Wislawa Szymborska, “The Three Oddest Words”

Szymborska’s “The Three Oddest Words” haunts me. She speaks of three words—“Future,” “Silence,” and “Nothing”—which have a philosophical, world-historical grandeur about them. I live in a country which has given the capacity of destroying all life on Earth to a madman. In a few days, we shall find out whether it will let him steal an election so his flunkies can steal more from the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously trying to repeal the 14th Amendment. (N.B. The number of those I know who are white supremacists eager to march others off a cliff are far too many. I need multiple hands to count those who have been radicalized by the mere prospect of voting for a racist.) 

So right now, with a brief moment to spare, I’d just like to reflect with Szymborska on what makes these words odd, seeing if there’s anything to be carried into these uncertain days ahead. Perhaps unfortunately for me, her poem challenges the thought of contemplating it. When I pronounce the word Future, the first syllable already belongs to the past.

The Three Oddest Words (from The Nobel Prize)
Wislawa Szymborska (translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.

Why say the word future? Why even speak of what might be? Whatever I imagine is good in the future stems from some idea of the past. Every moment of the future itself is constantly becoming the past. The most practical solution would be to live in the illusion of the present. Plenty of people do this. I believe our constant desire to say “I have more money than you” or “I’m more useful than you” is beholden to that illusion. Present utility and wealth assume themselves to be effective later, and as good capitalists, we’ve allowed ourselves to indulge that assumption. Making money means markets will flourish; flourishing markets automatically meet human needs, we say. Those programming skills now envied build algorithms which anticipate what people want. There’s no need to study “political science,” we claim, as facial recognition technology deploys in nation-states eager to crush dissent the world over.

The irony of pronouncing “Future” and having the first syllable sink into the past does not matter. It’s an oddity we’ll live with. The future must be spoken because we must outline the ones we do not want.

Szymborska’s next word, “Silence,” speaks to the possibility of spirituality. When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it. This is a peculiar stanza, as the whole poem destroys Silence, but if silence could truly be said, then the oddities she points out with “Future” or “Nothing” would not exist. She seems to suggest two things. First, whatever Silence speaks to is beyond our world. It is a realm of no contradiction. It truly is. Second, in some way, silence can be said. She herself uses the word. The poem, as seen in the discussion of the first stanza, points.

The future and silence, politics and spirituality, are related but distinct. What matters is one’s consciousness of the past, she hints. What matters is what is not said. For decades I’ve dealt with those who insist all will be well politically if everyone finds religion, meaning their specific religion. I’m just amazed at how mystical they can wax while being too brutal to be practical and too practical to be mystical. It’s amazing how ignorance is everything and nothing, both at once.

Szymborska’s final oddity concerns “Nothing.” Say it, and you’ll create something no nonbeing can hold. There will always be being, and her first two stanzas point to Being in a near transcendent sense. The future can be spoken, and a reverent, beautiful silence can be observed. Why pronounce “Nothing?”

I think of the election in less than a week. There isn’t much to do besides volunteer, protest, and plan. I gave to a bail fund a few hours ago, but in a deep sense, there’s more waiting than action no matter what I do these next few days. Even with possibilities outlined, it isn’t quite clear what makes the possible real. Mandelstam’s “painwaking particular earth” strikes me as working in a similar vein. He speaks of a poem as a meteor, making the world come to life. Here, one can imagine “Nothing” said the way we might say “I’m fine.” One is in pain and everyone, including our own self, has to wait. Something good can emerge, but it almost seems to do so ex nihilo.

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