John Edgar Wideman took the title of his story, “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” from the last line of a work by an Austrian philosopher: Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (1921) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). A possible interpretation of Wittgenstein’s sentence and the argument that leads up to it is that the essence of the world is beyond the reach of human thought and words. Words can describe known facts about the world, but that is all. Among the many things that lie beyond words are ethics, aesthetics, the meaning of life, the immortality of the soul, the nature of language and logic, and the fundamental structure of the universe. Wittgenstein asserts that most philosophical confusion arises from trying to speak about things that can only be shown. Having dismissed even his own philosophical propositions as nonsense, Wittgenstein concludes, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Wittgenstein’s statement alerts the reader to an important theme of Wideman’s story: the difficulty of knowing anything about anything and anybody. This eternal philosophical problem is given added weight in modern society as Wideman portrays it. Here is a world in which computers, which were designed to facilitate communication between people, often serve only to dehumanize and fragment society. It is a world in which huge resources are poured into the prison industry and ever-increasing numbers of people are moved out of sight in an effort to make the rest of the people feel safe. This social fragmentation is reflected in the isolation and alienation felt by the narrator. His attempts to extract meaningful information from his limited interactions with others are largely marked by frustration and failure.
In this respect, the first sentence of the story is revealing: “I have a friend with a son in prison.” As the story progresses, it turns out that every aspect of this simple statement is open to doubt. The narrator’s friend, he later reveals, is not really a friend, but an acquaintance with whom he has only fleeting contacts. The friend may or may not have a son, and that son may or may not be in prison. The question of the son is made even more opaque when he writes to the narrator asking him to pose as his father, apparently to smooth his way through the prison bureaucracy, though this is not certain. The narrator agrees, since nobody can prove that he does not believe himself to be the son’s father.
Indeed, he reflects that most children go through a phase in which they do not believe that the adults raising them are their real parents. The episode suggests that nobody can know for certain who their father is.
The narrator never learns the truth about the son. In fact, in a reversal of the usual story format, the truth seems more elusive at the story’s end than at the beginning: “Computer says the inmate you want to visit is not in the facility.” Frustratingly, the narrator cannot question the computer further.
Thus, the expected meeting with the son never happens. Instead, the narrator forms a relationship with Suh Jung. But even this, the only person-toperson relationship presented in the story, is characterized by a lack of truth and meaning. It does not spring from attraction, but an embarrassment on the part of the narrator at seeming weak and indecisive. There is always a distance between them, which grows more obvious when she begins to taunt him about his obsession with the son in prison. The narrator admits that he uses her in order to obtain information about the son, but he justifies himself by saying that all relationships are about using people. He does not mention love.
Suh Jung is also disjointed or lacking in congruence. She has cut her hair into a brutal style that does not suit her in order to protect herself from a stereotype. She is in reality a terrified girl but hides her fear with a pretended coolness. She has stolen this coolness from her father, whose attitude toward her is characterized by a “blankness” behind his eyes and a determination to hammer all around him into “an exquisitely lifelike, flawless representation of his will.” To him, she is not a human being, but an artifact.
Compounding the sense of uncertainty and disorientation is the narrator’s inability to recall the face of his friend, the son’s father. When he tries to reconstruct it by gazing at his own reflection in the mirror, he is shocked by the time-battered, frightened face that gazes back. He does not even recognize himself: “Who in God’s name was this person,” he asks. Recalling scientific research that shows that people do not really look at what is around them, he suggests that this is an unconscious way of avoiding taking responsibility: “Instead of staring without fear and taking responsibility for the unmistakable, beaten-up person I’ve apparently become, I prefer to see nothing.” This comment resonates in the story. The narrator describes how the Arizona prison is situated in a “Vast emptiness,” and how the computer operators who administer it and the other facilities are “sequestered” in towers or in underground offices. The aim is to keep the inmates safely apart from outsiders, out of sight and out of mind. This aim is supported by the impenetrable prison bureaucracy that is reluctant to give up any information to the narrator about the imprisoned son. So successful is it that by the end of the story, the narrator has no idea where the inmate is or even if he exists at all. Like the narrator of Wideman’s “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” who prefers not to see his frightened, battered face, people on the outside prefer not to see the prisons or their inmates; they cannot speak about them, and they pass over them in silence. Angela Y. Davies, in her essay in Behind the Razor , “A World Unto Itself: Multiple Invisibilities of Imprisonment,” calls prisoners “invisible populations” living in “invisible worlds.” In his essay “Doing Time, Marking Race” in the same book, Wideman elaborates on this theme: “Prisons do their dirtiest work in the dark. The evil they perpetrate depends on a kind of willed ignorance on the part of the public.” As a potential remedy to this state of ignorance, Wideman suggests that “The truth of art. . . . can throw light on what occurs inside prisons. This light, whether a source of revelation for millions, a spur to political reform, or simply one more candle burning, will help to dispel the nightmare we’ve allowed our prisons to become.” Even this modest degree of certainty about the power of art to reveal the truth seems to be thrown into doubt by the bleak vision of “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence.” The narrator says that the artist Giacometti, who, unlike the willfully and complacently blind, actively sought the truth, “didn’t trust what was in front of his eyes”: “He understood art always failed. Art lied to him. People’s eyes lied. No one ever sees the world as it is.” Giacometti found that if he glanced away from his model, when he looked back, “it would be different, always different, always changing.” However, it would be a mistake to identify the narrator with Wideman’s own view. The narrator is self-confessedly timid, simultaneously “begging and fearing to be seen,” imprisoned by a “lack of directness, decisiveness, my deficiency of enterprise and imagination.” While this timidity is understandable in humanity in general, it is perhaps especially so in a member of an ethnic minority. But the narrator’s timidity is not the way to truth. The two artists featured in the story, Giacometti and the African American poet Amiri Baraka (born 1934), who is known for his activism in black causes, are braver. While no character in the story manages to see or speak the whole truth, these artists do manage to show something of the truth. Showing is the one way that Wittgenstein believed truth could be revealed; in Wideman’s story, the people who show are the artists. While Giacometti sees the limitations of art to capture a changing world, he does not allow that to stop him from creating it. The narrator, in spite of his focus on Giacometti’s statements about the failure of art, cannot fail to respond to the artist’s famous picture of a dog. The truth of this picture produces a heartfelt passion in him that Suh Jung fails to inspire: “I loved the slinky dog. He was so . . . so . . . you know . . . .” It is characteristic of the narrator that he fails to see it at the exhibit, as he is overwhelmed by all the objects. Instead, he sees it at one remove, in the catalog. But this man who has made a habit of not seeing his own face or the faces of those around him at last does see, with great immediacy and immediate recognition, and he is moved.
The narrator also loves Baraka, not so much for what he writes but for “the chances he’d taken, chances in his art, in his life.” The narrator is thankful for the “Sacrifices of mind and body he endured so I could vicariously participate, holed up in my corner.” It is significant that the narrator’s praise of Baraka comes just before his account of the tiny risks he takes, the “low-order remarkable things” he experiences with Suh Jung. These risks, if he were able to magnify them many times, could make a difference in his life and perhaps in the lives of others. Baraka and Giacometti have embraced risk. Through their art, they show a truth that can illuminate the invisible, the hidden, that which is passed over by most people in silence. The final twist is that, in telling his story, the narrator has abandoned his timid existence on the sidelines and has, largely in spite of himself, become an artist. His obsession about the imprisoned son has led him to create a piece of art that shows us a part of the truth about our external and internal prisons.
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)