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The Cruelty and Beauty of Words

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

We are too often so arrogant as to think that language is a christening at which man is present as priest, father, godfather, and sponsor while all the helpless phenomena of life wait patiently for the label whereby we shall know them when we speak of them to one another. The truth is that in language Nature and Man have enriched life together: one may well say, Nature, when the philologists tell us that every thought we express has to be indicated by a sensual image—as when we speak of insipid poetry, music of depth, and so on. But even if we could not perceive this in almost every sentence we utter we cannot fail to see that every natural sound, and colour, stem and branch is as much the bestower, in language, as we: each natural object informs our aged symbol that is but its shadow and its sound. Thus the beauty of a beautiful word like couched is not merely the beauty of letters set side by side, not merely the beauty of liquid sound, but its beauty is a shell’s re-entrant curve, one of the most beautiful of all natural lines.

But our words are informed by more than that: they bear on their backs riches piling up by as often as there are days and nights and dawns for every symbol to gather fresh nuances of meaning from all that their reality undergoes in the varied mind. As often as there are gradations of light and differences in the human heart, so often will the word—or let it be a flower-word like cup, petal, bell—gather overtones of meaning and lay them fresh upon the countless other overtones that these simple words have gathered in time in our human experience of them, so flooding themselves out with those thousand multifarious mingling resonances lost in one rich sound that the artist, coming fresh upon the word, no more dare use it without careful premeditation than he dare drink from an array of cups where poison and wine are poured without distinguishing mark. No word but carries the fragrance of a thousand years, no word but is heavy, with the sweet and sweat of a thousand hearts, and no word but swells with every passing tick of life.

And these are but simple words, primitive sense-images from the most primitive stage of civilization when life seemed bounded by the eyes. And they are but single-root words reverberating without internal harmony. Since their birth we have striven outward from the shell of flesh that binded us when the world was red from the womb: as our needs grew our words were stretched and developed, they were further enriched by such cunning oblique application and figurative use that they are gone far from their original sense and we call them new words thinking of their new meanings. Words have been developed by combination and composition, developed by analogical use, so that the artist who feels wealth beneath his fingers in such words as wave or cow or man or box or dust cannot but pause timorous before words luxuriant because of their history, words that have travelled the barbarous sands of the Orient, words spicy from the East, dewy with the mountain spew of the Celtic world, hoary from being bandied from tongue to tongue in synagogue and temple, barnacled by, the seas of the world—arrogant, lavish, spice, chasuble, cinnamon, pepper, emerald, sapphire, lapidary, grape, necromancer, wizardry, incantation, haggard, chisel, coward, admonition, chamber, incarnadine, plum, cithern, pear, parsley, caravan, ink, pen, basilisk, morris, damask, charioteer. The penman might be forgiven for thinking his materials too rich to hold. And as if they were not thus rich enough for any man the poet makes them thrice rich in their last voyage out from the womb of nature: he lays his hands upon them. It is true that he could never give the primal reality—he is not God—but he adds a wealth that one may consider more than equal to nature’s, a magic that she too can give, but gives largely because of the preparation of men by poetry. The poet takes the body of nature that words yield to him in all its sensuous, naked beauty and as if it were not beautiful enough pours on it the magic of the moon. We know all these words—light, air, sea, lake, wind, and rain, and elm, willow, wave, trees—we have all experienced them in a thousand ways, but when the poet ends we may experience them, and lastingly, as never before: the poet adds something that is not in the mind of man,

  . . . in such a night as this
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise. . .

in such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.
They are the same words, but forgotten as words,

the sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elmtops down for spite
And did its worst to vex the lake.

The result urges us to speak of the craft of writing—technique—style, of which we must speak later on as the sole release from words: for the moment it might seem as if language were too rich for the artist’s use. And yet there are some who give us pause when they cry out, (or behave as if they would cry out)—how poor, stale, impoverished, fossilised is this imposition men call speech—how inadequate for human needs!

One must admit that there have always been signs of this dissatisfaction—Shakespeare’s racking of language in his rage; Carlyle; even the goodhumoured protest of Lewis J Carroll’s Jabberwocky talk—but nowadays there is complete rebellion. One’s mind naturally, reverts to James Joyce who in his latest work “in progress” has written many pages in this manner, and may do more in that manner before he publishes his work1 in book-form.

