Skwerl, an Australian short film in which gibberish mimics how English might sound to non-English speakers, recently wound up on Gawker and New York Magazine. The film is unremarkable subject-wise: a sort of mumblecore prose poem about an alt-attractive couple and a romantic dinner gone sour. The visuals and the dialogue’s intonations provide a sense of plot, but the specifics are left unarticulated. So why did I find myself playing and replaying a video that, were it entirely comprehensible, I would likely fail to get through even once? We want poems we can understand, Paul Hoover once teased, and it was this elbow-poke of Hoover’s that popped to mind while watching, and re-watching, the infectiously charming short.
The etymology of the word “gibberish” varies, but as most would have it, the word originates from “gibber” (to talk nonsense) and the suffix “-ish” (used here as a demonym to indicate a locality’s language, as in English, Spanish, Swedish, and the like). Perhaps a better word to capture the phenomenon of gibberish and its effects would be the neologism “Ish-ish,” combining two meanings of the suffix: both an approximation, as in reddish or newish, and a demonym, as explained above.
Welcome to the nation-state of Sorta. Population: imprecise. Language: Ish-ish.
To advocates of razor-sharp lucidity, Theodore Adorno once provoked, “A writer will find that the more precisely, conscientiously, appropriately he expresses himself, the more obscure the literary result is thought…Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case.” And he’s right: even while reading such a short quotation, in all its smarty succinctness, I find my head stuck in a box by its rhetoric, my hand reaching for the gong.
The great, clichéd fear of the writer, really of any artist, is this nagging terror of not being understood. “Nobody understands me” is both the adolescent whine that sends many of us to the page and the complaint we aim at our resultant readers. Talking to my students, writing difficult emails, and typing this right now, the perception of my communicative self is more often than not akin to the teacher in Peanuts.
Aren’t there, as Adorno supposes, virtues to be found in gibberish, in vague expression, in difficult and opaque prose? I’m not here to argue for my own brand of rhetorical stylie by backing myself up with neologistic sentences and indiesyncratic hyperlinks, except yes, I am. Because isn’t theonly pleasure of Skwerl its clever tip-of-the-tongueness? And could it be that near-sense permits us to access deeper senses, to project a plethora of meanings onto an otherwise simple artistic piece?
Or consider a writer like Christine Schutt, whose work I greatly admire. I once heard that a fan of Schutt’s kaleidoscopic, almost-but-not-quite styling in A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer remarked to the author that her prose felt like someone had translated the stories into French poetry and then translated them back into English. In response, Schutt exclaimed, “You’ve figured out all my tricks!”
It’s the difficulty, the lyric approximations, the peculiar and cryptic shards that have me reading Schutt again and again, replaying Skwerl to search for more moments where pixels of sense sparkle only to be cake-candle blown out. Isn’t that the trick for which all writers wish—the trick that has your reader coming back for another fingerdip of Ish-ish?