Sunday, June 28, 2015


It's been awhile since my last post.  My wife and I are getting ready to travel to Serowe, Bostwana for a month to conduct research in the Bessie Head papers at the Khama III Memorial Museum.  We are also presenting our findings at MLA 2016.  Here's the link to the panel's abstracts:

bessiehead2016.wordpress.com

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Lord Jim (Part 2)

While Marlowe does not spitefully attack Stein about his use of English, spitefulness does become a factor when Marlow shifts his focus from the white European Stein’s speech to a half-caste boatman’s use of English later in the chapter.  After saying his good-byes to Jim, and presenting him with a pistol, Marlow notices Jim has forgotten to take the pistol’s ammunition with him [1].  Marlow believes Jim needs the gun and ammunition, so he sets out to catch Jim and return the ammunition to him before his boat to Patusan sets out.  During this process, Marlow encounters the half-caste boat captain and participates in a dialogue, about Jim, with him.  After listening to the half-caste speak, Marlow describes his English as, “seem[ing] to be derived from a dictionary compiled by a lunatic’” after the half-caste informs him that the boat Jim will travel on will “ascend” the river (238).  Marlow is quick to point out what he considers to be the half-caste’s horrible diction.  There is nothing funny to Marlow, as there was with Stein’s speech, about the way the half-caste misuses English words and phrases.  Elsewhere in his conversation with the half-caste, Marlow points out the boatman’s misuse of the words and phrases: “reverentially,” “irresponsive,” “resignation to quit,” “propitiated many offertories,” and “plenty too much enough of Patusan,” among numerous others.  Marlow presents these examples of misused English and many times provides what he believes to be the correct usage the half-caste was seeking. 

While these phrases and words seem to irritate Marlow, a final phrase the half-caste utters, that Jim was already “in the similitude of a corpse,” shakes Marlow out of his grammatical condemnations of the half-cast’s speech (240).  “‘What?  What do you say,’” Marlow asks the half-caste after his comparison of Jim to a corpse, “‘Already like the body of one deported,’” replies the half-caste (240).  In this instance, Marlow is not bothered by the misuse of the word “deported,” but is struck by the reality of danger that faces Jim in Patusan.  While Marlow initially condemns the way the half-caste speaks English, he tempers this judgment by stating that, “The absurd chatter of the half-caste had given more reality to the miserable dangers of [Jim’s] path than Stein’s careful statements” (240).  The half-caste is unable to speak English well, but he is able to more clearly relate to Marlow the dangerous “truth” inherent in Jim’s Patusanian undertaking than Stein is with well-spoken English. 



Curiously, chapter twenty-three, a chapter obsessed with the English language and its representational power, closes with the Latin phrase “Absit omen.”  Absit omen literally translates into “let the omen be absent,” but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a more specific connotation of this phrase is "May no ominous significance attach to the words.”  Significance for Conrad is still possible through language and texts, but the possibility of “ominous,” or improper significance, being attached to words by a dubious user of language (like Stein) or by a reader is a very real problem.  While I do believe Conrad is questioning the ability of language to present specific meaning in his text, I do not think he is going as far as later post-structuralist theoreticians would in presenting the idea that it is impossible for language to present some sort of “truth.”  For Conrad, as evidenced in the text of Lord Jim and specifically in Chapter twenty-three of the novel, “truth” can still be found, but it is much more difficult to arrive at than traditionally believed. The text, through language, can still point to something out there that is concrete and meaningful, but a writer must go about presenting what he or she considers to be meaning in new and novel ways and not rely solely on the ability of a single narrative form to accomplish this task.



