Friday, August 17, 2007

On a Line from Faulkner

"Memory believes before knowing remembers." This line from the opening of Chapter 6 in Faulkner's Light in August made an indelible impression on me when I first read it in my 20s back in the 1960s. As the years went by, though, my mind played a trick on it. I changed a word in the passage and kept quoting it that way whenever the discussion seemed appropriate for bringing it up. I changed the word "believes" to "knows," so that in my mind and in my spoken words the passage became "Memory knows before knowing remembers." For some reason this struck me as an incredibly profound flip-flop between knowing and remembering.

To this day I am not entirely sure what my version really means. How can memory know something that knowing doesn't remember. Or, rather, know something that knowing will only catch up with later. "Before knowing remembers" clearly implies that knowing will remember also what memory already knows. But, of course, I wasn't remembering the quote right at all. For "[m]emory believes before knowing remembers" is not the same. Here something hypothetical comes before certain knowledge. Again, it seems that perhaps certain knowledge will or can catch up to what memory "believes," but the belief comes before knowing.

So what is the significance of this? I have taken the line out of context on purpose. It seems to me that there is something truly useful for us all in the passage. Don't we all have memories that may, in fact, be altered by time in our consciousness? And doesn't the belief that what we remember is what really happened then alter the subsequent knowledge we retain of whatever the memory happens to be? Perhaps the first time we fell in love? Perhaps the first kiss? Perhaps the heartbreak of unrequited love? Or, as in the novel itself (and this is its context) a version of the "primal scene"?

There is just something unforgettable about the idea that our memories believe things that we can't even knowingly acknowledge. If that's what the line means. In any case, I would be curious to know if any of my readers (should there be any) would tell me something about how the passage strikes them. Whether they read Light in August as well, and - if so - whether the line made an impression on them, too, that they just can't seem to shake.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Recycled Words

The subject for this post maybe slightly misleading. I want to say a few words about titles of books that are actually quotations, in this instance from two poems by Wallace Stevens.

From "Sunday Morning" we get On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems (1969). This book by Helen Hennessy Vendler deals with Stevens' poetry, as its subtitle clearly indicates. Death is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism (1987). This book by Mark Turner is, according to its "Foreword" by George Lakoff, "a truly interdisciplinary" study of the way the human mind works by means of metaphors. The book shows, says Professor Lakoff, "that the study of the literary mind is an integral part of the study of the mind in general."

From "The Idea of Order at Key West" we get Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (1975). As the subtitle indicates, this book by David Tracy addresses itself to the study of theology, more particularly to the new ways in which religious language can be seen to correspond with our general human experiences in life.

These recycled words have always fascinated me. They certainly make the books in the titles of which they are used enticing. And the books themselves - certainly the ones I just mentioned above - are worthy of the great poems from which they have been taken. I have a hunch that only Shakespeare's words have generated more titles than Wallace Stevens' poems. In addition to titles, Shakespeare's words have also given us common expressions the origins of which many people may not even know. Two such expressions come to mind for me at this moment, "a foregone conclusion" and "misery acquaints one with strange bedfellows."

There is a sense, of course, in which all words are recycled, since they are used over and over again every time we speak or write, but there is a special place in our language for words that become titles or common expressions by being taken from works of literature. I can't imagine life without literature. Poems or plays, stories or novels, even movies make an impressive contribution to the way or ways in which we enrich our understanding of what we as human beings are all about, or about the way or ways in which we create our communal or individual realities.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What About Helen Keller?

A friend of mine, Danial McCasoway - the author of Letters from Eden - upon reading my second post here, about Saussure's contention that a word to be meaningful needs both the signifier (sound/image) and the signified (the concept), mentioned Helen Keller. He recognized the fact that Helen Keller could not have access to the sight or sound of words, that she needed a substitute, which in her cases turned out to be touch.

Helen Keller's example gives us a strong case for the fact that in some sense language does indeed create reality. Her account in her autobiography is a deeply moving recollection of a pivotal moment in her life: her discovery that "Everything [has] a name" and that "each name [gives] birth to a new thought."

People who haven't read her autobiography will undoubtedly have seen The Miracle Worker (1960), the classic movie which depicts the moment at the water fountain where the young Helen realizes that the water flowing over one of her hands is "w - a - t - e - r" as it is spelled into her other hand by her teacher.

