Modernity and the Existential Entrance into Language
Contradiction and Complexity
Amidst the contradictions and complexities of modernity, the modern subject is forced to embrace the orderlessness of things, or attempt that impossible retour à l’ordre. Modernity disrupts the coherence of traditional idealism, forcing modernism to contradiction and complexity, for art acts as a mirror held up against the world, reflecting its conditions, trying to make sense of which.
In this same way, philosophy reflects the conditions of the world, and the edifice of traditional idealism fractures into later-modern philosophy. The metaphysical syntheses, and developments of Idealism are almost too perfect, but this accords with the moment of the 19th Century, in which there is a hope of becoming of nature, equilibrium, self-knowledge, of Perpetual Peace. In the early modern period, the world is one of civil war, theology, primitive accumulation, and a not-yet-rationalised colonialism. The hope of this period is the minimisation of war, but this is not reality, and this is the traumatic disjunction by which modernity arrives. In modernity, there is no hope, there is no metaphysical beauty, or sublimity, to provide any ideological relief, nor explanation of reality. Whilst modernity strives for Kant’s ideal, it churns upon the expansive logic of capital, by which perpetual conflict is the only thing which can result. Modernism thus finds itself ramming up against Idealism, whereby one champions the fruits of the Enlightenment, yet the intense division of labour necessitated by capital, means that Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ becomes a fantasy. Rodin, through Yank, thus serves as the point of contradiction- the thinker amongst the hard labourers upon the ship, and the consumers who gawk through the shop-windows. The rupture of this edifice throws meaning, language, metaphor, narrative into crises, and this is the difficulty for the modernist: to create new meanings, new languages, new metaphors, new ways of saying things, and new things to talk about.
Loy recognises that something new must be made from the inherited ruins: ‘She made a moth’s-net / Of metaphor and miracles / And on the incandescent breath of civilisations / She chased by moon-and-morn light / Philosopher’s toes’. Loy here echoes Marx’s sentiment: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ This requires a rearrangement of things against what presents itself as natural, and against the discomforts of the audience in confronting the modernist work, ‘Through the activity of pushing / THINGS / In the opposite direction / To that which they are lethargically willing to go / … While the occasional snap / Of actual production / Stings the face of the public’. Although there is an abandonment of rhyme and meter, there remains a residual romanticism, as seen in her alliteration and assonance- ‘wrists flicked / Flickering as he flacked them / His wrists explained things’.
There is an erosion of the ideal, of tradition, of that once stable relationship between the ‘particular and horizontal’, between means and ends, between man and woman: ‘You can hear the heart-beating / Accoupling / of the masculine and feminine / Universal principles / Mating / And the martyrdom of morning’. This erosion is expressed in the structure of the work itself- disjointed, neurotic. There is thus a resistance to idealism: ‘We have been taught / Love is a God … / Virgins for sale / Yet where are our coins’. Love is an empty ideal, a fiction of the imaginary: ‘Looking for the little love-tale / That never came true / At the door of the house’. Rather, man and woman are ‘Human Cylinders’, by which sex is void of intimacy, reduced to intellectual correspondence, like pistons pumping at one another. These automatons float among the ‘litter’, on a ‘sunless afternoon’, in contrast to a Shakespearean sonnet, littered with flowery imagery. Loy thus produces a language marked by a deformed syntax, in which she rejects the poetic order of things, placing adverb after adverb: ‘Corporeally transcendentally consecutively / conjunctively’. Loy brings in science and machine, with topics, language typically deemed unfit for poetry, mechanically shifting, akin to the churn of commercial consumerism. In the same way, as Orwell recognises, there has been amassed a wasteland of ‘worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power’, by which the modernist aims to produce new metaphors to depict modernity. Loy returns the metaphor to the natural moment of birth, representing the modernist project itself. And Loy mosaically marries different langues under one langage, ‘depoeticising’ rhythm and beauty, but empirically searching for the right signifier, by which Loy uses ‘cymophanous’, ‘amative’, ‘etoliate’, and ‘Parturition’, an ugly Latinism for birth. Loy brings the sublime down to the profane, speaking of Firenze, perhaps more truly capturing things: ‘Some think it is a woman with flowers in her hair / But NO it is a city with stones on the streets’.
O’Neill does a service to the truth of modernity, and that is the truth of class contradiction, through the transformation of the proletarian Yank. Yank is initially an individualist, yet stumbles into self-consciousness, and thus stands in for the present moment, caught between past and future, whereby Paddy represents the past, and Long, a class-conscious worker, represents the future. In contradiction to which is Mildred, a wealthy heiress who wants to see how the workers live. O’Neill presents a raw dialogue of the pure worker, perhaps in aim at an abstraction, a search for true essence, the essence of the worker subject, opposed to the conventions of Realism. Yank speaks in an aggressive Brooklyn accent, in which his pronunciation is ‘improper’, and affirms Loy’s mechanisation of man: ‘And I’m steel-steel-steel! I’m de muscles in steele, de punch behind it!’ Here, O’Neill produces his new modernist language which contracts into bullet-points, serving to abstract from appearances, but swells into exclamations and explosions. Thus, O’Neill recognises the Hegelian development that essence is not something behind appearance, but essence emerges through appearance- essence is appearance- which is so achieved through this proletarianisation of dialogue. And with this brings a transvaluation of values, by which the sublime is made profane, and the profane made sublime, this dialectical mediation between Yank and Rodin. O’Neill brings the divine, white woman of the monological ruling class down into the polyphonic space of the debased workers, expressed in the multitude denoted by ‘VOICES’, and Yank appears to her as a ‘hairy ape’, and this serves as his naturalising metaphor. But here too there remains a residual romanticism, in which O’Neill keeps the ideal intact, whereby ‘the moment of ecstatic freedom … the end of the quest … the joy of belonging’ is in the sailing aboard the ship, to be realised as the worker’s utopia.
