I drafted a grumpy letter the other day about a meal we had at the bistro we reserve for special occasions. I railed at the presentation, the coffee, the biscotti (“like a soggy digestive biscuit too long out of the packet”). Penny said I hope you’re not sending that. You’re wrong about the presentation, the food was good, and you will be associating me with something I don’t agree with.
Not for the first time in our long and happy marriage I think of Dostoevsky’s great opening line, I am a ridiculous person.
There is a class of words and expressions identified long ago by J.L.Austin in How to Do Things with Words—expressions such as the “I do” of the marriage ceremony. He calls them performatives. Expressions which are neither true nor false, but do some piece of work by being said, such that the world before the utterance and after the utterance are radically different.
When I was a boy on the streets of Brooklyn we were familiar with this phenomenon. If you said to someone in the course of an exchange, “So’s your old man,” you were not saying something either true or false about fathers, but intending to provoke, altering the mood, inviting an escalation.
These temptations to provocation arise everywhere nowadays. Not merely in the public forum but around the dinner table and in the gatherings of extended family. Opinions sprout with pugnacious energy. So I have been thinking about a sub-class of performatives that would include expressions such as Why not? So what? Who knows? Who cares?
As the “I do” of the marriage ceremony only works if said with solemnity, so these require a shrug, a half-smile perhaps, a hint of something foreign, ironical, detached. I mean to try this out on occasion.
It is no coincidence that such thoughts bring me back, not to the streets of my neighbourhood, but to my mostly Jewish classmates at Montauk Junior High School; to grad-student New Yorkers at university in Missouri; later to certain friends, colleagues, fellow writers.
And a memory from 1958–1959. An elementary course in Russian at Brooklyn College that met in the middle of the night and turned out to be populated by homesick Odessa Jews, although they were native Russian speakers, because it was free and the main thing was to reconvene to a coffee shop on Flatbush Avenue for cheesecake and coffee, the air thick with Why not?—pronounced Vye not?—and which anyway is the queen of these expressions, its lordly and airy disdain aimed at the heart of the speciously self-evident and at explanation itself.