Embassytown, part 2 and City of Glass: Natural languages

I finished Embassytown a little while ago, and although I don’t think I found the second half quite as enjoyable as the setup, it was still well worth the read, as a science fiction novel and as an experimentation in the literary representation of theories of language. Spoilers are certain to follow, so if you’re reading this and don’t want to disturb Mieville’s careful compartmentalization of information necessary to key plot points, then maybe try to skim to the second half where I talk about other things.

The movement in the plot revolves, as could be expected from the setup, about the descent of Mieville’s aliens, the Arikei, from Language into language – that is, from Mieville’s version of a natural, Adamic language in which signs and referents have an untroubled and concrete link and into our everyday communication with its abstract nouns, heavily figurative modes of communication, and ambiguity. And that descent gets characterized as the transition from simile, a characterization of similarity between two unlike things, to metaphor, an assertion of identity between them. That the transition gets expressed as a shift in these uses of figurative language was hardly surprising given the status of the novel’s main character as a Simile, and given the fascination of so many theories of language with metaphor as language’s central problem, generator of new meanings, and source of its literary or creative dimension. At one point in her life the novel’s protagonist was commissioned to act out a cryptic playlet so that her existence could guarantee that of a new word used for the basis of comparison, thus expanding the vocabulary of Language while retaining its insistence on concrete one-to-one reference. From there, the Arikei, for their survival in the novel, must learn to assert their fundamental identity with the human girl and thereby learn to lie, as they are not human, for the sake of larger metaphorical truths, that both are sentient races, etc.

I was a little surprised, though, that the transition was from simile to metaphor, primarily because we tend to regard the two figures as close to interchangeable – most taxonomies of figurative language class simile as a poorer subset of the larger field of metaphor. Metaphors and metonymy would be a more common juxtaposition over the past century, due to the influence of the same structural linguistics that provides Mieville with the physical laws, and their lapses, of his fictional universe. I think I was hoping to see some of that because Mieville’s representation in the text of the novel of the double-tongued speech of the Arikei has the utterance of one mouth placed beneath a horizontal bar with the utterance of the other on top, and that reminded me so much of Roman Jakobson’s representation of the interaction between two symbolic systems that so much informs the literary-theoretical understanding of metonymy and metaphor.

Briefly, metonymy, the use of a term for a related term, infers the existence of a set of terms grouped about a concept. Metaphor is the use of one concept, or in actual practice any one from its set of terms, to refer to another concept and set of terms. So if we were talking about flowers, we could use blossom, or petal, or rose, etc. to convey the meaning of flower. If we’re going to move to the conventional metaphorical association of the flower with feminine beauty, then the rose, as one term from the set of terms about flowers is used to refer to that beauty and convey whatever association to that beauty – its delicacy, its sophistication, its artfulness, or naturalness – the writer might wish.  So Jakobson places each set on opposing sides of a horizontal bar and tells us that’s how language functions – it’s not a one-to-one relationship between sign and referent, but a perpetual movement along a related series of terms, or a leap across the part to use one term from one set to invoke another. Or really both moves always more or less at once.

When the Arikei make the transition and are suddenly able to speak English, Mieville rings a few changes with his horizontal bar scheme. In Language, both voices express different phonemes simultaneously to make a single word. But English is single-tongued, so the Arikei can be saying one thing in English with one mouth and with the other something else entirely. Mieville doesn’t have them, pace Jakobson, express metaphors in this fashion, but he does convey the race’s newly acquired ability for paradox, deceit, and ambiguity by having Arikei individuals say contradictory statements simultaneously.

Pretty good stuff, but here’s where I think a deeper plunge into language theory would have resulted in even cooler speculations. And I think I was disappointed Mieville didn’t make more of an effort to connect his metaphysics of immer and the langue/parole distinction to the linguistic travails of the Arikei.

But curiously enough, the novel I picked up to read next is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, and the first novella of the collection, “The City of Glass” is also about Adamic language and the transition, and the failure to transition, to fully symbolic speech. The antagonist is a mad professor through whom Auster offers an excellent theology of language. The professor’s treatise on the Tower of Babel begins with a rather commonplace reading of the Garden of Eden, where each creature, each thing, has its Adamic name assigned to it, and there is a concrete and direct equivalency between thing and word. The naming furthermore is connected to the thing’s essence and its coming into existence. Then there’ s the fall, which can be seen as a descent from the Adamic language into our fully developed symbolic language and its access to knowledge – the forbidden fruit which tempts Eve. But a fully symbolic language is one divorced from God and without the awesome spiritual power of the original language.

If we see the story of the fall as also a story of a fallen language, then we can see its recapitulation in historical terms in the Tower of Babel, which separates prehistory and history. The building of the Tower and the ambitions for it can be seen as expressions of the latent power of a unifying language that can challenge God’s authority. After the destruction of the tower, and the loss of the original unifying speech, the dispersal into different languages represents a full descent into the secular. The spiritual power of language has been doubly lost.

In Auster’s story, the mad professor, Peter Stillman, comes to believe his theologies of language and so locks up his infant son to prevent him from coming into contact with human language in the vain belief that will allow natural, Adamic language to emerge in its place. The scene where Stillman’s son, also Peter Stillman, narrates his upbringing to Auster’s protagonist is one of the best, if not the best, literary representation of disordered speech I’ve ever read. Not for its accuracy – because who knows what such a person would sound like – but for its gripping uncanny quality that suggests how much of the power of literary works might be in their ability to intimate a connection to a natural language.

The most apparent, and most remarked upon, trick of language in the story, though, concerns the confusion of names and identity: Auster’s protagonist is a novelist named Quinn who writes detective novels under the name of William Wilson (one of several nods to Poe in the story) who is mistaken for and adopts the identity of one mysterious private detective named Paul Auster. And then there is the proliferation of persons who are or could be named Peter Stillman. As fun and tricky as the Chinese boxes of names and identities and the whole meta-referential thing are, though, what intrigues me, especially reading the story immediately after Mieville’s Embassytown, is the potential for the descent into language, or even the ascent out of it, or even for just theologies of language as  structuring devices for narratives.

I’ve often thought that much of Meville – Herman Melville this time – could be read in terms of his treatment of the disenchantment of the world and how that relates to theories of communication and interpretation Melville explores. Certainly Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which Auster discusses at some length in “City of Glass,” could be read as an exploration of the world’s disenchantment and the potential uncanny horror of the rediscovery of a natural language. To a certain extent, Moby Dick could be read in much the same way.


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