On the Internet, a word that will always get attention is “Actually.” You can bet it will be followed by such-and-such a reason why so-and-so is wrong, and what could be more interesting? Especially among wordy or academic types, language is so prolific that drawing lines of what should and shouldn’t be said seems imperative, if only to implement some order. Such is the context for a fantastic essay by author Zadie Smith, whose Grand Union is out this month. Smith reflects on the problem of words and specifically the problem of fiction: stories about people who are not the author. Who has the right to write a person you are not? Today, this jives less and less. Brilliantly Smith responds, first by riffing on Whitman, then by puzzling over the “convenient battlefield of language.”

…whenever I am struck by the old self-loathing, I try to bring to mind…some well-worn lines of Walt Whitman’s:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Who is this Whitman, and who does he think he is, containing anyone? Let Whitman speak for Whitman… How can Whitman, dead in 1892, contain, or even know anything at all of the particularities of any of us, alive as we are, in this tumultuous year, 2019?

This inner voice suspects the problem starts in that word, contain, which would appear to share some lexical territory with other troubling discourses. The language of land rights. The language of prison ideology. The language of immigration policy. Even the language of military strategy. Nor does it seem at all surprising to me that we should, in 2019, have this hypersensitivity to language, given that it is something we carry about our person, in our mouths and our minds. It’s right there, within our grasp, and we can effect change upon it, sometimes radical change. Whereas many more material issues—precisely economic inequality, criminal justice reform, immigration policy, and war—prove frighteningly intractable. Language becomes the convenient battlefield. And language is also, literally, the “containment.” The terms we choose—or the terms we are offered—behave as containers for our ideas, necessarily shaping and determining the form of what it is we think, or think we think. Our arguments about “cultural appropriation,” for example, cannot help but be heavily influenced by the term itself. Yet we treat those two carefully chosen words as if they were elemental, neutral in themselves, handed down from the heavens. When of course they are only, like all language, a verbal container, which, like all such containers, allows the emergence of certain ideas while limiting the possibilities of others. 

Smith continues that a “writer [cannot] hope to bypass the intimate judgment of a reader, which happens sentence by sentence, moment by moment. Is it this judgment we fear?” A writer cannot—will not—control whether a reader believes the text or just isn’t very convinced right now. Words are always there to be shrugged off or misinterpreted. With judgment comes condemnation, all terms of the law; still, the writer submits him or herself to it. Smith anticipates responses to her essay, ranging from “I just can’t with Zadie Smith right now,” or else, “This Zadie Smith is everything”—and neither is hers to control.

Whether you are a writer or not, this is the stuff of reality. Judgment, for what is said or unsaid, is part of life. It is a relief, then, to know that Christianity would submit itself to this same battlefield. After all, even a Word from heaven is a word. As David Bentley Hart once wrote, “if indeed God became a man, then Truth condescended to become a truth,” contained, in this case, by history. In Paul’s words, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Yet when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”, Jesus remains silent—his physical being the only response.