Friday, March 31, 2017

the names of things

A great deal of effort in Sodom and Gomorrah is devoted to the ways in which language hides the world rather than revealing it. The second half of the book returns Marcel to Balbec and surrounds, where the once-mysterious place names from Swann's Way are transformed for Marcel into symbols for people he knows, stations along the local railway where the little train stops long enough for people in the carriages to get out and chat or have a drink with residents of the towns. Marcel has also learned several possible etymologies of many of the local place names (traditional etymologies from a local vicar's book on the subject, and possibly-more-exact etymologies from Brichot, a scholar in one of the social circles Marcel joins). The names found on maps or train timetables are vestiges of names that once signified the agrarian use of lands or the ownership of property, of places where one could fish or cut trees for lumber. Many of the place names are connected (directly or indirectly) with names of France's great families, depending on who is giving the etymologies or genealogies (there is no clear consensus on any of this). This business with the historical ("true, original") meaning of names, which mean one thing in common use but also carry hidden--sometimes quite different--meanings of their own, is a metaphor for the whole of language, for the whole of human discourse. Charlus speaks in a kind of doublespeak code--revealing his sexuality while attempting to disguise it--in conversations with people who are quite sure about Charlus' tastes but speak to him as if they are unaware of it, all the while making private jokes to each other about Charlus, right in front of him. Morel--after whom Charlus longs with a passion so powerful it could destroy him, a passion that makes him abase himself before Morel even in front of witnesses--says whatever is convenient at any given moment in order to maintain his childish pride and his control over Charlus. Everyone says one thing and means something else. Everyone is in an agony of desire, pretending otherwise when they can and humiliating themselves when they cannot, all the while smiling and leaving visiting cards and shaking hands on the train station platform as they are all carried from hotel to hotel, party to party, during a long summer vacation that must, of course, come to an end. We lie to one another and ourselves without realizing we are lying, without knowing that we lie to push back our despair, we stuff ourselves with lies to fill holes in ourselves we don't even know we have. Marcel, aware that he does not want Albertine, must have her because he knows she does not want him. Everyone becomes Swann or Odette, though by now we must realize how miserable Odette must've been, with Swann relentlessly pursuing her, misunderstanding her lies though she was certain he knew what she was really saying. How dumb we all are.

The place names/family names theme also reveals to us how the mysteries of life (once where Marcel would look at a map of France he'd imagine all sorts of romances behind the exotic names of towns he'd never seen, or when he would see the names of the nobility in the papers or overhear them in the conversation of adults he would imagine the glittering and brilliant lives connected to those names) become mundane once encountered and examined (the exotic locales of Brittany transform into a mere list of places where one can shake hands with an acquaintance one can very well live without, and the famous names reveal themselves as belonging to wealthy but shallow folks who are no better than those people to whom they refuse to be introduced). Which is not to say that this new perception of reality is true; it is merely another thing we tell ourselves, merely another layer of language obscuring whatever reality actually is. Language is what we tell ourselves, not a map of the world.

19 comments:

  1. Indeed! Semioticians reminds us that words are merely culturally agreed upon symbols representing realities. It is hard for me to imagine a preverbal existence, but it seems as though Proust has used plenty of words to suggest that possibility. Ironic! Samuel Beckett, whom I suddenly recall, have a love-hate relationship with words: he knew they were inadequate, but he had hardly anything else. I would wager few have put Proust and Beckett in the same thought pattern. In any case, your posting has send my mind spinning. Onward!

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  2. Correction: Beckett [...] had [not have] a love-hate relationship with words

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  3. I don't know if Proust claims a true reality, but he certainly says that we're mostly blind to whatever is happening and we paint verbal pictures of imaginary worlds that are mostly private and impossible to share. "The truth is so variable for each of us, that other people have difficulty in recognizing what it is." So knowledge is provisional and mostly incorrect, there is nothing against which to measure our ideas because we have no way of knowing the limits of our perception, and our realms of understanding are narrowed almost to the point of uselessness by solipsism.

    I think a lot these days about Beckett and his struggles with language. Why would anyone talk about anything, I wonder? Of what use are claims about what we believe to be true? This is why I've given up writing novels.

