Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Language, Truth, and Consequences

In Defence of Language; If It Needs It

Side D also instead from outside half... Craunch
along to stanchion 14 at the mashing together plate...
Farb now the glimrod.

Instructions in Shoe comic strip for assembling sleigh kit
(Dec. 19, 1982)


In the Penguin volume Modernism (1976), that fat and intimidating exercise in apologetics, there is a passage that has stayed in my mind and gone on nagging at me. It occurs in the article ‘The Crisis of Language,’ and goes as follows:

That which links thought with language, language with the external world, and man with man has disappeared. Like the mock tennis game at the end of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, all language games are felt to have become absurd because the ball, that which guarantees communication between subject and object, is lost.[1]

The passage doesn’t simply spring out of nowhere and bite you.

As with some of the more scandalous pronouncements of Paul de Man, the writer is describing the attitudes of others, among them Kafka (of whom the statement is surely untrue) and the fictional Chandos of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s ‘Letter of Lord Chandos.’

But that, in a way, makes it all the more disturbing.

As Borges knew (‘I remember,’ observes his best-known fictional narrator, ‘that Menard used to declare that censuring and praising were sentimental operations which had nothing to do with criticism’),[2] the reported opinions or discoveries of others can leave one peculiarly a-jangle.

And when assertions are absolute enough, one has the queasy feeling that one may have been missing something—that one may have been skating unawares on some very thin ice over some very cold deep waters.


To allay my own anxieties, I propose to look in a common-sense way at the question of communication and meaning losses.

I am aware that it is precisely common sense—what we assume we know, in contrast to how things ‘really’ are—that is being called into question.

But I like Yvor Winters’ remark about a poem by J.V. Cunningham that ‘I confess that I retain a kind of bucolic distrust of all theories which seem to be in conflict with the facts of life.’ [3]

And we are sometimes too modest about testing out assertions, especially ones with an air of profundity, against the world as we ourselves experience it.

Obviously that world is a made as well as a given one, and some of it can be unmade.

But it is partly a given one.

And to talk about language, as is sometimes done, as if an all-seeing sage or all-promising parent had turned out to be, not simply human and humanly imperfect, but a humbug and charlatan whose every move is suspect involves much too crude a dichotomizing.


Non-communication, or insufficient communication, indeed occurs.

People lie or misdirect, like Iago—lie so skilfully at times that when in a trial there is a total conflict in testimony, we may be at a loss as to whom to believe.

And even when we have no reason to suspect lying, when two people offer different accounts of what happened when only the two of them were present, there is no way of being certain about what in fact occurred.

Any more than Borges' obsessed searchers in the Library of Babel can know which of the volumes contains the key to all the rest.

People can falsify in subtler ways, such as in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground:

"Water... Give me some water, please. It's over there!" I murmured in a weak voice, realising very well at the same time that I could have managed without a drink of water and without murmuring in a weak voice. But I was, what is called, play-acting to save appearances, though my fit was real enough.[4]

They can be baffled by someone else's moves, like Fielding trying to cope with Professor Godbole in A Passage to India, or Alice passim.

They can have trouble "expressing" themselves. In Camus' The Plague, once the pestilence-ridden city has been sealed off,

People linked together by close friendship, affection, or physical love found themselves reduced to hunting for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram. And since, in practice, the phrases one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined on the exchange of such trite formulas as, "Am fit. Always thinking of you. Love."[5]

We all know the frustration of talking to a deaf person and having to lose tones and nuances in our slowed-down shouting, or of trying to describe a vivid dream or any other intensely private and kinaesthetic experience.

We know how Marlowe feels in Heart of Darkness when he bursts out, "Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment...."

And if death is a country from which no traveller returns, its borders can start well this side of one's expiry. In Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (which should more properly be called "The Dying of Ivan Ilych"), Ilych in his increasing agony is conscious that "he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no-one who understood or pitied him."[6]

The more intense the experience, the greater the exasperation can be ("It is impossible to say just what I mean!"), given our hunger at such times for instantaneous communication: "'But surely you know what I mean?' 'No, I don't know what you mean. I don't know what you're talking about!'"

We have had ample reminders in literature of the destructiveness of marriages in which one partner can never convey to the other how he or she feels.


There are always meaning-losses and leakages with respect to language.

Memories fade as one reads or listens, so that as the carpet unrolls in front of one, it partly rolls up behind

When we arrive at those five "Never's" in King Lear, we do not have in our heads everything that has preceded them, any more than we retain all of the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin by the time we see the close-up of the sabred bourgeoise.

There are limits, as E.D. Hirsch reminds us, to the precision with which we can retain the syntax of a sentence as it unfolds[7]; and to the length of a line of metred verse that one can retain as a line, a repeatable unit.

What we hear as we write—the pausings, the stressings, the tonality—can never be exactly what our readers hear. Nor, when we speak, will our auditors hear the same voice that we ourselves hear inside the resonating boxes of our skulls.

Before sound recording, no writer ever knew how he or she sounded when reading his or her work aloud, and it is obvious even now that many of those who do make recordings are very imperfect executants.


Language also has its peculiar puzzlements and bafflings, given what Camus calls our "nostalgia for unity," our "appetite for the absolute."[8]

Near the end of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, when Wormold's elaborate structure of fictions has been shown up for what it is, Beatrice tells him how, at the informal board of enquiry,

"Nobody got really touchy until the Service reports came up. There was one about disaffection in the [Cuban] Navy and another about refuelling bases for submarines. The Commander said, 'There must be some truth in these.'
"I said, 'Look at the source. He doesn't exist.' 'We shall look such fools,' the Commander said.

