This stretch of my way is not romantic or unromantic. Engulfed suddenly in shadow. It’s densely crowded with black figures crossing and uncrossing my path, silhouetted against the white light on the shadow’s far border up ahead of me, and when I emerge I find a book pressed into my hands—this book. Yes, with these words, not one missing, not one added. It’s an easy enough thing to check, see, since they’re the first words.
Inside the Front Cover
Inside the front cover there is a table which records the illegible names of the students who have used this workbook before. An adjacent column lists dates of possession in sequence, specifically dates of acquisition. There are no dates of return.
The language which is the subject of this workbook has been given any number of valid names. In this workbook, we will usually refer to our subject as unlanguage of unknowing. There will be exceptions to this policy, however, because the student must not become too attached to any one name, nor is it of any benefit to leave the student in ignorance of the others, which include: lingua obscura, enigmatica, oraculo, youming yuyan (language of the quiet depths), lugha al lughz (language of riddles), bhasa sammudha (bewildering language), confusion, phantasmagoria, parabolica, eavesdropia. The language that dies, of perennial leavetaking. Language that is the closest of all to what is outside of it. You will learn this unlanguage. As everyone does, sooner or later [frag].
A long, thick rope of fluid, which ran down my leg a couple inches before it congealed. The scab covering half my knee must have torn loose along the bottom sometime, sometime early on, when I was walking out here, with all the flexing and unflexing of the joint, and this stuff leaked out. Leaked out, and hardened.
I kneel on a tuft of grass, pull up my pant leg, and examine. A hot stalagmite or tite I can never remember, the downhanging kind. I touch the scab. It’s dry, and hot underneath. I brush the surface lightly; press, and very slightly roll it under my finger. Brown-orange and custardy grey. Some hair matted into it, too. I could tear it off, but it’s the only thing stopping up the crack in the scab. My body made this nameless thing. Made it, without my being at all aware.
There are graduated contours of roughened white skin all around the scab like surf around an island, viewed from above. These white outlines mark the contraction of the wound as the skin repairs itself. If I tore off my scab, my body would manufacture another. It has to. The action is blind.
This special language slides over everything and grips nothing, not even like water, not even like time or air. It’s a dimension. It sleeps. God doesn’t use it, and neither does humanity. Unlike other languages, this one does not seem to require a user; unlanguage uses itself. One studies this divinatory language to hear what it says, not what it is used to say. One does not consecrate oneself to the study of this language to inquire after the location of toilets and train stations, to transact business, or to decipher ancient inscriptions. This unlanguage is neither dead, because it continues, nor alive, because it is never used. Therefore, it is an undead language. It came into the world unnoticed and unbaptized. There is no way it can die, and no life for it.
Unlanguage only superficially resembles occult jargon. Occultism never imparts anything new.
It’s sunset—a bluff over the ocean. The sky streaked with bands of dark orange, brown, vivid yellow—the Second Person, just a silhouette, close by, with wind-ruffled hair and an open collar. He comes up to me. The wind rattles in my ears, the surf sloshes monotonously—for one instant it’s all too clear, the opposite of that murkiness turned inside out and become annihilating clarity I am barely able to experience. The Second Person looks around; suddenly everything seems to return to normal.
This is a memory. I’m here, in the present, remembering this, which took place in the past, but I still use the present when I describe it, because I wish I could go back to that moment, before I found this workbook and doomed myself by reading it. My experience of remembering, and your vivid imagining of this scene, are not so easily told apart.
Remember, this is your story, or it will be. These words have been waiting here for you and you have only just caught up with them. This is a warning. If you read on, you read on against this warning.
“Enjoy your walk?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, straightening up, letting my pant cuff fall.
“Your leg all right?”
He’s waiting. I notice he has crossed the fingers of his left hand.
“Starting out I felt great. I went full on NM right away, and then I went light.”
NM stands for Negative Machine, a mental state of relentless advance with no secondary purpose, no secondary anything. You smash through every obstacle, like a freight train. You can’t, of course, but the idea summons all of your villainous tenacity. Going light, by that I mean the wind, the exertion, the brilliancy of the bygone day, seemed to knock everything out of my head and leave it ringing like an empty wineglass, and to knock the hours out of the day.
“It was like I was hearing the Wolves chanting me on.”
The Wolves were a group of doomed ascetics; the Second Person had been one once. They lived in a cabin in the woods, mummies blearily gazing down from the rafters and burrows dug under the ground, and they ran miles every day. Miles and miles. Every day. Miles and miles. Chanting into dawn and into dusk. It made them hard as ice. Males and females, mixed. If any of them wanted to fuck they had to do it in front of the group and they had to do it in Negative Machine.
The wind whips the sky into a chaos of white rags, as if he emerges out of this, or is that me?
“It’s time you learned unlanguage,” the silhouette says, handing me this book.
He learned it from his teacher, a louring figure who overshadows our every encounter like a sinister island on the horizon. I don’t know what his workbook said. Always there on the horizon, his teacher, like the living incarnation of monster island.
