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Reflections on Walter Benjamin 4.

Spadefuls of meaning.

[No. 4 in a Series.]


‘I LOVE TO call a spade a spade.’ Thus Gerard Manley Hopkins. Only a few years later Gwendolyn, in The Importance of Being Earnest, announced: ‘I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.’ They both of them knew what it was though, that spade, seen or unseen. Between them and Walter Benjamin writing in the 1930s, something happened.

saussureThe something was the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics was published in 1916. The gist of this posthumously assembled work was that a spade signified what it did simply because it wasn’t written and pronounced spud. Language was a vast difference machine, and there was no ‘inherent meaning’ in any particular words. Meaning arrived through a differential register, not through any inherited characteristics of the words themselves. Whatever the etymology, whatever the ultimate genealogy of the word, in the synchronic system of linguistic functions a spade was a spade, simply because it wasn’t a spud, and a bat was not a cat, because of a single differential consonant, not because of any number of leathery black wings. In the Saussurean world linguistic meaning has no ontology; only interactive contradistinction.

portrait_logoFor Saussure there was the individual speech act, or parole, and there was the system of meaning, the language as a whole at any moment, and that he called langue. You could forget every etymology in the language and still function entirely adequately as a user of that language, as long as you remembered: the object with the metal blade and the wooden shaft was signified by spade, and the misshapen brown sphere cooling on the plate was spud. The signifier was a verbal sign which arbitrarily linked up to a concept, and somewhere beyond or beside the concept was a referent, in the form of an actual spade or spud which could be employed in a pictorial dictionary, to add a visual signifier by way of ratification of the verbal one. Etymology, the diachronic or historical study of how words had achieved their present morphology, might be a valid subject in its own right, but it did not, and could not, explain how language worked at any specific moment. The actual mechanics of the use of language elided etymology. I do not have to know that there is a lion’s tooth in the dandelion, or a day’s eye in the daisy, to use those words effectively, in distinguishing between several plants on the lawn. As long as I can say them, or write them, while pointing to the right item of flora, I am a competent user of language.

Benjamin was obsessed throughout his life with the notion of pure language, a notion to which the Saussurean concepts are entirely inimical.

BENJAMIN APPEARS TO have had no interest whatsoever in all this. He had different fish to fry. He was obsessed throughout his life with the notion of pure language, a notion to which the Saussurean concepts are entirely inimical. Such a pure language was not an entanglement in meaning, and it had not achieved its dynamics of significance purely through lexical difference. The purest act of meaning was naming itself, and Adam, according to Benjamin, was thus the first philosopher, precisely through his nominal prepotency. Benjamin is here exploring a common philosophical trope: the name is the terminus in the chain of signification. It is the identity check beyond which one cannot pass. The man’s name is Picasso. It makes no sense to ask what kind of Picasso he is; to ask that question means you are in the wrong language game. It was this sense of name as ultimate identity that troubled Bertrand Russell in regard to Hamlet. This was not a real name, he argued, because it did not refer to a real person, but to a fictional creation. For Benjamin, in ‘On Language as such and on The Language of Man’ man communicates his own mental being by naming all other things. Our loss of the Biblical language of naming foreshadows our fall into the alienation of abstract labour.

Benjamin has a gift for covering his tracks with such an elusive congeries of deflections and allusions that it can be difficult enough to tie him down here, but it is hard not to conclude that he was following a well-trodden path of linguistic mysticism. It had been thought for centuries that the originary language spoken by the human tribe had been Hebrew. This was the divine language because it was the one God had spoken, as recorded in our first records of his utterances, the Torah. The Hebrew scriptures told the story of the origin of humankind, and the initial communications between the deity and His creatures. All subsequent languages had represented a falling-off from that blessed point. Benjamin’s writings are not incompatible with this account of the matter, even if he never spelt it out thus.

THERE ARE STILL those today who dispute the findings of evolutionary linguistics, that our originary language had an Indo-European root. For them, given their scriptural prepossessions and devotions, the origin of language was not a fragmentary fumbling from noise to graphic symbol, and thence ultimately to our abecedary, but rather an initial verbal plenitude. Language in all the fullness of its self-completion was bestowed on humanity, and this was the moment of our intellectual genesis. All subsequent deviations from this originary plenum represent a falling-away, a chaotic squandering of meaning allegorized by the story of the Tower of Babel. In this account of the matter, Adam one day ventures out into Eden to find a mild chill in the air. Nothing to fracture any tubers in his untroubled garden, but enough for him to see the vapour trail of his own breath, as the warmer molecules produce a condensation inside the colder air. Ruah, he says. All subsequent translations and adaptations — pneuma, spiritus, whatever — do not regain the exactitude and plenitude of that initial Adamic act of naming. We have breath, which we can trace back through Old English to an Indo-European base meaning to heat or even to burn. But that merely takes us back to the fallen world of contingent linguistics. Adam’s coinage was causal, not contingent. There was nothing arbitrary about any of those first words. Each was exact and complete in its ontology.

In Benjamin’s formulation, pure language is essentially the act of naming; it is in no way entangled in the tussle of meanings.

