Dust on the Bookshelf

portraits of language and languagelessness
March 2, 2012, 01:36
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I’ve been told that I’m going about this at a good pace. Five years ago I read The Dubliners by James Joyce and love it. This week I finished A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man hoping it would never end. Maybe five or ten years from now I will attempt Ulysses.

However, that is not the point of this post. As I said I really loved reading Portrait. It was a good reading experience. Not only is book full of engaging stories and striking style, but I had an experience reading it. I mean in the way some people say, “I had a time doing X.” I didn’t just do it. There was more to the doing of it than just reading. I felt it and was wrapped up in it. These qualities put books on my all-time favorite reads list.* The reading itself is worth putting your eyes on the words.

But because I cannot get off this Bhabha quote for the life of me, I was struck by a certain passage of the novel in which Stephen Dedalus comes in linguistic conflict with his dean of studies in comparing the word “funnel” with “tundish,” apparent synonyms in the context of a lamp. Here again is Bhabha and then Joyce:

whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity… 

His courtesy of manner rang a little false, and Stephen looked at the English convert with the same eyes as the elder brother in the parable may have turned on the prodigal. A humble follower in the wake of clamorous conversions, a poor Englishman in Ireland, he seemed to have entered on the stage of jesuit history when that strange play of intrigue and suffering and envy and struggle and indignity had been all all but given through–a late comer, a tardy spirit. …

The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He [Stephen] thought:
— The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. (204-205).

Stephen Dedalus, the Irishman, wrestles with his discomfort in speaking a colonial tongue. Many scholars rightfully describe the Irish situation as a postcolonial one. The infamous violence is political and even here glimpsed in tiny insulated form in Stephen’s experience with words. His dean speaks condescendingly of the word “tundish,” for as an Englishman he “never heard the word in [his] life.” Stephen finds himself insulted to the point that standing in the study he is on guard for a duel. This word is his weapon, his “rapier point” that will defend him against the “countryman of Ben Jonson” (an Elizabethan poet).

This passage is very rich for colonial and postcolonial readings, but I would simply like to use it as another test of Bhabha’s argument and mine. As a question, whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity? Is the dean languageless or is Stephen? Stephen describes himself as languageless and yet he is the aggressor. The dean provokes anger in him.

So while Bhabha writes of the reaction provoked by a languageless stranger, Portrait presents the view of the Stranger, in his own country, and what provokes him. Stephen others the dean for his difference, and puts an insurmountable distance between his English and that of the dean. Even as native speakers of the same language, one man feels languageless as a result of the colonial history of Irish oppression.

Many authors wrestle with writing in a language of oppression. Fanon, among others, writes poignantly on this tension throughout his work. I eagerly await a seminar here at Paris 8 given by a doctoral student writing on authors who despise their maternal language. How exactly Joyce felt towards the English [instead of the Irish] language I cannot say. But this autobiographical novel reveals some. He frets. Stephen seems to squirm beneath it, in its shadow.

“I have not made or accepted its words,” Stephen thinks. And this conclusion could also be applied to his feelings about the Catholic church. At the end of the novel, as these tensions pile on top of each other, Stephen leaves “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In his work, Joyce nearly if not surely found the English words that capture Ireland and the Irish consciousness.


*This list off the top of my head includes: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Absalom, Absalom!, The Awakening, The Giver, Black Boy, most Poe, and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity
January 16, 2012, 21:33
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whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity…

I’ve been coming back to this quote for a week now. It continues to roll around in my head. I find it very provocative and true.

Its source is “DissemiNATION,” the eighth chapter of Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (238). It refers to an experience of immigrants in a country where their language is not spoken. One’s own language will never be understood and what’s more will always echo any attempt one makes to speak the local tongue. He quotes John Berger’s A Seventh Man in which a Turkish worker in Germany tries to speak German but his words’ “meaning changed as he spoke them” because he was speaking them as a foreigner, as a speaker of x-nongerman-language (237).

Whether we cannot speak a word or are “fluent” in another language, our words will always be of a language in between. And if your case is the former, you do not speak the local language at all, prepare to be understood as having no language at all. You are languageless. It strikes me as similar to the common case of a medical doctor immigrating to France or America and being limited to jobs in food-service or vending. Your knowledge is devalued if acknowledged at all.

But what of the violence that Bhabha implies is sparked by even the presence of such a person, one who is languageless? If there is such a gaping impasse between people of separate tongues, what makes it then so easy to traverse it in violent reaction. Sometimes the non-native speaker appears weak or submissive in their inability to communicate. Does this apparent submissiveness trigger an “archaic” violence, one that harks back to divide-and-conquer, master-slave societies with “enslave the weak and kill the strong strategies”? (Not to imply that we are out of those societies, we are not.) On one hand, it does not seem to be a matter of survival of the fittest (though I hope to find out soon what Darwin says about language) for even the most linguistically skilled person will always speak a non-language second language. On the other, what is it about the kid with a funny accent and foreign parents that boils the bully’s blood? What about the shy quiet kid makes her the instinctual prey of the louder, more vocal child? If this person does not answer the verbal assaults of their attacker their fate will most likely be worse.

So I ask if Bhabha’s statement only applies to immigrants of a different first language. Could it be a wider human experience? He does much more with this quote of course, connecting it to the “Stranger” concept and amour propre and I am pulling it, somewhat violently and shamelessly, out of context. But I would like to turn his quote into a question, perhaps to suggest wider applicability to issues of language and communication.

Whose languageless presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity?

In James’ recent blog post, he poses a few questions about language:

He keeps seeking the place where language is sure to fail, is sure to be unable to bring us closer but only to miss the mark. I’m not confident he finds it. If our language entails a certain loss, it also entails expression, which has the potential to reach back behind that which is lost to that which has not yet been held in such a way as to be lose-able. Reaching back to that, my narrator suggests, we find something that we once again cannot attempt to put into words without already having lost it. And yet, does the chain really stop? Does language ever actually fail us in this way? Is anything that is really inexpressible? Maybe… In the dream clearly my companion wishes to leave the experience at experienced and refuses to allow that speaking it could do anything but cover it over irretrievably. I think she is wrong, though I also think her concern is worth dwelling on, worth, even, worrying about. I think we do cover over it irretrievably with our language – but I also think the trouble is in our interpretation, not our expression.

He refers here to two people speaking the same language, but in the same way posits a possible “nucleus of the untranslateable” or what is lost between two speaking beings (Bhabha 234). Even when the words are understood, there can be misunderstandings, loss and “untranslatable” ideas or feelings. Similarly to what James suggests as speaking covering over experience, Bhabha insists that when our mother tongue is a foreign language to the listener, our first language covers both our “speaking” and our “experience.”

This is all a bit of a downer, but I often find the inexpressibility of things very charming and beautiful. Though this inexpressibility or languagelessness often leads to violence or melancholy, I can take some sort of joy in the uniqueness of every time I speak a word, in my own or a foreign tongue. It has a singular meaning in that moment, even if I feel, like Berger’s immigrant, the words’ “meaning changed as [I] spoke them.”