11 June 2009

Ur-story: The Death of Meaning (Part 3)

"For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries." 1 Corinthians 14:2
The central trope around which Don Delillo's The Names revolves is a mysterious cult. It is unnamed, though Axton has reason to suspect it might be called "The Names"—ta onomata, in Greek—when he finds these two words painted on a remote boulder in the Peloponese, then subsequently painted over.

The pursuit of this cult by Owen Brademas, an archaeologist, and by Frank Volterra, a filmmaker, comprise the plot. OB winds up lacking the stomach for the truth of the cult. FV never actually gets to experience them directly.

James Axton, the POV character, manages to sort out the modus operandi of the cult. But true to unreliable narrator form, he does not infer the significance of the cult's activities, even as he is nearly murdered or assassinated (in a parallel subplot) by what he believes to be a revolutionary group as he is jogging through Athens (get it? Axton: Athens).

Yet, Axton does not fully capture the mystery. The reader alone is left to put together the images, the facts of the novel.

Axton follows OB's description of his encounter with the cult closely, even letting OB's own voice come through the narrative. OB breaks off his tale to relate to Axton an incident from his childhood, a memory which was touched off by the grain silo where he enwombs himself as the members of the cult, ta onomata, set off to consummate their murderous rite.

OB has made a life's work of learning ancient, dead languages and, more particularly, alphabets in order to be able to decipher inscriptions at various digs around the world. He speaks many languages. So do the members of the cult. Their universal greeting seems to be "How many languages do you speak?" And they always try to communicate in the language of the region where they have set up shop, no matter how obscure.

We learn in OB's flashback some of what motivated him to become so obsessed with languages. When he was a young child, he took part in evangelical "tongue speaking" services with his parents and the adults of his prairie home community. Yet, he could not speak in tongues.

Now, in charismatic evangelical churches there is a sort of hierarchy of spirituality. Those most spirit-filled are able to give over their rational selves to the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Others are able to interpret their gibberish. Those who can't do either are often considered "unsaved", not filled with the spirit. They do not experience true religion. Indeed, this is OB's predicament young and old: neither can he experience the cultic sacrifice of ta onomata.

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is the spontaneous utterance of random, meaningless sounds that seem to imitate the cadences and concatenations of sounds of real languages. It often occurs when people are in a trancelike state. The spoken languages are claimed to be the tongues of angels or spiritual languages that only the elect can interpret.

In Delillo, glossolalia is the second powerful image/metaphor for language itself. The first, of course, is the cult with its ritual murders of innocent victims who happen to wander into towns which, again, happen to have the same initials as their names. Arbitrariness, contingency, randomness are all implicated here as the cult attempts almost to hammer out a meaningful relationship of these chance occurrences.

Glossolalia is a complementary image that implicates another, almost Wittgensteinian gloss on the nature of language. Human languages in all their diverse forms are merely concatenations of sounds. That they have something resembling meanings is ultimately a contingent thing, precarious, dependent on a community of agreeable speakers.

OB describes his youthful encounter with glossolalia to Axton almost as an afterthought to his description of his encounter with ta onomata. But it is young Tap, Axton's son, who has interviewed OB extensively, created a sort of pig-latin language called "ob" in which the syllable -ob- is inserted in each word, and written a 'non-fiction novel' about one 'Orville Benton' who brings these images home, who makes us feel the true power of language.

OB, in his study of ancient languages and archaeology, is backward-looking and exhausted. He doesn't have the stomach for brute reality. Nor is he capable of spiritual experience. James Axton, by contrast, is a risk assessor. His work is entirely forward looking. Young Tap, however, lives entirely in the present. He is not concerned with grammatical correctness or valid translation. He is not concerned with the uses of language to understand the future. He is merely attempting to capture the feeling of the moment, its emotional truth.

