A Story of Stolen Salamis
My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: ‘They were not sausages. They were salamis.’ Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods ‘sausages’. My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t seen it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: ‘They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.’
Lydia Davis, “A Story of Stolen Salamis”, Can’t and Won’t. London: Penguin Books, 2015.
I like this little anecdote because it uses a snippet of (what at any rate seems like a candid picture of) everyday life to bring to our attention a concern I believe underlies literature (and, I would have to argue elsewhere, especially poetry): a care for words. Davis’s story captures a certain relation to language, wherein words are important because they convey differentiation, nuance and particularity. And yet the Italian landlord’s salamis are dismissed as ‘sausages’ by everyone else in the story.
But first: what is a ‘sausage’? Here, the word allows unwary speakers to shred away what a specific kind of sausage is. As a result, its meaning has become undifferentiated: an all-purpose mass of minced meat. The reporter was more interested in producing a quaint little story than in accurately describing what had actually happened: newsflash was more important than its factual content. The narrator’s son commiserated about the loss of something he failed to understand, his misplaced show of sentiment being made apparent by the misused word. What ‘salamis’ means was stolen along with the salamis, dissolved into sausageness.
Such sausagization could serve as an example of what Heidegger calls, in Being and Time, ‘idle talk’. In Heidegger, idle talk is our everyday, normalizing mode of public chatting that sidesteps attuned relations. It is ‘idle’, I take it, because paying attention to things requires more of an effort than generalizing. As such, idle talk is an activity we all too easily follow, mostly unawares. By slipping into gossip, we repeat what has been said, and veer away from a relatedness to the particularity and authenticity of things and beings. Although a case can be made for the relative salutary importance of meaningless chatter and superfluous distractions (namely as found in acts of play), the gist of the anecdote is, I believe, that our capacity for differentiation is what maintains ways of life alive (in this case, a certain Italian landlord’s relationship to certain traditional food stuffs). Again, in idle talk, things cease to truly matter; words are spoken to maintain a socially unproblematic status quo: life moves forward, but with no alarms and no surprises, and above all no attachment to the uniqueness of things, people and experiences. In other words, what is left behind is a form of perception we generally point to with the word ‘love’. The Italian landlord complains about a misused word because it not merely evokes a thing, but harnesses his attitude towards that thing: both the process and the product of the care that, we surmise, he has put into his work, and we hope has led to a tasty result.
In short, I like this little story because it has made me think about how, in a sense, words are to poems as meat is to sausages. Words are important because they are the raw materials we most use to communicate and think - key relational activities. As such, it only stands to reason that a care for words denotes care for such relations to oneself and others.
Well-chosen ingredients are what make a product distinctive. Yet make one change to a letter or sound, and the entire meaning of a word changes. Words are fickle, and moreover change over time. Errors are easily produced. And yet the most easily insidious mistakes, I suppose, are those that do not look like mistakes but distractedly destroy meaning through neglect. The most dangerous form of ignorance comes into effect when ignorance, as an era of Trump once again blatantly demonstrates, has ceased to be a problem and has become acceptable.
Bernardo Palmeirim is currently a lecturer in English at FLUL, where he also teaches Creative Writing. He has a PhD in Theory of Literature (ULisbon) titled “What is Poetic Attention” (2014). His research interests include poetry, short stories, theory of literature, philosophy of religion and philosophy of language. Passionate about literature and music, he is also a songwriter and has two bands.