In the name of Anera this carl on the kopje a parth a lone who the joebiggar be he? Forshapen his pigmaid hoagshead, shroonk his plodsfoot. Me seemeth a dragon man. . . . He is almonthst on the kiep fief by here, is Comestipple Sacksoun, be it junipery. or febrowery, mar-racks or alebrill or the ramping riots of pouriose and f roriose. What a quhare soort of a mahan. It is evident the michin-daddy. He can prapsposterus the pillory way, to Hirculos pillar. Scuse us, chorley guy! You tollerday donsk? N. You tolkatiff scowegian? Nn. You spigotty anglease? Nnn. You phonio saxo? Nnnn. Clear all so! ‘Tis a Jute. Let us swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eather yapyazzard abast the blooty creeks.

We are not in the habit of hearing very much from this artist either about his meanings or his intentions but we can know at least that this is intended to be language and that these are presumably words; furthermore in writing thus Mr. Joyce has rejected valid English, and, one may conclude, for but one possible reason—that normal speech is insufficient for his needs. Nothing but necessity can bring language into being and nothing but necessity can justify its overthrow.

The average layman, on hearing such a plaint, would be inclined to give an answer similar to Dr. Johnson’s when confronted with Berkleyan doubts as to existence—he would get up and talk. If an earnest man and one anxious to perceive, if he could, the difficulties of the artist he would talk on the most intricate and exact science he knew, and would most likely finish by admitting sorrowfully that language does indeed at times present problems to our demandfor complete and exact appelations for various phenomena. Thus while preparing this essay I had a chemist protest to me against the inadequacy and inaccuracy of the common phrase referring to “the arrangement of electrons clustering around the nucleus”: yet even he, I felt, would not agree that the English language had therein been weighed and found wanting—the right word was somewhere if he only knew where to search for it or how to form it from little roots. It is after all only the philosopher and the artist who might be expected to find that language as is stands does not suffice—the one, because he, though expected rather to analyse than protest against life, would feel how nearly bounded by language is conceptual thought; the other, because as he will shew us, and as we might well expect in any case from everything that is born of life, there are real limitations to the eloquence of words. These are mainly two—despite the overteeming richness of what we do possess our vocabulary is not of our manufacture and it is limited: and meanwhile, liberty to invent, and add to, and replace is absolutely denied us—denied us, as it would seem, for all time.

Without this racking of words of which I have made mention to suggest, that speech is not always satisfying to the artist, more than one country presents the illustration of a people expressing itself at different periods in ways so far divergent that we are inevitably driven in the end to examine the matter of the influence of language as the most satisfactory explanation for several reasons. Language does not explain everything in such cases as the difference between the mediaeval verse of Ireland—say to 1300—and the verse that was written in the period to about 1600, and the far different verse written between then and 1850. But consider that problem as we may, and make as many interesting generalizations as we will, the influence of a dissolving language—among those other influences which it does not in any, way invalidate by being of all of them the most ineluctable — impresses itself profoundly on us as being the most positive and (for being so well documented) the most securely founded as well. Or consider the more familiar transformation which overtook English literature after c. 1300, when the Saxon gloom that is a byeword among critics of the period was swallowed up by any casual couplet you may pick from the “Canterbury Tales,” no more than the spice or the salt that a cook dashes in a sweet cake. With the exception of certain fleeting impressions in poems like the “Be Domes Daege,” the “Have-lok,” the “Owl and the Nightingale,” and the romances (best typified by the “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”) there had been no warning of that transformation in the verse previous. It is not suggested that language began to change before the eyes of men and that they found their i thoughts changing shape like a woman’s waist in a corset as a result, but though we take the easy course of leaving the problem in mid-air we may point out the one significant fact: for all the gentle influences from France and Italy, for all the troubadour songs, the fragrant stoups of lyric from Normandy and Castile, for all the power of chivalric fashions and of virginity raised on an altar taming the passion of hard men, for all the fragrant airs from where Boccaccio and Petrarch were writing luscious bawdiness—despite all such preparation for the Wyatts, Surreys, Raleighs, for Shakespeare, for the anonymi who sang of Lenten coming with love in turn—had the English tongue not softened out to limber length for song, dropping its trochaic stutter, becoming rhythmical, becoming light with many, tiny dancing words hitherto unused, he would have had to stumble in the chains who so lightly could sing in and around 1625:

