Bathing in Language

I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
“Very simply too,” the man on the porch affirmed.
“So let me…”
“Have Korotkov come personally.”
“But I am Korotkov, comrade.”
“Give me your identification papers.”  (20) 
Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad

rooster.j.ryanI read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)

Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that  I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not  to mention emblematic.

The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).

Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.

A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
“I cannot be arrested,” replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, “because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married” (40, Bulgakov).

Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day  that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.

As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).

I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.

There is no radical difference  between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).

There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty,  a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.

This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).

Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ – I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.

A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).

Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality,  the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.

According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).

Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said – this is water. We bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.

*Speaking of translations – Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.

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