Sometime during the chaotic night of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Martha shouts at her husband George, “Phrasemaker!” Like many moments in the play, it’s tense and comic, another hinge in their inscrutably serpentine relationship. Martha aims the word like an insult, but she and George laugh.
The irony is that George, Martha, their author Edward Albee, and his readers are necessarily “phrasemakers.” They can be nothing else. What other means do humans have to communicate, to pass what they know, feel, and understand onto and into one another? Though they make phrases in different languages and can’t rely on being understood even in a shared language, the impulse to codify and describe and classify and… phrase defines humanity. Other animals may speak too, but homo sapiens are the ultimate phrasemakers, driven by belief in the unsaid, in believing something will always remain unsaid.
Sometimes words translate thoughts poorly—the deeper feeling never truly surfaces, or it finds misleading expression when words themselves take command and, despite willful resistance against neatness, arrive at sense without fidelity or sincerity. Some phrases are more orderly and understandable than the emotions and thoughts behind them.
Flannery O’Connor once told an interviewer, “I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say,” and many writers describe the same state. An idea has its own will, characters recoil at instruction, and words align themselves on tracks seemingly laid outside the writer’s mind. Finishing a poem, essay, or story can feel like discovering the object already fabricated, a thing waiting to be realized all along. Writing can be channeling, and sometimes a writer starts composing without direction or purpose at all, simply hoping a filament will catch, throwing words into voids expecting responses to come soon.
And thus they speak to speak. In conversation, this faith seems more pronounced. People meet and begin talking and continue until time says to part or someone says something suggesting an end. Students fill classrooms with answers sculpted from air, and their teachers try to grasp ideas without handles, often without true intent. The teachers add utterances themselves, not only to complete the time but also to fulfill the convention of being there together. They must accomplish learning, and learning, the theory goes, begins in expression, caging elusive reality in words.
What if all phrasemaking is fiction? Albee may think so. Martha and George create as much as they describe. So much of their lives didn’t exist until they said so, and what those lives really are won’t sift out of what they call their lives. If there is a “really” at all, Albee suggests, it could just as easily be formed by what they name each other, how they pigeonhole past events, why they say they can or can’t persist.
Humanity’s pride in language isn’t that different from the rest of human beings’ relentless making. Their creations produce harm as well as help… and harm disguised as help and vice versa. Fitful, sputtering words may arise from a similar impulse not to live in the world, to separate from it and shelter themselves from the unpredictable and uncontrollable weather everything else must face. They create objects to top nature, and—as Albee hinted—make bombs and monsters when boredom strikes.
These aren’t new ideas, and others phrase them better. Humanity’s greatest hubris could be thinking it knows, a faith stemming, inescapably, from labels pasted on everything, labels that hide as well as describe. Of course, it’s impossible to think of homo sapiens any other way, but if language disconnects from reality and leaves it altogether, perhaps it has another power too, to consider every alternative, actual or imagined.
What if humans never spoke or, barring that, what if they truly understood language as a bane and a blessing, a boon and a curse?