Far from words being weightless, we have an instinctive and very hard to shake disposition to feel that there must be some truth to them, that they must in some way correspond to something.

As Socrates says, "The awe which I always feel, Protarchus, about the names of the gods is more than human—it exceeds all other fears."[9]

In an anecdote that reveals more than he may have intended about his own procedures as a teacher of poetry, Stanley Fish has told us how one of his classes confidently explicated as a poem a cluster of names of scholars that had been left unerased on the blackboard from a previous class.[10]

The possibility that a collocation of words, like that which Tristan Tzara assembles from scraps of paper drawn from a hat in Tom Stoppard's Travesties, is not charged with meaning is peculiarly difficult to live with.

We seek automatically for some relationship, progression, and intention in it, in the spirit of Borges' Kabbalists who believe that nothing in a text could be other than what it is. We try, with the King of Hearts, to fill in, or flesh out, the poem in Alice in Wonderland that begins,

They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.


And we hunger for certainty—ultimately, the kind of certainty in which a mass of disparate phenomena come together in a small compass and can be controlled, like the dwindled, hold-it-in-your-hand, blue and white globe of space photographs.

As Camus says, "The mind's deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man's unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity."[11]

We feel that each "process word" we use as we write—"understand," "know," "communicate," etc.–should have a clear meaning, a real referent, an absolute antithesis.

We want language to condense into super-meaningful words—"real," "beautiful," "natural," "objective," "progressive," and so on—that we can use definitively when we praise or condemn something.

We desire words which, like those paper flowers in shells that opened up magically in our youth when put into a glass of water, are infinitely expandable into a whole true system of relationships out there.

Borges knew all about that sort of thing. So did Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos when he spoke of his earlier aspiration to decipher fables as "the hieroglyphs of a secret, inexhaustible wisdom."[12]


Hence our dreads and anxieties when language goes awry and doesn't "work" for us.

We are like the five-year-old (myself) who asked the workman whether he didn't burn himself with the blow-torch and was told straightfacedly, "No, I'm too green." (Grown-ups tell the truth, Bill is a grown-up, therefore he doesn't burn himself, therefore he must be green; but he isn't green!)

Or like Alice in one of her exchanges with the Mad Hatter when she "felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

Faced with Bernard Russell's famous illustrative statement "The present King of France is bald," we have the odd sensation that if we turn our heads suddenly we will catch sight of that figure whose existence we have somehow or other forgotten.

We go on being bothered by statements like "This is not a pipe," written below Magritte's painting of what surely (surely?) is a pipe.

Or "This is not a sentence."

Or the words—the only words—on a notice board in a Punch cartoon a good many years ago: "Do Not Throw Stones At This Board."

And of course there is that "giddy whirling" (Camus' phrase) induced by the arguings and counterarguings about statements like, "No Cretan ever tells the truth. I am a Cretan."

Or the even giddier ones induced by Mallarmé at his most elusive, as in "Un Coup de Dés," with its ostensibly high degree of physicality—waves, gulfs, etc.—that never coheres into a three-dimensional Gestalt.


The conflicting imperatives at work in such encounters can bring one to a state of paralysis verging at times on panic, and to a feeling of profound uneasiness about language, as if one had suddenly stumbled upon its real nature.

It is like the malaise that afflicts some of us each spring with respect to those most basic texts, the first four and the sixth letters of the alphabet.

Faced with one's inability to decide whether a particular freshman deserves a final mark of B- or C+—an inability that intensifies the longer one stares at the irregular pattern of marks in one's mark book—one starts dissolving into a welter of scepticism about reading, evaluation, and one's ability to know anything about anyone else’s mind.

And the harder one struggles, the worse it gets.

It is like what happens when you decide that you will be decisive—decisive!— and clear away the mess on you office desk.

What could be simpler than putting a piece of paper, a mere piece of paper, in a manila folder?

But inevitably you end up with a residue of items whose “essential” nature you cannot determine—is this a personal letter? a policy document? a piece of literary theorizing?—and back they go onto one's desk, to be brooded over again at the next tidying-up.

Nevertheless, we manage. We do not disappear into the abyss for ever.


When we talk about understanding or not understanding a word, a phrase, a piece of discourse, there is indeed a zero, such as when one says, "I don't understand Hungarian."

Faced with a text in Hungarian, one can do nothing with it; one cannot go on at all. Just as one cannot set the timer on one's new VCR because one doesn't understand the instructions.

But while the alternative to not understanding the instructions about the timer can indeed be a total understanding ("Aha! Now I see how to set it!"), one can understand Hungarian a little, or quite a bit, or a lot.

And when we say that we have trouble understanding a poem or what someone is saying to us, we are not saying that we don't have the equivalent of bilingual fluency in Hungarian, as if that were the only alternative to being totally ignorant.

We do not assume that because there is a spectrum of "better" and "worse" communication, there must therefore be perfect communication; and that in contrast to that, actual communication is not simply imperfect but valueless.[13]

Any more than we assume that if the brilliance of Torvil and Dean is one of the norms to which other figure skaters now aspire, anything less than such brilliance must be viewed in terms of a "loss" of worth.

