The Exciting or Opiatic Effects of Certain Words

by Mary Cappello

I’m in love with the terror and the joy that underscores wonder, and the notion that all discovery is a species of dream.

Excerpted from Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

The hypothalamic nuclei are connected to the cerebral cortex whose functioning underlies meaning—but how?—and also to the limbic lobe of the brain stem whose functioning underlies affects. At present we don’t know how this transfer takes place, but clinical experience allows us to think that it does actually take place (for instance, one will recall the exciting or sedative,‘opiatic,’ effect of certain words).  –Julia Kristeva, Black Sun

When Julia Kristeva talks about the sedative or opiatic effect of certain words, I don’t think she has in mind the mood-altering capacity of the meanings that accompany words—those bulky overcoats—even though that word (“meaning”) appears in her gloss. I suspect she’s talking about words as sound-forms whose texture and timbre have the power to, as the saying goes, touch something in us, and in the touching, to either create a new mood, if such a thing is possible, or to conjure the residue of a mood that’s gone missing. Psycho-phonologists read high frequency sounds as capable of producing states of heightened awareness in we humans, acting as they do on the cochlea, whereas low frequency sounds can calm us to the point of stasis and torpor: if the liquid inside the semi-circular canals of the ear’s vestibule is made to rotate enough, by repeated low-frequency drumming, say, a state of trance is the result. Then we are said to be “captives of our vestibules.”

But what about the effect of language on our “neurobiological networks”? Is it possible to identify words that at one time made us happy exclusive of “candy”? And how about words that exert a drone or din? Just as worry is easier to bear in a particular place, so worry is easier to bear surrounded by particular words. Can words in themselves have this power or does it depend on the quality of the air through which words move? There’s the rub: doesn’t it all come down to voice, the ineluctable wooing of one by the other—word and voice, ear and tongue and throat, lips and lungs? If pronounced in her voice, all words create the best mood in me. That’s the ticket. All distinctions fall away.

Use the next full minute to list words that come to mind as likely to produce a soothing or pleasant mood in you. Go!

denizen versus citizen

hoolahoop versus tire iron

glockenspiel versus man’o’war

harmonica versus accordion

charlotte, but now we’re back to ice cream, or dessert.

Swarthy, swatch, and glade; recluse and surcease; recant and disuse; delve, shelve, elve; elevate and conjugate. Jugular and Jaguar. Constantinople. Fructify. Gina Lollobrigida. Riff-raff. Rinky-dink. Edgeless. Leavening. Sausalito. Somersault.

The mood-producing effects of such words must have to do with the nap of each person’s individual fur, each person’s causeway-like zags, marbleized or plush, the orientation and density of our inner and outer linings. And maybe, too, with the mechanics of an accented rise and fall of the voices that originally coaxed us into being, “Come out, come out,” they said, “for now it’s time to come out.” Or, “sleep, now—there, there—it’s time to sleep.”

We leave it to poets to return language to its roots in the body, to restore language’s place amid the elements, earth, air, fire, and water. A sentence can move as mesmerically as a reversing Falls Falls like the small and quiet ones hidden inside trees more majestic than those that pound pound for pound and measure for measure weight of their force drawn down down or up the sentence sentenced to reverse itself to meet but not to find itself again drawn back upon itself not by itself alone alone upon a pad this pen and that heart draws it forth and back until a feeling is produced by it and then it stops.

We turn to poets or to the poets we, ourselves, become when called to attention by distillates even in the most analytic prose. Then I gather such phrases for their capacity to say everything that needs to be said, that are in themselves all the mood-thought we need to understand depression, (for example), as from, Kristeva the word-pools,

“institutionalized stupor”

“prisoners of affect”

“the delights of suffering”

“nychthemeral rhythms”

“our most persistent despondencies”

“to tame and cherish sadness as an object for lack of another”

“a lucid counterdepressant”

“to unfold language’s resources”

“our basic homeostatic recourses”

“faced with the impossibility of concatenating”

“learned helplessness”

“playing dead”

“psychic crypts” or “psychic voids.”

In order to effect a mood out of language, need a writer put words through the same process that herbs are subjected to in the creation of mood-enhancing cordials? Steeping, distilling, infusing and macerating, all of which share the requirement of soaking and softening, condensing and extracting, supply the idea of a liquid aesthetic, and who wouldn’t wish to produce in a fellow being the combination hum and high of cranberries soaked in bourbon?

Maybe a poet’s charge is to un-steep words and in doing so to perform an only seemingly simple operation of extraction, to allow us to hear what we never hear inside the words we always hear, for I know I am put in a mood part joyful and part curious—not an opiatic mood but a wakeful one—when met with the word “seemly” over and against the more commonplace unseemly; when prompted to imagine a “sheveled” rather than disheveled appearance; to be made to consider what “whelms” me as distinct from what overwhelms me; to comprehend  the way in which each repetition is a renewed “petition”; to find loose leaf pages—a “quire”—at the center of all requirements and inquiries; to posit positively against the force of certain words’ tendency to exist only in negation—to eke out the “choate” in the inchoate, the “ane” in the inane—to “bibe” and “bue” without a consuming “-im”: to saturate.

Occasionally you’ll hear it on the radio, how the confident mood of capitalism turns hysterical. Then mad throngs storm the vestibules of Walmart intent on a wide-screen TV, trampling to death a guard in the process. What words create the frequencies to inspire mass motility numb to the sound of voice and tongue and throat, lips and lungs, heart and mind and memory pulsing underfoot? I think of Thoreau’s different drummer, of Dickinson’s poetry of tilt and whirl. I wonder if poetry undelivered, distant but there, poetry requiring that we crane just long enough to pause indeterminately can avert the disaster of stampede.


The author gratefully acknowledges two references herein: Julia Kristeva, “Life and Death in Speech,” in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, NY: Columbia UP, 1989: 31-68, and Pierre Sollier, Listening for Wellness: An Introduction to the Tomatis Method, Lafayette, CA: Mozart Center Press, 2005: 65.

A line of flight that is not an escape; analogy and play; about-face turns and forms, unfolding. I’m in love with the terror and the joy that underscores wonder, and the notion that all discovery is a species of dream. If, for me, speculative nonfiction invites the free play of the imagination, that’s only because, as a young queer person, I suffered an acute and stultifying fear of my imagination for all too long a time. My contribution here draws on two speculative modes: compositionally, the piece is a riff, an improvisation on a theme, but it also, I hope, offers an uncommonly liberating reading practice for those who find themselves allergic to or afraid of the discursive densities associated with philosophy or critical theory. Even if I don’t “understand” in a prosaic sense all that Julia Kristeva is saying in her chapter, my essay says that it’s ok to cull something from it, to let her writing take me someplace simply by my being open to its sounds and as impetus to my thought. This is speculative reading as sympathetic vibration. If this is strange, the speculative drift that drives my micro-essay is stranger: to lend credence to a hunch, to indulge a hint that is not a clue: that the sound of words and the air through which words move govern our movements, moods and acts. I’m not sure we know how to take that proposition seriously. Speculative nonfiction isn’t shy about desire. This is mine: that a scientist, happening upon my hints, will feel moved to drop my essay into her own environment-of-knowing—not in order to “prove” my speculations—but to discover something that I could never see there, imagine, or foretell.


Mary Cappello is the author of five books, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, and a recipient of the Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow) and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. A co-authored experiment in essayism with James Morrison and Jean Walton, Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration, appeared in September 2018. Cappello is currently composing a book-length essay on dormancy, and a collection of literary études.