Merry Margaret,  As midsummer flower,  Gentle as falcon  Or hawk of the tower: With solace and gladness Much mirth and no madness All good and no badness,  So joyously,  So maidenly,  So womanly  Her demeaning in every thing,  Far, far passing,  That I can indite, Or suffice to write Merry Margaret, As midsummer flower, Gentle as falcon Or hawk of the tower. As patient and still, And as full of good will As fair Isaphill, Coliander, Sweet Pomander, Good Cassander: Steadfast of thought, Wellmade, wellwrought, Far may be sought, Ere that ye can find, So courteous, so kind As Merry Margaret This midsummer flower, Gentle as falcon Or hawk of the tower.
It would have been a physical impossibility for him, John Skelton, to write, for Raleigh to write, for Shakespeare to write, as they did all write, had they lived in Cynewulf’s day—as impossible for them as for Cynewulf to write this lyric, passion as he might, and think how he might: he might have uttered his high regard for a woman but one has but to read any of the alliterative verse of his day to realise how far, far removed his poem would be from this tripping form. He could not have moulded language to his thought —this is my point—for it is not given to any one man to do that, but only to time and nations. Of course such an imposition did not occur to Skelton or Wyatt or Surrey or Shakespeare, a fact from which we might like to draw the great consolation of supposing that when men have certain thoughts to express, language will always be found to have readied itself for their expression beforehand. Yet who will dare say that no Skelton struggled with inarticulateness in Cynewulf’s day and who can refrain from wondering what Cynewulf might not have said if he were born about the year 1600!

Therefore the vital question (which we do not propose to answer here) is whether the thought of man is like a wind bending the tops of the boughs of speech, or whether language is like a great layer of stone that impresses its substance and its texture on the flowers of human idea that fall between there and lie there through the ages. One would like to believe that men weave language as a weaver weaves his sally-rods—that it is the sonneteer who coaxes words into the lap of his thought, not words that coax the sonneteer into their web. As it is we can make but one observation in complete security, to-wit, that every artist is at his birth confronted by an imposed speech. He becomes aware of the continuity of language as soon as he begins writing and give him but the shadow of a desire to be independent of his predecessors and you sow in him discontent with his materials—which are in the poet’s case but words: they were not made by him, or chosen by him, he must become antagonistic to this continuity that is the first and most vital characteristic of all language. Yet it is this continuity—this alltime-spirit as opposed to the time-spirit, the Zeitgeist—that makes words so rich and overteeming, and here we find the artist declaring that this quality that makes words so rich and full of nuance is exactly the quality that makes of language an imposition that counters his free expression at every step. Thus a man like Joyce would appear to be like an heir who chafes at a will because of the qualifications it contains. But there are qualifications to the whole of the phenomenon of existence and it seems a desperate thing that a man shonld thus rebel against what is not merely inevitable but inexorable.

This unrest in the face of the inexorable is of our time. We have reached a point of painful self-awareness. Our historical-critical sense has become so developed that we have been able to trace with great minuteness and some exactness the actual mechanism of the rise of genius and the development of periods of great art, and we can even detect around us in our own day many of the influences that are moulding our destiny in art: we predict what our trend is, more disturbing still we declare what our trend should be, with the result that we behave rather as we think we should behave, than according to any inevitable natural urge: art coming like leaves to a tree seems more difficult than it was in Keats’ day. Under such circumstances continuity in art does not stand in our regard: it is opposed by an individual ambition, an individual attitude to traditions, an assertion of the moi. The virility of the moment may be like a river in its heavier, lower reaches thrusting away in an unexpected direction: or it may be like a river flooding over the levees and frustrating itself. It is thus part of the Zeitgeist that men should thrust back the gift of the external mother even though it be riches that they refuse. It would seem wiser that in this matter of language they should behave as they do in the case of many, another inexorable law in other fields, for language is like sleeping and breathing and growing and loving. Might it not affright any man to consider that the centuries may have been preparing the way for him alone and that a frustration of their work is not merely a frustration of the design in Life, but a frustration of all that he is in himself who is part of it.

It remains to consider the limitations of vocabulary as it stands. Language has been like a caravanserai collecting wealth as it crossed the plains of time. And does it still collect? The layman thinking of electricity would say it does: the artist, thinking of the cows in the field, of the wooden box upon his table, of the wind that hums in the pines, of is not and was not and will not and of the fact that there is nothing to express in one word both is, was, and will he would say, no; language is traditionalised and whatever changes occur are not organic, and speech is no longer able to mould language into a new freshness. The artist would see that the vast mass of literature which is being printed today and which imposes itself on him constantly is the real power in the forming of the personality of words. And the language of books is static. Today books are more powerful in the matter of changing language than speech is: organically it can never change one iota more. The forces which are responsible for change in language are held at bay by, the forces that crystallize it, so that English is nowadays not merely imposed on us at birth but it has in itself the paralysis which halts its own continuity, which denies not alone to the artist but to all men the power of affecting it except by the most meagre changes and additions. The artificial of literature has grown too powerful for the natural of men’s conversation.

