Sunday, May 01, 2005

Nonsense and language

La vie sera tout jolie....

People are interesting. I hate to state the obvious, but we're all people, yet we spend most of our time trying to figure "people" out. Not just other people, but ourselves.

Jacques Derrida said, "I have one language, and it is not my own." Which is a good place to start a talk about language, because Derrida didn't say that at all. He said, "Je n’ai qu’une langue, or, ce n’est pas la mienne." What's that mean? Why the hell do I care? It's actually far more important than most people realize, especially those who speak one language.

...I hate English majors....

When we study Romantic literature here in the States, we learn a term called a "romantic conceit." Take, for example, Frederick Douglass talking about the slaves' singing

[these songs] told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery...If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd's plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,--and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because "there is no flesh in his obdurate heart."
It's clear that ole' Fred knows exactly how horrible the conditions were, but he could never do justice to the cruelty and emotion with words. That's the romantic conceit. Perhaps it's not the best example, but it's an example nonetheless. still hate English majors......

I met a beautiful Taiwanese girl named Fanfan last year when I was studying in Angers, France. We spent a lot of time together. We had two classes together, and we came to be in the same "group" of friends. In spite of the time we spent together, we never ended up having any very long, profound conversations, because we were learning French together.

Something happened, though, and we gradually started writing to each other more often, until we were talking in some form or another everyday (thanks to the internet, we can talk, "chat," write, etc.). We were both teaching each other French, though it was neither of our native tongues.

Fanfan was/is living in Paris, and I was/am at school in the states. At first, I would come home every afternoon at about 5, and we would talk for several hours, without a pause. Gradually, as this was happening, I started to realize that I was in love with her. I couldn't stop thinking about her.

I would try to translate everything that I was thinking into French, so that I would be able to explain it to her the next time I talked to her.

Not only that, she made me relax. She just smiles at me and starts laughing whenever I go on some diatribe about the CIA is probably using ECHOLON to read everything we wrote to each other (just a hypothetical, not an actual example....I'm not paranoid......[I'm just saying that in case their reading my blog]). Immediately, though, I relax. Which is good for me.

I take things too seriously.

I didn't want to say anything to her, because first of all, what difference did it make when there was 3000 miles of ocean between us, also, she had told me several times that all of her male friends would always end up one day coming out and telling her that they were attracted to her. I didn't want to be another one of those guys. I figured it was better to keep her as a friend then freak her out by telling her that I couldn't stop thinking about her, and never talk to her again as a result.

One day, though, we were joking about someone else saying that they loved me, and she said, "You know what? I love you, too." (in French, obviously). I didn't know if she was joking or not. I was treading on thin ice....

"Tu rigole?" I asked.
"Non," she said.

That was probably the most bittersweet moment of my life. The "sweet" part is pretty obvious...and the "bitter"? A little bit a water that some might call the "Wide Sargaso Sea."

We talked for a long time about it....for instance, about what the hell were we going to do, which was, ultimately, nothing more than keep talking to each other until we could be together again.

Well, as exciting as I'm sure this is for all of you, I'm going to cut to about two months later. It was about three days after Christmas, and we were both getting very frustrated. We were still talking every day, but we wanted to see each other again, we had never actually been spacially "together" since we had realized how we felt. Not to mention, I was very frustrated with the "Debutante" Balls (something even most Americans don't even understnad, myself included, so I'm not going to try to go into it) that I had to go to for the duration of the whole break.

So, it was two o' clock in the morning, and I was looking for a plane ticket to Paris. I was pretty fed up with everything, and I needed to travel again. Well, by an act of God, I found the absolute cheapest ticket to Paris in the history of air travel, and it was leaving the following Monday.

I bought it, of course.

(This part's embarassing, but I'm going to put it out there. It's important for the story) Earlier that same night, I had tried to play a song for her that I had just written but our connection wasn't good and it kept cutting-off, so, after I bought the plane ticket, I wrote her, saying:

La petite jolie follie,

Je pensait un peu, et je m'ai dit, "Peut etre la
semaine prochaine je chanterai pour elle a Paris.
P-quoi pas?"

.....Je ne plaisante pas.......

Donc, je viens d'acheter un billet a Paris.
J'arriverai le 3 janvier (dans une semaine) et
partirai le 11 janvier.

Je n'ai jamais fait qqchose comme ca. J'ai trouve un
billet qui coute 100 dollars moins cher que tous les
autres que j'avais vu. Je voullais faire certaine que
tu seras d'accord, mais ta numero de telephone est a
Clemson, donc j'ai pas le moyen de te contacter plus
vite, et j'avais peur que le billet sera achete avant
je t'affirmerai......

