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BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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“Oh?”

Sutcliffe nodded, but seemed disinclined to elaborate.

“So then they gave Philip Swallow the chair?” said Persse.

“Not then, oh goodness me, no. No, then we had Dalton, he came from Oxford, until three years ago. He was killed in a car accident. Then they appointed Swallow. Some people would have preferred me, I believe, but I’m getting too old for that sort of thing.”

“Oh, surely not,” said Persse, because Rupert Sutcliffe seemed to hope he would.

“I’ll say one thing,” Sutcliffe volunteered. “If they’d appointed me, they’d have had a Head of Department who stuck to his last, and wasn’t flying off here there and everywhere all the time.”

“Travels a lot, does he—Professor Swallow?”

“Lately he seems to be absent more often than he’s present.”

Persse excused himself and pushed his way through the crowd at the bar to where Angelica was waiting for Dempsey to bring her a drink. “Hallo, how was the lecture?” he greeted her.

“Boring. But there was an interesting discussion of structuralism afterwards.”

“Again? You’ve really got to tell me what structuralism is all about. It’s a matter of urgency.”

“Structuralism?” said Dempsey, coming up with a sherry for Angelica just in time to hear Persse’s plea, and all too eager to show off his expertise. “It all goes back to Saussure’s linguistics. The arbitrariness of the signifier. Language as a system of differences with no positive terms.”

“Give me an example,” said Persse. “I can’t follow an argument without an example.”

“Well, take the words dog and cat. There’s no absolute reason why the combined phonemes d-o-g should signify a quadruped that goes `woof woof’ rather one that goes `miaou’. It’s a purely arbitrary relationship, and there’s no reason why English speakers shouldn’t decide that from tomorrow, d-o-g would signify ‘cat’ and c-a-t, ‘dog’.”

“Wouldn’t it confuse the animals?” said Persse.

“The animals would adjust in time, like everyone else,” said Dempsey. “We know this because the same animal is signified by different acoustic images in different natural languages. For instance, `dog’ is
chien
in French,
Hund
in German,
cane
in Italian, and so on. `Cat’ is
chat
,
Katze
,
gatto
, according to what part of the Common Market you happen to be in. And if we are to believe language rather than our ears, English dogs go ‘
woof woof
, French dogs go `_wouah wouah_’, German dogs go ‘
wau wau
‘ and Italian ones
baau baau
‘.”

“Hallo, this sounds like a game of Animal Snap. Can anyone play?” said Philip Swallow. He had returned to the bar with Morris Zapp, now provided with a lapel badge. “Dempsey—you remember Morris of course?”

“I was just explaining structuralism to this young man,” said Dempsey, when greetings had been exchanged. “But you never did have much time for linguistics, did you Swallow?”

“Can’t say I did, no. I never could remember which came first, the morphemes or the phonemes. And one look at a tree-diagram makes my mind go blank.”

“Or blanker,” said Dempsey with a sneer.

An embarrassed silence ensued. It was broken by Angelica. “Actually,” she said meekly, “Jakobson cites the gradation of positive, comparative and superlative forms of the adjective as evidence that language is not a totally arbitrary system. For instance: blank, blanker, blankest. The more phonemes, the more emphasis. The same is true of other Indo-European languages, for instance Latin:
vacuus, vacuior,, vacuissimus
. There does seem to be some iconic correlation between sound and sense across the boundaries of natural languages.”

The four men gaped at her.

“Who is this prodigy?” said Morris Zapp. “Won’t somebody introduce me?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Philip Swallow. “Miss Pabst—Professor Zapp.”

“Morris, please,” said the American professor, extending his hand, and peering at Angelica’s lapel badge. “Glad to meet you Al.”

“That was marvellous,” said Persse to Angelica, later, at lunch. “The way you put that Dempsey fellow in his place.”

“I hope I wasn’t rude,” said Angelica. “Basically he’s right of course. Different languages divide up the world differently. For instance, this mutton we’re eating. In French there’s only one word for ‘sheep’ and ‘mutton’—_mouton_. So you can’t say ‘dead as mutton’ in French, you’d be saying ‘dead as a sheep’, which would be absurd.”

“I don’t know, this tastes more like dead sheep than mutton to me,” said Persse, pushing his plate aside. An overalled lady with bright yellow curls pushing a trolley piled high with plates of half-eaten food took it from the table. “Finished, love?” she said. “I don’t blame you. Not very nice, is it?”

“Did you write your poem?” said Angelica.

“I’ll let you read it tonight. You have to come to the top floor of Lucas Hall.”

“Is that where your room is?”

“No.”

“Why then?”

“You’ll see.”

“A mystery.” Angelica smiled, wrinkling her nose. “I like a mystery.”

“Ten o’clock on the top floor. The moon will be up by then.”

“Are you sure this isn’t just an excuse for a romantic tryst?”

“Well, you said your research topic was romance…”

“And you thought you’d give me some more material? Alas, I’ve got too much already. I’ve read hundreds of romances. Classical romances and medieval romances, renaissance romances and modern romances. Heliodorus and Apuleius, Chrétien de Troyes and Malory, Ariosto and Spenser, Keats and Barbara Cartland. I don’t need any more data. What I need is a theory to explain it all.”

“Theory?” Philip Swallow’s ears quivered under their silvery thatch, a few places further up the table. “That word brings out the Goering in me. When I hear it I reach for my revolver.”

“Then you’re not going to like my lecture, Philip,” said Morris Zapp.