[1] During his leave taking with Jim, Marlow also observes that Jim is taking the works of Shakespeare with him to Patusan.  In a longer version of this essay, it would be fruitful to explore in more depth the place Shakespeare holds in the historical development of the English language.  While Shakespeare is revered as one of the greatest writers in the English language, it could be argued that he, like the half-cast boat captain, derived his speech from a “dictionary compiled by a lunatic.”  The English language was in flux when Shakespeare was penning his plays and in order to convey the meanings he wanted, Shakespeare coined many of his own words and phrases. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Looking Into a Lunatic's Dictionary: Lord Jim and the Possibilities of Language Based Representation

Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is a text that interrogates the structure of traditional forms of narration and the ability narration, or more generally language, has to represent ideas.  Throughout Lord Jim, Conrad places numerous types of narration in tension with one another in order to show the benefits and limitations each has in the presentation of the overall story he is attempting to tell to his readers[1].  Be it through the genres of romance, oral story telling, or epistle, the intermingling and placement of different forms of narration in his text allows Conrad to explore the efficacy of language to capture and present the meaning of particular actions.  While this process unfolds over the entirety of the text of Lord Jim, a microcosm of this literary technique can be seen in chapter twenty-three of the novel.  In this chapter, Conrad places into tension different manifestations of the English language, including that of a Native English speaker (Marlow), a European English speaker (Stein), and a non-Western speaker (the half caste boatman) to interrogate the ability of language to convey meaning. 



Chapter twenty-three of Lord Jim is a pivotal point in the text in terms of both plot and language use.  In this chapter, the reader of the novel sees Jim for the last time before he leaves for Patusan and, effectively, exits the stage of the “civilized” world.  Marlow, who has set this action into motion by introducing Jim to Mr. Stein, narrates Jim’s departure and relates conversations he has had during this process with Stein, Jim, and a half-caste boatman who will ferry Jim to the mouth of the river that leads to Patusan.   

At certain junctures in this chapter, Marlow self-consciously interrupts his narration to comment on the way people use the English language.  “‘Mr. Stein called [Doramin] “war-comrade.” War-comrade was good.  Wasn’t it?  And didn’t Mr. Stein speak English wonderfully well?  Said he had learned it in Celebes—of all places!  That was awfully funny.  Was it not?  He did speak with an accent—with a twang—did I notice?’” (233).  Marlow here reveals that Stein is not a native English speaker and marvels at Stein’s ability to speak English “wonderfully well” and capture reality with clever diction [2].  By referring to Dormain as a “war-comrade,” Stein effectively conveys to Marlow that a relationship exists between the native chief and himself that goes beyond mere acquaintance and needs no more explanation than a two-word phrase.  The term “war-comrade” does not come as a shock to a reader of Lord Jim, as earlier in the text Marlow relates Stein’s adventurous past that includes descriptions of battles Stein participated in with native tribes. 

Marlow, however, is not merely relating the relationship between Dormain and Stein to the listeners of his narration, rather he is marveling at the power aptly chosen words have to hide truth.  Conrad, by having Marlow interrupt his narration and self-consciously point out Stein’s diction, is challenging his readers to take a second look at what has just been presented.  The phrase “war-comrade” covers a multitude of sins, particularly the economic advantage Stein is taking of Dormain.  As a businessman, Stein is not interested in Dormain as a comrade, but rather in the economic gain Dormain can bring him through his position of power within the Patusan community.  By calling Dormain a war-comrade Stein presents a picture, of his own creation, to the world that portrays his relationship with Dormain in a way that includes what he wants to be seen, “comradery,” but excludes the colonial undertones of this particular European/Native relationship.  

Elsewhere in the chapter, Marlow relates that, “‘Mr. Stein instructed [Jim] to wait for a month or so, to see whether it was possible for him to remain, before he began building a new house for himself, so as to avoid “vain expense.”  He did make use of funny expressions—Stein did.  “Vain expense” was good.  .  .  .  Remain?  Why!  of course.’” (236).  Stein knows that in order for Jim to survive in Patusan he will have to construct a house of some kind, but it would be a waste of capital if a house is built and Jim decides not to stay.  Stein does not want to lose money, so he instructs Jim to wait to build a house in order to avoid “vain expense.”  Stein could have told Jim not to build to avoid extra expense, but he chose to modify the word “expense” with the word “vain” that connotes, in an economic sense, any cost that will not produce a return.  The phrase “vain expense” highlights Stein’s overarching concern with economics and furthers the position that he is not sending Jim to Patusan because he cares personally for Jim.     Looking under the surface of Stein’s words, a reader can come to the conclusion that Stein sends Jim to Patusan to protect his trading investments and to aliviate problems (including factional fighting and the incompetence of Cornelius) that have brought trade with Patusan to a stand still. 