Normal grammar and rhetoric maintain that there is a level of minimal significance, beyond which there is nothing more to be gained by breaking down sounds or signs any further. The rhetorically atomic level is not attained by subtraction alone, but by addition also of the logical operator “atomic,” which presents an obvious problem. A sign or sound alone may be atomic, but, with addition of the operator “atomic,” that sign or sound is now two, therefore subject to at least one more decomposition, therefore no longer atomic. This problem does not arise where the periodic elements of matter are concerned because the designation “atomic” belongs to the order of rhetoric, which is distinct and different from the periodic order. However, where the thing designated is itself rhetorical, the order of the operator is the same and the contradiction arises, as two elements of a common order are combined by the process meant to isolate them, plainly demonstrating that decomposition is continuous, rather than punctuated, and that it is not composition in reverse, but rather altogether another mode of composition. Phantasmagorigrammar decomposes normal grammar, producing meaning as it is released and unbound, not as it is limited and directed.
Science, and any objective discipline for that matter, wants univocality, which means it wants to produce meaning with maximum generality. Polyvocality is an alternative to univocality, but not its opposite; avocality, which is the utterance of exactly no one—no person at all, speaking—is the thing that stands equally opposed to both. Avocality is impossible and is the mode of impossible expressions, which take the form of apparitions in the interstices of univocal or polyvocal expressions. Whoever employs the avocality is calling speculatively, as if adopting a point of view that is unattainable by any real speaker; avocal expression is an unverifiable approximation made possible by the decomposition or inversion of univocal or polyvocal expressions. Very often a univocal saying will rule out certain possibilities; these cancelled possibilities may take the form of an anti-coherent, tacit alternative. The one who speaks avocally strives to achieve an impossible perspective, in the hope that, the experiment succeeding by pure luck, the person, body and soul of the speaker will actually undergo translation into that impossible life, will actually achieve literal transformation. A change in one’s lexical parts. The change may be fleeting, the thing of an instant, but there are some who believe that what can be seen and remembered as a consequence of even a single successful experiment of this kind will improve the odds of later trials, and that what may not be possible at a stroke may be achieved gradually by compounding increments. The compilers of this workbook hope that it will make the benefit of such experiments available to the student.
Put another way, the student who learns unlanguage will know how to hear and how to use the voice or voices that so many writers have testified “spoke through” them. What is said by a voice or voices of this kind must be relayed; like the story of the Ancient Mariner, it compels the recipient to speak or record it, and so unlanguage is sometimes referred to as “mustlanguage.”
Unlanguage is already present in all languages. It translates English into English, Spanish into Spanish, Greek into Greek. Unlanguage has a family line and a history of its own, alone equally related to every other language. Alone of all languages, it is in this one only that mysteries can be communicated without they cease to be mysteries. Unlanguage takes by giving, gives by taking away, and, in this course, you will become adjusted to its restless and irregular grammar.
The course is divided into units, each of which will explain an aspect of grammar; each unit includes a reading, and space has been provided for the completion of exercises and for student notes.
At the end of a relentlessly long drive—nearly to the end of the line—the building, rambling and drab—pale lights in only a few of its many windows—silence of ceaselessly whirring air vents—tall, narrow white corridors of institutional plainness and squareness—pipes below the ceiling—paint peeling on the walls becoming pink and inflamed—wan fluorescent lights in trays—thin, sour odor of decomposing flesh—a metal door like the rest, with its thick integument of blue paint and an arrow slit. The school is not elegant; it’s like a gas station.
The classroom. Everyone else is carrying the book from the shadow, too. Only half the lights are working, all at the back. The light shines past us and I am looking into my own shadow; the front of the class is a black cloud. A smudge of white dimly glowing in the murk in front of me. It’s like gazing down into the sea, or into night from a high crag.
From somewhere inside that cloud, from time to time, a lamp appears and its glow is swept along a word written in shaky letters on the whiteboard. The hand that holds the lamp is almost hidden in the shadow of its lid. The cloud is incense smoke. The wisp of incense smoke folds, elongates, turns, passes steadily out of sight with a mechanically even movement. The index finger points.
The voice—the teacher is at the head of the class, over toward the right, and keeps retreating into what appears to be a tent, or canvas booth. Like an isolation tent. He seems never to leave. Perhaps the hand I see is not his, but a helper’s? An iris adjusted to the gloom will discern a pair of faint lights side by side, now up near the peak of the tent, now high on the wall by the board, now on the floor beside the tent. They never stray far from the teacher, and no amount of careful watching will ever catch them moving. The teacher faces the front, like the rest of us, and his voice is projected forward in waves that the board drives back, back over the teacher, back toward us. The other students are shadows, like me. We’re all anonymous silhouettes. Some bend with a sound of frenetic scratching that I hope is only the noise of pen nibs, others are so still they might be props.
Forever I’ve been haunted by the idea that language is after life and we speak read and write ghosts. I ask myself what do I want here. But that I want something, and expect to get it, is not something that I need to ask.
The teacher draws breath rheumatically, and from his lungs comes the sound of wind whistling in the bare branches of trackless woods. He speaks, and from the floor at his feet comes the sound of splattering blood.