So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. I knew that it had been, not that they had dirty noses, but that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and that only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream. I knew that it had been, not that my aloneness had to be violated over and over each day, but that it had never been violated until Cash came. Not even by Anse in the nights. He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that any more than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter.
Although much of modernism tends to concern itself with the inner, Faulkner is concerned with the outer, yet the middle of his journey across Yoknapatawpha County is underpinned by the voice of the dead Addie Bundren. Faulkner here is interested in the ‘interstices of language and the profound aloneness of the human condition despite language’. This existential alienation begins with the family: ‘the human drama begins with an infant’s cry of desire, calling not for the mother’s presence but for the mother’s need to recognise the infant’s subjectivity by acknowledging her own absence … This is ‘an event out of which three things are born at once: the subject, the object, in which the child’s need is annulled, and the other [the mother], addressee of the cry.’’
Addie’s voice is trapped in this patriarchal order, which inflicts a ‘suffocating pressure upon the male and female need to love’, yet she is that thing which marks the collapse of that design, the part-of-no-part, and Addie is acutely aware of her social-linguistic oppression in the phallocentric order. This order is that which structures language, yet ‘language is such a dangerous gift: it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonises us’. It is an inescapable entrapment for all human communication resides in these linguistic structures. However, as Addie identifies, language is not a code, where there is a stable one-to-one correspondence between the sign and referent, signifier and signified. Language has both symbolic, and imaginary dimensions, for ‘[t]here is something in the symbolic function of human discourse that cannot be eliminated, and that is the role played in it by the imaginary’, which correspond to the signifier, and signified, respectively. In Faulkner, this disjunct in the sign is brought out through Addie- there is a disconnection between things and words, a lack in language brought by ‘swinging and twisting and never touching’ each other with words.
So, it is impossible to say anything meaningful about love. But whilst love is a purely imaginary phenomenon, it has effects in the symbolic-linguistic order. Love is fundamentally autoerotic: ‘it’s one’s own ego that one loves in love, one’s own ego made real on the imaginary level’, by which there is some imaginary reciprocity: ‘to love is, essentially, to wish to be loved’. This reciprocity constitutes the ‘illusion of love’, a fantasy of ‘fusion with the beloved which makes up for the absence of any sexual relationship’, which is the case for Addie as her ‘aloneness’ is violated ‘Not even by Anse in the nights’. Thus, Addie’s frustration is not only in the symbolic (language), but also in the imaginary (love). Even ‘love’ itself is a void: ‘He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time.’ Her ‘aloneness’ is only violated by the birth of Cash, yet even here, ‘motherhood’ is unable to capture the experience of motherhood. Only somebody who has experienced can understand, and this is the basis of Addie’s existential deadlock, in which she questions language itself- ‘the words appear to be inadequate for what they actually mean’. Addie realises that she has been ‘tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge’. Thus, the real deception is not what she originally thought, Anse, but language itself, for ‘love’ becomes ‘marriage’, and then ‘children’. Addie did not want children, but now she is confronted with the reality that she does, and that mortality follows thereafter, by which she plans revenge against the tangible manifestation of her deception, that is, Anse.
Addie had likely never been made familiar with feminist theory, or terms such as ‘patriarchal construct’, but she muses upon the inadequacy of language in expressing the reality they represent, ‘motherhood’, ‘fear’, ‘pride’, ‘love’, ‘sin’, and ‘salvation’. Such mere words/signifiers for such grand concepts/signifieds leads to Addie to believe that these words have been merely made up, ‘a shape to fill a lack’ that it can never fully inhabit. Addie explicitly recognises that language is a human construction, that there had to be somebody to construct it, and that this constructor had never experienced childbirth or motherhood. Thus, language is a masculine invention, but this discomfort in language is not restricted to the woman’s experience (childbirth, motherhood), but elevated to humanity (pride, fear), and this is man’s fundamental alienation. This is not merely contingent upon the historical-political conditions, but Faulkner is saying something about the very condition of being human, an existential deadlock, being wrapped in one’s own ‘package of skin’. Thus, this alienating experience is not resigned to the mother Addie, but also Darl and Vardaman, her sons. Darl has difficulty in finding the right words for things: ‘And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.’ Vardaman cannot seize his experience in language, there is some inscrutable excess: ‘‘I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls.’ But Addie’s deadness, her ‘speaking from the void between is and not-is makes her the perfect vehicle for Faulkner to describe the indescribable, approach the unapproachable, express the inexpressible, as he so gracefully does, does-not’. And as her chapter is in the middle of the journey, the journey itself becomes expressive of this void, which describes the burial of the 19th Century mother, in affirmation of the new 20th Century family.
- Kant, I, 1795, 1917, Perpetual Peace, translated by M.C. Smith, George Allen and Unwin, New York.
- Lacan, J, 1966, Écrits, Seuil, Paris.
- Loy, M, 1996, The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, Harper-Collins, United States.
- O’Neill, E, 2003, The Hairy Ape, Project Gutenberg, <https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4015>.
- Orwell, G, 1946, ‘Politics and the English Language’.
- Zizek, S, 2006, How to Read Lacan, Verso Books, London.
- Faulkner, W, 1935, As I Lay Dying, Chatto & Windus, United States.
- Flaum, M, 2004, ‘Elucidating Addie Bundren’, Teaching Faulkner, no. 22, pp. 4–7.
- Wannamaker, A, 1995, ‘Viewing Addie Bundren Through a Feminist Lens’, Teaching Faulkner, no. 7, pp. 5–6.
- Weinstein, P.M., 1995, ‘Lost and Found in Lacan: Faulkner and Psychology: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1991 by Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie’, The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 555–63.