And when we say emphatically, "I know he was at the party. I saw him there," we are not claiming that there's an absolute called knowledge, and that we have it, so that our statements must be believed.

We're not ruling out the theoretical possibility of hypnotism, memory lapses, brilliant impersonations, a mass conspiracy to deceive. As readers of detective fiction, science fiction, and the like, how could we?

We're saying that when we play back the party in our mind—the bodies, clothes, doings, and conversations—he keeps coming up there. Which is why maintaining a lie under intensive interrogation can be difficult.

If in fact we didn't talk to him, it can be very difficult to maintain the kind of multi-perspectival grasp of the occasion that will enable all the recalled facts and fictions to be consistent with each other.


And communicating goes on all the time. People understand what others are saying, and are enlightened, entertained, angered by it.

In Beckett's Happy Days, Winnie, buried up to her waist, tells Willie, sitting silent behind her, "[J]ust to know that in theory you can hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need, just to feel you there within earshot and conceivably on the qui vive is all I ask . . . ."

Plays like Waiting for Godot and Endgame are a succession of committed exchanges in relationships which, however thinned out and tenuous, persist and are maintained.

The dreadful families in Pinter's The Homecoming and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are linguistic communities in which the participants can only be fully alive when they are being verbally beastly to one another.

Even the novels of Sade, that philosopher of the body, are novels of people talking to each other—working at communicating and having their opinions and feelings known, understood, accepted, approved of.

And when one is having a leisurely, rambling, late-night phone conversation with an old friend, one doesn't ask oneself, "But are we really communicating?"

There may indeed be gulfs between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, but their communicatings, often unvoiced, provide some of the most moving passages in fiction:

Then, knowing that he was watching her, instead of saying anything she turned, holding her stocking, and looked at him. And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. He could not deny it. And smiling she looked out of the window and said (thinking to herself, Nothing on earth can equal this happiness)—
"Yes, you were right. It's going to be wet tomorrow. You won't be able to go." And she looked at him, smiling, for she had triumphed. She had not said it, yet he knew.

As Rousseau kept affirming, there is no happiness like that of a relationship in which one does not constantly have to conceal things or keep pulling back from boundaries that one knows one mustn't cross.

Anne Elliot's happiness with Captain Wentworth at the end of Persuasion is obviously of that order, as are the happinesses into which Shakespeare's couples exit at the end of the comedies after establishing a discourse of mutual respect and enjoyment.

So, presumably, was that of the newly married Cheyenne couples who, as recalled to the naturalist George Bird Grinnell, would lie awake all night talking.[14]

The philosopher-classicist Martha Nussbaum has noted "the perceived similarity between the responsiveness of lovemaking and the responsiveness of good conversation."[15] Even in Sade, characters work at establishing linguistic trust and a shared enjoyment of aesthetic and philosophical speculation, beyond the encounters of the body.

In contrast, we see in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin how a certain kind of romantic was inevitably in for a bitter disillusionment when the yearned-for blank of a spiritual union with a "beautiful soul" was replaced by minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day living together with a flesh-and-blood talking woman of limited education and intelligence.


In some ways, indeed, we are not isolated enough from others for our own comfort.

As Hamlet, that quintessential play of discourse, reminds us, if we labour at finding out truths about others, and at preventing them from finding out truths about ourselves, it is because such findings-out can in fact occur.

Part of our dread of exposure when we are being insincere comes from our consciousness of how easy it can be to read body-English, tones of voice, and other linguistic clues. "I'm terribly sorry!" one says—but one isn't, and it shows.

At times one may even want it to show. As one of the actors in the original production of The Homecoming said, "One thing this play is not about is non-communication. These characters know only too bloody well how to communicate."[16]


And we live all the time with acceptable loosenesses and oddnesses in discourse, just as we can live with an imperfect knowledge of French when we read Rimbaud or Villon with the aid of translations and dictionaries.

We do not feel in the presence of a mystery when we make our way through Valéry's "Le Cimitière Marin, " dictionary in hand, and find, when we look up the word "juste" in the lines

Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée!

that the following are all listed as meanings of the word: "Just, equitable, rightful, righteous; justifiable, permissible, fair, legitimate, lawful; proper, fit, apt, appropriate, apposite; right, true, accurate, exact; sound; well-fitting; tight."

Nor are we brought to a standstill by the formal identity of sentences like "I went out for an hour," "I went out for a drink," "I went out for a quart of milk," and "I went out for my wife's sake." When someone says that a former colleague of hers was a pig, we don't wonder whether he went "Oink! Oink!"

We can live with the fact that a courtroom verdict of "Not Guilty" does not necessarily mean that the person isn't guilty, and with the legal fiction that when a husband and wife go off a cliff in their car, the husband dies first.

Nor are we normally disturbed rationally by the fact that there is no innate connection between a word and the thing it refers to: that there is nothing innately bready about the English noise "bread" or the French noise "pain."

Any more than those small nineteenth-century American settlements—Cairo, Syracuse, Troy, Athens, etc.—somehow magically acquired some of the properties that their founders, with an eye on civic development, sought to confer on them.

And we are likely to nod approvingly when Mallarmé tells us that "the diversity of idioms on the earth prevents anyone from producing words which would bear the direct imprint of Truth incarnate. This is Nature's own proscription...."[17]

Part of our enjoyment of the Alice books is that by and large we ourselves know what to do with the rich variety of language puzzles that Alice is confronted with.


