Tag Archives: Herman Melville

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.

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