The last chapter of The Names is Tap Axton's chapter on Owen Brademas's failed attempt to speak in tongues: the great disappointment of the literalist who can never know the ecstasy of the spirit. Its grammar and spelling are atrocious, but honest. We might even say that the language is Joycean or Faulknerian.
"I reread Tap's pages that night. They were full of small incidents, moments of discovery, things the young hero sees and wonders about. But nothing mattered so much on this second reading as a number of spirited misspellings. I found these mangled words exhilarating. He'd made them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret, reshapable." (313)

"He felt retched, he mumbled in his mind. 'Yeeld' came another voice and it was none but the old cantankerus man with the crooked face and laim leg, known as a nefariot skeemer and rummy, natural born for bone picking. 'Yeeld' he followed up. Everywhere the others were speaking, but he didn't know what they were saying. The strange language burst out of them, like people out of breath and breathing words instead of air. But what words, what were they saying? Right next to him was his father bursting forth in secret language which the boy could not decifer in the least. It sounded like a man who talks to owls. ... 'Yeeld' his mother said to him with a wiry look that was like a rathful warning to mind his manners, there was company coming. He wanted to yeeld. This is the point! There was nothing in the world he wanted than to yeeld totaly, to go across to them, to speak as they were speaking.

'Do whatever your tongue finds to do! Seal the old language and loose the new.'" (335-6)
It is through language that we connect—or, as in the case of the fictional OB, fail to connect. Language is religion. Language is culture. Language is civilization. And yet, it is based on such precarious contingencies, such fragile agreements.
"When he tried, it was poor at best. All his words were poor clattery English like a stutterer at the front of the class. He didn't even know how to begin, where was the whurl of his ignorant tongue. A spidery despair loomed over him. It seemed as if all the worlds ills and evils had come screaming into his head. ...

He tried to stifle his sobbs. He felt done in and then some. It was a dream but not dream. The gift was not his, the whole language of the spirit which was greater than Latin or French was not to be seized in his pityfull mouth. His tongue was a rock, his ears were rocks." (337-38)
The young OB panics and flees into the night, a prairie night of thunder and lightning, rain and deepening mud.
"Why couldn't he understand and speak? There was no answer that the living could give. Tongue tied! His fait was signed. He ran into the rainy distance, smaller and smaller. This was worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world." (339)
The Names works at the level of images, not logic. Profoundly.

The Ur-story, the term I've used in this on-going series of literary posts, concerns the meaning of death. Delillo turns this concern on its head: the central theme of The Names is the death of meaning. Meaning is a precarious thing, a dream but not a dream, dependent like civilization wholly on our willingness to yield to it and to each other. Our spirit of cooperation. And, like the relationship between James Axton and his estranged wife, Kathryn, it is easily sundered where this spirit is missing.

1 comment:

Frances Madeson said...

Kathryn does not just love Jim, Jim; she was born to love him. She digs in the earth to avoid looking at the firmament; if she were to look up she would see him in the stars and planets and all the suns and moons, and in the dark spaces in between. And not just him, but the life they should be living together, and would be, but for a peccadillo she doesn’t even understand and a puny potato peeler.

She doesn’t leave because of Tap’s schooling, or because her dig is closing, or even to be merely uncooperative. As DeLillo has drawn her, she’s a woman of means; she already possesses the resources (or can find or earn them) to hire tutors for her son, finance her own modest dig. She leaves because mostly what and who she is, is a woman of heart and mind, and because of what you wrote about Owen and the future she sees when she looks at her husband. Maestro DeLillo did not willy-nilly name Owen—Brademas. If he himself is the hammer, he is in equal part his own nail. And she cannot bear to see that bruising set of anecdotes play out. It is perhaps the one thing that is beyond her to do. So she retreats, not from love, but for love, so she can keep it. Always. Whether it be to a museum in Canada, or elsewhere, say, a little artsy college town in the western North Carolina mountains, her leaving is inevitable; it’s already been written, and by a master at that.

Maybe I’ve been hanging around you guys too much and too long, probably so. But the thought did occur to me that Mr. DeLillo named the character of the belly dancer, Janet Ruffian (rough is too obvious and beneath Mr. DeLillo), to evoke JR, ergo Gaddis, and focalization and mutable identities, yadda, yadda. It may be chicken and egg time because for me that scene was the bull’s-eye, adumbrating the happy ending in the unwritten coda. Axton knows what he has to do; he’s practicing with a placeholder wife. That’s good. Let him take his time; time doesn’t exist in fiction, and some might say in life too.

One closes this book with a feeling approaching certainty that he will get there in the projected future, to that new place where fresh joy is possible. If not to satisfy his own desires, or those of his wife as he correctly understands them, then to complete the drawing of a circle around something crucially important, that thing that is both of them and beyond them: To answer Tap’s prayer—to move the rock and untie the tongues.