In the event, not many people did like Morris Zapp’s lecture, and several members of the audience walked out before he had finished. Rupert Sutcliffe, obliged as chairman to sit facing the audience, assumed an aspect of glazed impassivity, but by imperceptible degrees the corners of his mouth turned down at more and more acute angles and his spectacles slid further and further down his nose as the discourse proceeded. Morris Zapp delivered it striding up and down the platform with his notes in one hand and a fat cigar in the other. “You see before you,” he began, “a man who once believed in the possibility of interpretation. That is, I thought that the goal of reading was to establish the meaning of texts. I used to be a Jane Austen man. I think I can say in all modesty I was the Jane Austen man. I wrote five books on Jane Austen, every one of which was trying to establish what her novels meant—and, naturally, to prove that no one had properly understood what they meant before. Then I began a commentary on the works of Jane Austen, the aim of which was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle—historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, structural, Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, existentialist, Christian, allegorical, ethical, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it. So that when each commentary was written, there would be nothing further to say about the novel in question.

“Of course, I never finished it. The project was not so much Utopian as self-defeating. By that I don’t just mean that if successful it would have eventually put us all out of business. I mean that it couldn’t succeed because it isn’t possible, and it isn’t possible because of the nature of language itself, in which meaning is constantly being transferred from one signifier to another and can never be absolutely possessed.

“To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding. If you say something to me I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you. But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were, deviantly, to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they mean to you. And if you think I have not understood the meaning of your message, you do not simply repeat it in the same words, you try to explain it in different words, different from the ones you used originally; but then the it is no longer the it that you started with. And for that matter, you are not the you that you started with. Time has moved on since you opened your mouth to speak, the molecules in your body have changed, what you intended to say has been superseded by what you did say, and that has already become part of your personal history, imperfectly remembered. Conversation is like playing tennis with a ball made of Krazy Putty that keeps coming back over the net in a different shape.

“Reading, of course, is different from conversation. It is more passive in the sense that we can’t interact with the text, we can’t affect the development of the text by our own words, since the text’s words are already given. That is what perhaps encourages the quest for interpretation. If the words are fixed once and for all, on the page, may not their meaning be fixed also? Not so, because the same axiom, every decoding is another encoding, applies to literary criticism even more stringently than it does to ordinary spoken discourse. In ordinary spoken discourse, the endless cycle of encoding-decoding-encoding may be terminated by an action, as when for instance I say, ‘The door is open,’ and you say, ‘Do you mean you would like me to shut it?’ and I say, ‘If you don’t mind,’ and you shut the door—we may be satisfied that at a certain level my meaning has been understood. But if the literary text says, ‘The door was open,’ I cannot ask the text what it means by saying that the door was open, I can only speculate about the significance of that door—opened by what agency, leading to what discovery, mystery, goal? The tennis analogy will not do for the activity of reading—it is not a to-and-fro process, but an endless, tantalising leading on, a flirtation without consummation, or if there is consummation, it is solitary, masturbatory. [Here the audience grew restive.] The reader plays with himself as the text plays upon him, plays upon his curiosity, desire, as a striptease dancer plays upon her audience’s curiosity and desire.

“Now, as some of you know, I come from a city notorious for its bars and nightclubs featuring topless and bottomless dancers. I am told—I have not personally patronized these places, but I am told on the authority of no less a person than your host at this conference, my old friend Philip Swallow, who has patronized them, [here several members of the audience turned in their seats to stare and grin at Philip Swallow, who blushed to the roots of his silver-grey hair] that the girls take off all their clothes before they commence dancing in front of the customers. This is not striptease, it is all strip and no tease, it is the terpsichorean equivalent of the hermeneutic fallacy of a recuperable meaning, which claims that if we remove the clothing of its rhetoric from a literary text we discover the bare facts it is trying to communicate. The classical tradition of striptease, however, which goes back to Salome’s dance of the seven veils and beyond, and which survives in a debased form in the dives of your Soho, offers a valid metaphor for the activity of reading. The dancer teases the audience, as the text teases its readers, with the promise of an ultimate revelation that is infinitely postponed. Veil after veil, garment after garment, is removed, but it is the delay in the stripping that makes it exciting, not the stripping itself; because no sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another. When we have seen the girl’s underwear we want to see her body, when we have seen her breasts we want to see her buttocks, and when we have seen her buttocks we want to see her pubis, and when we see her pubis, the dance ends—but is our curiosity and desire satisfied? Of course not. The vagina remains hidden within the girl’s body, shaded by her pubic hair, and even if she were to spread her legs before us [at this point several ladies in the audience noisily departed] it would still not satisfy the curiosity and desire set in motion by the stripping. Staring into that orifice we find that we have somehow overshot the goal of our quest, gone beyond pleasure in contemplated beauty; gazing into the womb we are returned to the mystery of our own origins. Just so in reading. The attempt to peer into the very core of a text, to possess once and for all its meaning, is vain—it is only ourselves that we find I here, not the work itself. Freud said that obsessive reading (and I suppose that most of us in this room must be regarded as compulsive readers)—that obsessive reading is the displaced expression of a desire to see the mother’s genitals [here a young man in the audience fainted and was carried out] but the point of the remark, which may not have been entirely appreciated by Freud himself, lies precisely in the concept of displacement. To read is to surrender oneself to an endless displacement of curiosity and desire from one sentence to another, From one action to another, from one level of the text to another. The text unveils itself before us, but never allows itself to be possessed; and instead of striving to possess it we should take pleasure in its teasing.”

Morris Zapp went on to illustrate his thesis with a number of passages from classic English and American literature. When he sat down, there was scattered and uneven applause.

“The floor is now open for discussion,” said Rupert Sutcliffe, surveying the audience apprehensively over the rims of his glasses. “Are there any questions or comments?”

There was a long silence. Then Philip Swallow stood up. “I have listened to your paper with great interest, Morris,” he said. “Great interest. Your mind has lost none of its sharpness since we first met. But I am sorry to see that in the intervening years you have succumbed to the virus of structuralism.”

BOOK: David Lodge - Small World
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