Introduction to Literary Theory: ENG- 102-01
Prof. Madhavi Menon
10th December 2015
Lost in Language
The Voices in my head are in an attempt to reach out to the Voices in your head, through the medium of language. This medium I talk of, is highly over rated. So much so, that we’ve failed to see how it has limited us. I am in no way undermining the importance of language. Instead, what I’m asking is for us to be critical about the fact that we’re working within a pre-determined structure, where the basic assumption is that you are able to understand what I’m saying. In that sense, all language is a translation of the Voices in our head, for the benefit of the other. But in the process, we compromise on so much because: maybe the other person won’t understand, for whatever reason, or maybe we can’t say it in a way that does justice to what we want to say, or maybe we ourselves don’t know how or what it is that we want to say. Translating our thoughts into language gets replaced by using language to construct our thoughts in language. What is meant to convey what we think (language), in turn becomes a way for us to think. No matter how well this process of translation is, something is always lost.
Every time we attempt to “find the right word”, we are already talking in substitutes. Before the words come out (in speech or in writing) there is always a pause, a moment of quick choice– of one word over the other, one way of saying/writing it over another. In between what we want to say and what we say, there is so much that is lost and gone. It is ironic that language is said to be the expression of oneself, but language itself becomes a limitation.
Many times I’ve heard people say that they think in a particular language. I would argue that the “thinking language” is just Voices in our head. These Voices don’t know a coherent language. Instead, they are in the state of thought, not yet transformed into what we call language. It is not the unconscious I’m hinting at, where Freud would say our unknown desires lie. The realm of the Voices is very much conscious, except a step further (not literally a movement forward, but something denser). This consciousness is also aware of the helplessness. The helplessness of never fully being able to say what we want to say. Before understanding the Voices in our heads (our inside world), let us look at the language that we let out into the outside world. By language, I mean the words we use to express our thoughts, ideas, or emotions. These are what manifest out of us, in the form of speech or writing.
Ferdinand de Saussure argued that there is no substance in language. He said that it “exists only by virtue of a sort of contract by the members of the community” (Saussure 59). If we collectively decide that a particular thing will be called by a particular name, it eventually becomes that. For this to be possible, nothing else should be called by the same name. “Language is a system of independent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of others” (Saussure 66). Here, the simultaneous presence of the others is vital for the term to have its value. If a horse has to be a horse, nothing else should be a horse. All the other terms around it pour value into the term ‘horse’, by not being ‘horse’ themselves.
Jacques Derrida took Saussure’s ideas further and claimed that units of language are generated by differences. He says that “all elements of language have identity only in so much as they are produced by a network of differences, and each element will itself consist of further differentiations” (Derrida 278). We have seen how the elements are produced by a network of differences (for the horse to be a horse, nothing else can be a horse). Now, let us look into what he means by “each element will itself consist of further differentiations”. It suggests a sort of fragmentation of one element, where the meaning is distributed to all fragments, and when we attempt to bring together all these fragments and attach a whole meaning to it, the other fragments (and their little meanings) are automatically lost.
Let’s go back to the Voices in our heads. In a Derridean sense, the Voices, to an extent, can be seen as traces of what we want to say, the traces that will never fully present themselves, hence leaving our language incomplete. I say “to an extent”, because the Voices are further incomplete in themselves to be traces. To understand the Voices, we need to move into a realm of the unspoken, where everything is messy, jumbled, and unstructured. It is difficult to speak of an unspoken realm, precisely because it will repel any form of understanding we pretend to attach to it. Let us still go ahead and do it, because looking at the nonsensical will help us to make sense of the “sensible”.
Jacques Lacan probes the unconscious to discover the structure of language. He talks of a lost unity that is unattainable. It is similar to the incompleteness I am hinting at. According to him, “something like a bar separates our conscious yearnings from the unconscious. Our desire is motivated by the unconscious and by unconscious residues, but desire must remain in the realm of consciousness. It latches on to objects that can signify the unconscious but only as something inaccessible” (Lacan 447). If we try to picture this: the conscious desire for the unattainable unconscious desires is separated by a bar. We’ve all, in some way or the other, explored the unconscious (though it keeps repelling any kind of understanding) and the conscious. What we haven’t tried exploring is the bar that separates the two. It would be simplistic (and even problematic) to imagine these temporally, and say that there’s the unconscious on one side and the conscious on the other and the bar in between. These are metaphysical elements we are working with, and hence any attempts to pin them down spatially or temporally would be futile. I want to explore the bar, but I am not sure if it can be located. I cannot be sure of whether it’s in the middle of consciousness or unconscious or a step further from consciousness. It is more of a state: a state where we are conscious of the helplessness of being conscious.
