Intransparency of Human Language


“Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language. Thus all understanding is always t the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence.”

—Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Humboldt: ‘On Language’. (trans. Peter Heath)

Dare to Be Wise

“Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [dare to be wise] . . .

It is because of laziness and cowardice that so great a part of humankind, after nature has long since emancipated them from other people’s direction, nevertheless gladly remains minors for life, and that it becomes so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me.”

—Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy. (trans. Mary J. Gregor)

It is worth seeking out Kant’s answer to the question, “What is Enlightenment?” which appeared in the December 1784 issue of Berlinische Monatsschrift. It also brings to mind Primo Levi’s warning that “our personality . . . it is in much more danger than our life.”

The Only Reading That Deserves the Name

Part of this interview, on reading, resonated deeply, though the entire interview is extraordinary, as is Handke’s To Duration.

“PH: One’s manner of reading changes throughout life. I believe that I’ve only now reached a point where I’ve really learned to read. Or at least that I’ve realized how I used to read. Not even when I was reading Stifter could I really read. It was often … for example, Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Hölderlin’s Hyperion: I read them at the wrong time, I didn’t understand anything of them, and I also didn’t understand, as Ludwig Hohl says, that different authors have different reading speeds. The reading speed I had earlier was much different than the one I have now, which I think is really the one that suits me best. I now only want to be able to, to be allowed to read slowly.

HG: And you write this way as well. That brings to mind: one student found this slow tempo an imposition: how at the beginning of Slow Homecoming, with these long sentences, you force this slowness onto the reader, like in a Wagner opera.

PH: I can understand that very well. At twenty I probably would have stopped reading after two sentences.

HG: Yes, one can only either stop reading or fully give oneself over to it. But to superficially take it in, ‘informative reading’, as it’s called, that doesn’t work.

PH: Nor in the evening before going to sleep, reading in bed, that doesn’t work at all.

HG: Carefully reading a few sentences, that works. But so quickly…

PH: You also can’t force anyone to do anything. You can’t say: you must read at this precise speed.

HG: But otherwise it doesn’t work; one has to read at that tempo.

PH: But I really can assure anyone, if they give it a try, if they want to and are able to read so slowly, they’ll get something out of it.

HG: Yes, then and only then. And that shouldn’t be a reproach!

PH: I have a great need: not simply to read slowly, but rather to slow myself down through reading. But it’s more than that. If it doesn’t work that way, then I lose all pleasure in reading. When I start scanning again, devouring the pages like I used to, then I start to feel my limbs and extremities becoming cold – which is for me a physical sign, when I get cold – only the cheeks remain hot. Then I know that I’m not reading correctly, or that the book’s not the right one for me. But then when everything becomes warm: the heart, the mind, the senses, out to the smallest fingertips; when I also stall – not falter: when I’m able to stall, to pause, then my reading is an all-embracing perception, then it’s … then out of this self-immersion there arises a vision, a completely natural, logical vision of the outermost world (not just the outer world). For me that’s just … it’s completely organic … for me that’s the only way it works with certain things – so that I can ponder them, pore over them. Although there are moments of longing for the old speedy ‘page-turner’ reading – not ‘longing’: rather nostalgia for the page-turner era. Then one puts away the Hölderlin poem, or whatever ancient text, and one picks up something by an author like Simenon, and for a while it’s like being in a speedboat. But for the duration (and I say that expressly: for the duration), the other kind of reading – the reading I have now learned, have now acquired – is the only kind that deserves the name.”

With thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for pointing towards this superb interview: The Sun of Words, excerpts from Aber ich lebe nur von den Zwischenräumen, an interview between Herbert Gamper and Peter Handke.

Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.


Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.