Whenever a fly has landed in my drink, D. always says, ‘don’t worry it won’t have drunk much’, and we both laugh even though we’ve played it a hundred times. When D. scrapes his plate clean after a meal he has enjoyed, he always says, ‘that was horrible’, and we both laugh even though we’ve played it a hundred times. We can play these phrases over and over without them loosing traction, like one of your favourite songs. They become reduced to a smile with a knowing look. They have a tacit rhythm that speaks like an ellipsis…there is something that goes without saying, and something that is yet to be said [i].
Now there’s a moth in my water glass. I have woken up to find a moth in my water glass. I say to myself ‘don’t worry it won’t have drunk much’, but it isn’t funny. It is ‘horrible’. It’s probably been in there all night because its body is disintegrating, bits of sodden wings free floating away from its body. The morning radio is playing the same song as yesterday, and the day before, they’ve played it a hundred times and they’ve played it a hundred times, the repetition of this song is exhausting, it has been exhausted.
D.’s phrases are not common turns of phrase such as an idiom or a proverbial expression. They are something that might be thought of as a ‘personal phrase’; a unique utterance that is repeated by a unique speaker [ii]. These are words shared with you, by someone close to you. Someone close enough so that you hear them often enough to be aware of their repetition. Words proceed from the sphere of available words, Flusser says, into the sphere of relationships between people [iii]. These are words that are strung together, suspended like an ellipsis between bodies to form a ‘personal phrase’. These types of phrases might be thought of as ‘personal’, because they come from this body, from this voice, and they find a precise meaning in this context. In other words, the personal phrase is relational.
If D. and I were to go to the park, and as we leave he says, ‘that was horrible’, or if J. finishes her meal and says, ‘that was horrible’, the phrase loses its figurative meaning. The moth’s wings are free floating and its body is disintegrating, because the phrase has lost its choreography. The song on the radio has lost traction because the ellipsis has broken apart into Three. Full. Stops. I nearly drank the bloody moth and had to spit water back into the glass for damage control. In regurgitating our own ‘personal phrases’ then, we enter a practice—a practice of precise choreography with those around us. In repeating another’s phrase, we hold its familiarity, yet it is transposed by the uncanny playfulness of another voice. In repeating our own phrases and another’s phrase then, attuning bodies seek in one another the familiarity of one another, and oneself as another in another’s ears: this is the dance of the personal phrase…
Lydia Davies is the second recipient of the John Calcutt Prize for Critical Writing presented annually by The Glasgow School of Art in collaboration with MAP Magazine. Based in Glasgow, she works across writing, voice, sound, and moving image. www.lydiadavies.co.uk
[i] Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (New York: Punctum Books, 2012), p.3
[ii] See Adriana Cavarero’s discussion of the term ‘unique’ in Relating Narratives: Storytelling and selfhood (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000) p. 88-9
[iii] Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p.29