Spring 2010

Good-Night Lyudi

The fate of “schizophrenic language student” Louis Wolfson

Kevin McCann

In the mid-1950s, six months after escaping from an insane asylum “thanks to the negligence of two or three guards,” a young Louis Wolfson decided to devote himself wholeheartedly to the study of languages. He was in his mid-twenties and living again in Brooklyn with his one-eyed mother, who had called the police to have him committed. This period of his life, dominated by his fixation on language, became the subject of his first book, Le Schizo et les langues—which was written in French and printed in part in 1964 in Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes. Referring to himself in the third person throughout, Wolfson uses ironic phrases such as “the schizo,” “the mentally-ill young man,” and “the schizophrenic language student”1 to describe his condition prior to his linguistic obsessions:

Despite his apparent incapacity, the psychotic had an exaggerated idea of his competence. Sometimes he even had the sense that he could do almost anything in almost any field if only he wanted to, and his major weakness was his lack of decision, these thoughts giving him an excuse to waste a lot of time doing nothing but think about what to do.2

It was, therefore, with the expectation of accomplishing great things that Wolfson began his immersion in foreign languages, starting with French, German, Russian, and Hebrew. Having acquired the ability to read and write in his own language belatedly and only with difficulty, and furthermore socially outcast, sexually impotent,3 and apparently unfit for work of any kind, Wolfson’s desire to prove himself by becoming a polyglot quickly became fanatical. Though he continued to live in his mother’s apartment, Wolfson decided to eschew any contact with the English language. To drown out people speaking English, he used a short-wave radio tuned to foreign language or classical music broadcasts,4 or alternatively stuck his fingers in his ears, wriggling them about and making gurgling noises in his throat when, for instance, his mother burst into his room to tell him something.

Wolfson wearing his “Walkman,” Montreal, 1984.

It was, of course, inevitable that spoken and written English would repeatedly penetrate Wolfson’s defenses. In order to deal with this, he attempted to transmute whatever English words he encountered into foreign words similar in both sound and meaning. The word milk, for example, was relatively innocuous since Wolfson could effortlessly convert it into any number of exact equivalents, such as the German Milch, the Russian moloko, the Danish maelk, or even the Polish mleko. More difficult words, such as ladies, could cause Wolfson hours of anguish. (The word was conjured every time he heard his mother play the tune Good-Night Ladies on the electric organ.) In public places, he was hesitant to go the bathroom because he feared seeing the word Ladies written on an adjacent bathroom door. He considered using the German Leute, a gender-neutral word meaning “people,” as the l-t combination was close enough to the l-d in the original, and ladies are a subset of people. He wasn’t, however, fully satisfied until he came across the Russian lyudi. This also meant “people,” but he preferred it because he had only recently learned the word, and from then on he could use ladies as a mnemonic device that would help him to recall the Russian word and all of its declensions.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.