If language is ineluctably contextual and, outside of the limited jargons of science, the law, and so forth, multivalent, this is not cause for alarm.

On the contrary, it is what enables us to keep going, provided that we do not make the wrong demands or ask the wrong questions.

As Kathleen Mansfield said in a letter shortly before her death, "I am so sick of all this modern seeking which ends in seeking. Seek by all means, but the text goes on 'that ye shall find.' And although, of course, there can be no ultimate finding, there is a kind of finding by the way which is enough, is sufficient."[18]

We know what it means not only to work toward greater precision and limited closures but to achieve them.

We do not constantly construct equal-status, equal-value fictions.

Rather, we construct hypotheses which may require modification in the light of what we learn subsequently, or may be proven to be simply wrong, but which for the time being are all we have. In Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s words, "Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge."[19]

We tend, of course, when encountering a word or phrase in the course of a narrative to fill it in to the maximum.

When we read in the paper of something that makes our blood boil—"seventy-eight cases of child-abuse in a single month in a town of three thousand people"—we overleap the processes of discourse (allegations, interrogatings, proclaimings, etc) to physical facts that are simply "there," immediately and shockingly, before our mind's eye.

And we can be remarkably trusting with respect to people's powers of disinterested total recall, to judge from the frequent quoting of passages of “verbatim” dialogue by biographers and critics.

The tendency to fill something out is obviously part of an essential human programming.

If one is out hunting with a friend and he yells "Duck!" in a tone of pleasurable excitement, one immediately scans one's segment of sky. Likewise, if one is on a construction site and someone yells "Duck!", one does not start thinking about semantic ambiguities (or wish one had a shotgun), one ducks.

And one also fills out the words when one reads, for example, "I turned my head and saw a fin cutting through the water towards me," or "At the entrance to the innermost chamber of the tomb were two huge stone dogs."

Since childhood we have been acquainted with flesh-creeping shark stories, and we immediately locate below the fin a fearsome creature whose size and full configurations (Hammerhead? Great White?) we do not know but of which we fear the worst.

But the fin may turn out to have been that of a dolphin, and we do not feel any ontological malaise. Nor do we feel any if we subsequently learn or figure out that "dogs" should have read "gods"—that it was a typo or a copyist's error.

And given what's been established thus far in the narrative, and the presence of obvious typos earlier in the text, we may already have suspected something was wrong. Which is to say that we're aware that we're reading hypothetically and provisionally, and that hypotheses can be false.

The duck when we are out hunting may in fact be a pigeon, and the construction worker telling us to duck may have been making a fool of us.


Or take a more literary example,

Mallarmé's "Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire" opens with the words

Le temple ensevelis divulgue par la bouche
Sépulchrale d'égout bavant boue et rubis
Abominablement quelque idole Anubis
Tout le museau flambé comme un aboi farouche.

In the first Penguin selection of Mallarmé's work this is translated in prose as follows:

The buried temple gives forth by the sewer's sepulchral mouth, slobbering mud and rubies, abominably some idol of Anubis, the whole muzzle ablaze like a wild howl.[20]

The idea of a sewer in which a mixture of mud and rubies is flowing is problematical and disquieting.

In the physical world as we know it, what combination of circumstances could possibly result in such a conjunction?

Well, in his book Les "Tombeaux" de Mallarmé, Gardner Davies offers us at considerable length and in a way that seems to me both scrupulous and convincing in its attention to Mallarmé's linguistic habits a reading that leaves us contemplating an archeological trench leading down to the entrance of an Egyptian temple containing treasure, and the golden muzzle of a statue of the dog-headed god Anubis flaring in the light of a burning torch.

We have lost a mystery, as we have with Wesley Trimpi's argument that in Nashe's "Adieu, farewell earth's bliss," the line "Brightness falls from the air" in fact refers to the belief that comets presaged sickness.[21]

But the fragmentary, strobe-lighting effect of Mallarmé's poem is still there, as it is in the glimpses of the city prostitute in the second quatrain.

And the disagreeable associations of sewers, and the sense of problematic disjunctions and uncoverings—for this is a poem about Baudelaire, not about archeology—still remain and must be reckoned with; must still be adjusted to their subject, and to what is being communicated about it.

The shift in one's reading is not a total shift (the ghosts aren't there, the governess is mad and bad), but a partial shift and a recombining.


And again there is nothing ontologically disquieting about all this.

One hypothetical reading, in which "égout" simply translates as "sewer," has been replaced by another that feels a good deal more persuasive, and in keeping the differences between the final and the less metonymic earlier version of Mallarmé's "Le Pitre châtié."

This mode of reading seems to me radically different from the kind which assumes that the poet must be filling a term with the maximum meaning and thus laying him- or herself open to a rigorous challenge.

Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" opens with the words, "I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above."

Know? Foresee?

But when one says that one foresees disaster, or that one just knows that someone's going to be late, one is affirming a strong belief about the future, not claiming a supernatural prescience.

Yeats’s poem is about someone's imagined attitude toward the likelihood of his own death in the high-mortality aerial combat over the World War I trenches.


Some of the puzzlings and self-perplexings about figurative language seem a good deal overdone, too.

We do not begin with a base of literal language that is the "real" form of language, and then find ourselves contemplating the mysteriousness of other kinds of language and feeling under a compulsion to explain and defend them.