In Benjamin’s formulation, pure language is essentially the act of naming; it is in no way entangled in the tussle of meanings. It is simultaneously deictic and ostensive. It points here and utters the word ruah. Breath has now acquired its name, and the word has filled up for ever with the cosmic fullness of its own meaning. It is brimful of uncontested significance. Language thus becomes the non-negotiable naming of what Wittgenstein called ‘everything that is the case’. There is a problem with this, which never seems to trouble Benjamin at all. The problem is parodied in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In the Academy at Lagado the philosophers carry around a bag of objects so that they can point precisely to any object they might wish to signify. By this means they avoid linguistic slippage. By such a device they keep well clear of what Bishop Spratt in his History of the Royal Society (one of Swift’s targets) called ‘this vicious abundance of phrase’. No catachresis, no simile, no metaphor, no ambiguity. And unfortunately, as Swift was all too aware, no language either.

One can employ a very simple test: attempt to find the objects in the world which the following words refer to: for, because, instead of, excusing. Language is never merely ostensive. It cannot simply point and say: that is what is meant. It is discursive, self-referential (or intratextual); it even returns upon itself in metatextual manoeuvres. It does not merely record meaning; it generates it. Ah but this, Benjamin would say, is postlapsarian language. This is the instrumental language that comes after the Fall, the lapsus that fractured word from meaning, and made of linguistic signification that play of contingency and haphazard differentials that Saussure describes so systematically. The ultimate language, says Benjamin, was a pure language, and the nearest we come to approaching it now is through scripture, the only kind of writing which is infinitely translatable and interpretable, and yet which always remains inexhaustibly full. Its plenitude is perennially beyond dilution.

Gerard Manley Hopkins also longed for his pure language. The desiderated speech is not so remote in his case as it can seem in Benjamin’s. What Hopkins meant by a pure language was one unmixed with other linguistic elements. And so he tried as far as possible in his verse to use words with Anglo-Saxon or Old English roots, or sometimes Welsh or Irish ones. Whenever possible he eschewed Romance words and derivations. The fastidiousness and rigour of his endeavour here should make us pause for a moment over the Saussurean project, which in one crucial sense it constantly puts into question.

BENJAMIN’S NOTION OF pure language (transmitted scripturally) allows that naming not only acknowledges identity, but also bestows it. In the Saussurean schema we seem to be presented with the implication that the signified remains epistemologically static. Whether I utter the word bread, pain, or Brot, the contingent lexemes all signify the same thing. But in fact we know they do not. We should be fair to De Saussure himself here. He was not the one who put together the book published in his name, his students did that after his death, and even in these lectures he is constantly worrying away at the manner in which the signifier shifts and mutates in regard to the concept being signified. He notes how necare (to die) in Latin ultimately became noyer (to drown) in French. This seems like an enormous shift, though Saussure points out that it is not so enormous if one takes into account that in the Vulgar Latin of the fourth and fifth centuries necare had already come to mean to drown.

gmhopkinsStill, this looks like little more than a matter of fine calibration. What troubled Hopkins was that the whole manner of signification, and therefore the meaning of what was being signified, shifted according to the nature of the language employed. A dilution of meaning was a change of meaning, and so a shift of usage was effectively a change of mind. And meaning here is not merely lexis; it is syntax too, the way grammatical configuration elicits alternative possibilities from the words thus constellated. W. H. Gardner in his definitive work on Hopkins talks about the syntactical neologism of the Jesuit’s poetry. He says that both Hopkins and Shakespeare had a grammatical genius that lets them configure words in a freshly engaging (frequently startling) way. And so we have this:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed…

Man-fathomed here would normally be expressed as plumbed. But plumbed would take us through a Romance etymology, through Old French, back to Latin. Man-fathomed appears to be the invention of Hopkins himself and both words root us back into Old English. That is precisely what the poet wanted. The manner of the saying is inseparable from what is being said. And the struggle involved in thus formulating it takes him much closer to that pure language he always dreamed of using.

THE IDEA OF the mot juste meets a curious challenge in Hopkins, and frequently in Shakespeare too. Neither of them seems to have ever thought that there is only ever one word, whatever its degree of precision. Hopkins had studied Welsh prosody and poetics and was much-taken with the notion of dyfalu, the Welsh device of accruing a host of images to illuminate a central notion. In the Welsh cynghanedd such an accumulation of words does not so much contradict the notion of the mot juste as pluralize it. What we are seeking now are mots justes. In the right configurations (and provided the words have the right etymological pedigree) the meanings accrue and proliferate. Thus is the inscape of each word’s meaning instressed through dialectic, constellation and contiguity.

Every true poem has Adamic ambitions. It craves the vigour of the originary tongue.

The Saussurean model in its most static version (not usually Saussure’s own) carries the implication that language is a glissade over vast synchronicities of meaning. The actual experience of writing, as both Hopkins and Benjamin would have pointed out, suggests that this glissade soon enough encounters treacherous fractures and crevasses. I can say of a man that he is odd and vinous. The words feel almost dispassionate, if condemnatory, but what is signified here cannot be separated technically in the Saussurean system from the signified in this statement: ‘He is a cantankerous soak.’ What is different is the texture of the words, and that texture is inseparable from their contexture, which is in turn inseparable from etymology. We are told that James Joyce spent all day once coming up with a single short sentence. Here is the sentence: Perfume of embraces all him assailed. He has neologized no individual word, but has neologized instead a configuration. It had to find a shape inside the mouth as well as on the page. Hopkins always wanted his poetry to be uttered as it was read. Discovered not merely by the reading eye but through ruah too. Every true poem, then, has Adamic ambitions. It craves the vigour of the originary tongue.

LandC150aAlan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays has been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.


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