Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: July, 2011

On Learning a Language

Learning a language is not just about memorising grammar and vocabulary (though without these, better to be a carpenter without tools and wood), and nor is it a matter of simply finding one’s way in an alien culture (though, again, without this, better to be an invading soldier). To learn a language is to learn to fail consistently. Fail again, fail better. It is not so much a tale of increasing glory as of diminishing despair. Perhaps the errors begin in the classroom, that patch of land where mistakes fall like seeds to the soil, cultivated, honed and raised by a teacher whose guiding principle must be forgiveness if ever her students’ wrongs are to grow into rights. But here, surrounded by others making the same errors, with no natives in sight (except the teacher herself, of course, but who doesn’t judge), failing is a gentle thing. It is only on being pitched into the streets of the country whose words feel like stones in the mouth that the soft – if stern – gaze of the teacher fades to a distant memory.

Learning a language in the country in which it is spoken is to undergo a series of humiliations. At home, unnoticed by everyone, your speech was invisible and inaudible because universal: you blended in. But here, say one word and the eyes will fix you instantly, single you out as the one who doesn’t belong. You will incite caution, interest, malice, kindness, humour, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – desire. Everywhere you go you will be surrounded by a thin veil of strangeness; no matter how hospitable your hosts, the inner precincts of their life together are out of bounds to you. You will remain forever outside the temple.

You are no longer in control. To learn a language you must die to yourself. Accept that you will make embarrassing mistakes, ones which sometimes shame you – but sweetly, nostalgically – to look back on. Each wrongly uttered verb, each false agreement of noun and adjective, every hilarious confusion of vocabulary – all of them accompanied by the gentle laughter of those who accept you, but to whom you do not belong – all of these are small, felicitous wounds. Nicks of the blade. And when you come to speak these words again, correctly this time, you will utter, not so much a word, as a memory. The language itself becomes a tissue of shamings and souvenirs, such that the past is emotionally built into the future you’re trying to speak. The words, like you, bear their scars and these you sense in all their ambivalence on the tongue.

Learning a language is like learning to speak for the second time: but this time we remember.

Thoughts on Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work

One of the most striking features of this book is its Latinity. The ratio of Latin to Anglo-Saxon- or Greek-origin words must surely be tipped very highly in Rome’s favour. There are certain passages that would remain literally incomprehensible to someone who lacked knowledge of Latin or of a Romance language. In itself, this is not necessarily a great crime, but as one progresses throughout this remarkable memoir, it comes to assume a wider significance.

Gillian Rose – whose works of philosophy, I admit at the outset, I’m yet to read – is acutely attuned to the ethical implications of language. Whether it be the shocking revelation of her dying grandfather’s knowledge of the enemy tongue (High German), or her inheritance of this forbidden fruit by teaching herself German using the works of – madness! – Theodor W. Adorno, she understands that a language is not simply a neutral medium for the channelling of information, but is bound up with a whole way of life, or ways of life. In many ways, the types of language we use determine the limits of our dispositions and possibilities for self-transformation; they are repositories of sedimented and accumulated wisdom and folly, of prejudice, insight and blindness, in which and out of which we are blessed or doomed to set up home together. To be born into a language is to be born into a whole culture, itself an amalgam of past and ongoing struggles.

That Rose was originally dyslexic, and that she came to experience her overcoming of dyslexia as one of the defining battles of her life, is not insignificant. Language, that communal medium par excellence, confronted her as an object with which to be struggled. And struggle is all for Rose: “Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon” (a timely riposte to New Age ‘religions’ which seek to cleanse reality of its frictions). She cannot even accept advice from her doctors without plaguing them with awkward, cutting questions. In fact, all of the figures who feature in her memoir are, in some way or another, agonistic. Whether they be gays who dress up as drag queens in New York, or seemingly ‘nice’ old women who are secretly driven by the flames of lust, the people with whom Rose feels affinity are those who defy convention. In other words, they are quite literally ‘eccentrics’.

When the centre is dominated by mediocre prudes, eccentrics are a source of hope: a vision of how the world might be beyond those damagingly limiting modes of thinking and behaving that are now in place. But, in a certain sense, they are also self-exiles. They remove themselves from the unbearable stuffiness and mediocrity of the centre to attempt to build a life for themselves on its outskirts, but they often do so by leaving everyone else behind.

And this is the central contradiction that I sense at the heart of the book. On the one hand, Rose is a fiercely brave, intelligent woman determined to spurn the false, easy solutions of postmodernity so as to stay true to the difficulties and risks of human love: “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.” On the other hand, however, there seems to have been a risk that Rose was unable to take: the risk of the centre, of the non-eccentric. It is here that her Latinity assumes its ultimate significance: in using its various precisions exactly to articulate her and our ethical predicaments, she adopts a language so bristling with philosophical exactitude that it suggests a distrust of everydayness. This is clearly not to suggest that if Rose had only written like Hemingway then all our problems would be solved. But it certainly is to suggest that part of love’s work must surely be the common working-through of boring, mundane frictions, not all of which require transmutation into the celestial altitudes of Latinate discourse. In other words, the problem is not the content of what she says, and nor is it the form; rather, it is the content of the form. The esoteric verbiage is at one with the eccentric withdrawal, thus making her ethical principles of engagement and readiness-to-be-wounded very difficult to put into practice, except in certain limited situations.

This is clearly a serious problem, but as Rose well knew: it is not one that can be resolved in thought alone. It requires a common framework of practices. Rose’s unforgettable contribution, difficult as I find it to accept in its totality, is surely of the utmost importance in developing those practices.

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