Discourse, the totality of discourse as we start entering it in infancy, is ineluctably figurative.

And the kind of academic philosopher who worries —or mimics worry—about how it is we can say that someone has a chip on his shoulder when he visibly doesn't, and who impatiently brushes aside the intimation that the phrase has a history (as do illogicalities like the colloquial "I could care less"), seems to me to be trapped in an As If game of his or her own devising.

We live and move and have our being in a world where we look into problems, and take up questions, and put off unwelcome tasks;

—where researchers have their various fields, and difficulties are highlighted, and people's viewpoints differ;

—where a promising-looking career turns out to be a flash in the pan, and irritating colleagues have chips on their shoulders, and we are on tenterhooks when we are waiting for an important decision;

—where the Crown prosecutes perjurers, and people on Sundays express the hope that they will receive their daily bread.

Even if we lose sight of what the words are literally saying until it's recalled to our attention ("'Dad, you've got a chip on your shoulder.' 'No I don't, he did behave badly—Oh, I see what you mean'," and he brushes off the traces of his carpentry), we still know the distinction between literalness and figurativeness.


And for the most part we know how to use such terms even if we don't know that the pan in that phrase is the pan next to the touch-hole of a flint-lock gun, or that a tenter (as I see from my dictionary) was, and for all I know still is, "a frame on which cloth is stretched after having been milled, so as to dry evenly without shrinking."

We are conscious of the difference between the somewhat immature having of a chip on the shoulder, and the more purposeful and risk-taking throwing down of the gauntlet.

In his invaluable discussion of English idioms, Logan Pearsall Smith reminds us, with abundant examples, how the function of idioms (so often figurative)

is to bring back ideas from the understanding to the sensations from which they were originally derived; to reincorporate them again in visual images, and above all in the dynamic sensations of the human body, its members, its attitudes and acts.

Even if we don't know that the phrase "taken aback" was "originally used of square sails suddenly pressed against the mast by a head wind,"[22] when we use it we are still describing an abrupt loss of momentum; and when someone else says, "I was really taken aback by her answer," our bodies recoil incipiently in sympathy.

And we are amused by mixed metaphors, such as Orwell's fascist octopus singing its swan song or the freshman whose eyes (by his own account) fell on his plate and roamed around the room.


We are aware that metaphors, like similes, involve comparisons—selective comparisons, not assertions of identity—and that metaphors in large part can be expanded into non-figurative comparisons.

("He was always alert, in a rather immature way, for occasions to take offense, like one of those nineteenth-century American kids who'd swagger around with a chip of wood on their shoulders and dare anyone to knock it off, with a fight ensuing if they did.")

We know how to translate—what points to select—when Gully Jimson in The Horse's Mouth recalls that it was "raining bayonets and fishhooks," and why it is highly unlikely that Cary considered writing "telescopes and toothbrushes."

No quasi-mystical assertion of identity is being made in such a phrase, or in Macduff's "What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam,/ At one fell swoop?"

With lightning speed we sense, or feel, or "see" the cardinal points in the comparison—the sharp, hard, driving-downwards of the rain, piercing one's clothes and bouncing up from the sidewalk; the merciless plunge of the falcon on its defenceless prey.

And when we are brought to a halt by a metaphor like Dylan Thomas’s “Turning a petrol face blind to the enemy,” it is because we can't see any points of resemblance, any more than we can when the White Knight tells Alice, "You see the wind is so very strong here. It's as strong as soup."

Moreover, analogical discourse may be more stable than ostensibly more precise speech, just as what may at first look like synecdoche ("I cried, 'A sail, a sail!") may in fact be a more accurate description of what went on.

One does not, at a great distance, see a brig or barquentine or ketch. One sees a single patch of whiteness or redness—"A sail!"

Likewise, a statement like "A rolling stone gathers no moss" is literally true, as well as being more effectively communicative than the elaborate and clumsy unpacking that would be required (as with the chip-on-the-shoulder statement) to translate it into a "literal" statement about someone.


Some mysteries simply go away as mysteries when we look at them more carefully.

Marlowe's puzzlement over what it was that kept the presumed cannibals on the riverboat from snacking off the unlovely whites with whom they are sharing it can be cleared up by straightforward cultural explanations that were unavailable to Conrad at the time.

And if one strains in vain for the sudden illumination in which the fragments composing a particular freshman are “there” in a way that tells one beyond question what mark that student deserves, this does not reveal our essential unknowability to one another and the impossibility of marking any student fairly.

One gives a lot of marks without anxiety, and some with pleasure, particularly to graduate students.

And this is not because one has a different kind of knowledge about them.

One simply knows more, recalls more, has more to go on: the student is more fully there for one as manifested in this long and intelligently witty paper, those seminar discussions, those private conversations, the opinions of colleagues.

One also has a clear enough sense of the rules of the game—of what a first-rate performance looks like, and how this particular student is likely to go on performing.

So that even though there is no innate connection between a performance and a letter of the alphabet, and though people may disagree strongly in their assessments, marking is still possible, and one can do it with reasonable confidence in one’s judgments.


Sometimes too, as Ezra Pound pointed out, the puzzle lies not in what is said but in why someone has said it.

Faced with the "Do Not Throw Stones At This Board" cartoon, one becomes drawn into the problem of what is—or might be—going on in someone's head as he or she paints those words on the board or directs someone else to do so and set the board up.

