The power of language can make people crazy

Leonard Michaels

Born in New York in 1933, the distinguished novelist Leonard Michaels was celebrated for his sharp, compelling prose and deep insight into the complexities of human relationships. Although he first became a published writer in 1969, his private diary entries, which he began keeping from 1961 onwards, stand as a testament to his raw talent with language and a keen fascination with the human condition. By the time he penned the following entry in May of 1978, Michaels was forty-five years old. At this point, two of his short story collections had already seen publication, while his debut novel, The Men’s Club, was still three years away from being released.

The Diary Entry

May 27, ’78

Living in New York you’re constantly aware that much of what you know is popularly known, and much that you feel is what others feel. This voluminous knowing and feeling means you’re made of popularities, or immensities of used feeling, which is like used clothing, and you’re also subject to immensities of secondary experience as you go amid the crowds in streets and subways and theaters and museums and parks knowing what’s known, feeling what’s felt, and you’re confident that you’re a regular person, and this makes you both humble and massively righteous.

Since a language obliges you to echo the past every time you use it, you see why some say language uses you. When learning a new language you must submit, like the most abject slave, to its rules and capricious irregularities. The power of language can make people crazy.

Further Reading

Time out of Mind: The Diaries of Leonard Michaels, 1961-1995 was published in 1999, when Michaels was still alive, and it’s up there with the best. Consistently compelling and written with such a strong voice, some of the lengthier entries read like short stories. Highly recommended.

Reprinted by kind permission of Katharine Ogden Michaels, Literary Executor for Leonard Michaels.

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