Helen Keller's case is such a moving example of how the "mystery of language was revealed to" her in that unforgettable moment that the movie was made two more times, as a made-for-TV movie in 1979 and in 2000. In the 1979 version Patty Duke, who originally played Helen Keller, plays Helen Keller's indefatigable teacher, Ann Sullivan.

The fact that Helen Keller had overcome the two main obstacles in the acquisition of language, for she had neither sight nor sound, testifies to humanity's infinite capacity for overcoming odds, and for the miracle of language to do its magic in spite of it all.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"That which we call a rose . . . "

In my first post here I put forth the idea that - in some sense - language "creates" reality. It does not, of course, actually turn things into things, if you will. It's just that we need the names for things in order to see them as such, in order to see them for what they are.

A good way to see this is to recall a child asking, say, her father questions like "What's that?" The child is usually satisfied when he or she is told the name of the thing. "That's a horse, my son," as the case may be. Thereafter the child knows what a horse is. Language works like that, kind of.

Now Juliet's famous remark about the sweet smell of a rose regardless of its name is not as innocent as it may seem. She is arguing with herself against seeing Romeo as her personal enemy, when it's just his family name that's supposedly an enemy of her family's name. She would rather that Romeo renamed himself. That way their love would have no obstacles in its way. Wish things were that easy.

The fact is that we can't just rename things. And the reason why is itself interesting. Ferdinand de Saussure made a significant dual contribution to linguistics. His first is the definition of the linguistic sign, and his second is an assertion about it.

He defined the linguistic sign - the word - as consisting of two elements, a signifier (sound/image) and a signified (concept). Now these two elements are both within the linguistic sign, to put it this way. In other words, the signifier is not by itself the word. And the signified is not the thing the word names out there in reality. No, for a word to be meaningful, it needs at once to be both a signifier and a signified, combined.

Here's an example: The word "tree" consists of the letters I just spelled out. In this case this is the "image" of the word (the signifier), because it is written (if I had spoken it, it would have been the word's "sound"). For an English-speaking person to understand the word, he or she needs to have - always already - its concept (the idea of a tree) as well as its sound/image (the spoken or written form of the word).

When you hear a foreign language that you don't understand, you don't understand it because you don't know the concepts the sounds/images carry with them. You understand your own language because you have learned which sounds or images go with what concepts. Clear?

Now here is the whammy: Saussure has also put forth the idea that the connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary! There is no reason why the concept "tree" should have "tree" as its sound/image! If the connection between the signifier and the signified were "natural" rather than "cultural," we would all speak the same language! To learn a language is not just a matter of learning its sounds, but to also learn the "concepts" (the meanings) that go with each of its sounds. I hope that this is clear, too.

But there is more: once the connection between the signifier and the signified has been "established," it becomes conventional. And you can't break it! That's why a rose is a rose is a rose, and not some other name. Sure, it would look and smell the same no matter what its name happened to be, but once its name is rose, it's rose, period.

Steven C. Scheer

Monday, July 16, 2007

Does Language Create Reality?

Many years ago, when I taught my comp courses, I used to emphasize the idea that language creates reality. Students resisted this, even though I gave them the following "choices" to consider carefully:

Things are what we say they are!


Things are what we say they are!

The second version, with the emphasis on "say," would sum up the "Creative Theory" of language. As opposed to the "Expressive Theory," which assumes that the names given to all things - material as well as immaterial - already have the names we give them. This commonsensical view is totally erroneous. For one thing, as Ferdinand de Saussure, the famous linguist and the father of structuralism has pointed out, if words were "natural" rather than "cultural," we would all speak the same language.

In a sense we do all speak the "same" language, but different languages use different words with which to create the things and ideas the words name. The English "tree" is "Baum" in German and "arbre" in French, and so on with each different language.

So when we realize that language creates reality, we recognize the difficult to accept fact that it is through and by means of words that we see and understand (or even misunderstand) what we call "reality."


In other blogs here I shall keep exploring the many ways in which "words matter" in our lives. I shall throw light on poetry and prose (fiction, too), as well as movies - because I do consider movies to be part of literature. More of all this later.