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Do you want to believe in language?

Dietmar Dath

Your Sprache Never Was
A Defeat

Published: 11.12.2017


Asleep, Patrick sees what he doesn’t believe while he’s awake.

The index calculates everything. Announcements of awards, mostly false, light up then die. His dopamine balance feeds the list. Limbic structures support it. Brain means house, should have windows. But they’re slow shutter pictures of the past.

Five minutes past four, Patrick is woken up by a noise. He’s lying in the small room. Renate is sleeping in the big one.

“Maybe I’ll get an idea during the night,” he had justified his move to the couch, “Then I’ll have to send it to them. We’re sending the thing off tomorrow.” He was afraid of saying what he knew about Kerstin in his sleep, while lying next to Renate. In the darkness he feels the room buzzing at him. His brain answers the hum, singing sugar and protein, talking perineural network that controls the form and function of the synapses which guide all the neuron’s intracellular communication.

Patrick feels chilly from his feet up.

He wants to stay with Renate, not fly to America, to non-swimmer Kerstin.

Renate is 30 years old. She’s a stable person. Non-swimmer Kerstin on the other hand, has been alive as long as Patrick, 52 years already, and her terrible genius has nothing stable about it.

Renate is fit, has long, ash blond hair, and a musical laugh. She thinks that how Patrick on the one hand has remained loyal to his dodgy friend Karel Landau and on the other doesn’t cover up what he’s done is “heroic.” A word from literature. She reads novels. In contrast, Kerstin hates novels, is bony and pale, has buzzed hair that’s already gone grey at the temples. Three millimeters long Patrick guesses, from when they last saw each other on Skype. When she laughs it sounds dirty and all-knowing. A harsh tear in an inner smirk. At least she reads poetry.

It’s been 16 months since Kerstin was last here in Frankfurt, passing through after the conference in Berscia. In the time since, the foundation upon which Patrick had tried to support the information that she has divulged to him has collapsed. She told him not in a cemetery or underground parking garage — but in a pizzeria — a joke. Foundation?

His team, the one waiting for nighttime ideas to spruce up the unplanned paper, researches in the real; but that groundwork is a quagmire: chiral magnets, skyrmions, amorphous substance stuff.

Patrick had asked his old school friend Karel Landau to lend a hand as an adjunct researcher and had even wanted to bring him into the team before Landau was convicted of forging tunnel microscope data.

Hearings, dishonorable dismissal, embarrassment. A disruption.

Patrick’s relationship to Renate doesn’t really offer him a stable foundation either, instead it seems more and more artificial to him — he wants a young girlfriend, she wants a man who knows his way around. What kind of insipid desires are those anyway?

Kerstin invited him to Boston: “If you want to hear the rest, you’re going to have to come.”

He recognized her naughty face as she said that from back in school.

They were never a couple. When Kerstin got together with her first boyfriend though, Patrick was screwballed with jealousy for two weeks. Still she didn’t give up all of their shared routines. Boyfriend here, boyfriend there. True, their 5AM walks took place a little less often, twice instead of four times a week, but they still left from the Central Station, going along the bank of the Main River. Discussions about God (she didn’t believe in him), the world (he didn’t believe in it), and pubescent amateur philosophers (they both believed in them).

To this day, he doesn’t know the appropriate word for his closeness to her. In the weeks of jealousy, he thought for a short time it could be “love.” But love, he thinks now, doesn’t exist, while the relationship between the two of them evidently endures.

Is it just gratefulness for Kerstin’s confronting of the exasperating Gina that time in 1983 when she called him “engine grease guy” after he had gone overboard with the hair gel? Mutual gratefulness: He too had saved Kerstin from mockery, namely when she refused to take part in swim class. With her dreaded stubbornness she subsequently made her parents send her to a child psychologist who ended up writing a report that said her fear of drowning was a blockage that couldn’t be resolved by simple force of will. To this day she can’t, nor does she want to swim.

Kerstin’s qualms: no dance lessons, no driver’s license, no religion class, no swimming.

The noise bores through the foam earplugs and the sweater Patrick had wrapped around his head, because without it, it would be bright to fall asleep in the small, curtainless room.

