(From the short story collection Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press: 2000))
And so a young man was thrown in prison and found in his otherwise empty cell a foreign dictionary. It was always dark in there and he couldn’t even tell that it was a dictionary at first. He was not an intellectual type and had never even owned a dictionary in his life. He was far from stupid, however, but had an ironic turn of mind that could squeeze out a joke from most tragic situations. He could also be very witty around certain women. In any case, he did not know what to do with this nearly worthless book but to use it as a stool and as a pillow. Periodically he also tore out pages from it to wipe himself. Soon, however, out of sheer boredom, he decided to look at this dictionary. His eyes had adjusted to the dim light by now and he could make out all the words with relative ease in that eternal twilight. Although he was not familiar with the foreign language, and did not even know what language it was, he suddenly felt challenged to learn it. His main virtue, and the main curse of his life, was the ability to follow through on any course of action once he had set his mind to it. This book represented the last problem, the only problem, he would ever solve. The prisoner began by picking out words at random and scrutinizing their definitions . Of course, each definition was made up of words entirely unknown to him. Undeterred, he would look up all the words in the definition , which lead him to even more unfathomable words. To define“man,” for example, the prisoner had to look up not only “human” and “person” but also “opposable” and “thumb.” To defi ne “thumb,” he had to look up not only “short” and “digit” but also “thick” and “of” and “a” and “the.” To defi ne “the,” he had to look up “that” and “a” (again) and “person” (again) and “thing” and “group.” Being alone in his cell night and day, without any distraction, allowed the prisoner to concentrate with such rigor that soon he could retain and cross index hundreds of defi nitions in his head. The dictionary had well over a thousand pages but the prisoner was determined to memorize every defi nition on every page. He cringed at the thought that he had once torn out pages to wipe himself. These pages now represented to him gaps in his eventual knowledge. Because they were gone forever he would never be able to know all the words in that particular language. Still, it was with an elation bordering on madness that he woke up each morning, eager to eat up more words. Like many people, he equated the acquisition of a vast vocabulary with knowledge, even with wisdom, and so he could feel his stature growing by the day, if not by the second. Although he did not know what the words meant, what they referred to in real life, he reasoned that he understood these words because he knew their defi nitions. And because he was living inside this language all the time, like a fetus thriving inside a womb, there were times when he felt sure he could guess at the general implications of a word, whether it was a plant or an animal, for example, or whether it indicated something positive or negative. But his guesses were always wrong, of course. Because “bladder” sounded somehow vast and nebulous to the prisoner, he thought that it must have something to do with the outdoors, most likely the weather, a gust of wind or a torrential rain or a bolt of lightning. “Father,” with its forlorn, exasperated tone, made the prisoner 3 think of something dead and putrid: a corpse or a heap of garbage. He guessed that “homicide” was a fl ower. He thought “July” meant “August.” The prisoner was also justifi ably proud of his pronunciation, which was remarkably crisp and confi dent, the stresses more often than not falling on the right syllables. If he were to speak on the phone, the prisoner could almost be mistaken for a native speaker, albeit one of the lower class. But if the prisoner was convinced he was gaining a new language he was also surely losing one because he had, by this time, forgotten nearly all the words of his native language. By this time he could no longer name any part of the anatomy, even the most basic, hand, nose, face, mouth, etc., and so his own body was becoming vague, impersonal, unreal. Although he was surrounded by fi lth, he could no longer conjure up the word “fi lth.” The only word that came readily to his tongue, automatically, unbidden, was “prison” because that was the last thing he thought of each night, and the fi rst thing he thought of each morning. His dreams had become entirely devoid of conversations or thoughts. Often they were just a series of images or abstract patches of colors. Sometimes they were also made up entirely of sounds, a cacophony of his own voice reciting bits of defi nitions. Even in his worst nightmare, he could no longer shout out “mother!” in his own language. But this loss never bothered him, he barely noticed it, because he was convinced he was remaking himself anew. As he was being squeezed out of the world, the only world he had a right to belong in, he thought he was entering a new universe. Perhaps by purging himself of his native language, the prisoner was unconsciously trying to get rid of his horrible past, because, frankly, there was not a single word of his native tongue that did not evoke, for the prisoner, some horrible experience or humiliation. Perhaps he could sense that his native tongue was the very author of his horrible life. But these are only conjectures, we do not know for sure.
In any case nights and days the prisoner shouted out defi nitions to himself. If one were to press one’s ear against the thick iron door at midnight, one would hear, for example: “an animal with a long, thin tail that commonly infests buildings.” Or “a deep and tender feeling for an arch enemy.” Or “a shuddering fear and disgust accompanied by much self loathing.” With so many strange words and defi nitions accumulating, surely some profound knowledge, some revelation, was at hand? What is a revelation, after all, but the hard-earned result of an exceptional mind working at peak capacity? The prisoner was thankful to be given a chance to concentrate unmolested for such a continuous length of time. He felt himself victorious: condemned to an empty cell, he had been robbed of the world, but through a heroic act of will, he had remade the universe. He had (nearly) everything because he had (nearly) all the words of an entire language. But the truth is the prisoner had regained nothing. He only thought that way, of course, because he had to think that way. After decades of unceasing mental exertion, the only fruit of the prisoner’s remarkable labor, the only word he ever acquired for sure, was “dictionary,” simply because it was printed on the cover of a book he knew for sure was a dictionary. For even as he ran across the defi nition for “prisoner,” and was memorizing it by heart, he didn’t even know that he was only reading about himself.