Hitting The Spot

The lovely davidbdale whose 299 word novels provide exquisite templates of how flash fiction ought to be, was kind enough to forward to me an Oliver Sacks essay he thought I might appreciate. And what a cracker the essay is: in it Sacks describes how a speech by Ronald Regan was met with gales of laughter and derision by a group of especially insightful mental patients. These patients were suffering from a condition called aphasia, a disorder of the nervous system that renders words meaningless. However, in this condition, Sacks describes how the sufferers find their comprehension oddly compensated by an increased sensitivity to all the tonal, emphatic, suggestive qualities in a speaker’s voice. In consequence, aphasiacs understand so well what is being said to them that Sacks suggests it is impossible to lie to one successfully, and that their abilities have been likened to the innate primal insightfulness of dogs. Hence their immediate response to Ronald Regan’s speech is an inability to take him seriously. But this does make their condition a somewhat paradoxical one and Sacks describes how,

‘to demonstrate their aphasia, one has to go to extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extraverbal cues – tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture) : one had to remove all of this (which might involve total concealment of one’s person, and total depersonalisation of one’s voice, even to using a computerised voice synthesizer) in order to reduce speech to pure words’.

What an intriguing perspective on language and its relationship to our identity and our modes of self-expression! The two layers of language that Sacks is pointing to instantly made me think of the distinction Julia Kristeva (a French psychoanalyst) draws between the semiotic and the symbolic. The symbolic refers to the ‘pure words’ that Sacks talks about, language as a straightforward vehicle for communication. The semiotic, however, is where all the interest lies, and where I think I can see the level of language to which Sack’s aphasiacs respond. The semiotic refers to the musicality of language, its rhythm and rhyme and onomatopoeia, its lyrical, ambiguous, poetic qualities that seem to insist on being meaningful whilst failing to refer to anything specific. Poetry, and some experimental fiction for example, is understood to have a high semiotic content.

Now for Kristeva, the semiotic and the symbolic are mutually essential if language is going to work. She traces the semiotic back to the baby’s earliest experiences of language, and the universe of sound sensations in which it lives; its mother’s cooing and babbling, her heartbeat, the flow of sound in which words cannot be distinguished (rather in the way you or I might hear an unknown foreign language). In this semiotic world everything is potentially full of meaning for the baby that has yet to learn to speak, but whose noises represent an overflowing of something – joy, sadness, anger, need – that bubbles up out of it into the world along with wind and regurgitated milk. Our earliest experiences of language, the ones we have before we have anything specific to say, are of a pleasurable means of getting rid of an inner excess. We are compelled to language, driven to it by our bodies, every bit as much as we are intellectually engaged with it in our minds. Once we learn to speak, the semiotic is never truly eradicated from language, instead it remains as a kind of internal melting point, where emotions, sensations, feelings might seep and surge over the barrier of communication, making language say at once less and more than it was intended to.

Now Kristeva is interested in the link between the semiotic and the symbolic in relation to another disorder: depression and melancholia. As she understands it, the depressive’s wall of silence is a result of that upsurging, overflowing semiotic falling away from the words that could express it. Language feels meaningless and pointless; it just doesn’t scratch the right spot. However, the fact that a surprisingly large percentage of great authors were melancholics indicates an alternative relationship to that troubling semiotic. For some authors, their life work (according to Kristeva) was in searching and searching for the right words to embody their sensations, questing for the most powerful forms of expression they could find to finally reunite the two layers of language – words and the sense of their having a certain fullness of meaning – in a satisfying way. Kristeva doesn’t believe that artists have ever cured themselves by writing, but she regularly suggests that it is a relatively successful way of holding the madness and the despair at bay.

Now, where this all takes me is to pinpoint the layer of language that Sacks’ aphasiacs tune into and Kristeva partially identifies as the semiotic, to understand why Ronald Regan’s speech lies, and why great fiction tells the truth. In the former, the two levels move away from one another; Regan’s words are undermined by the subtext that says something quite different. In the latter, however, the two layers of language come together in a mutually enhancing way. Great writers know how to tap into and express the semiotic in their works, and so what they say speaks to us at a profound level. I like to think of this layer of other meaning, beyond and within communication, as the defining characteristic of the literary. And our ability, from birth, to hear and express it, to tap into it and to play with it, is what makes us all fundamentally literary creatures, in a basic instinctual way.