But one does not go all the way with alternative hypotheses (an English eccentric, a wit, etc).

Recognizing that the cartoon is meant to be funny, one as it were allows the board to sit there solemnly as the ultimate officious prohibition, capping admonitions like "No Loitering" and "Keep Off the Grass", with an agreeable kind of mysteriousness to its opacity and underlying illogic.


And if the Cretan paradox is disturbing, this is largely because of an odd ascription of magical powers to language.

Faced with an actual Cretan who said at dinner, “Cretans never tell the truth, you know,” one wouldn’t be bothered for a moment, any more than one would be if a Cypriot said, “Oh, you shouldn’t believe him! Cretans always lie!”

One would simply expand their statements into more literal ones.

But lurking in the professional philosopher’s use of the “Cretan” statement is the idea of a kind of science-fictional society in which “no one” ever tells the truth.

One could live with that idea too, at least if one didn’t think too closely about it. (“’Would you like some more wine?” “No thank you.” “I won’t give you any, then.” “Ugh, it tastes like horse-piss!’” etc, etc.)

But faced with the flat out-of-context statement, one has the nerve-jangling sensation of confronting a mysterious alien being (a Cretan/a Venusian/ a Cyborg) that simultaneously can never tell the truth, just as stones can never fall upwards, and yet is telling the truth, given what we’ve agreed to accept as the nature of his/her/its society.

Moreover, one partly wants the statement to be simltaneously true and false, just as one wants a conjuring trick to be “impossible” and yet happening before one’s eyes; wants the pane of glass to be a solid pane and the conjurer’s wand to be passing through it.

One wants the Cretan’s statement to be true of every other statement by him, so that a logical trap can then be sprung, like the trap the clever dwarf springs when he points out at the end of the awesome performance by the strongest man in the kingdom that there’s one thing in the palace that he can’t lift, namely himself. In effect, we’ve allowed the Cretan’s words to create that society.


But in doing so we were being too hasty, and were thinking of that society too much in our own terms.

In a society of straightforward linguistic substitutions and reversals, someone who said “No” when asked if he or she would like more wine would not be lying. Everyone would know what he or she meant, and he or she would be given more wine.

And if we try to hypothesize a society in which lying means successfully fooling others, a totally lying society would be impossible, both operatively and linguistically.

If wine could never even be called wine—as in “’Would you like some more feathers?” “No, I don’t like pebbles’”—nothing could have a real name at all, not wine, not feathers, not pebbles, and there couldn’t be either lies or truths.

The famous puzzle-statement, which boils down to “I never tell the truth,” belongs with other anomalies, such as the self-referential “This statement is a lie” or Gertrude Stein’s “A jack in kill her, a jack in, makes a meadowed king, makes a to let.” Which is to say, on the margin.

The clever dwarf’s intervention doesn’t affect the strong man’s ability to lift almost everything in the palace.


For the most part, weighted though such language-puzzlings may become in power-charged philosophy seminars or journals, we are concerned with how language does connect up with the world of flesh-and-blood individuals and actions, rather than with how it doesn't.

We are concerned to stabilize the world as we inhabit it; to reach out and grasp things.

When we are involved in giving marks, or in departmental or faculty legislating, we are engaged in a double reaching:

—reaching back toward the past and trying to vivify for ourselves how people behaved then and how we felt and judged them;

—and reaching forward, in imagination, to how people are liable to behave further down the road, ourselves included.

If it is harder to make decisions when one is tired, this is because it is harder to imagine or envision their consequences: what so-and-so will feel when he reads such-and-such a paragraph in a letter to him; what it will be like next year when one is looking for a document that one has filed in this folder rather than that.


Furthermore, if things go less than perfectly, this doesn't mean that they don't go at all.

Memories may be fallible—at times may virtually give out altogether—, and Beckett is entertaining about conflicting memories in The Old Tune:

GORMAN: Mrs. Cream must be a proud woman too to be a grandmother.

CREAM: Mrs. Cream is in her coffin these twenty years Mr. Gorman.

GORMAN: Oh God forgive me what am I talking about, I'm getting you wouldn't know what I'd be talking about, that's right you were saying you were with Miss Daisy.

CREAM: With my daughter Bertha, Mr. Gorman, my daughter Bertha, Mrs. Rupert Moody.

GORMAN: Your daughter Bertha that's right so she married Moody, gallous garage they have there near the slaughter-house.

CREAM: Not him, his brother the nursery-man.

GORMAN: Grand match, more power to you, have they children?[23]

But the two old codgers are not simply following separate and conflicting tracks, like the talking-together of young children.

Nor are they indifferent to the idea of truth, like various of Pinter's characters.

And we are not trapped in the kind of predicament created by the no-ghosts theories about The Turn of the Screw, wherein once one has decided that the narrator may be grotesquely in error, there is absolutely no way of telling which of her recollections are accurate.

Gorman and Cream are collaboratively re-assembling the past, with corrections, adjustments, and persisting differences, a process that they enjoy.

And Beckett stands with writers like Joyce, and Yeats, and Hardy, and Proust, as one of the great modern celebrators of recollecting and of the stabilizings in our mental present that it makes possible.