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    1. Well, Scott, struggling with language is at least something to do while we wait for Godot; some people read, some people write, and some people do other things, but no one functions without language. Language was the saving grace for Vladimir and Estragon. Other than each other, what did they have?

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    2. A shrug is as good a response as any. Though Proust might argue that Didi and Gogo didn't have each other; they only had mistaken ideas about each other.

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    3. Oh, I think they very much had each other. Each would not survive alone. Godot, however, might be the mistaken idea.

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    4. Well, I've always found Didi and Gogo to be sweet in their tragic circumstance, but no one here gets out alive, as the saying goes! Godot might be the only thing that endures.

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    5. I believe ithe play and life are tragicomedies, so all is not lost.

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    6. I confess I have no idea what that means.

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    7. http://www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/genres/tragicomedy-iid-21420

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    8. I know what "tragicomedy" means. I don't know what "so all is not lost" means in this context.

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    9. I see no reason to despair; that is what I mean.

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    10. Except that you do; I've read your blog. We all despair. Many of us might not realize that's what we're doing, and what we're often reacting against, which is one of Proust's themes.

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    11. Well, I guess I better snap out of it and read Proust. --30--

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    12. Good one! Thanks for chatting today.

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    13. Given up writing novels? I recall that Flann O'Brien wrote that his response to the crisis of language was to found a branch of an association promoting the Irish language: having nothing to say, he revived a language in which nothing could be said. (Quotation from memory and probably mangled.) I have been reading in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which makes pretty sweeping claims about what can't be said. A problem, as always with philosophy, is that the book on its own is like the half of a conversation you hear the cell-phone wielder conduct on the bus: so I need to go back to Frege and read some Russell to get some of the context. Not that this is necessarily the difficulty in understanding the book, or the reason that I won't attempt to summarize it here.

      Beckett wrote a book on Proust, which seems to be out of print but not particularly hard to find. I haven't read it, though no doubt I should.

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    14. I just dug out my copy of Tractatus and looked at my marginalia. I made a lot of notes, I see:

      The universe expresses itself: mankind is not necessary. This seems to be W's primary claim, buried under all the mess.

      Looking at all of God's creation does not imply God. The soul does not exist! What's the purpose of W's Tractatus? To diminish, to make things disappear. To reduce life to the workings of simple machines all stacked against one another, signifying nothing.

      Language is the means through which we engage with the world. Not sense data, but language. This means that we cannot experience anything for which we have no language? A rejection of Schiller's "awe"?

      W seems to posit language as truth, or the revealer of truth, rather than language as a tool or condition of humanity, and human consciousness. He's pulling language away from humanity, which seems mistaken and artificial. Language--or at least grammatical/syntactical language the way W is using it--exists only within human minds. I am speaking entirely intuitively here, but I think W's too abstract. Non-sense isn't always "nonsense" because language is more than facts strung together.

      W says "the world is the totality of facts, not of things." This is a startling claim, because "factual" statements are frequently enough disproved over time. See history of science. The universe is not a predicate so much as it's a group of subjects. On the other hand, the things themselves about which "facts" are "known" and disproved, all remain, and remain as they are despite the "facts." Unless, as I gather, W means the actual truths rather than the human provisional understanding, the Platonic facts, if you will, which cannot be spoken because we lack the knowledge of true factuality?


      By the time I'd finished reading Tractatus that time, I was pretty well convinced that Wittgenstein had written a sort of coded longing toward nothingness, toward death, and I was very sad for him.

      On the other hand, as time goes by it becomes easier to not be writing novels, and I feel actually a growing sense of satisfied lightness. Plus, I have much more time for reading and playing violin.

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    15. Skepticism, even radical skepticism, about our knowledge of the world is not necessarily incompatible with religious faith: consider Ockham, Berkeley, and to a degree Newman. I am blessed if I can say exactly what the Tractatus points to, but it seems much more engaged with what can be stated through certain logical systems than with what is so or might be.

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    16. Well, there are plenty of opinions about what W was talking about in Tractatus. He talks directly about the soul, indirectly about metaphysics, and directly about perception. It's a whole lot more than a design of a grammar for making truth statements.

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