Word! The Language Column
Bringing together instead of separating

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

How outmoded is it to seal ourselves off? In the final instalment of his column, Hauke Hückstädt makes the case for a kind of literature that overcomes barriers.

By Hauke Hückstädt

Form follows function – but that doesn't mean that form takes a backseat to function. It means that form anticipates function and refers to it. If one function of language is communication, then language also can be plain – at least it really matters: on the news, at the registry office, in court, in love, in literature (which is always about everything). That doesn't mean simple-minded language. I'm not advocating replacing Proust with prosaic prose, Faust with Mickey Mouse. But we could try to broaden cultural participation in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Not the way the Paralympics is stuck on the tail end of the Olympics as an afterthought, which is exclusionary, but as an integral and matter-of-course part of cultural, especially literary, activity.

Sealing off

One of my bêtes noires is latter-day automotive design. It’s a case in point, unfortunately, of the glaring disconnect nowadays between form and function. Take modern-day radiator grilles (mostly for non-air-cooled and even hybrid cars), for example, which look more and more aggressive and, absurdly, like predators on wheels. Or the brick-sized shiny chrome exhausts with puny tailpipes, if any, trailing behind them. Obscene accretions of beading and folds in the sheet metal. Car bodies on steroids, with ever-higher bodylines that make for increasingly narrow, slit-like, opaque tinted windows. There are more and more of these juggernauts on the road, massive moving barricades that seem hardly plausible against the backdrop of climate change, energy crisis and necessary downsizing. Vehicles to seal yourself off in. Cancel culture on four wheels.

I’m not likening contemporary literature to SUVs. But we could become mindful of the fact that, generally speaking, we’re indulging in a culture that can hardly be shared and that divides instead of bringing people together. Just try to visualize the original Mini Coopers and Fiat 500s and contrast them with the latest editions. In the words of sociologist Harald Welzer, this will be inexplicable to future generations.

Connectivity and a sense of community

The end of the automobile is bringing forth its final, definitive hermetic form. There have always been hermetic forms of literature and ways of writing. I go for them, periodically. Even if they seldom produce offshoots, some of them rank among the best. When they work well, they’re laboratories of our future. So I’m all for them. But only a small number of texts, maybe the ones that are more streamlined in shape and more modest, can lay any claim to pointing the way forwards.

The plain-language texts written for the Literaturhaus Frankfurt am Main are united by a certain connectivity, a sense of community that can help literature triumph over many barriers. We need to keep at it if we’re to stop excluding some 16 million people. So, what can audio books and radio plays achieve? What about drama? What about the graphic novel and the fantasy genre? And what about the novel? We’re beginning to break down barriers even in illustrated children's books. We just have to make them out first.

And what approaches will we come up with for canonical literature, for the classics? Albert Camus has already preceded us. Here’s how he starts his novel The Stranger: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” One good idea is often enough to overthrow a dozen bad ones. These ideas exist. They have something of the 3-litre car about them. If we don't put these ideas into practice, the future will be called Q7, X5, Raptor or Escalade.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.