Patrick thinks: I’m a snitch, but hey, I didn’t say anything. No, I kept my mouth shut. The betrayal is in that, that I didn’t want to say: He didn’t fake any data. The thing is he did. What’s funny though: We eventually did the experiment with the magnets, and the results were the same as the fabricated ones. Karel knew that his model was correct, he just faked the results. People say he’s a liar for true information. He calls me a snitch — for staying silent. Betrayal, lies. Are words broken? Kerstin says: “You expect too much from language.”

Patrick unwraps the sweater from his head, takes out the earplugs, and sees light flickering on the wall. It’s coming from the discman that he had hooked up to the stereo. It turns on. The speakers hum. It turns off. The light disappears. Repeat. The adaptor must be fritzing. Patrick pulls the plug. Then he sits down at the computer.

Online, a survivor of the latest American shooting rampage says: “When people were dying there was somebody there who was holding their hands or holding them in their arms, comforting them. When people had injuries, no matter how severe it was, people were trying to get them to safety, nobody suffered alone and I think that’s the takeaway from the whole entire situation.” What kind of people are humans anyway? They talk as if they would rather bleed out while being comforted than come through alone.

If only it were just faith-based prattle. But it is felt deeply, Patrick knows, because he himself has felt this way. What holds this feeling together? A process for exchanging not only information, but also information processing methods that contain many rules that can change other rules? That’s how philosophers see language. Linguists too.

Patrick remembers Kerstin’s enthusiasm during her studies, when she came across her favorite philosopher Davidson and his theses that a such a process doesn’t exist. She immediately wanted to know “If you could calculate it. It shouldn’t be left to the philosophers or to the neurologists. Ideas are taken from philosophers, data from the neurologists, but the solution belongs to computer science.”

They had both studied computer science. She minored in philosophy while he minored in physics, because he wanted “to think near reality,” and he could “get more out of it.” But now it is Kerstin who has found something that changes everything. Not him.

The clue was inside of reality. “There is a measurable gradient,” she told him in the pizzeria, “between on the one hand the amount of linguistic meaning units that only serve to confirm the coherence of the respective inference chain and, on the other, the mass of data being processed that comes from outside the inner monolog or multi-person conversation. In languages which are actually spoken, written, and thought, the coherence value of any string of symbols supersedes any corresponding value attached to extralinguistic data. We aren’t born with rules that allow us to describe the world. We’re born with rules that push us into the horde, because we wouldn’t exist otherwise. I’ve analyzed all of the relevant neurolinguistics studies — I’ve completely formalized the way in which the human brain thinks of language as the defining of the limits of what language is able to do. The result: It can’t definitively talk about the world, it only often seems like it can, but that’s exaption — the true goal is something else. The secondary purpose of relating to the world is simply accomplished often enough to keep it going, a bit like a newspaper horoscope is sometimes right because it is just unspecific enough. But that’s not its function, being right — it’s there to sell newspapers. The function of a brain-typical language can only be, according to my proof, an open-ended process that is simply carried out in perpetuity. Nobody knows its premises anymore; just like the function of living things is to simply transmit their genes — every single life is only a collateral gift, sometimes collateral damage. In the sixties everyone was disappointed when it became clear that insights from programming languages were less relevant for true language than Chomsky had hoped. Then everyone thought: Programming languages are too poor a comparison for true languages. It’s the other way around. That’s what I figured out: The computers get tripped up because true human languages are much shabbier than ones that are able to execute the efficient processing of non-linguistic data. Natural languages have to do with reality only in copy errors or through structural constraints, because there’s only one world and so on. They are a move to escape nature in operatively closed systems of delusion: the psychic and the social.”

Patrick scrolls, types, and clicks.

He finds a well-priced offer. Premium economy from Frankfurt in five hours. He buys the ticket and writes Renate an email. Then he books an apartment near Copley Square; he loved the area when he was in Boston four years ago.

His phone confirms the flight and accommodation reservations. He turns off the computer, quietly washes, dresses, packs light, leaves.

Six and a half hours later he’s sitting in his aisle seat with legroom, reading the beginning of a poem by Denise Riley:

An awkward lyric

It sits with itself in its arms. Out of

The depth of its shame it starts singing

Patrick asks himself how he would translate that into German. “Awkward.” A befangenes, beklommenes poem? Unbeholfen, ungeschickt?

