The Latent Possibility of Pure Language

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’

It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.

This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”

“The entire species of the verb may be reduced to the single verb that signifies to be. All the others secretly make use of this unique function, but they have hidden it beneath a layer of determinations: attributes have been added to it, and instead of saying ‘I am singing’, we say ‘I sing’; indications to time have been added, and instead of saying ‘before now I am singing’, we say ‘I sang’; lastly certain languages have integrated the subject itself into their verbs, and thus we find Romans saying, not ego vivit, but vivo. All of this is merely accretion and sedimentation around and over a very slight yet essential verbal function, ‘there is only the verb to be . . . that has remained in this state of simplicity’. The entire essence of language is concentrated in that singular word. Without it, everything would have remained silent, and though men, like certain animals, would have been able to make use of their voices well enough, yet not one of those cries hurled through the jungle would ever have proved to be the first link in the great chain of language.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

It doesn’t get enough recognition, this brilliant and beautifully written work (sadly there is no translator credited), amidst Foucault’s better known books. I’m reading a Routledge reprint, but have tracked down a first translation into English and will credit a translator if included in that edition.

“Strangely enough, man — the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates — is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things, or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of knowledge. Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all the facile solutions of an ‘anthropology’ understood as a universal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical. It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

“I know that knowledge can transform us, that truth is not only a way of deciphering the world (and maybe what we call truth doesn’t decipher anything) but that if I know the truth I will be changed. . . . Or maybe I’ll die but I think that is the same anyway for me. . . . You see, that’s why I really work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience.”

—Michel Foucault, The Minimalist Self, 1982 interview by Stephen Riggins, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984

Rereading The Waves

This is what she does so well: “what is the use of painfully elaborating these consecutive sentences when what one needs is nothing consecutive but a bark, a groan?” Conventional narratives fail to give any genuine sense of life itself, with its flow of associations, impressions, memories, its subliminal, discordant orchestration that pierces our moment to moment existence.  Woolf gets close in The Waves, maybe the closest of any writer to capturing the intersection of sensation, thought and other people. Imposing artificially coherent structure is part of our myth-making, our fear of apparent chaos. In place of complexity and mutation, we seek simplification and artificial beauty. “How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground!”

Part of the lie of rational narrative is this falsified sense of identity. As Bernard argues in The Waves, he is expected to be a “certain kind of man”, but of course there are “many Bernards . . . I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”

Give me rupture, fragmentation, allow me to perform in the sense that I use my own interpretive failure to finish making a story, to fully appreciate the “mystery of things”.

I listened also to the Foucault episodes of Philosophize This! The third (episode 123) is very good, especially in its discussion of Bentham’s panopticon as a model for how we internalize constant surveillance. This seems also true of popular fiction with its apparent unique access to character’s private thoughts and lives, a superior position that enables us to identify with the watcher or narrator. Woolf denies her reader this superiority by not offering readers this higher perspective.

Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.