Marginalia, no.106

Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking: he had his own ideas and peculiar ways.  If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; Abraham, Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler.  After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water.  ‘I’m fainting, please get me a little water.’  You were lucky even then to make yourself understood.

~ Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

Montaigne somewhere reminds us that “we can misuse only things which are good.”  Language is misused for the same reason most things are: because the pleasures of bad grammar beat the pleasures of good.  I wonder if the abuses of language don’t generally tend toward solipsism, the temptation to isolate oneself or to push others away.  You may end up incomprehensible to anyone but yourself, of course, but masturbation has always been a private pastime.


Filed under Marginalia

8 responses to “Marginalia, no.106

  1. M

    I remember this passage quite well from Bellow’s novel. Here’s my marginalia, written when I was reading Bellow for the first time, and also grappling (floundering, to be more precise) with nascent ideas about literary theory: Wilhelm is paralyzed by his understanding of language, by the knowledge that words depend upon other words for definition; how one person understands a word can be understood in a different way by another person; words themselves are nothing but signifiers for what is being signified; the word “cat” is not cat; and a glass of water cannot even be talked about without first understanding everything that a glass of water isn’t.

    Glad to have found your blog, and your marginalia!

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Drunk on Saussure, were you?

  3. elberry

    essential viewing

  4. Ian Wolcott

    Funny, Elb – I nearly put that link in my last comment too. I’d never seen the video before. It’s not my favorite Magnetic Fields song – that might be ‘Chicken with Its Head Cut Off’ or ‘Fido, Your Leash is Too Long.’

  5. I tend to enjoy really well crafted private languages. Joyce has his own language, and it’s still spoken by Joycean reading and writing clubs all over the world (any good city with an Irish population has at least one of these clubs, and the main activity is often drinking, making everything much more engaging). Lewis Carroll created an interesting language, too—although if you’re familiar with some of the other experiments in mathematics and language launched in his time, he doesn’t seem nearly as startling, kind of a watered down Bertrand Russell. The ultimate experiment in private linguistic invention has got to be Raymond Roussel, whose French would have remained utterly inpenetrable to me if it weren’t for Foucault’s book, Death and the Labyrinth.

    • Ian Wolcott

      I think you make a good point, TOG. Maybe there’s a distinction to be drawn somewhere between private languages that have an open door policy and a welcome mat out front – and those that don’t.

  6. elberry

    i often think that Lit Theory (Judith Butler etc) is somewhat Joycian, in that you can happily read it for the aura of associations around certain words, in a vague trance-like state – for about a paragraph (after that it grows stale). i guess the difference is that Joyce doesn’t pretend, in Finnegans Wake, to be writing “scientific” non-fiction, whereas Butler et al. do.

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