This is the text of a keynote speech I gave to the Demosthenian Literary Society at UGA the other day. It is an extemporaneous debate group – the oldest student society on campus, just turned 209.
Greetings Demosthenians, Alumni, Administrators, Faculty, and those of you who just came for the free food. I am honored to be your after-dinner mint this evening. I have carefully chosen each mellifluous word to maximize the process of digestion. Later, if these debaters do their jobs, you may see some red-faced people popping Tums, but we don’t want that quite yet.
Imagine that you get a phone call. The voice asks you if you would like to give a speech in front of a society of professional public speakers. Sure, you say. Who wouldn’t like to put themselves in that kind of position? What’s the topic? Anything you like, says the voice. You put the phone down, pop a Tums, and admire the proportions of what you have agreed to do. You think, now I finally know the plot of Kafka’s lost manuscript. The one that even he couldn’t pick up again because of the existential dread.
Forgive me, but I have already broken the first rule of public speaking – the rule that I tell my own students when I teach it: don’t start the speech by confessing how nervous you are. I also broke the second rule: don’t apologize. And the third: don’t chide yourself in front of your audience. On second thought – in a speech to other speakers on the subject of speaking – I think it is just what the doctor ordered.
I have had a lot of time to reflect on the meaning of speech anxiety. Mostly this is in the service of convincing students that they will not freeze, faint, cry, panic, or vomit when they get up in front of the class. Some still do, though. Everyone knows that public speaking is either first or second on top-ten lists of American fears. Fear of death pales in comparison. As Jerry Seinfeld says in his stand-up, this means that most Americans would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. And a physiologist will tell you that the body prepares for a speech in the same way it prepares for a fight. Blood pools in the torso, limbs go cold and numb, the digestive system constricts, adrenaline spikes. It’s no wonder that some perverse people become so addicted to it that they form their own societies.
This is not a glum speech about anxiety, though. I’m simply taking the most direct route to appreciate the significance of this particular human endeavor. We come here to ritualistically honor and respect the power of the spoken word. The literary critic Roland Barthes said: “I am interested in language because it wounds and seduces me.” We are here for the same reason: because we know that the magnitude of our anxiety about public speaking is an indication of its power. If it didn’t induce panic and dread, it wouldn’t also have the power to seduce, wound, elevate, enrapture, spellbind, and carve the world into a sensible shape.
“The right words,” said Vladmir Lenin, “are worth a hundred regiments.” A powerful statement. But perhaps what’s most compelling about the statement is that it serves just as well as a totalitarian declaration as it does a call to revolution. Seventy years later, as the Soviet Bloc was falling to pieces, none other than Czech resistance leader Vaclav Havel uttered it again in his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize: “I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.” Both Lenin and Havel recognized that speech is power on the march. They knew the state is built with words, our friends and our foes with words, heaven and hell with words. War is waged, as Nietzsche said, with a “mobile army of metaphors.” Demosthenes himself knew this. Like his Roman counterpart, Cicero, he saw the empire encroaching on his homeland and spoke bravely against it – first against Philip of Macedon and then against Alexander the Great. Like Cicero, his words cost him his life. But there is something archetypal about Demosthenes. He was no natural talent like Cicero. He was one of us: a kid with a speech impediment who, as the story goes, practiced his speeches with rocks in his mouth to become a great orator. (You didn’t think I was going to skip that part, did you? Personally, I don’t think he had a speech impediment. His problem was that whenever someone asked him, “And what’s your name, little boy?” he had to say “Demosthenes.”) My point is that Demosthenes was the Horatio Alger of oratory, a rags to riches tale, a story of moxie, gumption, and guts. For people who respect the power of speech, there is blinding purity in the tale. Against all odds, he finds a voice and shakes the system with only the power of his voice. He makes a great patron saint.
We would be foolish to say that speech is simply a powerful tool, though. We are more likely the tools wielded by our words. According to the philosopher Kenneth Burke, we are captives of language, or as he said it, we are “sentenced to the sentence.” This was also the perspective held by Gorgias, one of the first recorded teachers of the art of public speaking in Ancient Greece. (He died, incidentally, about four year before Demosthenes came into the world.) Gorgias was not just a speech teacher. He was also a public speaking virtuoso. He reportedly had a habit of giving long off-the-cuff speeches on any subject, and his diction was so poetic, his voice so musical that people came away in a daze, feeling bewitched. He gave a speech about speech once, which offered his perspective on the spoken word. He did so by retelling the story of Helen of Troy. If you recall, Helen was the lovely Spartan princess who was seduced to go to Troy by the Trojan Prince, Paris. The Spartans wanted her back, her face launched the thousand ships, and thus began the Trojan war. The conventional take on the story for the Greeks was that she betrayed Sparta by eloping and starting a bloody war. Gorgias defended her, though, arguing that she did not willingly betray her people. His point was that Helen had fallen under the powerful spell of words. “Speech is a powerful lord,” he said. It drips into the ear like a drug; it acts with irresistible force; it possesses one like a spirit; it courses through the body like a shade of magic.
