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Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Oppression of Expression

The connection between language and liberty is profound

Mark Dunn. Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable. Macadam, 2001. 205 pages.

I have been thinking and writing a great deal about ISIS and its attempts to destroy art, language, culture, and history. This means I have also been thinking a lot about Mark Dunn’s novel Ella Minnow Pea, which is a funny and troubling exploration of language and oppression.

Dunn subtitles his novel “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable,” and the novel is replete with the word games that its punning title and sesquipedalian subtitle suggest. Ella Minnow Pea is set on the fictional island of Nollop, named after the equally fictional Nevin Nollop, who invented the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” (A pangram is a sentence that uses every letter in the alphabet.) As Dunn explains in the novel’s epigraph, the island has an “almost monastic devotion to liberal arts education and scholarship.” A symbol of that devotion is the large statue of Nevin Nollop that is placed at the center of the main town of Nollopton and decked with tiles that spell out his famous sentence.

As the novel opens, the tile bearing the letter z has fallen off the statue and been taken to the town council. The heroine of the novel — Ella Minnow Pea — explains what happens next.

On Wednesday, July 19, the Council, having gleaned and discerned, released its official verdict: the fall of the tile bearing the letter Z constitutes the terrestrial manifestation of an empyrean Nollopian desire, that desire most surely being that the letter Z should be utterly excised — fully extirpated — absolutely heave-ho-ed from our communal vocabulary! Henceforth, use of the arguably superfluous twenty-sixth letter will be outlawed from all island speech and graphy… Under penalties to be determined by the aforementioned Council. On Friday, July 21, those penalties were decided. They are as follows: To speak or write any word containing the letter Z, or to be found in possession of any written communication containing this letter, one will receive for a first offense a public oral reprimand… Second offenders will be offered choice between the corporal pain of body-flogging and the public humiliation of headstock upon the public square. For third offense, violators will be banished from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of Council will result in death.

There’s a lot of food for thought here. We have the exceptionally rich, almost overwrought, baroque language of the islanders at the story’s outset. Ella and her fellow islanders clearly glory in the beauties of language and in its ability to communicate. We also discover that this charming little island has some sinister characteristics.

First, Nollop is treated by at least some portion of the Nollopians as a god or prophet. Second, there is an apparently endlessly powerful “High Council” that has the ability to make laws and assign punishment without consulting the populace. Lastly, we discover that language — in its very building blocks, not merely political, religious, or obscene language — is open to regulation of the strictest kind.

As Ella’s cousin Tassie writes, “I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of a fetter or harness.” Tassie’s fears are not based only in her concerns about the trammeling of her freedom of expression, however. She notes that the High Council is “installed for life, with complex legal procedures for official recall, copies of which will soon be disappearing from the shelves of our island libraries.”

The council’s decree has not merely committed the absurdity of outlawing the usage of the letter z. It has effectively restricted the Nollopians’ ability to function politically. Without copies of their laws in the libraries — and these laws will have to be removed from the libraries and any written record because they doubtless contain at least one instance of the letter z somewhere — the Nollopians have no recourse other than sufferance or revolution.

As with Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, even this earliest and simplest of High Council decrees begins the process of eliminating words and people. The day the ban on z goes into effect, Ella writes to her cousin, “The books have all disappeared. You were right about the books. We will have to write new ones now. But what will we say? Without the whiz that waz. For we cannot even write of its history. Because to write of it is to write it. And as of midnight, it becomes ineffable.” Eliminating the letter z eliminates not only the letter, but all printed material and spoken expression in which the letter occurs. It eliminates, as Ella records, the ability to remember it or write its history. It has been “vaporized” in classic Orwellian style.

Unsurprisingly, the new regulation spurs further regulation — including a ban on writing words where the letter z has been replaced with an asterisk. Violation of this ban is subject to the same draconian penalties as violation of the proscription of z. Shortly thereafter, we see citizens flogged, the publication of the names of 58 first-time offenders, and the locking into the headstocks of 13 second-time offenders.

Then, the letter q falls from the statue. Ella is, as ever, an optimist, noting that “as luck would have it, there are simply not all that many words in the English language which claim this letter among its constituents.” She continues to discuss the possibility of either a legal recall or a military coup of the High Council, but recognizes the difficulty of a legal recall when the laws remain in effect, but the written records of them have all been burned, and the difficulty of a military overthrow when the government pays the military well. She also records, in rapid succession, the loss of the island radio station, newspaper, and all recordings of any music with lyrics.

And this is with only the two least-used letters outlawed!

Tassie soon reports to Ella that the new regulations have encouraged neighbors to spy on neighbors and report their violations to the High Council. Her mother, a school teacher, is reported for referring to “a dozen eggs.”

Loss of the letter q also produces some heroic behavior. The Rasmussen family marches into the High Council session wearing duck masks and quacking. They are then manacled and offered the choice between flogging and headstocks. The family — including the nine-year-old twin daughters — chooses flogging in hopes of horrifying the islanders to some sort of response. The townspeople do nothing. That evening, however, one islander is caught trying to replace the j tile that has fallen off the statue. Ella tells us, “He was apprehended and is being held without bond.”

When the letter d falls, the High Council revamps the calendar, naming the days of the week: Sunshine; Monty; Toes; Wetty; Thurby; Fribs; Satto-Gatto. Loss of the letter d also proves the cause of Tassie’s mother’s second slip, which she duly reports to the High Council, only to receive this reply:

We appreciate your coming to us with a copy of your letter to your sister, but it was unnecessary. Your offense was known to us even before the letter’s receipt by your sister. Effective as of September 15, the primary responsibility of our isle’s new assistant chief postal inspector has been to scan all post for use of illegal letters of the alphabet, then to make nightly reports to the Council.

But Dunn’s book ceases to be a dark comedy and becomes a pure tragedy as the book progresses and we are privy to the degradation of language produced by the council’s restrictions. Ella’s penultimate letter is written to herself because her friends and family have nearly all been exiled, have killed themselves, or have chosen to stop writing and speaking.

Letter to me:

Onlee 24 owers remain.


Tiles plop. 8 tiles plomp plomp plomp all in one nite.

Tee ent is near.

So lon A!

So lon E! (Nise to no ewe.)

So lon I!

So lon R! (Are we lonesome tonite?)

So lon S!

So lon T!

So lon W!

So lon O twin. (Remnant twin is all alone now.)

Now onlee 5 remain at 12 o’time. Onlee 5. Onlee 5 remain.

There are several notable things about this letter. First, there’s Dunn’s impressive accomplishment of managing communication, humor, and even pathos with only 12 letters. Second, there is Ella’s undying need to communicate, to connect, to record, to use language even at the instant it is being taken from her. Last, there is the inevitable comparison between the paucity of this language as contrasted with the baroque expressions of Ella’s first letter in the novel. Ella’s final letter is composed of only the letters LMNOP. It is a less successful piece of communication, but the pathos and humor continue.

Ella’s story ends with the triumph of creative forces over government repression, tyranny, theocracy, and general insanity. Along the way, though, it is a vivid reminder of the strong ties between language and liberty, and a strong caution that the oppression of expression can ally itself to tyranny, ruin our ability to think, and render us unable to fight.