Life Big Read: Words as Things

anamorphosis

For various reasons, during this week’s reading I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between things and words. Part of this, I’m convinced, is my concurrent reading of the recent book The Information by James Gleick, which is all about the history of language as a medium of information communication and storage.

But I also think that my thoughts about things vis a vis words (and vice versa) has to do with this week’s subject-matter. There just seems to be a lot about objects that are heavily reliant on words for their substance, or words that are objects in and of themselves.

As to the latter, I think the best example we have is Cinoc’s dictionary of lost words [329 – 330]. Here we see words as things that can be collected and arranged, like so many knick-knacks on a shelf. And, in fact, as happens with the things we collect, Perec even implies that the words Cinoc collects help define him as a person: “In ten years he gathered more than eight thousand of them, which contain, obscurely, the trace of a story it has now become almost impossibly to hand on.” [329]

Elsewhere we see people who are defined by the words they use. The clearest example of this would be the caricatures of the “Paris streetsellers,” where each one is identified by his or her “traditional cry.” Just before that we see Gregoire Simpson [the tail end of Week 3’s reading: 265 – 73], whose exit from the realm of humanity runs concurrently with his exit from the use of language. We also see Elzbieta Orlowska [299 – 301] who keeps in her small room a poster reminding her of a Polish nursery rhyme whose purpose is to get children to sleep.

Perhaps my favorite reminder of the relationship of words and things in the entire book comes in this week’s reading on page 310. We are once again talking about the long, complex history of the Gratiolet family; after going through the intersecting relationships of half a dozen family members Perec, sensing our increasing exasperation at keeping it all straight gives us a reminder in very large type: “A GENEALOGICAL TREE OF THE GRATIOLET FAMILY CAN BE FOUND ON P. 87.” And, of course, a quick look at the family tree–a thing–makes it utterly simple to sort out the relationships that three pages of language have only served to confuse.

To close, I’d like to go back to the essay by Gabriel Josipovici that I referenced earlier this week. A significant part of this essay goes back to Josipovici’s idea of modernism as a response to the crisis of authority that has gripped Western civilization ever since the decline of the Church and the rise of individual rights (a case he lays out excellently in his recent book What Ever Happened to Modernism?). In Life A User’s Manual he sees Perec as a both a human and an artist coming to grips with this lack of authority–which is really a lack of meaning–and he touches on this theme powerfully here:

This, I would say, is a side-effect of world governed by language and things, a world, in other words, like ours. Is there transcendence? It’s a question we should ponder as we read onward.

Some questions:

As we’ve been reading, when Perec revisits a certain apartment with multiple “rooms,” how many of you have flipped back to glance back over Perec’s discussion the previous rooms? I think it’s a very worthwhile exercise, as you often notice new things that could not have been known in your first trip through the apartments.

What did you make of the 20 possible pronunciations of Cinoc’s name, plus the fact that he himself did not know the pronunciation of his own name? Is this related at all to his obsession with words?

What was your response to Hutting’s version of extremely oblique portraits (borrowing a word from Perec, we might call it anamorphosic portraiture)? Can a portrait that does not include the subject still be considered a portrait?


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A portrait not including the subject can be a portrait. I believe I could gather enough ‘things’ associated with a friend or relative to place them on a canvas, show them to a mutual acquaintance of the selected friend or relative, and succeed in having the identity of the subject correctly identified. The circumstantial evidence of our ‘things’ can identify us. So sayeth Georges.

Also, following my knight’s tour chart, next time I read this I plan on starting from the top floor left of the building and moving left to right down the building floor by floor.

How about Olivia Norvell, Aussie Shirley Temple/Elizabeth Taylor child star type, named in honor of Oliver Norvell Hardy of Laurel and Hardy?

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