Silent Adjustments

Excerpt from Humiliation by Wayne Koestenbaum

There is a long tradition of writing about writing's inadequacy — about the necessary failure of words. And certain writers — among them the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who played games with language but also understood that language's imprecisions and gaps were akin to fleshly amputations — have thought hard, and with a nearly physical sense of agony, about how the act of speaking or writing hurls one to the bottommost realm of incapacity and paralysis. 

In an apparently innocuous sentence from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a neutral sentence that seems to have nothing to do with being humiliated, or suffering injury, or feeling isolated and outcast from the human community, Wittgenstein writes, "The silent adjustments to understand colloquial language are enormously complicated" — and in that simple sentence, the words "silent," "adjustments," "enormously," and "complicated" point to the abyss of lonely incomprehension in which someone alien to a native language must founder. 

Think of the silent adjustments we all make, the enormously complicated adjustments, merely to have a simple conversation with another human being. Think of the silent adjustments, and the subliminal toll they take on our equanimity, that we must make merely to understand how to behave in front of other people. And think of the humiliation undergone if these silent adjustments are not made. 

Think of the person who suddenly realizes that he or she may soon be incapable of undergoing the hard work involved in making silent adjustments to standard, consensual idioms of speech and behavior. 

What if one day I wake up and stop being interested in making these adjustments? To what condition of perpetual humilation will I henceforth be doomed? 

See also: "Wayne Koestenbaum: Humiliation," KCRW's Bookworm, February 9, 2012