Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Speech and Language

An author's relationship to language and words, and their manifestation in speech represents a crucial element in the agency characters experience in the ability to create themselves in the text. A small consideration, perhaps, when taken in conjunction with all of the other elements working to create character and individuals in various works, but when the idea of the creative power of speech and language is expanded outward to the authors who describe this process, the stakes of this process become more clear. The authors are really exploring their own creative power through the agency of their characters. Their ability to speak and be understood (or not) parallels the author's own ability to project his identity outward into the world and be understood, creating his self through his agency in authorship. The strange relationship between language as power and the source at which it is directed, as well as its creative and formative power hearkens back to Foucault's discussion of power relations as glossed in Professor Porter's presentation on Foucault, who wrote, “ this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.” Authors are caught in the trap of their own language and their understanding of its power in their own creation of identity. The expressed forms of language throughout the works we've explored in this class progress from the agency of characters themselves in works such as Walpole's Castle of Otranto and Browning's “My Last Duchess,” to the complications and misunderstandings of language in Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which shifts into the ability of language to bring reality to the imagination carried through to “Ode to a Nightengale” and “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” which further speak explicitly to an author's immortality through the creative power of his words. This discussion of the precise stakes of language for an author was prefaced, moreover, by beginning the semester with Marvell's “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body.” Linking speech to duality and the competition for the ability to give voice to thought through the specific invocation of dialogue, Marvell set up many of the concerns raised by authors throughout the semester. As Robert posited “the two sides offer points and counterpoints on which of the sides has the power.” In this structuring of power relations as the side that holds the ability to speak, Marvell points to the power of language to give agency. Robert's intimation that, by giving the body the final word in the dialogue, Marvell might be speaking to the ultimate triumph of the body over the soul suggests that it is through the very act of speaking that one is able to exert power. This further raised questions for Robert about the relationship as he wrote “Could this indicate that Marvell believes that the body prevails in the argument? While the soul is using the body as a temporary vessel on its way towards heaven, the body stays apart of the earth, like the tree analogy he uses in the final stanza. Or could the soul be the key ingredient allowing for the tree to stand straight and remain beautiful?” These questions point to the way in which the dialogue is structured to raise issues of which side of a debate is allowed to speak at which point and what kind of argument it is allowed.

The most salient underpinning of the structure of the importance of speech that Marvell posits is the threat of an inability to speak. In these works, this loss of agency is tantamount to death, denying the individual the right to create and assert their identity. While reading Walpole's Castle of Otranto, I was struck by the sense that “the story itself rests entirely on the increasing compounding of lies and deception that characters (particularly Manfred) put forth. As a failure of speech, lies point to an instance in which the arbitrary act of speaking and naming (which is integrally related to the idea of truth) breaks down...When the truth is spoken, it is given a certain sense of weight, almost occupying physical space.” Although not a literal failure of speech and language, the act of lying prefaces a discussion of the loss of speech and questions what the status of truth means for characters and identity. When Walpole writes, “I am no impostor, my lord; nor have I deserved opprobrious language. I answered to every question your highness put to me last night with the same veracity that I shall speak now: and that will not be from fear of your tortures, but because my soul abhors a falsehood” (53), he points to the ability of truth to create a sense of the soul. This formation extends, then, to the act of authorship in creating an authentic self through his works. I noted in the blog post while reading the text, “The struggle to find words and speak truth throughout the story points to the importance of those moments in which one cannot rely on speech, which seems to have implications for Walpole's understanding of his own authorship.” The authority one gains in being an author, in creating and controlling through words, may be undermined by the idea that lies take such primacy for Walpole. In response to this post, both Celina and Daniela pointed to Walpole's use of language to transform both the natural and supernatural spheres, a distinction that follows the delineation between Soul and Body in the “Dialogue,” and extends the author's ability to create in fiction with the work of fiction to create identity.

Browning's poem “My Last Duchess” deepens the conversation of speech and language by introducing a palpable presence of silence. In the Duchess' inability to speak, confined to a painting, her loss of agency is complete. The Duke monopolizes the dialogue of the poem – it is his voice and his story that we hear, with the presence of the Duchess merely lurking in the background. The Duchess' loss of agency through her silence has taken such a toll that it has literally resulted in her death, leaving the Duke, the only speaking member of this power relationship, to control the conversation. Liz, however, points to a complication in this configuration, writing, “On the surface, it seems that the Duke is controlling the conversation and that he seems very confident in his words, but there is strong sense of artificially that appears throughout the poem...the rhythm and structure of the poem ties into the emotion of the speaker. For example, the enjambment of the lines takes the Duke’s seemingly matter-of-fact speech and makes it appear illogical.” In fact, the very objectification of the Duchess is complete in her status as a painting. Seen below, the flat and silent representation of the woman that has replaced the real woman complicates the relationship between reality and words. The Duke has agency and control because the new manifestation of his wife literally cannot speak. By killing her and turning her into art, the Duke has taken away her words and therefore her ability to create her own identity in the world.

