Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur
das Offene. Nur unsre Augen sind
wie umgekehrt und ganz um sie gestellt
als Fallen, rings um ihren freien Ausgang.
With wholly open eyes a creature sees
the Open. Our eyes alone are as if
turned about and wholly ranged about
as traps that shut its clear way out off.
from Duino Elegies: The Eighth Elegy
Rainer Maria Rilke
translation Anton Viesel
There is a certain way of dying, associated with the left temporal lobe, by which the loss of language precedes the loss of life. Language goes on ahead, feeling the way like a white cane held out in lieu of sight, tapping the ground to predict the terrain ahead as if to protect the body that follows. The prediction comes as silence. When words deplete, no blind but feeling hand is left to grip the near-end of language and read by touch the descent it writes into the dark: the sound of tapping turns out to be the patter of words falling away, coming detached, never to sound again. All the same, the accumulating bed of fallen words will offer the body some protection in the end, letting loose its limbs to fall into the world.
So words deplete, using up all reserves in an accelerating farewell, and they begin to reveal that language has always only meant farewell. At every tap the cane repeats the gap between the hand and ground and keeps the distance firm. It keeps the grass at our feet, the cane at our hand, and will not bend to ruminate among the creatures that mutely go about and flock and eat the very ground they simply walk. We are not these mute creatures. The long clean length of cane measures how separately we stand from them, from the grass, from the ground they digest as we inscribe it like paper with words for things.
The tumour of the left temporal lobe extends its reach and the cane grows brittle. Bits fall away: the words for certain things, the assembling of syntactic forms, certain sounds and certain groups of sounds prepare for the mute time between loss of language and loss of life: the time of going about indistinct from the world, without a cane to prop oneself apart.
When the mute time comes, the last words linger about the mouth a while like ink. Still wet, they try to speak for this new creature let loose and open-mouthed into the open, but the speech drops heavily into the past: a guesswork, an impossible work to guess how a pen should move when it is lifted from the page. The words dry. The last taps of sound fall clean against the ground, make their final indications and go quiet—the first loss. The cane disintegrates from the hand, its dried-up nib leaves the page and finally unpropped, the mouth begins to turn about and wholly range about and lap the simple silence all around. All world.
The ground the mute had once inscribed with words becomes the land it breathes and eats and is. It joins the flock of world, digests and practises ahead of time the quiet that is to come. Only at death—the second loss—does the mouth close to the world at last, and the world opens to the body and it digests. Interred into its bed of fallen words the body is familiar and it rests: a morsel, a final word for the gap it opens up.