Unlanguage is sometimes known by the name, parabola. This registers both the unsurpassed affinity it has for the parable, and the parabolic lexical contour of meaning to which it lends itself. Meaning is parabolic where it has curvature, and specifically, a curvature that originates away from, then bends towards, and thereafter away from, but not in the same away from which it originated. Thus, parabolic meaning comes from anywhere and anywhen in a temporary or provisional deviation towards intelligibility, and then “snaps back” when the reciprocal pressure of counter-intelligibility reacts on it. That the approach is a curve shows it to be a deviation, since what is intended lies in the linear path.
The grammar of unlanguage is parabolic in structure. Every inflection in unlanguage can be decomposed into at least two simultaneous correlative counterinflections whose divergence forms the parabolic inflection.
A: Define “parable.”
B: A bad story that doesn’t go anywhere.
A: And if the story is bad, and doesn’t go anywhere, why tell it?
B: Eh, the world needs bad stories too, I guess.
The parable is a story that bears an inscrutable relation to the need for it. The meaning of whatever calls upon parables to articulate itself can never be found within any parable but is interparabolic, and hence can only be found among the parables like the disembodied countertenor that no one sings but which arises on its own recognizance from the coupled overtones of the chanting monks. The axiom that all parables are by definition necessary is true. The parable is not fathomed except insofar as its necessity is determined. The readings in this book will all be parables. These readings are each subparables of the main parable, which is the whole, while some subparables will contain sub-subparables.
The teacher was the First Person. That is, for the Second Person, it all started with the teacher. Following the teacher, he became the Second Person. Following him, following the teacher, I become the Third Person. It’s a mistake for me to go on saying “I.” Too bad I can’t seem to avoid it. Perhaps he will learn to say “he” when I mean “I.”
The Second Person waves his crossed fingers against the sky and the ocean and says, “I’m going to say something I want you to repeat. Don’t think about it, just say it back to me the moment you hear it. Ready?”
After a moment, he says, “Ss’chess dafwo iaeiien an’net.”
I repeat the words as he instructed, and yet what I hear myself saying is: “Maswoi on’na ajz monhrlm…”
“See?” the silhouette says.
I was sure I was merely repeating what he had said, and actually the rhythm of the phrase I uttered was the same. The meaning, too, was the same, I think. I don’t really know what they meant, only that they were portentous words.
The crazy idea reaches me—and this has to be his point—that the meaning switches its garments of sound and writing to keep on hiding, like an animal, slinking from one bit of cover to another.
Interrogatives are formed by introducing question-words and/or augments, which take the form of dispondees, dochmiacs, or ionics minores. Each particle includes the spondee, which is the form of the verb “to be.”
Unlanguage employs a variety of particles so great that it defies complete enumeration, unless perhaps it could be said to equal the number of possible monosyllables, as they nearly always are simple words. Clouds of these particles coalesce around sentences in unlanguage, minutely inflecting the meaning of the words with unsurpassable subtlety. As there are few rules for the use of these particles, students will have to address themselves carefully to mood, tone, and above all to the cultivation of unwonted precision in articulation, in order to learn their use and to interpret them skillfully.
Wind tosses the locks of the silhouette. We go inside, through the glass door I can still see the colorless dim white daylight, the waves. I’m a silhouette too. I feel it. He breaks off a piece from an incense stick and lights it. The flame, the abrupt red hollow of his hand, the butter flame at the end of the stick. He blows it out. An ember floats there, a red ring. He holds the unlit end of the stick in his mouth, just like a cigarette, and the silhouettes of the smoke lift and twine against the window. His breath drives the smoke forward at intervals.
As I recall, the silhouettes in that dark bend leapt, many of them did. They flashed by me like bevies of ballet dancers quietly hastening to their marks in the black interval before the curtain rises. I heard their feet scrape, and breathing. Like a dance to a memorized piece of music. As I remember, sometimes one would leap very high, very slow. A slow bound. I saw, now that I remember it, upside-down figures and faces in the brilliant white gaps between the silhouettes. The whiteness came from the light on the border before me. The border isn’t exactly before me, that’s not it exactly, the border is on my path. Addressing itself to my path, and not directly to me, keeping its distance, it also keeps the meter. All the same, it is on my path: the path that is specifically mine, not just the one that happens to be mine just now as I’m taking it, I suppose it is my destined light border. I think that’s what I must have fallen over when I hurt my knee. My pant leg has a damp spot—bleeding again.
Story copyright © 2015 by Michael Cisco
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Kat Weaver
MIchael Cisco is the author of the novels The Divinity Student, The Tyrant, The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Narrator, The Great Lover, Celebrant, and MEMBER, and a short story collection, Secret Hours. His fiction has appeared in The Weird, Lovecraft Unbound, and Black Wings (among others). His scholarly work has appeared in Lovecraft Studies, The Weird Fiction Review, Iranian Studies, and Lovecraft and Influence. His latest novel, Animal Money, is due out this year from Lazy Fascist Press. Michael Cisco lives and teaches in New York City.
Kat Weaver (artwork) is an illustrator and writer whose work has previously been published in Apex Magazine and The Toast. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.