Schisms as introductions

December 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

The application of tools distinguishes humanity from animals: the capacity to take something as apparently useless as a rock & attach to it an independent signification, the myth of function. There is a division we forget about between the object & its function (for example, it has taken over two centuries of literary studies to finally look at the book as an object!) very like the schism between signifier & signified, made accessible by Ferdinand de Saussure in the lectures of his final years at the University of Geneva which have proven to be a course in general structuralism rather than general linguistics. Such questions have existed, naturally, for millennia.

Humanity has not been treated so unkindly as the word. Humanity has not always been split, unsatisfactory, or unfinished.

In discussing the birth of the novel, scholarship turns to Rabelais for Gargantua & Pantagruel. Here, we can see that words are divided, while the individual is not. In the time of giants, Thaumaste admirably travels to Paris in search of philosophical answers:

I do not wish to dispute in the academic manner by declamation, nor yet by numbers, as Pythagoras did, and as Pico Mirandola wished to do at Rome. I desire to dispute by signs only, without speech. For these matters are so difficult that human words would not be adequate to expound them to my satisfaction. (231)

In the upside down world of Rabelais, there is no space for definition — logic is replaced by the thinking of drunkards & those who really ought to be drunk (according to the preface of the first Book). Great detail is given of the mute motions from both sides, as if it would not be unreasonable to find meaning in the flailing of hands, thrusting of codpieces, clicking of nails, & fingering of arseholes. The question Thaumaste carries with him from England & that is represented by their argument is, in every possible sense:


From their debate in mime, both are left “speechless” (232). Thaumaste leaves the scene promising to “commit to writing both our conversations and conclusions, so that no one may think that these have been fooleries” (238). Nothing more is heard of or from him. Language has failed him.

But what about the individual? Is the individual also subject to necessary failure? No. Very simply, the lives of the characters are purely external so that there is no division in them, so that they do not need nothingness (Sartre’s) to patch themselves together. Here, we find a completeness that remains distant, if enviable, in modernity. For example, there is never a difference between what is said & what is thought, what one wants to do & what one does: these are the reasons that readers find themselves returning time & again to the grotesque in Rabelais. Humanity & human nature are one.

The whole man is brought out on the surface and into the light, by means of the word, in all the events of his life. But throughout all this the human being is not deheroicized or debased at all, nor does he in any sense become a man of “low life.” We might say rather that in Rabelais there is a heroization of all the functions of the life of the body, of eating, drinking, defecating and sexual activity. (‘The Dialogic Imagination’ 192)

This is one of Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s many contributions on the subject of Gargantua & Pantagruel. He argues that the human was brought into literature by means of an amplification of human nature (& natural bodily functions). Thus, that Rabelais should employ giants, who are amplified people after all, to introduce the human element should come as no surprise.

This answer would not satisfy for long. A private life was soon to be acknowledged, making existentialism an inevitability. It is the work of this blog to observe the divide in humanity as we do the divisions in language: as a mythical relationship between signifier & signified, the integral part of the self & the performance. Such mythologising, as future posts will clarify, responds directly to our instinct for making novel, or “writing ourselves” — which malfunctions, then, on both the levels of language & identity.

The anxiety of the human condition is accounted for by our being one thing & precisely not that thing — nor even one but always ‘&/&’. The Romantics looked from the edges of cliffs to feel the sublime (which would teleport them from themselves, creating a split). Today, we carry the division within ourselves everywhere & it is our only constant. Our duty is to understand it.


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