and make themselves known again and again, in all sorts of weird ways. It’s as if we keep stuttering over and over, even stuttering about our stuttering. Those of us who are readers and writers may well be the worst stutterers of all. Writers speak in books, over and over. It’s as if the highly literate are people who just can’t shut up.
In my case there is one particular book, a novel of adventure of all things, that I have read repeatedly more than any other. It was written in the early 1960s and was once made into a famous and extremely bad film. I regularly discard it, only to find it stammering its way back into my life every few years. Of course, this begs its own question; why is this particular book so bottomless, why this book of all books?
The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa claimed – heteronymously – to repeatedly read only a couple of books, both written by priests, one on rhetoric the other on grammar. ‘I read and I abandon myself,’ he says, ‘not to reading, but to myself.’ Perhaps Pessoa lets the cat out of the bag here. Maybe in our reading we are just trying to find ways to speak of ourselves to ourselves over and over.
For a long time I used to stutter in my daily conversations, always unexpectedly and unpredictably and, it goes without saying, at unwanted moments. It can be an excruciating thing stuttering, to not be able to say what you want to say, to feel the stream of your thought and intention being fractured and dismembered. It’s like being inside a glass case or like trying to communicate from within the Cone of Silence.
And then it so fell that I had to do some lecturing and run a lot of workshops and speak at conferences. And not only did I not stutter when I did these things, it did not even occur to me that I might. On the contrary, I suddenly found myself fluent, relaxed, spontaneous and without any sense of nervousness even if I was speaking to a couple of hundred people.
The crux of the experience it seemed to me then, was that I felt free to say what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Whereas in the verso of ordinary conversation what I wanted to say could never be said or communicated except by stammering. For the stammering person there is no greater feeling of helplessness than to finally get past the gatekeeper of your own stutter and speak your intention, only to have the other gaze at you in utter incomprehension. Of course my sudden unexpected freedom from stuttering – itself an unexpected stutter in my stuttering – can also be thought of as freedom from the complexity and anxiety of reciprocal interaction. A lecture is in no way a conversation. In a lecture no accommodation is generally made for another’s thought or interruption.
Another way of putting it might be to say that the stutterer is someone very good at evoking incomprehension, or someone who is skilled at trying to make the other say the things that they themselves are unable to. Who hasn’t had the experience of wanting to speak the stutterer’s words for them?
Stuttering can also be the default position when there is nothing to be said. If words fail me, then stuttering makes that apparent. Poets are those people who stammer musically. If I listen to hip-hop, what strikes me is how similar the cadences of the verses are – no matter how fluent the rhyme – to stuttering.
Most writers say the same thing over and over. That’s not a criticism; it’s just what writers do. That’s how we recognise a writer’s ‘style’. I always read Beckett’s famous line from Worstward Ho, ‘fail again, fail better’, as a kind of gentle encouragement to other writers, an act of courtesy. That is, Beckett was trying to be nice. Actually, writers just fail. There isn’t any other option. We shuffle offstage still unable to shut up – whoever heard of a silent writer – stuttering as we go.