But we can’t give Gorgias the last word on the subject either. Speech is not just a tool, and not just a powerful lord. Speech is the stuff of which we are made. We may believe that the social engineers are the ones tinkering with the double helix. The engineers splicing our language, however, are the true technicians of the soul. They are working with stuff so vital that the mind has trouble perceiving it as an object. Let me illustrate with a personal story. I had the idea a couple of years ago to write a book that collected all of the myths of language origins from cultures near and far, past and present. I wanted to see what these myths could tell us. Of course, our own contemporary Western culture has its own myths about how language came to be. They come in the form of hypotheses designed to solve what some call the “hardest problem in science.” Some of them are quite hilarious. They have names like the “bow wow theory” or the “yo-he-ho theory.” Others are more respectable sounding like the “obligatory reciprocal altruism theory.” I wondered, though, if other cultures had explanations, other stories. I approached the head of the linguistics department here and pitched the idea. He didn’t know of any book on the subject and told me to go for it. So I poked around a bit, sent a few graduate students to the library.
What I found startled me: There are no such myths. Yes, there are myths about the discovery of the written word. For example, the ibis-headed Egyptian god Thoth invented writing. In Norse mythology, the god Odin was hung upside down from the World Tree for nine days, and looking straight down, he discovered on the ground the runes, the letters that make up the written Norse language. By and large, though, there are no myths about the origins of the spoken word. Some claim that the fruit of good and evil in the book Genesis is a metaphor for the acquisition of speech. But even before the famous expulsion from the garden, Yahveh asks Adam to name all the animals. So speech already had a place. My point is that, in the sphere of myth, the deepest recesses of collective consciousness, speech is presumed always to have been there. The first verse in the Book of John makes this abundantly clear, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” And remember that in Genesis, the world did not give birth to speech, speech gave birth to the world. Mythologically, speech precedes knowledge; it precedes creation; it precedes us.
It’s difficult to render into words the idea that we are made of words, so I’m going to enlist help from a M. Scott Momaday and his book The Man Made of Words. Momaday is a Pulitzer-winning author who writes about his Native American heritage among other things. He is also an achingly beautiful wordsmith. In one section, he sketches the significance of storytelling:
To tell a story in the proper way, to hear a story told in the proper way: this is a very old and sacred business, and it is very good. At that moment when we are drawn into the element of language, we are as intensely alive as we can be; we create and we are created. That existence in the maze of words is our human condition. Because of language we are, among all the creatures in the world, the most dominant and the most isolated. Our dominance is supreme, and our isolation is profound. That equation is the very marrow of the story. It is a story in itself. We have no being beyond our stories. Our stories explain us, justify us, sustain us, humble us, and forgive us. And sometimes they injure and destroy us. Make no mistake, we are at risk in the presence of words.
This last line has a particular resonance: “we are at risk in the presence of words.” The risk feels like hefting a powerful tool or weapon. The risk feels like being in the presence of a powerful lord, submitting to an irresistible force: one that wounds or seduces, one that suspends time in a moment of elevation or rings in the ears days later. The truth is that the risk runs deep into the secret recesses of ourselves. It is the risk felt when the words of which we are made threaten to shape-shift on us: threaten our identities, stories, and values. In fact, this activity is so full of risk that it should be classified as an extreme sport. Sometimes it comes with a parachute (hold up script), but it always comes with the anxiety and exhilaration of plunging into the abyss or being shot from a cannon. It’s not just fun and games, though. Through the flash of adrenaline lies the palpable sense that to really speak and to really listen – to open oneself up to both risks – we acknowledge something ancient, something quintessentially human. The story of the spoken word, after all, is the story of creation, of death and rebirth.
I’ll end on a note of praise. I do this because communication scholars tell us that flattery, even if perceived as insincere, still works. This speech has been about the spoken word, anxiety, risk, and reward. But it’s really about courage. Not my own courage, of course. Like I said in the beginning, I’m shaking in my boots. I’m talking about the courage of Demosthenes himself, and what he represents. I’m talking about the little Demosthenes in all of us, one day mumbling with rocks in our mouths and the next day shaking the foundations of empires. I’m talking about the simple courage of those who will debate tonight as has happened for the last 209 years. Thank you for taking the risk of carrying on this vital tradition. It has been a thrill to mark this occasion the way humans have always done it: with just a few words. Thank you.