“An extraordinary contempt for the word, or what might even be called a loathing for the word has seized humanity. Confidence in the notion that human beings are capable of persuading one another with words and language has vanished in the most radical sense. Everything associated with parlare has taken on negative connotations. Parliaments are corrupted by their own disgust with parliamentary activities in general, and when conferences are convened somewhere the participants gather in an atmosphere of scorn and skepticism. Knowledge of the impossibility of communication has become too pronounced. Everyone knows that everyone else speaks a different language and lives in entirely different value systems, and that every people is trapped in its own system of values. Indeed, this is true not just for every person, but for every profession as well. The businessman can’t persuade the military man, nor the military man the businessman. The engineer doesn’t understand the worker; or rather, they understand each other only in so far as each of them concedes to the other the right to bring all means within their power to bear, to ruthlessly use their system of values to their own advantage, to break any contract necessary in order to crush and overrun their opponent. Never before, at least not in the history of Western Europe, has the world admitted with such honesty and openness… that the word is of absolutely no use, and further, that it is no longer even worth the effort to pursue understanding…. Silence weighs heavily on the world…. A mute silence reigns between people and between groups of people, and it is the silence of murder.
“But in spite of this muteness the world is full of voices. They aren’t the voices of assertion and rejoinder, however. Rather, they are simply voices, screaming chaotically… over each other, drowning each other out, a simultaneous hullabaloo of language and opinions being spoken past each other, interrupted only by the rather mechanical and unceremonious sounds of dull church services, rendered banal and destroyed by the earthly noise. It is the terrifying noise of a silence that accompanies murder,… a muteness that is audible, but is no longer language. Rather, these disjointed cries make up components of language…. And in this silence they are merely eruptions—eruptions of anxiety, eruptions of desperation, eruptions of courage.”
From Hermann Broch‘s essay “Reflections on the Zeitgeist,” available in a different translation (titled “The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age”) in a collection called Geist and Zeitgeist. It was written in 1934.
The excerpt above (translated by Daniel Slager) is, by the way, used as the introduction to the first issue of AUTODAFE, The Journal of the International Parliament of Writers, which has published two issues (some of the contents available here) and is about to come out with a combined n°3-4 (2003): “This issue attempts to provide an overview of the new dangers weighing on literature and thought, the unprecedented forms that censure and propaganda are wearing today, as well as the new means and networks of intellectual, literary and linguistic resistance…” Highly recommended.