Even where recalled verbatim speech is concerned, one can have what feels like accuracy. "I was walking once with Wittgenstein," Leavis wrote forty years later,

when I was moved, by something he said, to remark, with a suggestion of innocent enquiry in my tone: "You don't think much of most other philosophers, Wittgenstein?"—"No. Those I have my use for you could divide into two classes. Suppose I was directing someone of the first to Emmanuel,"—it was then my college—"I should say: 'you see that steeple over there? Emmanuel is three hundred and fifty yards to the west-south-west of it.' That man, the first class, would get there. Hm! Very rare—in fact I've never met him. To the second I should say: 'You go a hundred yards straight ahead, turn half-left and go forty'... and so on. That man would ultimately get there. Very rare too; in fact I don't know that I've met him." Thereupon I asked, referring to the well-known young Cambridge genius (who was to die while still young): "What about Frank Ramsay?"—"Ramsay? He can see the next step if you point it out."[24]

That feels true.


Moreover, closures can be reached, whether in detective novels, or when a hacker tracks down information through a computer.

Closure can be reached with the context-specific mot juste, literary or otherwise.

When Edmund Burke, at the close of one of his perorations, threw down a dagger on the floor of the House of Commons, Richard Brinsley Sheridan enquired dryly, "Where's the fork?"

Marlowe finds the right words when he is out in the bush at night alone with Kurtz: "'You will be lost,' I said—'utterly lost'."

In psychiatry, the patient can experience a sense of release and relief when his or her words suddenly redefine something and get it "right": "No, I didn't love him. I hated him. He terrified me. I was glad when he died."

And in writing there are those times of free-flowing quick connectings when, as J.V. Cunningham puts it in "Coffee,"

Insight flows in my pen.
I know nor fear nor haste.
Time is my own again.


Some closures are irrevocable, too.

A tiny conjunction of movements by the tongue, the larynx, and the diaphragm, or the barest twitch of a finger, can be weighted with the gravest consequences, like the slip of a scalpel during an operation.

A single breathed "Yes" ("Did you sleep with her?") can wreck a marriage. A nod, the tiniest Judas movement of the eyes towards where the Resistance leader is hidden, can doom him or her to an appalling death.

Or someone can be saved.

At the climax of the trial in A Passage to India,

"The prisoner followed you, didn't he?" he repeated....

"May I have half a minute before I reply to that, Mr. McBryde?"


[Adela's] vision was of several caves. She saw herself in one, and she was also outside it, watching its entrance, for Aziz to pass in. She failed to locate him. It was the doubt that had often visited her, but solid and attractive, like the hills, "I'm not—" Speech was more difficult than vision. "I am not quite sure."

"I beg your pardon?" said the Superintendent of Police.

"I cannot be sure..."

"I didn't catch that answer." He looked scared, his mouth shut with a snap. "You are on that landing, or whatever we term it, and you have entered a cave. I suggest to you that the prisoner followed you."

She shook her head.

"What do you mean, please?"

"No," she said in a flat unattractive voice.


And it is because closures are possible that further openings up are possible.

Let me offer a penultimate paradigm, in the spirit of Forster's distinction between mysteries and muddles.

One can feel bewilderment, anxiety, terror almost, when confronting one's first VCR so that it will record a programme later in the day.

The control panel is an undifferentiated blur. So is the instruction manual: which page, which heading deals with this matter?

One is afraid of making errors that will disrupt everything—losing channels, blurring reception, etc.

Slowly one identifies the buttons, in a back-and-forthing between coloured three-dimensional protuberances and skeletal black-and-white illustrations, with the aid of explanatory red lines and print.

And one presses buttons in sequence, and sets off mysterious clicks, whirrings, red lights, lit-up numbers.

But it doesn't work. The persons on the screen, so solidly and talkatively "there," vanish and are replaced by entirely different ones—or by blankness.

And one feels a growing bafflement and despair when each time one follows the sequence (as one thinks) correctly, and each time the desired image does not appear when one presses the "Play" button.

(Is one misremembering the instructions? Are the instructions wrong? Is the set defective? Is one fated to have a defective set?)

One fights against the clock—1.25 pm, 1.38 pm, etc., with 2.30 pm drawing inexorably closer. It seems possible that one will simply lose part of the future—that the programme will not be there to look at later (gone irrevocably, given the badness of one's memory).

One feels anguish, because this is the last programme in a series that may never be repeated. And a sense of guilt: one was given this magical power, and one’s blown it.


These anxieties, these problems with respect to signs, perception, interpretation, memory, etc., are not groundless.

The robot has its own inflexible laws. There are no short cuts.

But closure is in fact possible (a friend identifies over the phone the single “small” error that one has been making), and finally the programme is there, miraculously, on the tape.

One now knows something about how to use a VCR—not everything, but something.

And in consequence there are new possibilities and futures there with respect to what programmes to record, what tapes to preserve, and so forth.

Reality—one's relationship to past and future—has significantly altered: altered via language and the referentiality of language.

Wittgenstein's "Now I know how to go on" does not mean that everything's now clear and one keeps doing the same thing. It means that one sees how to go on with respect to that difficulty and task, and that as a result one can do further things.


We do indeed hunger for instantaneous understanding and perfect knowledge; it would have been nice to be able to work the new VCR immediately.

And in his story "The Aleph," Borges unforgettably embodies the idea of perfect unmediated knowing.

In the dark cellar of a fellow writer's house, Borges-the-narrator is permitted to see the Aleph,

the only place on earth where all places are—seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. . . .— the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo.[25]

But the experience is both unendurable and incommunicable, and Borges-the-narrator recoils back into the complexities, ironies, and lacunae of the “ordinary”world.