Consider this anecdote to illustrate my point better:
When I was in grade 12, my uncle passed away. I wrote a story dealing with the concepts of death and loss, as I had seen them in and around my family. I felt the pain, not directly but when I looked at my aunt, or her children: the family I grew up with. It was hard to write that story, not because I couldn’t find the words, but because every word I used felt like a void. Like I was belittling what had happened. I realized that generating the same emotion through words, was not an easy task. The kid in my story loses his mother, and I wanted to say that his ‘khwaahish’ was to have a family. I ended up translating it as ‘yearning’, because the story was in English, and obviously the readers wouldn’t understand had I thrown a word from another language. But I could never tell anyone how it felt so, so wrong. Of course they mean the same thing. But to me, they said different things.
‘Khwaahish’ resonated with the Voices in my head; the feeling I attempted to bring about, more than ‘yearning’ did. But for a person who doesn’t understand Urdu, the closest I can get her to understand what I have to say is by translating it into a language she can understand. What’s more interesting is that, in my own head, the word ‘khwaahish’ may not do justice to what I want it to mean. It may be the closest to it, and still not it. At the end of the day, the story will mean different things to different people, depending on how it speaks to their Voices. All I can do is pick and choose words, to translate what I felt into words and hope that the words will translate into similar feelings in the reader.
Why something speaks to the Voices more than something else is out of my understanding. What I do know is this: It’s not just about the words. There is something more to language, which is undermined. There is the ‘letter’ of a letter and then there is the ‘spirit’ of the letter (Lacan). The ‘letter’ exists in language, and the ‘spirit’ or the essence I’m talking about, might lie in the Voices in our head. While words have meanings (that we attach to them) and they fit into boxes of a slang or a dialect, the Voices do not. Voices in one’s head may not react in the same way as the Voices in another’s. Twenty pages of ink on paper might not do to you what one word does. A word might speak a lot to me while it might be just another word for you. Sometimes, what is not said says more than what is.
The novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys deals with this realm of the unspoken. It hints towards that which is not said, but eludes to its presence nonetheless. There is a mystifying trail that gives one the impression of leading them somewhere, but that somewhere never arrives. In fact, as the reader goes along, the trails themselves keep shifting, and merging into each other. In the beginning of the book, the protagonist, Antoinette says “the music was gay but the words were sad and her voice often quavered and broke on the high note. ‘Adieu’. Not adieu as we said it, but a dieu, which made more sense after all” (Rhys 7). What does it mean for one ‘adieu’ to make more sense than another ‘adieu? It is precisely this: the function of the word is limited to its expression. What happens after that is what the Voices do. The word ‘adieu’ becomes much more than those five letters. It becomes a signifier for a lot of things that only some people’s Voices will tell them—their memories, their people, their feelings. So what this one word does is to bring about a plethora of Voices, saying different things in different peoples’ minds. Of course, for others, it will be just ‘adieu’, to say goodbye.
“Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness” (Rhys 58). The bar (which is more like a tunnel) stores these Voices together, like a bunch of elements all mixed up. Hence, the same Voices that generate so much meaning, also hold the power to restrict it. They speak to you, but they also hide themselves from you. They become as indecipherable to you, as they are to someone else. Antoinette’s words, like most of us at some point, carry a sense of incompleteness, of not being understood, not being accepted. She says “I wish I could tell him that out here is not at all like English people think it is. I wish…” (Rhys 16). Those three dots and she stops. She can’t explain what she wishes for. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wishes for, or maybe she does but doesn’t know how to say it. The foreign world outside stands as a limitation to her inside world. The confrontation of her inner world, with the outside world, leaves senselessness lurking all around, neither of the worlds being able to accept or understand the other. “You don’t know anything about me” (Rhys 48), she tells her husband (and probably the readers too). “None of you understand about us” (Rhys 14), she says again and again. So there’s no point, really. We should stop trying and let her be.
