It was Bakarak himself who fired me. Bakarak, the Swiss doctor who directs the dietetics institute named after him. I’m standing here in the middle of the street and my thoughts climb up to the third floor, penetrate the window, and reach Bakarak’s office, where at this moment-I’m certain of it-he sits before his computer terminal surfing through porno websites.
Can one be an orderly with eighteen years’ experience and develop a theory of diet? It wouldn’t seem so, if you listen to Bakarak. Yet I’m the first person in the world to note the effects of language on the human organism. Words exert an inordinate influence upon the neurovegetative system and the endocrine glands. Unfortunately I need a doctor’s help to formulate my theory in scientific terms. Not only has Bakarak refused to help me, but he fired me from the institute. He’ll pay for it. I’m not planning to hurt-or murder-him; rather my thoughts pursue him everywhere, never abandoning him, not even at night.
My theory is based on direct observation of subjects; it isn’t groundless as so many other theories are. The first case I recorded in my notebook was that of a famous writer, the author of a celebrated novel. She had just come from her appointment with Bakarak. “I feel fat,” she told me, “I feel like I’m about to explode.” Indeed, her cheeks were puffy; it was an effort for her to hold open her eyes because of the fat that had accumulated around them. “My husband wants me to lose weight,” she said. “If I don’t trim at least ten pounds, he told me he’d leave me for another writer.”
Bakarak prescribed the dissociated diet for her: a day of meat, a day of salad, a day of cheese, and a day of pasta, followed by a day of complete freedom, after which the dieter starts the regimen over again. The writer lost a little weight, just a couple pounds. She said, “I can’t write anymore with all this fat around my eyes. I feel like I’m about to burst at the seams. My mind wanders; my husband is also wandering.” She was really desperate.
How does one arrive at a scientific discovery? With science? No, not always. Sometimes, in fact almost always, a discovery is made intuitively. I had already formulated my hypothesis. I went to buy one of this writer’s novels, a romance that had been a bestseller. It was beautiful, sentimental, psychological. There are some romances in which love is almost never mentioned. In this instance, however, it was discussed continually on every one of the book’s two hundred and sixty-seven pages.
It seemed impossible for a word to be used so much. Love is one of those banal words that a normal person almost never says; it’s a word that, generally speaking, is rarely uttered in conversation. All the same, this writer spoke about nothing else. In order to generate publicity for her book, she talked about love in interviews and wrote about it in newspaper articles. I started examining the novel page by page. She had written the word “love” one thousand seven hundred and twenty-two times. She had even put it in the title.
Like all inventors who risk their lives for their invention, who sometimes lose an arm or a leg because of their love of science, I wanted to test my theory on myself. I sat before the typewriter and wrote the word “love” for three consecutive days. As I wrote, I repeated the word “love” in a loud voice. Naturally I closed the windows so the neighbors couldn’t hear me. On the third day, I felt myself ballooning; I felt as if I were about to explode, as if I were actually exploding. “So far so good,” I said to myself.
I noticed that the people who read the book also gained a little weight. I told Bakarak I had the flu and shut myself up at home for three more days, reading and rereading the writer’s books. I really scoured each page, fixing my eyes on the word “love” because, as I’ve indicated, she didn’t talk about anything else.
In the end the scale showed that I had gained nearly four pounds. “Eureka!” I said to myself. “Now I understand.” I had understood.
A few days later, I made my first, vague comment to Bakarak on the connection between certain words and the endocrine glands. Bakarak said, “Shut up, you imbecile.” He’d gotten into the habit of being familiar with me; every so often he called me “imbecile.” It was only a figure of speech, of course; otherwise I wouldn’t have tolerated it. Then he fired me. He’ll be sorry.
I went around interviewing other subjects and then returned home to work on the dictionary. I put a red mark next to words that had the effect of a positive stimulus on the endocrine glands, and a green mark next to those that produced a negative effect. I discovered that there were also some words that worked in the opposite way, like brakes. In general, writers unwittingly vary their vocabulary and thus a balance is created. But in some cases, when they make excessive use of certain words, they can increase their weight by several pounds, and their obesity can become unhealthy. If they overuse words that have a negative effect on the endocrine glands, they can waste away and die. Certain writers met their deaths in this way.
