I’m just gonna say it – writers love writing about writing.
Is any other artistic field this self-involved? Do singers sing about singing as much as we write about writing? As a group, we come off a bit obsessed, honestly. Enraptured by the infinite potential of language. And we make damn sure everyone else knows it.
So it was with a sense of comfort, familiarity, and commiseration that I settled into Isabel Allende’s short story, “Two Words,” this past week. I’ve always admired Allende’s writing: there’s a soft and lyrical nature to the prose, and she conjures romance with disarming ease. You can read this story here (and I highly recommend you do – it’s short and lovely! And if you’re going to be reading this analysis, I’ll be spoiling it all anyway).
Belisa Crepusculario is the story’s protagonist:
“she herself had searched until she found the poetry of “beauty” and “twilight” and cloaked herself in it.”
Belisa sells words for a living, and eventually enchants a political leader –and through him the country — with the words she writes.
It’s a story about the power of language (ahh, such a nice, comforting theme), and a woman who carves a space for herself in society through writing:
“That was the day Belisa Crepusculario found out that words make their way in the world without a master, and that anyone with a little cleverness can appropriate them and do business with them. She made a quick assessment of her situation and concluded that aside from becoming a prostitute or working as a servant in the kitchens of the rich there were few occupations she was qualified for. It seemed to her that selling words would be an honorable alternative. From that moment on, she worked at that profession, and was never tempted by any other.”
This is the part where all of us who identify as writers swoon a little and go, “Omg, me and Belisa have like so much in common.”
Enter the Colonel, a fierce military leader who’s decided to nice himself up a little bit to win the hearts of the people or whatever. (Allow me to digress — the people of where? I have no idea where or when this story takes place. I’m a total spaz when it comes to determining those things. Plus, this is like magical realism so who really knows anything, you know? This bit was way too long for parentheses. Sorry.)
The Colonel realizes that if he wants the country to rally around him, he needs the right words. And Belisa supplies:
“She discarded harsh, cold words, words that were too flowery, words worn from abuse, words that offered improbable promises, untruthful and confusing words, until all she had left were words sure to touch the minds of men and women’s intuition.”
The Colonel then embarks across the country, showering the plebes with his rad prose:
“…they were dazzled by the clarity of the Colonel’s proposals and the poetic lucidity of his arguments, infected by his powerful wish to right the wrongs of history, happy for the first time in their lives.”
Well, isn’t that nice.
Like many of Allende’s works, this story has a fairytale feeling.The Colonel uses words of power to promote unification in a fractured country. His speeches are powerful because they use simple and honest language that speaks to the ordinary people in the country. “Crafted from glowing and durable words,” Belisa’s speeches use simple, clear language:
“…she calculated the infinite possibilities of her trade and with her savings paid a priest twenty pesos to teach her to read and write, with her three 3 remaining coins she bought a dictionary. She poured over it from A to Z and then threw it into the sea, because it was not her intention to defraud her customers with packaged words.”
So the words she gives the Colonel are simple. Common, even. But more powerful for this. This story displays the cooperative and magical aspect of language, but I can’t help but see its inverse.
I’d prefer not to get too political in my safe-space-blog-home. Disclaimer aside, reading this story brought certain United States political leaders to mind. Before the most recent election, I hadn’t given much thought to political speeches. It was all rather generic to me: usually measured, calm, well thought out. Geared towards unification and cooperation. I hadn’t realized, until quite recently, the absolute power of words when used in the opposite way.
In “Two Words,” the Colonel’s “poetic lucidity” brings the people together, creates a fairy tale happy ending. His speaks a tongue familiar to the masses. Current political leaders in the United States have been similarly lauded: “He uses plain language,” “He doesn’t speak like a politician,” “He uses words everyone understands.”
Our President could never be accused of avoiding “untruthful and confusing words.” Loves ’em. Also, unlike the Colonel, he seems to gain particular pleasure from “words worn from abuse.” But. He does use simple words. And somehow, even his cruelest and most crass statements seem to have struck a chord with voters in our country. He’s somehow (how?) convinced a certain demographic that just because his vocabulary is meager, he is an honest man.
But simplicity isn’t everything in speech. Words can have a more insidious effect. They can inspire hatred and division. Words can push people away from one another. Hateful, vitriolic words can create cracks in society, expose the darkest subsections of hatred in our culture, and degrade purposeful language in public discourse.
Even the simplest fairytales have dark undertones. I’m evidently biased due to the current political climate, but I couldn’t help but read “Two Words” as a cautionary tale. Words have power. Use them well.