Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: May, 2015

Our quarrel with the foe

“Those that I fight I do not hate / those that I guard I do not love” said Yeats’s Irish airman in the First World War. Indeed, during the time of that huge, senseless conflict of a hundred years ago in Europe, the participants must often have reflected how little they hated the men on the opposing side, and how little “quarrel with the foe” (to quote another famous poem of that time) they personally had.

Hatred remains a reality, but it seems to be more characteristic of civil wars and rebellions than of conventional war, despite the immense destructiveness of the latter. Hatred can fester in a society and never get worse than the occasional riot or pogrom. A long time ago, the sociologist Georg Simmel developed a theory of hatred. Investigating religious differences in Switzerland, he found that “the degeneration of a difference in convictions into hatred and fight occurs only when there were essential, original similarities between the parties… ‘Respect for the enemy’ is usually absent where the hostility has arisen on the basis of previous solidarity.”

So, in Simmel’s reasoning, in order for there to be hatred, there has first to be solidarity. Spinoza had much the same idea when he said of the man who hates: “his hatred will be in proportion to the strength of his former love.” In other words, we hate what we once loved, or at least what has got too close to us. It is precisely because of the former closeness and lack of boundaries that the violent emotion of hatred is needed to create a boundary between self and other at all costs.

Hence we find brother hating brother in a civil war, or one denomination hating another denomination of the same religion. Examples abound both in recent history and, alas, in the world today.

The only solution to hatred is to admit that love and hatred are mixed up together, and that some people are too “charged” with emotion, too close to us for us to be rational about them. Then perhaps we can cool down and let them go. But first of all we have to admit that we hate them. This may be hard to do, because hatred has become unmentionable, inadmissible, it is not supposed to be. Yet we do hate. We hate collectively and individually, whether we admit it or not. We hate other groups we are opposed to in our society, and we hate individuals who have done us wrong. Always these are people who have got too close and that we are trying to keep at a distance, out of our hearts.

Before we condemn hatred elsewhere in the world, we have to recognise the hatred that festers within ourselves, even in the lesser form of resentment and hostility, and exclaim ruefully “where is the man who is free of hate?”

Once we make that admission to ourselves, we will be freer to engage with cultures totally unlike our own, but with whom we find ourselves having to share what seems like a shrinking world.

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Writing the endless oral sentence (2)

Coming back to architect Patrick Stewart’s Ph.D. thesis in one long sentence, a debate has been going on for a long time about conforming to standard language.

In fact, since compulsory universal education was introduced in the 19th century, the powers that be have been trying to get youngsters to speak the official language in a standard way and to write it in a standard way too. First, the idea was to eradicate all other minority languages and dialects, and replace these with the official language. Much more recently, educators have started saying: all right, you can keep your own language or dialect – but here in school you are going to learn the standard, official language.

To be sure, this has advantages. As Walter Ong pointed out, although every dialect is consistent with itself and not “wrong” or “incorrect”, the standard language is a grapholect, a dialect based on writing, with resources more highly-developed than any spoken dialect, and therefore very useful for life in modern literate society. “It is bad pedagogy”, Ong said, “to insist that because there is nothing ‘wrong’ with other dialects, it makes no difference whether or not speakers of another dialect learn the grapholect, which has resources of a totally different order of magnitude.”

The trouble is that the grapholect, as Ong admits, isn’t just another dialect. It is the dialect of the powers that be and is associated with their values. What’s more, it eats up spoken dialects and their rich tradition. It monopolises public discourse, and restricts other dialects to the kitchen table.

It’s great that everybody learns to express themselves in the standard language. The trouble is, if it’s not your language, you lose yourself, you cease to be yourself, you become untrue to yourself. Speaking and writing the standard language, you may get a hearing in public, but it won’t be you that is speaking any more.

And that, I think, is Patrick Stewart’s point.

Writing the endless oral sentence

Patrick Stewart is a Vancouver architect who is noted for his use of Native Canadian architectural motifs and techniques. He himself is a Nisga’a. He has recently written a thesis on native elements in architecture to qualify for a Ph.D. at UBC. This was reported in the newspapers, as he insisted on writing the text in an unusual way: almost without any punctuation, and not in a standard academic style.

Stewart’s dissertation, as he said himself, is “one long, run-on sentence, from cover to cover”, the aim being to recall the oral tradition from which he comes, and at the same time to try to “decolonize” the language. Now obviously the proper way to achieve that was to write the text in Nisga’a, which does have a written as well as a spoken form. It seems he did this, but the professors wouldn’t let him present the thesis except in English; so what he has done is the next best thing.

This writing approach reminded me of Das Kalkwerk, a novel by Thomas Bernhard which caused a minor sensation when it was published in Austria in 1970. The text consists of an oral report of the events that make up the novel, and it consists of one sentence that goes on for the whole book. In fact, as I recall, it begins with three dots and ends with three dots, so readers are given the impression that they are getting to listen in on a conversation that has already started and having to move on before the speaker is really finished.

It also made me think of the French philosopher Deleuze and his idea of bégayer sa langue (“stammering your language”). Deleuze thought that writers from minority groups, if they don’t write in their minority language, do peculiar things with the majority language. They write it like a foreigner. He thought that majority-culture writers would do well to imitate this – to write like foreigners. This was what he called “stammering your language”, and the examples he gave, from Beckett and others, involved breaking the patterns of the language up and repeating them ad infinitum.

Getting back to Stewart’s dissertation, some people find it an intriguing novelty while others think it is a silly contradiction. If he wants to reach the academic reader, or even the general reader (the critics object), why doesn’t he just address them in a normal, informative manner? If he doesn’t want to do this, he shouldn’t bother writing a Ph.D. thesis. On the other hand, a more favourable judgement would be that he is signalling his own unique voice and perspective by doing something to lift himself out of what George Steiner, himself a university man, has called “the grey morass of academic writing”.

A surfeit of words

I do not live in the English-speaking world. Perhaps it is because of that that my bookcase contains a complete set of the Oxford English Dictionary, and that I consult it often.

The OED is a monument to the English language. It is a historical and etymological dictionary and a dictionary of current usage all in one. It gives all the senses of every word, and a series of illustrative quotations. It runs to twenty large volumes.

If the truth were told, English is a bit of a dinosaur: I mean, too big for its own survival. For a long time I have realized that there are too many English words. Far too many. Too many words that mean the same thing, or that have acquired shades of meaning they didn’t have at the beginning. Hence Roget’s Thesaurus, a monstrosity that could only exist in English and should be kept out of the hands of the young. (I had one when I was a youngster, and it did me no good.)

People who write in English have long tried to make a virtue of this vice of excess vocabulary. They aim at elegant variation and avoidance of repetition. They resort to many ways of saying the same thing. Is this a good idea? Hardly. Writers in English, if they care about the language, should swim against the tide; they should labour to say what they mean, and mean what they say, and no more. This recommendation should be extended to the ESL word, especially India, where florid exuberance often leads to silliness.

There is another consequence of this business of too many words which affects the native English speaker – and I have only slowly come to realize this. There are so many words we think we know the meaning of, and we don’t. We learn them from context growing up. We hear them from adults, or read them in novels, and guess what they mean – often inaccurately. This is true of all languages, but in English it is worse because there are so many words.

In my present position, far from the centres of English, I realize how little we know what English words mean. I find myself thinking of English words, and asking myself all the time: what does that word really mean? And then I go to the OED – God bless it – and see the history, the etymology, the obsolete senses, the acquired senses, the changes of meaning, the acquired connotations.

I am learning the language all over again.