A written word is more powerful: it acts on the endocrine glands more strongly than a word pronounced or read. The sung word can have a deleterious effect on the organism: the words in operas almost all function as positive stimuli; that’s why opera singers are so fat. Thin singers are rare in opera.
Words that function as negative stimuli are more uncommon than the other variety. I began to record some of them: “literature,” “structure,” “anthropologist,” “dissertation,” “experimentalism,” “postmodernism.” It’s easy to note the frequency of consonants like “t” and “r” in these words, that is to say, the appearance of “t” and “r” in the same word. “T” by itself turned out to have a positive effect for me, as in a word like the adverb “still,” which at first sight might seem neutral. Nonetheless, people who write “still” very often get fat. And I would say the same thing about “sentiment,” “touch,” “cottage,” “tickle,” “contact,” and “penitent.” On the other hand, “tetralogy,” “typography,” “tragedy,” “instrumental,” “parameter,” and “stripper” are words with a negative effect because they combine “t’s” with “r’s.”
Certain words assonate with one person more than another. Naturally, there are also many neutral words which have no effect at all on the endocrine glands.
These were the first rules I jotted down daily in the notebook for my Grammatica Dietetica, as I have decided to entitle the work. It is worth noting that this title is composed of one word with a negative effect and one word with a positive effect. It’s neutral, in other words.
If Bakarak didn’t keep putting obstacles in my path, within a year I could finish my Grammatica Dietetica. Naturally, this grammar will serve only as the theoretical foundation for my work. Case studies will later be added to it one by one. It’s like a medical treatise, which requires not only theory, but individual cases as well.
After I read the writer’s novel, I couldn’t find her. She refused to give me her phone number. Maybe Bakarak told her not to talk to me. I wrote her a letter, in any case, and told her it’d be better if she forgot about love for a while.
I made my last try with Bakarak; I wrote him a letter too. His answer was that he would absolutely not collaborate with me, that my theory was ridiculous. His reply didn’t surprise me. I shall frame this letter to document the difficulties that beset scientific progress. Thus Bakarak will be hanged in shame, there, on the wall, at the entrance of my new institute.
Two other doctors have refused to collaborate with me. I gather it was Bakarak who instigated their refusal. But I haven’t given up; I move forward on my path like a rhinoceros. I could kill Bakarak, but I prefer to follow him with my thoughts. Against thoughts Bakarak can’t defend himself. Thoughts pass even through walls and windows; they enter his third-floor office, his bedroom. I shall ruin you, Bakarak.
The compilation of my grammar also requires the assistance of a linguist, a student of language. After the effects of words I must study the effects of sentences, that is, of words combined with other words. After the grammar I want to write a Syntactica Dietetica.
I found a studious fellow who showed interest in my discovery. He isn’t a linguist, properly speaking, but he knows everything about language and has delivered many lectures and written many articles. I made him gain four pounds in order to convince him. He was very thin, incredibly emaciated. I found several words repeated many times in his book: “poststructuralism,” for example, “structural anthropology,” “deconstruction,” “intersemiotic,” “acculturation,” “critique,” and so on. I went to hear one of his lectures, and he used the word “poststructuralism” seventy-four times. I told him to try to forget this word; give “poststructuralism” a break for a little while, six months at least. “What can I do?” he said. “If you take poststructuralism away from me, I’m ruined.” So I said, “There are many other topics, as you no doubt realize.” Then he gave a series of lectures on love and gained over four pounds in fifteen days. He has also written many articles on this very topic, and everyone remarks on his bravura and originality. Now he’s gotten too fat, but he will definitely collaborate with me on the creation of the new institute.
As for Bakarak, my thoughts will follow him everywhere. Till death do us part.
First published in Dopo il pescecane (Milan: Bompiani, 1979). Copyright 1979 by Luigi Malerba. Translation copyright 2005 by Lawrence Venuti. All rights reserved.