Consider the position: literature was once the tribunal that gave a tardy sanction to the usages of speech, it was the last tribunal but one—the last being the handbooks of the grammarians. Nowadays the usage which we heed, and heed more consciously and widely than we ever heeded the usages of the spoken word, is within the tribunal itself. It would appear that the suppleness of language is doomed unless we demand of literature that it do what it has denied to the spoken word, unless we give to the pen that tolerance we formerly gave to the tongue alone. To effect this, all standards of literary criticism must change and the philologist direct his attention away from the dialects of peasants and discuss the dialects of the literary innovator: the whole science of etymology would have to change; for the past would have but little to do with the present, and all the derivations that men memorize from the Oxford English Dictionary, could be of no interest when dealing with a form of language that held no promise of continuing to behave according to rule. We university men would be flung on our natural wits without a learned journal to help them out, or to help out the lack of them that some taunt us with today. It is a nightmare of confusion too dreadful to contemplate!

When we regard the state of English after the Romantics had done with it, its precision all gone, overloaded with analogy of all sorts, strained to its utmost limit—witness its awful state in Carlyle’s hands—without incisiveness, diffuse, vague, roguish for having had to say so many different things with the same symbols, we cannot wonder that the writer should say in our time—Ah, but it was well for the men who saw first the resemblance to a crane’s bill in the colour of the geranium and then named it so: it was well for those for whom the daisy was still the eye of day: for whom attention still held its visual image of a stretched mind; then words were vivid, living things, near to the reality, making immediate impress on the mind. But words are but symbols to us and we use a hundred props, a hundred helps to revivify them by extending their meanings in bizarre ways far beyond their original connotations: these props we call figures of speech, sometimes we call them the adornments of speech: in fact they are but the necessary encumbrances of speech added to it because we cannot add words indefinitely, and because our words grow weary from use and need new blood: not being able to add new blood we add moie words. Poor wisdom indeed: it is like adding as many again to an army of wounded men when they cannot be replaced by fresh fighters.

A simple example will indicate the nature of the limitations of the vocabulary we possess: take the matter of the names of specific designs, as in rugs—Ghiordes, Baluchistan, Kurdhistan, Mille-Fleurs, Bokhara, and so on: these all call up an immediate image in the mind of a trader in rugs, he knows the design I mean at once. But as I raise my eyes from this page I see many, other designs for which there is no name and for which there never can be a name. I see the trees beyond the tennis-courts, I see the varied patterns in the grass—to use painters’ jargon—and trees and courts and grass, each and all together make as evident a design as the scattered flowers on a Mille-Fleurs rug. Move my eyes an inch and it is new and strange, wave the wind a breathful and the design is transformed, shine the sun on the tips of the leaves and the whole pattern of light and shade becomes different. The fact is that language was made for communication among masses of men and these exciting and most beautiful individual experiences must go unrecorded, unspoken because the masses found them too unimportant to have invented for their recording any form of communication other than actual imitation on canvas in colour.

An example to indicate the limitations of vocabulary again; Carlyle of all people declaring against the hollow backs and weak chests of words. In his notebooks he has this amusing and quite correct entry—amusing because it should be Carlyle who makes it:

All language but that concerning sensual objects is or has been figurative. Prodigious influence of metaphors! Never saw it until lately. A truly useful and philosophical work would be a good Essay on Metaphors. Some day I will write one.

I cannot forbear to quote the entry, immediately preceding this for he would not have written in the fashion of it if he had actually done his “Essay on Metaphors,” nor had cause to feel so keenly the tyranny of his speech.

An Institution, (a Law of any kind) may become a deserted edifice; the walls standing, no life going on within, but that of bats, owls, and unclean creatures. It will then be pulled down if it stand interrupting any thoroughfare: if it do not so stand, people may leave it alone till a grove of natural wood grow round it, and no eye but that of the adventurous antiquarian may know of its existence, such a tangle of brush is to be struggled thro’ before it can be come at and viewed.