The Voices have now moved from presenting a version of meaning, to hiding it or even creating one. This happens when we realize that no amount of words will do justice to what we have to say, so we pour in more and more meaning or decide that it is better to not say it at all. How often we gulp in our words for the fear of giving away too much, or too little or something very different from what we actually mean? Antoinette’s husband asks a question that we all might have asked ourselves: “How old was I when I learned to hide what I felt?” (Rhys 64). I don’t know how old I was. It seems like a process that comes and goes. Sometimes, I express too much, or nothing at all. Both times, I know it’s somehow incomplete.
How then do we deal with language? On one hand, it gives us the basis on which to think about it, and on another, stands as a barrier to a world that cannot be explored. Christophene, another character from Wide Sargasso Sea, opens up a different aspect of language, when she says “Read and write I do not know. Other things I know” (Rhys 104). She says it to refer to her practice of obeah (black magic), but it can be read in multiple ways. Today, it is not necessary for us to know the same language as the other to be able to communicate. The evident differences in languages, cultures, dialects etc have been taken care of. We have better technology and newer ways of communicating with one another. My parents tell me that a few decades ago, once they moved out they would talk to their parents very rarely. They wrote letters that would be read months after they were written (I wonder if they were even relevant after so long). But us? We have moved to instant gratification. We have smart phones and social networking sites to keep in touch, all the time. The ideas of time and space have blurred, connecting people from all over the world. We can instantly let anyone know where we are, what we are doing, or how we feel.
It is at once ridiculous and intriguing that Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the year 2015 was a pictograph—an emoticon (taken from the word emotion and icon) of a smiley face with tears (signifying happy tears). Think about this: the word of the year, is not even a word (*wink face*). It clearly shows a shift in the way we have come to understand language. Body language, emotions, gestures, etc. have all become part of ‘language’. We are taking aspects from other spheres of life that would otherwise not come under language, and mixing them up in our daily communication.
Last week, I had to set an appointment with my professor. So I sent him an e-mail. He asked me whether a particular time suited me and I replied “Yes”. After I shut my laptop, I thought to myself that my reply was rude. In my head, adding a smiley ” 🙂 ” after that message would have been the proper thing to do. These days messages come off as rude when they don’t have smileys; people assume you are sad when you don’t use a lot of exclamations and question marks, and there’s definitely no love without the beating red heart (and all the other poor colorful hearts that don’t beat, for some reason).
To go back to our analysis, this shift can be seen as a way to speak to the Voices better. The Voices that don’t care about any particular language. You can simply impose more meaning through that one extra exclamation mark, or a smiley face, to let the other person know what you exactly mean. The assumption of knowing a particular language to be able to communicate with another is therefore challenged. Arguably, everyone, in every part of the world, can understand what a smiling face or a beating heart stands for. Or at least attempt to do so much more easily than picking up a new language.
What is happening here is that we, in our communication, have started attempting to communicate in terms of the Voices in our heads rather than the words in our mouths. That is to say, that a person who doesn’t know that a particular curve of lips is called a ‘smile’ or a ‘muskuraahat’ or ‘navvu’ or anything else in any other language, will still, to an extent, know what a smile “means”. Antoinette’s husband remarks about Christophene: “I can’t say I like her language” and Antoinette answers: “It doesn’t mean anything” (Rhys 53). It really doesn’t, because maybe Christophene doesn’t want to access this world of letters. Maybe she is happy in her world of the ‘spirit’ of the letter.
All these attempts to pour more and more meaning, only reinforce the idea that language inherently has no meaning. It is a blank slate for us to add whatever we like, generation after generation, building our own language. I wonder if there will ever be a point when we are able to express everything that we want to say, feel or think. I wonder if it is necessary to do so. Here are Jean Rhys’ words (through another character) while we struggle with these questions: “As for my confused impressions they will never be written. There are blanks in my mind that cannot be filled” (Rhys 46).
Derrida, Jacques. “Difference” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael
Ryan. Singapore: Blackwell, 2004. 278-299. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Instance of the Letter In the Unconscious or Reason since Freud”
Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Singapore: Blackwell, 2004. 447-461. Print.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 1977. Print.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed.
Julie Rivkin, Michael Ryan. Singapore: Blackwell, 2004. 59-71. Print.