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11 thoughts on “Hitting The Spot

  1. I’ve heard the story of Regan and the apashiacs before. It does well to illustrate that words are more than just words, that the semiotic, as you bring in Kristeva to explain, also plays an important role that can either enhance or undermine the words. It plays out differently between literature and speaking, but I like the way you connect the two. It is also a good reminder, at least for me, that it’s not only about the words. We forget or neglect the semiotic at our own risk.

  2. I could be coy and say I had no idea you’d work such magic on the Sacks essay, but it probably wouldn’t fool anybody. The good neurologist did a nice job of explaining how one part works without the other; it required a Litlove to put the pieces back together in such a convincing and illuminating way! Now . . . what to send you next. And thank you from the bottom of my heart for the beautiful link at the top of the page!

  3. Stefanie – you are quite right – there is a distinction between speech and writing, because the former includes body language (which Sacks discusses). But I really like the thought that there’s this big public arena of shared language which we somehow make our own by processing language through us, in such a way that it comes out coloured and toned by our secret inner selves. David – no, it’s me who needs to thank you for introducing me to such an interesting author! And I never got near the other side of the essay which is all about lying and what Sacks intriguingly calls our desire to be deceived. That’s a post for another day. I was sorely tempted to take one of your posts and do a little semiotic analysis on it, but I didn’t have space for both theory and practice… Hmmm, tempting to do another day, though! Diana – hello and thank you very much!

  4. Ah good – head-spinning time again. Just got it under control too! The comments about babies put me in mind of how young children and some of rest of us love rhythm and rhyme (nursery rhymes, etc), just for sonic fun of it. Then there’s nonsenes poetry which seems somehow to make sense, perhaps because the meaning is in the sounds and structures – ‘Jabberwocky’ for instance – or these copy the same templates of language as “normal” language. I used to delight in the sounds of Dylan Thomas’ poems, even when I was very uncertain of the meaning. On the other hand how can we talk about an author’s truth being a perfect fit between the basic meaning and the semiotic, when different readers can see different varieties of truth in the same piece, if I understand you aright? I’m sure you’ll explain it in that lucid manner you have.

  5. Ah dear Bookboxed, that’s a good question and I’m going to give you a fudgy answer. I think the semiotic has a preverbal truth – a gut instinct to it, if you like, that we can all recognise. But how you put that preverbal truth into words is a matter for debate, and five people might do it in five different ways. That’s how come the earth is scattered with so many literary critics, all jostling one another to tell it ‘like it really is’. For the baby, everything is meaningful, but poor old adults only have chopped up fragments of that primal sea of sound, and we are forever trying to get back in touch with it, one way or another. Well, I think so.

  6. I wonder if this is why some humour becomes “Classic”. The word and sound play in the Goon Show and in Monty Python, the incongruity of John Cleese’s behaviour in Fawlty Towers. It taps into that pre-verbal semiotic space within the brain. The same place the Jabberwocky, the Mad Hatter and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum inhabit.
    Your wonderful essay also tells me just why I am not a successful writer – I am not depressed enough for long enough 🙂

  7. I found this post fascinating. I studied Linguistics when I was at university and am revisiting some of the themes in the degree I have started now. You post reminded me why I cared about the subject.

  8. Archie – the delight in nonsense is most certainly semiotic in origin. If it’s not too convoluted to say it, I’m pleased you are not depressed enough to be a great writer. Carry on being a great Archie. Kate – I have always found that move into language to be one of the most fascinating parts of human development. Good luck with your degree! Courtney – I’ve only just come to Sacks, thanks to David, and what a writer he is! I’m really looking forward to more of his work.

  9. Pingback: Why write? (or read? or ride my bike?) « Of Books and Bicycles

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