At the end of which sentence one might well need to go back to the opening to assure oneself that it is really all about Laws and not Buildings! It was Locke who said: “words interpose themselves so much between our understandings and truth that like the medium through which visible objects pass their obscurity and disorder cast a mist before our eyes and impose upon our understandings.” (What ailed Carylyle was simply that he saw everything as a visual picture.) The fact is that we are the inheritors of a very little store of concepts embodied in words, and that we are separated forever now from the source whence more might come. Never more can we name the simple flowers that stir the heart’s core, never again name the light that comes stealing down from the sky at dawn, never again the light poured down across the waves from a sea-moon: that primitive poetry of wordbuilding is denied us in the case of all the things we would most love to make live again by a fresh name. And the primitive philosophy of word-building is not to be ours again, that which enabled the Greeks to declare a doctrine in one word as in the case of apathy, which shews the history of the intellectual prejudice of a race in the gradations whereby miscreant that once meant nothing worse than unbeliever became dyed with a passion and hate that have clung; or English quintessential derived from Anistotle and Empedocles. Old Archbishop Trench found the revelation of our moral decline in euphemisms like fille-de-joie, and love-child: he might continue to bewail the tendency today when we call adultery, and suicide a lovepact, or hesitate to speak of murder—replacing the honest word by some rogue like tragedy that tends to weaken the force not merely of itself but of what it replaces.

Carlyle saw the bitterness of our state in being thus separate forever from the wellsprings of language: how to circumvent the tyranny of that state he did not know — and “circumvent” is the exact word to use, for we must in fact express our thought not so much in words as by means of words. George Moore says the thing well: “In the beginning a language is pure like spring water: it can be drunk from the well—that is to say from popular speech. But as the spring trickles into a rivulet and then into a river it has to be filtered and after long use the language has to be filtered too. The filter is the personal taste of the writer. We call the filter ‘style’.”

It is our sole release from the limitations of words — it opens to the writer the wide width of the skies.

Style is the admission of the inadequacy of our materials, it adds humility to art, remediaevalising the artist arrogant since a Renaissance that bounded the spirit it thought to free when it denied that there were any bonds at all to the flesh. Style adds a gentle wisdom to art, adds subtlety and suggestiveness and a sophistication that is never weary: it gives the silver of a Monet evening for the hideous opaque scarlet of a Turner. But because our Western minds are antagonistic to the indirect—how slowly we have come to see the wisdom of the Chinese love of line rather than mass —we do not take kindly to the freedom of style: and above all the Saxon mind has been slow to take the narrow path.

The Saxon mind has and always did have such a jovial downright way of doing things—Turner is so characteristic of this, Turner facing the sun and painting it (for which presumption may God forgive him and all the galleries that house him for our pain); Carlyle is typical of it; Dickens wringing his emotions dry; even Hardy the most unsubtle of English novelists. What style England has learnt she probably got for the most part from the French—they who gave England “method” according to Taine, using here as he so often did the wrong word—though England might have even more easily learnt style from the Irish Mediaeval-ists if she had not always been so proud and stiffnecked about Ireland, Spenser alone among her poets even guessing that the Celt knew more about writing than he ever learnt. Where the French wore their passion down to a filigree of refinement, and the Irish in a like manner chastened their even fiercer passion by imposing on it monastic-ally ingenious forms, the Saxon blurted his passion right out: and where he has been successful—we think sadly of the many times he has not—he has perhaps achieved as much success as either. But the fact remains that, but for the brief race of the metaphysical poets, style never sold a poor English poem until Swinburne’s day, whereas style was always selling perfectly worthless verse for the Irish and the French, and sells it yet: now style is become the important thing for all, kept alive in the English language for the most part by the Anglo-Irish writers, and the result may well be that content is only galling its kibes.

As far as words are concerned style presents but one main problem to our consideration—that of the principle of selection. It is a query, that naturally arises when we find ourselves sifting at the one time for words of quite various purpose and personality. Thus in Joyce whose maltreatment of language largely prompted this study I find at the same period, in the same volume a predeliction for lightsome and delicate words, homely words, and sonorous Miltonian words so that all these lie side by side—one might almost say -within the same covers: girdle, eucharistic, dawning, hymn, incense, crucifix, light, fragrance, unrest, dung, snot, bile, arrogant, lavishlimbed, all without the least discord but on the contrary as most people who have read the “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” will agree with very beautiful results.