The poem is ashamed of itself: Is that like him, on account of Karel Landau?

He stuffs the thin volume by Riley into the seat pocket and checks out the TV and movie offer: adventure, fantasy, comedy for kids and adults. He can’t watch any of it.

Since the non-swimmer’s visit and the revelation of her discovery, he sees its truth everywhere. In art and in the news.

Everything wants to move him and touch him, pick him up and take him, shake him and seize him. Everyone is always saying to everyone else: My nervous system is like yours. We are the wounded who comfort each other.

It’s not even new to him.

Back then in the 80s, on the bank of the Main, he and Kerstin were already in agreement that the “dismay,” the “rage,” and the “sorrow” of the whole German film shit, protest art, and song singing were barely tolerable. He still remembers how they promised each other to above all never want to have anything to do with literature, “even though,” as Kerstin said, “it’s the easiest way into a job. Sadly, we’re better at writing essays than at math.”

The whining quickly became passé. In the new pop literature that arose while Kerstin and Patrick were studying, it was better to be “angered” than touched. But of course it was still only about agreement, this time between those who were angry. Soon, Patrick was going to readings because he wanted to get a look at the writers. That way, he wouldn’t have to read any of the junk, and would still get educated. Then pop literature was done, and everything remained the same crap for the masses: family, childhood, migration, religion, socialization, sickness, glued together with a distancing of oneself from one’s political past (Hitler, GDR, etc.) Another adhesive was the affirmation of an apolitical past as a partier or an ascetic. No thoughts, no observations, only the euphoria or the blues of the masses.

Patrick cries silently and doesn’t know what for. The book is in his hands again, but he doesn’t remember having taken it out of the netting.

It says:

To hold a true note could be everything.

Getting the hang of itself would undo it.

With the back of his right hand, he wipes his cheeks. A sideways glance lets him know that the sleeping woman next to him hasn’t seen anything.

He feels better.

Patrick turns his cell phone back on in the taxi to Copley, twenty minutes after landing. He checks his messages, while from the screen in the headrest MSNBC alleges news that is more strictly molded to the approval of the masses than anyone could invent it to be.

O2 informs Patrick about the US rates via SMS.

In 17 parts, Renate details how calmly she hates him.

He takes care of the formalities in the reception office on Fairfield Street, then heads straight for the building with his apartment near the intersection of Fairfield and Newbury. When everything is unpacked and in the wardrobes, he takes care of his professional obligations using his tablet, wishing the research group lots of luck on the paper, then drifts off.

He wakes up from his short exhaustion nap in the early evening, 6PM local time.

He walks down the sloping street towards Copley, going to the market then eating a big salami sandwich on the steps of the library, ringed by memorials to science and art. Afterwards, he goes up Boylston to the park, where he watches the ducks play politics as night sets in. From the overcrowded main drag, he peels off to the right, heading past the cinema to the shopping thoroughfare. On a side street, he finds what he has been looking for: The sign in the window promises “SECURITY.”

The blue electric Taser costs 40 dollars. The shopkeeper says that he is originally from Pakistan. Patrick nods, smiles inanely, Thank You, leaves.

In his jacket pocket, he rolls the device over and over in his hand, as if he wanted to keep it warm. Returning to the apartment, he falls right back asleep, and has unsettled dreams until around three. Afterwards he lies there reading by the open window. At five he notices that he’s hungry.

He has a croissant and a coffee for breakfast in a Starbucks on Boylston Street, reading something that is written on the wall:

We thank and honor the first responders who unselfishly and heroically rushed to care for those impacted by the events at the Boston marathon on April 15th, 2013. We thank our brave Starbucks partners who helped so many customers evacuate to safety. We are forever grateful for these acts of kindness as we come together.

The non-swimmer probably thinks that there’s nothing there. But what’s there if there really is something?

Out on Newbury Street, almost empty at this hour, a woman of an indefinite age limps down the sidewalk in front of him. The right sleeve of her sweatshirt is ragged. He thinks she must be homeless, drunk, or crazy until she stops in front of a brand new metallic red Hyundai full of shopping bags, unlocks the car, gets in, and drives off.

Patrick wanders to the river. He counts the bridges, then his steps from the open air concert venue to the Museum of Science. In the golden light, he sits down on a bench and calls Kerstin.

