Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Duplicity, Language Profusion and the Personal

From George Steiner's After Babel:
'A comparison between different languages shows that the point about words is never their truth or adequacy for otherwise there would not be so many languages.' Or to put it simply: there is a direct, crucial correlation between the 'un-truthful' and fictive genius of human speech on the one hand and the great multiplicity of languages on the other.
Most probably there is a common molecular biology and neuro-physiology to all human utterance. It seems very likely that all languages are subject to constraints and similarities determined by the design of the brain, by the vocal equipment of the species and, it might be, by certain highly generalised, wholly abstract efficacies of logic, of optimal form, and relation. But the ripened humanity of language, its indispensable conservative and creative force lie in the extraordinary diversity of actual tongues, in the bewildering profusion and eccentricity (though there is no centre) of their modes. The psychic need for particularity, for 'in-clusion' and invention is so intense that it has, during the whole of man's history until very lately, outweighed the spectacular, obvious material advantage of mutual comprehension and linguistic unity. In that sense, the Babel myth is once again a case of symbolic inversion: mankind was not destroyed but on the contrary kept vital and creative by being scattered among tongues. But in this sense also there is en every act of translation -- and specially where it succeeds -- a touch of treason. Hoarded dreams, patents of life are being taken across the frontier.
Man has 'spoken himself free' of total organic constraint. Language is a constant creation of alternative worlds. There are no limits to the shaping powers of words, proclaims the poet. 'Look,' said Khlebnikov, that virtuoso of extreme statement in his 'Decrees to the Planet', 'the sub obeys my syntax.' Uncertainty of meaning is incipient poetry. In every fixed definition there is obsolescence or failed insight. The teeming plurality of languages enacts fundamentally creative, 'counter-factual' genius and psychic functions of language itself. It embodies a move away from unison and acceptance -- the Gregorian homophonic -- to the polyphonic, ultimately divergent fascination of manifold specificity. Each different tongue offers its own denial of determinism. 'The world, it says, 'can be other.' Ambiguity, polysemy, opaqueness, the violation of grammatical and logical sequences, reciprocal incomprehensions, the capacity to lie -- there are not pathologies of languages but the roots of its genius. Without them the individual and the species would have withered.

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