In presenting Stein’s speech, Marlow finds himself in a tenuous position.  While he admires Stein’s turns of phrases, he also sees them as being “funny.”  Funny here can be read as either a term connoting humor or in, what I believe to be the case, the sense that something is not right.  What is not right about Stein’s speech is that it hides unpleasant truths Stein wants to cover up.  Marlow seems to recognize the duplicitous nature of Stein’s speech, but he does not directly question Stein about the “truth” he sees hidden underneath his aptly constructed phrases.  Marlow is unable to directly confront Stein on this issue because if he pushes too far he may have to come to terms with unpleasant realities about himself.  Stein, in the text, is representative of both a paternal and cultural father figure to Marlow.  Even thought Stein is not English, or a native English speaker, he is still a European and shares with Marlow, as such, a legacy of colonization.




[1] Fredric Jameson discusses the disparity of narrative technique in Lord Jim and refers to the shifting of narrative forms in the text as “ruptures” in the novel.  Jameson, Fredric.  The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act.  New York: Cornell UP, 1981: 206-280.  
[2] The subject place non-native English speakers had in society and in fictional works is a topic of great interest to the Polish Conrad who himself learned English as a non-native language, but chose to present his fictional works in it.   

Next time...Lord Jim (Part 2)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Roman Jakobson




The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of Romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledge, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonym which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called realistic trend, which belongs to an intermediary state between the decline of Romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both.

--Roman Jakobson


In "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles" (1956), Russian linguist and theoretician Roman Jakobson claims that a polarity exists between the concepts of metaphor and metonym and begins his piece with a discussion of aphasia to show how the language centers which deal with metaphor and metonym in the human mind are indeed separated.

After discussing the polarity that exists between metaphor and metonym, Jakobson further argues that the literary school of Romanticism is tied to metaphor and that of Realism (or Social Realism) is tied to the metonymic, and illustrates his point by evoking Anna Karenina [specifically Tolstoy's focus on A.'s handbag when she suicides] and War and Peace [examining a section where Tolstoy dedicates an overabundance of page space to the description of facial hair].  Aside from references to Russian literature, Jakobson also devotes a few sentences to film and briefly outlines how his "pole" theory is seen in the work of D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin.

In concluding, Jakobson points out that the use of metaphor by the artists of Romanticism has received much critical attention, but the similar relationship between realism and metonym has been largely ignored.

Although discussions of metaphor and metonym have become somewhat passe in contemporary literary theoretical discourse, what continues to make "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles" an interesting and important read is the way Jakobson combines literary, linguistic, and medical/scientific discourse in his truly interdisciplinary piece.    

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Led Zeppelin

My Photo Page
I've recently been boning up on my html and css skills, so I thought I would post a project I worked on for practice: Zeppelin Albums: With Links!
Next time...Roman Jakobson

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Murphy's Tattoos (part 2)

Unlike either the anchor or Antonio’s face, the tattooed figure “16” is a symbol that is presented but provided by the text with no naturalized signification or context to read it within (aside from its being inked on Murphy’s chest). The reader in this instance is forced to create signification of his or her own with little to no aid from Murphy (who dodges questions about what it means) or the chapter’s narrator (who just describes its presence on Murphy’s chest and provides no further commentary). A reader of the “16” is thus challenged to either create significance for this figure or to ignore it. One way a reader can create signification for the enigmatic “16” is to move outside of the text and attempt to find signification from some other source. One example of this strategy is provided by critic Don Gifford who, in his Ulysses Annotated, posits that, “in European slang and numerology the number sixteen meant homosexuality” (544). Once significance is attached to the “16,” this significance can shift the meaning of the other two tattoos on Murphy’s chest. For example, if one reads the “16” the way Don Gifford suggests, as associated with homosexuality, then the presence of the “16” inked near the profile of Antonio’s face could lead a reader to now associate Antonio and Murphy as lovers. Gifford may be correct in his attribution of the number “16” with homosexuality, but this tattoo appears in chapter sixteen of Ulysses. Even if an extra-textual meaning or signification is affixed to a symbol within the text, there is no guarantee that applying this meaning back to the text will elucidate anything. Any meaning a reader or critic may propose about the significance of “16” can be undercut by its appearance in the sixteenth chapter of Ulysses, as this would provide, perhaps, the simplest answer to the meaning of the number. Thus, the problem of assigning definitive signification to a signifier that is not clearly delimited by its text proves to be a precarious task.