J'espere que t'es d'accord.....

Je t'aime...

Je t'embrasse comme la semaine prochaine,
Ta carote*

* one possible translation of my name in chinese means "Carote," and, well, I have read hair....

Thus, this is where the picture from under the Eiffel Tower comes from.

Well, it's all history from there. We talk, still, on and off every day: I talk to her when I wake up and she's coming home from work, I wake her up in the morning to talk before I go to sleep, etc. We both have webcams now (I hate saying that), which we leave on all day so that at least we can pretend like we're together. Even if we're working, we can at least see the other and gaurd the illusion that we're working side-by-side.

......Again, so?.....I mean, it's cute, and all.....yet, I'm brimming with hatred for English majors........

Well, the same questions come up nearly every time I have to explain our situation to someone. Like, "Man, y'all come from such different places, it must be hard to communicate sometimes, right?" "I mean, can you really communicate with each other?"

This is the importance of the whole issue. You will never understand language until you see how flawed it is. So, the answer to the second depends on what you mean by communicate. Fanfan understands what I'm trying to explain better than anyone else I know (and that's not one of those lovey-dovey, "She knows my heart" type thing that one would say at a slumber party while fluttering his eyes). How is that possible if we're both speaking in our second languages (actually, technically, her fourth)? I honestly believe part of it is that we can't get caught up in all the technical nuts and bolts of language, we can only communicate the big picture. It's like jazz with language, we play language like a band plays jazz. Sure, it sucks sometimes when we are trying to communicate some certain particular thing, but it's never something serious.

But that's not it...

Technically, we don't speak in French with each other. We mix English, French, Japanese, and Chinese (all of which she is either fluent in or at least has a basic knowledge of, in the case of Japanese). We have whole conversations that a French person would never understand. The quote at the top, "La vie sera tout jolie," is a prime example. Translated directly, that would say, "Life will be very pretty." It is something that has come to be a part of "our" language, that comes from something I used to say a lot in Angers, "La vie est jolie," only because I like the way it sounds more than "La vie est belle."

....[unspoken anger]......

Well, it goes further than that. I know that people question whether Fanfan and I are realistic in thinking that something could ever work out between us. She is from Taiwan, and I am from the US. Our countries are seperated by the breadth of the US (I live on the east coast) as well as the largest ocean in the world. She speaks Chinese, I speak English. We both have families in our home countries. etc. etc.

And, finally, a resounding, you yourselves are different.

Some of the other questions are valid, like, for instance, if Fanfan and I are together for a long time, I don't know how we'll approach seeing our families as much as possible. However, it is that last point that I've been essentially addressing the whole time. This argument, that we are different, is completely, unrealistic. We may be idealists, but we know better than most the truism that denies difference among people. To percieve the individual through a lens of their culture is to deny that person humanity.

Coming from people who believe whole-heartedly in what is "American," the idea of the "melting pot," it seems totally un-American to deny the entire world the same liberty of being first an individual before being a part of whatever group. With that reasoning (that people and culture, as it is viewed from outside, cannot be seperated), one contradicts himself, then, if he believes in America at all.

If the belief is that two individuals from different cultures can't live together, then, whether or not it is realized, the belief is also one which says that groups of people from different cultures cannot live together harmoniously, which absolutely negates the idea of America's "melting pot."

Unless, however, you believe that Americans somehow transcend the label of culture as soon as they become citizens, which is still a generous summary concerning many would consider a lot of those not born in the US as not being truly American.

This is by no means just an American thing. I've seen it in a lot of different countries. It's just easier, being American, to analyze the situation here.

If you're still not getting how this ties back into language, think of what difference is in regards to language and, even more, to human understanding? How do you know what a tree is, for instance? You know because of what makes it different from everything else you know. Therefore, difference is a necessary part of human understanding and consequently (which is to say, language did not precede human understanding, it is a means which humans created to communicate this understanding) it is programmed into language. However, once the system of differences is established, one has to be reminded that the differences were created in order to understand, and if they aren't then one begins to believe in the differences.

This applies to cultures, because they are in fact a language in and of themselves.

All cultures develop as a reasult of the same human conditions (birth, life, and death) and the same questions (religion, afterlife, etc.). They are different manifestations of the same effects whose causes are all the same, and just like with spoken language, to believe in the differences among expressions found in the different languages of culture, is to believe in a difference that is, in fact an illusion.

This is why we all have one language that is not our own. This is why we can all feel the same emotions and be, at the same time, both completely capabable of understanding it and equally incapable of describing it.

This is why Fanfan and I don't have problems communicating. We don't believe in the differences which we create in order to understand.

.....Do you English majors ever talk about anything relavant, like economics or calculus?.......


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