The Readiness of Words

Lucrezia as Poetry by Salvator Rosa (oil painting) on view at the Hartford Atheneum

“It breaks my heart. I am far too prone to tears, too full of tears…”  Medea – Euripedes

In the play Medea, a lot of time is expended trying to reason with the epynomous character. The chorus pleads with her, her servants and friends beg and reason. What more can they do? She is not moved. She is, at least, human enough to have to brace herself against them, but her mind and heart are fixed:

“Away this flinching! Away this longing!” Medea

The other day towards the end of  my brief text exchange with a very mean person I suddenly thought of Flannery O’Conner’s story A Good Man Is Hard To Find. The chilling certainty of knowing that no matter what you say, your words won’t move the Misfits of the world. It’s a devastating realization that leaves one feeling utterly defenseless. When a heart is closed or calloused over no amount of “Wait! Wait! Don’t do that,” or heartfelt love and empathy will touch their soft core.

Even though we know that, in Medea, we are probably dealing with a woman of questionable mental health- I mean not every one would chop up her brother in an attempt to delay her pursuers, or find any necessity in killing their children, never the less, even if it is only for her own sake, you want her to understand the sickness and uselessness of spite.

Jason (Medea’s husband) is worthy of spite. Why didn’t he talk to her? To be looked over and ignored is worse than any cut. It was interesting to me that the word “love” kept coming up. I kept wondering what the original word was. Could it have been a slight mistranslation?  Is our modern ideal of love so different? Probably not- a lot of what passes for love is often of a dependent, controlling, or hollow type, so few people seem to ever experience true love, maybe that’s why we’re all so fascinated with the subject.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual word was more akin to “pride.” Oh the perfidy of pride and social standing! Jason comes late to the scene and his last ditch effort is in vain. Even if the words are ready, the man often is not.

And yet…and yet, I am unable to completely abandon my hope in the ability of words to pierce a soul or open a heart. I want too much for it to be true. And maybe because, for me, it is too true: I am susceptible to the pain or pleasure of mere words.

I am not alone of course, here is a beautiful song sung by Caetano Veloso from a scene of Pedro Amaldovar’s wonderful, funny and sweet film about the power of words – Talk To Her:

quotes from – Euripedes Ten Plays (translation by Paul Roche)


12 responses to “The Readiness of Words

  1. gorgeous song. As for the meaning of the word love, as I understand it, Greek has 7 words for it, so translating into english is a bad match. so you could be right on what you think it should be.

  2. In the O’Connor story the grandmother’s words fail to save her, I think, because they aren’t sincere or complex enough. She’s even willing to call him a “good” man just to save herself. “She’d of been a good woman if there’d been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life,” speaks to the grandmother’s (and most people’s) shallow sense of right and wrong–goodness for granny is being polite and chivalrous, that’s all…Only when she “recognizes” the Misfit, does she start to speak deeply, directly, and that’s when he shoots her–and so her words do reach him and make him act, ultimately..? I do think the story is all about the power of words–like the words for Big Sammys (did I remember that right?) barbecue seen for miles on roadside signs before they reach the actual place, the image of the shirt with the parrot on it landing on the Misfit’s shoulder, as if it were a real parrot (2 dimensional representations of things vs the things themselves…) I think the story is all about deep belief and the Misfit is an odd kind of profit, and though his belief is skewed, he’s the only one who acts on his belief and who believes deeply, and for O’Connor, the devout Catholic, surely “the Word” has rich religious connotations as well.. (apologies for mini lecture…can’t resist O’Connor references, great post, as usual…love that song–the go-to song amongst my good friends in Mexico after too many tequilas…)

    • That’s absolutely true, but even though the grandmother is really awful, her desperation is palatable and painful to witness. The story is complex, but I was really only speaking to the desperate plea (even hers) and it’s ability or not to move someone. Thanks for the comment, it is a great story…a lot to think about.

  3. Do you think her words ultimately do “pierce his heart” just before he shoots her, when she sees him as her own “son”? That she’s managed to say one truer, more potent thing in her life? Now I have to find the story.. Doesn’t she reach out and touch him, and that’s when he shoots her? I guess the reference, and your post in general, got me thinking about how/why our words are so often so impotent, so throw away and incapable of moving others, how hard it is to figure out how to speak from the heart.. I do appreciate how you were using the reference; her desperation when facing the Misfit is terrifying, her words, we can tell from the outset, will be unable to dissuade him. Sorry again for taking it in a somewhat different direction…

    • I don’t know if she pierces his heart, but her heart is definitely pierced and the Misfit sees that, which is what makes it such a moving story. He never takes pity on her, he just understands that she has experienced something real for the first time in her life and he appreciates the sincerity, I suppose we too can appreciate the sincerity of his cold truth.
      It’s not so much in a different direction, maybe the whole post should have been on the O’Conner, forget Medea!
      It was only that I felt that chill in my text exchange and then again reading Medea. But it is true, A Good Man is about so much more…

  4. Very thought-provoking post. I would love to hear this song in person!

  5. Just came upon this… The only recording of O’Connor reading…

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