The problem of creating meaning is further complicated in chapter sixteen when the reader is forced to question the authenticity of Murphy as a seaman. On at least three separate occasions in the chapter, Murphy’s credibility as a narrator and mariner is called into question. These instances include: his claims to have seen Simon Dedalus in Stockholm shoot two eggs off of bottles over his shoulder [a highly improbable claim]; his confusion regarding the geography of Gibraltar when questioned about it by Bloom; and his presentation of a group of postcards as evidence of his travels, but are addressed to someone else [“Mr. Bloom, without evidencing surprise, unostentatiously turned over the card to peruse the partially obliterated address and postmark. It ran as follows Tarjeta Postal, Senor A Boudin, Galeria Becche, Santiago, Chile. There was no message evidently, as he took particular note.” (512)]. Based on this evidence, it could be concluded that Murphy had never traveled and that he did not receive his tattoos from Antonio in Odessa.

When the possibility of Murphy as a liar and unreliable narrator is considered, one could ultimately come to the conclusion that all meanings and context he provides regarding his tattoos are false and that the meaning one finds therein is compromised. If this is the case, then the reader of chapter sixteen of Ulysses finds him or herself in a position that forces him or her to treat all of the tattoos, and not just the figure “16,” as being without a clear textual context.

Some readers may find this playing with definitive meaning frustrating, or as an end game on Joyce’s part that avers that if meaning is undercut then a text becomes meaningless. Joyce challenges this possible view of meaninglessness, however, with Bloom’s reaction to his discovery of the “false” postcard address: “Though not an implicit believer in the lurid story narrated [by Murphy]...nevertheless it reminded him in a way of a longcherished plan he meant to one day realise some Wednesday or Saturday of traveling to London via long sea” (512). While Murphy’s narrative may be completely false, it does provide Bloom with an avenue to access and reflect on his own life and recall his dream to take a boat trip to London. Whether or not Bloom will ever take this trip to London is left to the reader to decide. Bloom is not concerned with creating signification out of Murphy’s story or tattoos, or very bothered by the fact that everything Murphy says and represents may be false, rather, Bloom uses Murphy to come to a personal understanding about his own life. This may be what Joyce desires of his readers: you may argue and search for meaning where there may or may not be any, but in the end, the meaning that matters is the meaning a signifier signifies to an individual reader and to his or her own “real” life.

Ulysses is a text that creates meaning and signification in a way similar to Murphy’s tattoos. With the tattoos, the reader is presented with threes different symbols (on one space, Murphy’s chest) that create meaning in three differing ways. Likewise, Ulysses is a novel, or singular space, that incorporates many different genres and styles of writing that create meaning in their own unique ways. From the discourse of the newspaper headlines in “Aeolus,” to the dramatic form of “Circe,” and the scientific Q&A of “Ithaca” (not to mention the tour de force of styles co-mingled the “Oxen of the Sun”), Joyce fills each chapter of his novel with a different form of signification ability. This does not mean that the text is meaningless, but that the possibility for meaning approaches limitlessness. By challenging the ability of a reader to arrive at a definitive meaning for his text, Joyce ends up subverting the naturalized meanings of words, symbols, and allusions and creates a text that a reader can interact with, in a different way, each time they approach it.

Next time...Led Zeppelin