“In Boston, really?” she says with so much joy in her voice that he is again close to tears and needs to slow her down, “Don’t go overboard.” “Oh, I’m going. Should I come pick you up somewhere? Why don’t we grab breakfast?”

“Already ate…” he says. She interrupts him, bubbling, “of course you never sleep, just like me, but wait, listen, why don’t we get lunch?”

“Sure. Should I come to MIT?”

“Where are you right now?”

“Somewhere in Back Bay, by the river, near…”

“Okay, you know what, then I’ll just finish up here… and I’ll be there in an hour or so. Then we can stroll along the river like old times and after get some food. How about that?”

“You don’t need to cancel or drop anything on account of me, or…”
“What? It’s settled then, at the Museum in… at nine. OK?”

“OK.” He says, now feeling happy himself.

Even though the museum’s lobby is full of hundreds of people on this Tuesday morning, they find each other right away.

Kerstin seems healthier than the last time they met, her hair is longer, a rakish hedgehog. Patrick has bought two tickets before she arrives because he knows that she likes the animal sculptures by Katharine Lane Weems just as much as he does. Together they admire the lithe hound, the crouching rabbits.

They take a taxi back to the Copley neighborhood where Kerstin knows a great Italian place. Patrick hasn’t eaten something as good as their spinach gnocchi in years.

During the lemon gelato afterwards he asks her directly: “How far have you guys come?”

“What do you mean ’you guys’?”

“How far are you? Are you going to publish soon? Or is it still at the stage you said it was in Frankfurt: Most of it is inside your head?”

“Now its inside the computer. A single machine, no connections, not networked. I lock it in a safe every time I leave the Institute, and sleep with it in my bed. This is a big deal; we both know that.
A huge blow to humanity.”

“Like Darwin,” he says, and tries to read her expression to see if she is flattered by the comparison. She shrugs her shoulders: “I’ll have other people do a few lemma proofs. The main proof was completed already, by machine. Three hundred and twenty pages.
I’m checking it by hand, and if it takes years…”

He hides his relief that she doesn’t want to publish yet:

“Can I see it?”

“If you want, of course,” she says, then gets up.

He follows her, wanting to pay, but the waiter and the non-swimmer exchange a glace, which seems to Patrick to say, put it on the tab. Regular’s benefits. Kerstin strides purposefully across the street to a row of taxis in front of a hotel as if she had rehearsed what is now taking place.

Her office is smaller than he had imagined, but just as full of piles of books, postcards on the walls, newspaper clippings, and magazines as her rooms and apartments in Germany always were.

On a white VAIO laptop he reads what she has mined from the chaos of linguistics. A language is a system of rules including vocabulary that can create phrases of any length to infinity, and can create any phrase imaginable, in any number. The elements of the phrase can’t be random, or they wont have any meaning. Here is where Kerstin intervenes: The randomness of infinite strings of signs is formally definable, and based upon that, even the intrinsic randomness of a single bit. Kerstin is running theoretical measurements and stochastic tests that should cull deeper meanings out of the seemingly random, and working with unpredictability: Even when all previous coin flips are givens, heads or tails, it is impossible to know the next result if they are truly random.

After a preface that defines things, Kerstin jumps right into variables like the entropy of measurable and countable quantities, and the packaging method factor. She then deliberates the holding probabilities of the programs, and pulls a noose around the conception of a rule system that should be able to accord the mimetic properties ascribed to natural languages with the actual findings of redundancy and coherency loops. She tightens the noose, while at the same time continuously increasing the range of argumentation — mobilizing the thought underpinning dozens of mathematical disciplines: Algebra, combinatorics, logic, analysis, topology, and set theory are included. The entire history of programs and their complexity moves by in the form of its biggest names: A. N. Kolmogorow and Gregory Chaitin, Solomon Marcus and Maria Semeniuk-Polkowska.

Patrick scrolls through until page 30 without much trouble understanding the work. It takes him an hour and a half because he is constantly thinking to himself, putting his rusty knowledge machine into gear with a crunch, afraid all the while that he has calculated too much magnetism, ran too few program checks. Finally, he says in a quiet voice: “If there’s a mistake here… I don’t see it.”

She asks: “You wish there was a mistake?”

