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Contest of Words, by Ben Lerner
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This week's Longreads Member pick is "Contest of Words," Ben Lerner
's October 2012 essay from Harper's Magazine
. Lerner is author of the award-winning 2011 novel Leaving the Atocha Station
and three books of poetry: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw
and Mean Free Path
The story comes recommended by Matt O'Rourke, a longtime Longreads community member and creative director for Wieden and Kennedy in Portland (he also runs the Twitter account @fuckyesreading
). Matt writes:
"Ben Lerner has such an easy way with words that you almost lose sight of the fact that the guy is clearly a genius. He takes incredibly complex observations, and delivers them in a way that makes you feel like he's hardly working at it at all.
"'Contest of Words,' which I discovered in Harper's last year, is about Lerner's experience with language as a member of his high school debate team. It's a piece of writing I re-read every few weeks, as a reminder that the smartest person in the room is only relevant if they can get everyone else to listen. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I have."
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Contest of WordsBen Lerner | Harper's | October 2012 | 21 minutes (5,243 words)
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad
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Although high school debate is often considered the thinking person's—the nerd's—alternative to sports, my memories of it are primarily somatic: the starched collar of the dress shirt against my recently shaved neck, small cuts and razor bumps deepening the sensation; the constant gentle pressure of the tie; how my gait and posture adjusted under the direction of the suit; the way the slacks always felt high and tight because I normally let my baggy jeans sag to whatever level we white midwestern adolescents had tacitly established as our norm. The constriction in my shoulders would be extreme—less accumulated stress than a kind of constant flexing, an indication of battle-readiness. My hair would be drawn into a ponytail (though the sides of my head were shaved, a disastrous tonsorial compromise between skinhead and hippie that can perhaps stand for the irresolvable tension between the household of my lefty, loving, Jewish psychologist parents and the very red state in which they'd raised me), which heightened the already considerable tension in my temples. I recall a continual low-level nausea, anxiety about the next round mixing with the McDonald's breakfast we would have stopped for on the road; I recall prodigious perspiration independent of temperature, periodic involuntary erection or the fear of it. Understand, I was not the only one who found "competitive speech" so physically trying. I can conjure—cannot not conjure—the image of two young women in nearly matching charcoal pantsuits hyperventilating into paper bags at Washburn Rural High School. I can still see a sophomore vomiting into his file folders soon after learning he'd be facing the defending state champions in a semifinal round.
Our tournaments were held in Kansas public high schools that appeared strangely altered on the weekends, the spaces subtly but profoundly transformed when emptied of students and teachers and severed from the rhythms of a normal day. Each room, with its hortatory posters, its rows of empty desks, equations or dates or stock phrases left on chalk- or dry-erase board, possessed something of the unreality of a theatrical set and yet something of the gravity of a postapocalyptic scene, as though a nuclear disaster had obliterated the population mid-lesson without affecting the building. You could occasionally even pick up traces of Speed Stick or scented lip gloss or other floating signatures of a social order now suspended. I remember trying combinations on the main hall lockers and touching a wrestling state-championship banner in the cafeteria with the distance of an anthropologist or a ghost.
To such a school that was no longer a school a small population of formally dressed adolescents from all over Kansas would travel by bus or van through the early-morning dark. See them arrive, wheeling plastic tubs of evidence through the freezing parking lot. They gather for a brief welcome assembly in a cafeteria redolent of bleach before dispersing in teams to the classrooms where a judge and timekeeper await. The lids come off the tubs, various papers are retrieved from hanging folders, and the round commences. The first few seconds of a speech might sound more or less like oratory, but soon the competitors will be accelerating to nearly unintelligible speeds, pitch and volume rising, spit and sweat flying as they attempt to "spread" their opponents—that is, to make more arguments and marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule being that a "dropped argument," no matter its quality, is conceded. (The judge, usually a former high school or college debater, hunches over a legal pad, producing a flow sheet of the round along with the competitors, recording argument and counterargument in shorthand, rarely making eye contact with the speakers.)
If you could walk the halls like an anthropologist or a ghost and peer into the rooms mid-round, competitive interscholastic debate would appear to you not as an academic subject but as a full-bodied glossolalic ritual in which participants teeter on the edge of syncope, reducing what is nominally an exchange of ideas to an athletic display of unreason. Whatever its value to the initiated, whatever its jargon and rules, from the outside debate must appear more cultic ecstasy than "public speaking."
And yet what I most want to describe is how in those weird rooms I experienced occasional accesses of power. I might be in Olathe on a December afternoon enumerating in accelerating succession the various ways implementation of my opponent's health-care plan would lead to holocaust when I would pass a mysterious threshold. I would begin to feel less like I was delivering a speech and more that a speech was delivering me, that the rhythm and intonation of my presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that I no longer had to organize my arguments so much as let them flow through me. Suddenly the physical tension was all focused energy, a transformation that made the event vaguely erotic. I became in these transportative moments an acned rhapsode, and if the song that was coursing through me was about the supposedly catastrophic risks of a single-payer health-care system or the affirmative speaker's failure to prove solvency, I was nevertheless more in the realm of poetry than of prose, my speech stretched by speed and intensity until I felt its referential meaning dissolve into pure form, until I was singing the oldest song, singing the very possibility of language. In a public school closed to the public, in a suit that felt like a costume, while pretending to argue about policy, I, in all my adolescing awkwardness, would be seized, however briefly, by an experience of prosody.
Originally published in Harper's Magazine, October 2012. Subscribe to Harper's here.