Much like the status of language in conjunction with the lies and agency discussed in relation to The Castle of Otranto, the Duke's culpability forms his words, subsequently shaping the amount of power they can have. The fact that we as readers recognize the guilt behind the Duke's words suggests that his control of the situation is not as absolute as he tries to convey. The way in which we understand this structure of multiple speakers, audiences, and interpreters pivots on “The union of painted image with dramatic utterance [which] induces an almost ghostly experience--convivial, dizzying, transcendent, factitious--for not only the duke's sole guest but also Browning's audience. The craft of dramatic monologues can be disorienting as we try to reconcile our physical sensations of sound and type, besides our moral-aesthetic attitudes” (Dupras). His dubious authenticity and authority, then, reinforces the idea that truth in authorship and language is the locus of power – the creating of a reality from words is the concern of the author. The Duke's conscious preoccupation with control is somehow the mechanism through which he loses control in the eyes of the reader. His words are unnatural and forced, and although he is able to exert a spine-tingling power over the courtier to whom he is telling his story, this power does not stretch to the reader, which is Browning's concern as an author.

The failure of language as exhibited in these works extends to later works such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which looks again at the agency allowed to those who command the power of words and the ability to communicate. In my blog post on this work, I ask about the implications of metamorphosis as a facet of the process of creation – creating something new out of something old – and how the loss of voice at the moment of transformation plays into this process. It seems to me that “one of the persistent themes of metamorphosis is the failure of voice and speech at the moment of transformation, an act that involves a loss of identity.” In the silence of changing form, then, it is the loss of voice that contributes to the loss of agency that allows the fundamental transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. By looking specifically at the final chapter, the questions encounter center around Dr. Jekyll's Full Statement, [in which] Mr. Hyde is not allowed a voice - only Dr. Jekyll has the power to communicate. In spite of this, however, Dr. Jekyll describes the process of 'in the beginning, the difficulty had been to throw off the body of Jekyll, it had of late, gradually but decidedly transferred itself to the other side. All things therefore seemed to point to this: that I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated into my second and worse.' This strange back and forth of metamorphosis seems as though it should have some sort of implications for the status of language, and therefore authorship.” Alec's response pointing to the study of epistemology in conjunction with these questions of identity points back to the issue of instability with regard to language. The very structure of who is allowed authority to tell the story at what time and to whom affects the way in which the reality is created, and “although Jekyll and Hyde purports to deal with 'the thorough and primitive duality of man' (Stevenson 1994 70), the self never disintegrates, so that Jekyll is able to give a convincing and lucid account of his experiments and his liberation of Hyde, only hours before his final transformation and death. The first-person narrative in Jekyll and Hyde guarantees us the truth” (Stirling 89). Stevenson undermines the process of knowing through language by creating a confusion of identity and which manifestation of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde represents the true self. The lack of speech afforded either facet of identity suggests that neither can take primacy, lacking the necessary agency to create the self.

The thread of Marvell's invocation of the importance of language in assigning agency and creating individual identity raises larger questions for the implications of speech. In beginning with a “dialogue,” the push of these questions is then not just towards an understanding of what language means for the speaker or writer, but what it means for the audience. The outside force that is the receiver of this communication constitutes an equally important part of the relationship that defines the sender of language. The misunderstanding of language that begins to take primacy in these works, then, becomes all the more salient. Incomprehension with respect to language and communication takes a primary role in both the fourth book of Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. By highlighting this possibility for the fate of language, these authors address a fundamental preoccupation of authors and others who rely on the power of words. Gulliver's interactions with the Houyhyhms, learning their language and taking his place in their society, suggests the ability of language to define the self. I suggest in my blog post that “In the land of the Houyhnhms, Gulliver walks into a society in which a binary already exists. Gulliver, however, cannot identify completely with either side of the dialectic and therefore occupies a liminal space, resting in a sort of purgatory between the Houyhnhms and the Yahoos. His addition into the society creates a third dimension, which is cast as inherently unstable.” This instability finds its base in Swift's invocation of the unrecognizable language of the Houyhnhms (as evidenced by our repeated and abysmal efforts to pronounce their names). By the time that Gulliver has adopted the language of the horse-people, he is fully integrated into their society and his agency as human and not Yahoo is lost. It is through the mechanism of language that Gulliver is redefined. Kathryn's insights into the implications of the language of the Houyhnhms and its impact on the construction of reality underscore this idea. When she writes, “Although Gulliver says, 'their Language expressed the Passions very well' (212) and the note that accompanies this line declares, 'The Houyhnhms may be austere but they are not presented as passionless', I think that Swift disagrees, and I do too. They 'have no Fondness for their Colts or Foles' but their care derives from 'the Dictates of Reason' (250). They trade children so that each family can have one male and one female child. They do not grieve death, and they marry based on eugenic principles.” There is again an inherent instability in the disconnect between what is said and what is real, and it is this disconnect that produces such uneasiness in the reader. It reflects Swift's own uneasiness in the failure of words and language to be transformative as expected by an author who bases his own identity on the power of words to create. Talk of expressing emotions or passions in this case is not strong enough to actually produce them, calling into question the agency of the speaker or author in producing through language. At the same time as he is creating the world of the Houyhnhms, Swift is undercutting his own authority to do so, if there exists between the reader and the writer the same sense of disconnect that occurs between spoken and reality exhibited in the horse people. My sense of this meta-commentary on authorship was that “usually an author (as a crafter and manipulator of words) is constantly highlighting the impact that words and naming can have on the physical world, or the absolute failure of words in being able to describe such abstracts as emotions. In this case, however, Swift seems to be suggesting that the agency one normally associates with the act of naming has broken down.”