This has a great deal to do with design of course: one has but to attempt to compose a sentence containing the words “dung” and “fragrance” to see how much a matter of design it is when two such words can lie together in complete harmony. As clearly it is not a matter of meaning alone, for dung is but animal ordure and fragrance a word usually reserved for the most delicate of odours, and the layman would see no fitness in their use together. The continuity of speech has however been at work here, and without its aid design alone would not be powerful enough to make such words sound together without harsh discord. The cruder word has been given numerous connotations, overtones, associations that are capable of awakening the most pleasant thoughts—the coming of the Springtime when the fields are made rich for the new seed, the cattle at the pools at evening trampling their own mire, the beauty that painters have made of old byres and of sodden straw and the sun sucking up the steam from its gold after heavy rains, a thought of peasants in their heavy clothes trampling the bedding in the dusk of stone stables where their beasts wait patiently and humbly for the voice that will cry them out to new labour. This is the alltime-spirit of words in which they find a clear, and definite part allotted them for the fashioning of the sprachgefuhl of their tongue; this is their constant character as opposed to the temporary character wherewith the spirit of the age endows them. It is this constant character that the writer needs to determine with the greatest care for unless he senses it correctly he is using English on his own authority alone, enriching it with his own personality alone, using it without reference to the multitudinous associations in the minds of his readers— ahistoric English.

On the other hand “words are not exact signs for definite and unchanging conceptions. . . . Circumstances and a people’s thought alone determine whether in (a word’s) commonest use it shall include all those conceptions or a few of them, or shall be confined to a single one.” That is to say that words have their temporary value as well as their constant values in the sprachgefuhl; which temporary value it is as important for the writer to note, though it will impress itself on him more forcibly in any case, as it is for him to take account of the ultimate significance of his word. The foreign translator is more inclined to overlook the latter than the former for he would be better acquainted with the value of words in literature than in the life of his day: the native writer more often fails in assessing the alltime-spirit of words than in using words in discord with their momentary values.

These two forces it is that govern the selection of words as they govern their ultimate and immediate values. The artist cannot ignore either—the sprachgefiihl or all-time-character, or the Zeitgeist or momentary character. The word virtue may serve again to illustrate this. It is a word that has had many connotations for it has had a long history and many vicissitudes have overtaken it in its progress through the winding ways of man’s brain. It had the sense of physical courage and martial power in the days of the Romans who associated it with its root-word vir’: even in their day it was developing a wider application and carried into French a moral value: it came into English when its moral value was more regarded than its physical by the intellectual idea, and it developed there an ethical sense: yet it has been applied in a degraded way to mere objets d’art that possess some “virtue,” and we find Trench railing at the Italians for reducing its metal to the base use of “virtuoso,” “one skilled in the appreciation of painting, music, and sculpture; for these, the ornamental fringe of a people’s life, can never, without loss of all manliness of character, be its main texture and woof—not to say that excellence in them,” says he, “has been too often dissociated from all true virtue and moral worth.” It has come to be applied, far from its original sense, to the special quality of chastity in woman, and in our cynical and precise age we hesitate to use it at all, so little’ precision does it now possess. “Virtue” may in time regain its lost values, but for the day no artist but must pause and most likely pass by with prudent care a word so harshly treated both by the past and the present. It is an example of a word between whose ultimate and immediate connotations any writer might find difficulty in keeping harmony. Yet between these two formative influences there is a point of rest where the artist may handle speech in security: a point between the eternal coming-on and going-off of the values of language, and in this quiet valley the writer must work. He must do justice to the past of his people, to the labour of the forces in life that have brought speech to its present point, whether rich or poor, cruel or beautiful, or all of these things — a little inconsistent, the layman might complain, or add that life is very, much like that anyway.

Here lies the condemnation of such language as Joyce’s. It is not merely ahistoric—not merely the shadow of an animal that never was, the outline of a tree that never grew, for even then we might trace it to some basic reality distorted and confused—but it comes from nowhere, goes nowhere, is not part of life at all. It has one reality only—the reality of the round and round of children’s scrawls in their first copybooks, zany circles of nothing. It may be that Joyce wishes these meaningless scrawls to have a place in his design and if so nobody will grudge him his will of them. But we cannot be expected to understand them as language for they are as near nothing as anything can be on this earth.

Yet who cannot sympathize with this rebellion? It would seem that Joyce does not realize, however, that in language we are countering one of those primal impositions that give to life its inexorable character: he must see that in language there is an individuality which we must counter at every, step, much as an actor must counter his own character to express ideas at variance with it. But a man who has had the great courage to accept so many of life’s inexorable laws does unwisely to push a puppet in the actor’s place; that offers us no release. It is a puppet without as much as the shape of a human being, and suggests the idea of a human organism for but one reason, that it has usurped the place of one.


  1. transition: april, 1927, and following months, shakespeare and company, paris.


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