He admits that he does with a vague sound.

She changes the subject: “How about a drink?”

He’d like one, but “not here.” He turns away from the bad news on the computer and strikes up a conversation with her about other things — going out in Boston, the local cost of living, how long he is going to stay, and so on.

In the hallway they run into some of her co-workers. She makes introductions all around, a trip to the bar is arranged. Patrick drinks moderately. Whisky, then water, then juice. Kerstin says goodbye around eight. She has a meeting, but makes plans to meet Patrick again. He wants to stay, in his words, “for a week or so.”

In the next four days they see a lot of each other.

They play Nine Men’s Morris in Kerstin’s apartment. It has six rooms, and the whole ground floor is reminiscent of a beautiful cabin on a wooded hillside. He doesn’t stay the night, preferring to be in his apartment in the evenings after a long walk to the river and back, during which he notes the position of surveillance cameras on buildings.

In the mornings he meets up with her by the river twice, like old times.

On Saturday they go to the zoo in the afternoon, then buy books in a small bookstore with an excellent poetry section on Newbury Street. Kerstin takes him to Shakespeare’s “Tempest” at an open air theatre. Then he treats her to an ice cream. In the shop she tells him about her last relationship, recently over, with a man who works in radio.

He talks about Renate, suggesting that he and the younger woman separated a while ago. “The thing with the difference in ages just wasn’t doable.”

Sunday she is waiting for him at 3:30 in the morning at the open air concert venue.

He suggested they take another pre-dawn walk, “before I fly back tomorrow night.” This time, he says, he’d like to walk over the skinny bridge where there was still that “monster construction site” the last time he was here. Kerstin tries to link arms with him, a habit of hers on walks like this, but he demurs. “Don’t. I twisted my shoulder or something earlier doing some aerobics after I got up.”

She shakes her head, amused: “Aerobics. Unbelievable.”

He walks slightly behind her, a full step even.

To the right, Patrick puts his hand in his jacket pocket, feeling the small device. She’s looking at the water as she walks, at the living irregularity of it, the white mirror moons that form then dissolve, silently, constantly.

She says quietly, as if it were a confession: “I get it that you want to believe in language. We want a record that can remember everything for us, predict everything. Have you heard of Donald Kingsbury?”

“No.” Says Patrick.

She’s stopped, looking towards the water she says, “He’s got this theory, it hasn’t been proven yet. I’d like to demonstrate it: A deterministic universe would need much more storage space than the real one, where we live. The world forgets a lot of itself. The unpredictability of the future, that we have now admitted in physics, is, because of symmetries in the equations, mirrored in an uncertainty about the past that is just as large. It might have happened the way its traces point to, or it could’ve happened differently.”

He answers, barely audibly: “Turn around, please.”

She does. He holds the Taser to her like it’s a dead mouse, saying:
“I wanted to… When you said in Frankfurt that if something happened to you before it was published, then humanity would have another grace period until someone else discovered the same thing. Well then I thought… I’m going to stop you somehow. Give you an electroshock and then push you in the river. When you drown and they find you, it was an accident.”

She sucks in her breath: “Serious plan.”

Patrick nods and throws the thing off the bridge.

It’s high enough that the two Germans don’t hear the splash as the device hits the river.

“That about my shoulder was also a lie,” says Patrick. A heartbeat away, unreachable, like Riley’s line, translated in his soul:

A hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.

Patrick now understands what “shame” means: a paralysis that people need to recognize one another, for even a brief moment.

On the left bank the woods are a pure dark blue, on the right is a cliff face of buildings. There are small points of light in it where people aren’t asleep.

The wind is fresh and soft. Patrick doesn’t feel chilly anymore.

Kerstin puts her arms around him, he returns the gesture.

The truth is: She is holding him together, if not he would fall to

Neither of them knows what they should do now with the broken beast.

Asleep, Patrick sees what he doesn’t believe while he’s awake.

The index calculates everything. Announcements of awards, mostly false, light up then die. His dopamine balance feeds the list. Limbic structures support it. Brain means house, should have windows. But they’re slow shutter pictures of the past.

My language

Selected content

Dietmar Dath

Dietmar Dath

is a writer, translator and film critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He has published numerous books.

Other texts by Dietmar Dath for DIAPHANES