Sunday, December 25, 2011

The arbitrariness of the sign made flesh

Two passages I'm fond of that remind me very much of each other (both are about growing up in small island countries; I do not know if there is an Anthology of Island Writing out there (or a Treatise on the Insular Bildungsroman), but it seems to me that someone should put one together) --

V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival:
We lived, in Trinidad, among advertisements for things that were no longer made or, because of the war and the difficulties of transport, had ceased to be available. [...] Many of the advertisements in Trinidad were for old-fashioned remedies and "tonics." They were on tin, these advertisements, and enameled. They were used as decorations in shops and, having no relation to the goods offered for sale, they grew to be regarded as emblems of the shopkeeper's trade. Later, during the war, when the shanty settlement began to grow in the swampland to the east of Port of Spain, these enameled tin advertisements were used sometimes as building material.

So I was used to living in a world where the signs were without meaning, or without the meaning intended by their makers. It was of a piece with the abstract, arbitrary nature of my education, like my ability to "study" French or Russian cinema without seeing a film, an ability which was, as I have said, like a man trying to get to know a city from its street map alone.

What was true of Trinidad seemed to be true of other places as well. In the book sections of some of the colonial emporia of Port of Spain there would be a shelf or two of the cheap wartime Penguin paperbacks [...] It never struck me as odd that at the back of these wartime Penguins there should sometimes be advertisements for certain British things -- chocolates, shoes, shaving cream -- that had never been available in Trinidad and were now (because of the war, as the advertisements said) no longer being made; such advertisements were being put in by the former manufacturers only to keep their brand names alive during the war, and in the hope that the war would turn out well.

Now here's Halldor Laxness, in The Fish Can Sing:
This was about the time, not long after the Boer War, when the Barbed-wire Age was beginning in Iceland. This special commodity, which is banned by law in most countries except for military purposes and was indeed said to have been invented during the Boer War, has pacified the Icelanders more than any other foreign product one could name; and whereas in other countries there are severe penalties for putting this wretched stuff up in the open in peacetime, in Iceland barbed wire became the most desirable luxury commodity in the land for a while, next only to alcohol and cement. There are few things over which the nation has united so wholeheartedly as stringing this glorious material round every part of the land, over hill and dale, heath and moor, right up to the mountaintops and out to the farthest sea-cliffs. At first, many people behaved as the Boers had done towards the English, and simply climbed over the barbed wire whenever they came to it, but then the Althing passed a law declaring barbed wire to be inviolate in Iceland. [...]

After great detours and many digressions and the usual boys' dawdling for much of the day, we eventually reached some hillocks to the southeast of the horse-moors. There were a few scattered farms around, some up on the hills and others in the grassy hollows or dales, and the lands belonging to these farms were festooned with barbed wire for their full length and breadth.

One of the farms there was called Hvammskot. We halted on the bank of a stream just outside the home-field, where a strong barbed-wire fence had been erected -- quite at random, as far as one could see. And as we were standing there, out of sight behind a knoll, one of us volunteered the information that anyone who crossed a fence of this kind would be fined ten kronur.

We quickly agreed that it would be fun to risk a death-leap which was valued at such a high price. And because this crime had all the fascination that any kind of gambling has when there is money involved, we all set to and began jumping over the barbed wire. I will not say that the deed was done entirely without palpitations, and indeed we had a lookout posted to see if there were any spies about; but as we had really suspected all along, no one noticed the outrage we were committing, and no fines were imposed on us. [...] It was still not nearly suppertime when each and all of us had become prosperous from unclaimed ten-kronur fines.
[On this topic cf. Michael Wood on Joyce and Carroll:
But Carroll has a taste for sheer absurdity, the collapse or travesty of plausible meaning, whereas Joyce, as far as I can tell, wants only to multiply meanings [...] the famous arbitrariness of the sign: ‘a “borogove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round – something like a live mop.’ Try working that out from the name. Compared with these astonishing jinks Joyce’s antics can look almost reasonable. In relation to ‘jabberwocky’, say, a ‘jibberweek’ seems quite familiar – we’ve all had one of those. And when Joyce recites the names of days, they too sound like many days we’ve known: ‘moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday’. Sunday is safe for the moment; safe because unmentioned.]

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