A while back I gave a talk based on an essay I was working on. The talk was a kind of trial run: I wanted to get a sense of whether I was on the right track. I do this kind of thing fairly often. In giving these (as it were) provisional lectures, I learn from the feedback listeners give: critiques they offer, and additional ideas they suggest. But equally valuable is a different kind of feedback, the kind that arises when I am forced to speak my own words, aloud and to others.

In this talk I offered a rather critical response to a book I had recently read, and I found myself called upon to make statements whose tone suddenly made me uneasy — quite unexpectedly: I had never felt uneasiness when I was writing them. One claim in the book I had called “absurd,” and as my eyes scanned the page, running a little ahead of my voice, I was suddenly abashed, and reluctant to put the point so strongly. I managed to amend it to “untenable” and to keep the flow of the narrative going, so that no one would have suspected that I was editing on the fly. Was “untenable” precisely right? Maybe not — but it was better than “absurd”; it tasted less sour in my mouth. I could think more about it later.

This is a strange kind of experience. As I was reading, as my mind was processing words and sending them along to my lips and larynx, a word pricked my conscience; I scanned my word-hoard for alternatives, and managed to retrieve one, to my relief. But it’s not always so easy. A few minutes later in the same lecture I came across a whole phrase that, even as it was about to emerge into the public air for the first time, was revealed to me as fundamentally uncharitable — but because it was a whole phrase I did not have time to construct an alternative. I was therefore forced to utter words even as I was renouncing them, to be convicted out of my own mouth of a lack of generosity. I was made to own, by speaking them, words I wished I had not written.

Many years ago Stephen Greenblatt, one of our best scholars of early modern literature, was on an airline flight and began to chat with his neighbor. Greenblatt discovered that the man’s son was in a hospital, suffering from a disorder that left him in a great deal of pain but also unable to speak: he could only mouth words, and the father was uncertain about his ability to read lips. He thought that his son might want to end his life. He asked Greenblatt to pronounce, silently, the words “I want to die.”

Greenblatt found that he couldn’t do it. There was something creepy about the request, for one thing: it was hard for him not to imagine that the man could be some kind of psychopath who was only waiting for someone to utter the dread request so that he himself could pull out a knife and grant it. But Greenblatt was not so excitable as to think that his seatmate was really likely to be a madman; rather,

I felt superstitiously that if I mimed the man’s terrible sentence, it would have the force, as it were, of a legal sentence, that the words would stick like a burr upon me. And beyond superstition, I was aware, in a manner more forceful than anything my academic research had brought home to me, of the extent to which my identity and the words I utter coincide, the extent to which I want to form my own sentences or to choose for myself those moments in which I will recite someone else’s.

This statement comes at the end of a book that, among other things, explores forms of coercion in sixteenth-century England, among them the confessions and professions that people in power sought to extract from those whose fates they controlled. To be forced to write our own guilt — this is a familiar notion to us, and one that takes many forms and many moods, from Bart Simpson’s writing on the blackboard after school to the scripted confessions of Stalin’s show trials. (Thus Sergei Mrachkovsky in 1936: “I end as a traitor to my party, a traitor who must be shot.”)

But there is something more darkly strange than this, and that is the feeling of saying, not purely external words that others have forced upon you and that you know not to be your own, but rather words that are — sad to say — your own. That was the experience I had when giving my talk, and I would be surprised if as I recited those uncharitable words I was not blushing. I felt that I was pronouncing a sentence in more ways than one.

A legal sentence, as pronounced by a judge, is what philosophers call a performative utterance: If he says “Guilty,” why, so you instantly are, in the eyes of the law. The jury may reach its verdict, but it is the judge who pronounces it — whose sentence makes it official in the eyes of the Law. The one who holds the power to give his sentence, whether a judge or a king, is like God in the first chapter of Genesis: what he says, is. In old English law this was called the “sentence definitive” — it is a great and terrible power to be able so to define; which is perhaps one reason why the Soviet officials tried when possible to make their poor prisoners act as their own judges.

There is a strange analogue to the sentence definitive in the Gospels. In response to the Pharisees who claim that it is through Beelzebub that Jesus casts out demons, he lashes them: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (The same principle is at work in the parable of the unforgiving servant, who ends by being condemned according to the standard he applied to his fellow servant. Measure for measure….)

It is curious that Jesus speaks of the Pharisees’ accusation against him as a “careless word” — and disturbing that he clearly does not mean thereby to excuse them. Perhaps we would like to think that our careless words are more forgivable than our calculated cruelties, but it seems that we will “give account” for all our words alike. I doubt that we think about this often enough. There is sure wisdom in the Great Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim, much used in the Orthodox world, which begins thus: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power and idle talk.” Idle talk! — how many of us would think to place, near the head of a long prayer to be repeated frequently in Lent, a plea to be delivered from that?

And yet many have been my idle words over the years. I wonder how much harm they have done to others, and even to me. I did not publish my first book until I was nearly 40, and while I used to regret that late start, I now am thankful that I didn’t get the chance earlier in life to pour forth yet more sentences to spend my latter years regretting. A handful of times over the years I have drafted essays only to realize, before submitting them, that I did not want to say what I had written there; and a few other times I have had cause to thank editors for rejecting pieces that, had they been published, would have brought me embarrassment later.

In some cases the embarrassment would have been because of arguments badly made or paragraphs awkwardly formed; but in others because of a simple lack of charity or grace. An essay begins with an idea, but an idea begins with a certain orientation of the mind and will — with a mood, if you please. We have only the ideas that our mood of the moment prepares us to have, and while our moods may be connected to the truth of things, they are normally connected only to some truths, some highly partial facet of reality. Out of that mood we think; out of those thoughts we write. And it may be that only in speaking those thoughts do we discern the mood from which they arose. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” — a terrifying judgment, when you think of it.

Exported from Medium on October 7, 2014.