By twisting various turns of phrase in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Carroll also represents a shift from an author's understanding of miscommunication to the creative, productive, and formative power of language at an author's disposal. By creating a land in which words in the form of colloquialisms and odds turns of phrase are brought forth in physical manifestation, Carroll has created a worlds that is entirely governed by the power of language, a prospect that is both empowering and daunting for an author. Misunderstanding in this case (as opposed to Swift's send of it in Gulliver's Travels) is in fact formative. Virginia points to this process by writing, “Carroll frequently confuses and distresses his heroine by making literal what is often an expression or else plays out the duality of a pun. When she reaches the bottom of the rabbit hole and can't find an escape, for instance, she literally begins drowning in her own tears. The mouse's confusing 'tale' is written in the twisting shape of a tail. The caterpillar constantly questions the commonplace expressions Alice uses like the habit of saying 'you know' or 'myself'.”

The original illustrations, as seen above, also contribute to to understanding of the literlatization of phrases in the novel. The drawings accept and reflect the reality that Carroll has created, reinforcing the author's power of words through the visual. The production of the reality that Carroll conveys emphasizes his authority in creating this world. Twisting misunderstanding of language into a parallel reality that is just as valid because the ambiguity of the nature of words allows this structure to make grammatical sense. The confluence of language and reality through the physical manifestation of idioms is then contrasted with the continued inability of Alice to make herself understood. Because the caterpillar does not understand the expressions that Alice uses, they are not brought into reality and Alice's ability to exert her own agency during her adventures is compromised. Carroll thuse highlights the importance of even what we might consider to be throwaway language by bringing it into the physical world for Alice. I posit the stakes of the power of all words that have “no meaning for us in and of themselves, but extraordinary meaning as mere social phrases” as a projection of a new level of understanding so that “in this world we all understand their second meaning, beyond the literal, knowing that their 'enactment' in social situations in the real world will follow certain rules and norms.” Bringing these phrases into the physical world points to Carroll's understanding of the creative power of language as it literally creates worlds in front of Alice. The conflation of the author's power with that of creator places Carroll in a position of power and allows him agency that only a manipulator of words can command.

By the end of the semester, the conversation regarding the role of language in the minds of the authors we studied pivoted to what this language meant for them personally. Moving from the implications of having the language of imagination for a character to the author's imaginative and creative language, the concern of the author's relationship to their own texts and, through these texts, immortality rises to the fore. Hinted at throughout the semester, the power of the written word to create immortality for the author became an explicit concern as authors such as Keats and Yeats moving to ruminations on the implications of their statuses as authors on their identity and legacy. A thorough understanding of Keats's relationship to his status as an authentic and creative force requires an understanding of his relationship to his works which emerges in many of his letters. Yeats's understanding of his status as author and crafter of words is further complicated by his place in between generations, on the cusp of new forms and themes of modernism. For more on this tenuous straddling, see “The Palm of Beauty: Yeats, Rilke, Joyce."

These authors are deeply steeped ina tradition that seems, at the very least, to answer the question English majors dread: So what? The status of words and language is a consideration not just important for these authors in their search for legitimation, but extends into contemporary life as seen in “The Air of Words – Language and Identity." Words are everything.

1 comment:

  1. very interesting really well documented. interesting commentary on "my last duchess"