Likewise in Heart of Darkness, for all the talk about mysteries and incommunicability, we in fact see Marlowe knowing something very well, namely how to navigate a steamboat up a treacherous river with the kind of skill encapsulated in Towson's Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship.

He does not know the Congo to anything like the extent to which Mark Twain's riverboat pilots knew the Mississippi. But the difference is only one of degree.

There is nothing mystifying about the extraordinary, the really marvellous skills described in Life on the Mississippi; and when Mr. Bixbee instructs his cub pilot, the young Sam Clemens, we know that he is successfully communicating his own knowledge and understanding of the immense river.


By the time Alice has made her way through her two dream kingdoms, she has acquired a considerable education in what to do when confronted with language puzzles—with non-sequiturs, faulty syllogisms, figurative statements taken literally, false etymologies, reversed homonyms, and so forth.

But the world of those kingdoms is not merely verbal. To be wrong in her dealings with language there can mean having her chin jammed permanently against her feet or her body grotesquely elongated, and being shut out for ever from the longed-for garden; just as reading a river wrongly can mean, for a navigator, bringing disaster upon his ship and those aboard it.

In the world of changing configurations and relationships through which we ourselves have to make our way, the ways in which language enables us to advance with a reasonable degree of confidence are a good deal more remarkable than those in which it fails us.

Selective Notes

[1] Richard Sheppard, “The Crises of Language,” in Modernism 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (Harmondsworth; Penguin 1976), p. 328.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” Ficciones, ed. and introd. Anthony Kerrigan (New York:Grove 1962), p. 47.

[3] Yvor Winters, Forms of Discovery: Critical and Historical Essays on the Forms of the Short Poem in English (n.p., Alan Swallow 1967), p. 303.

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Memoirs from a Dark Cellar," A Gentle Creature and Other Stories, ed., trans., and introd. David Magarshack (London: John Lehmann, 1950), p. 199.

[5] Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 58.

[6] Leo Tolstoy, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," trans Aylmer Maude, in Russian Short Stories (London: Faber, 1943), p. 198.

[7] E.D. Hirsch, Jr., The Philosophy of Composition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 122-3. On metre and memory, see Frederick Turner's Natural Classicism; Essays on Literature and Science (N.Y.: Paragon, 1985), ch. 3.

[8] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien (N.Y.: Vintage. 1955), p. 13.

[9] Plato, "Philebus," The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett (N.Y.: Random House, 1937), vol. II, p. 344.

[10] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 322-5.

[11] Camus, Myth of Sisyphus, p. 13.

[12] Hugo von Hofmannsthal, "The Letter of Lord Chandos," Selected Prose, trans. Mary Hottinger and Tania and James Stern, introd. Hermann Broch, Bollingen Series XXXIII (N.Y.: Pantheon, 1952), p. 131.

[13] In his fascinating The Nature and Art of Workmanship, paperback ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), David Pye points out that "Nothing has ever been square because nothing has ever been straight, nor has anything been flat, nor spherical, cylindrical, cubical," and goes on to observe:

...I do not think there can be much doubt how we have arrived at the idea of an absolutely flat surface where nothing flat exists. Whenever we make something 'flat' and find that it is not flat enough, we always find that by taking more trouble we can make it still flatter: or we have always been able to do so hitherto: and so we find it easy to imagine we are approximating to a perfect flatness where it is beyond our powers or patience to reach.
Unless we accept Plato's explanation and postulate a primordial inborn memory of ideal forms, our whole notion of geometrical perfection must have been built up by this sort of extrapolation. (Pp. 13-14)

[14] George Bird Grinnell, The Cheyenne Indians; Their History and Ways of Life, new introd. Mari Sandoz (N.Y.: Cooper Square, 1962 [1923]), p. 145.

[15] Martha Nussbaum, "Sex in the Head," NYRB, Dec. 18, 1986,, p. 49.

[16] "An Actor's Approach: An Interview with Paul Rogers," in John Lahr, ed., A Casebook on Harold Pinter's 'The Homecoming' (N.Y.: Grove, 1971), p. 155.

[17] Stephane Mallarmé, "Crisis in Verse," in T.G. West, ed. and trans., Symbolism (London: Methuen, 1980), p. 5.

[18] Katherine Mansfield, July 17, 1922, in The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield, ed. C.K. Stead (London: Allen Lane, 1977), p. 269.

[19] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., q. Otto Friedrich, "Upside Down and Vice Versa," Time, March 16, 1987, pp. 69-70.

[20] Anthony Hartley, ed., introd., and trans., Mallarmé (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 91.

[21] Wesley Trimpi, "The Practice of Historical Interpretation and Nashe's 'Brightnesse falls from the ayre'," JEGP, 66, Oct. 1967, 501-518.

[22] Logan Pearsall Smith, Words and Idioms; Studies in the English Language (London: Constable, 1925), pp. 276, 192.

[23] Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber, 1984), p. 184.

[24] F.R. Leavis, "Memories of Wittgenstein," The Critic as Anti-Philosopher; Essays and Papers, ed. G. Singh (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), p. 104.

[25] Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph," in The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969, ed. and trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in collaboration with the author (N.Y.: Bantam, 1971), pp. 10-11, 12.


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