The cafe universe
Stavros’s Linguistic Relativism and Korean essay continues to resonate, giving rise to some terrific comments on my previous entry, including a pointer from the Dynamic Driveler to a rather skeptical view of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by Mick Underwood which, nevertheless, contains a couple of fascinating references to Wittgenstein’s views on language. The first made me laugh out loud:
Wittgenstein said that he was once asked by one of his colleagues whether Germans think in the order they speak in or think normally first and then mix it all up afterwards.
Though I’ve never studied German, I do know that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, as in Japanese. I’m not sure, however, what other characteristics Japanese shares with German.
For example, Japanese uses post-positional particles to indicate grammatical and interpersonal relationships and these particles follow the element (e.g. Tokyo ni, “Tokyo to”, meaning to Tokyo). Similarly, the basic word order in Japanese is reversed in that modifying clauses precede the element being modified; as in the Japanese sentence, Tokyo de katta hon o yonde iru.
|(Someone) is reading (a) book (they) bought in Tokyo.|
The weird thing is that—as long as I don’t think about it too much—there’s no need to “think normally first then mix it all up afterwards” into Japanese. Somehow the “mixed up” order seems perfectly logical.
The other interesting reference is a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:
The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.
Mick Underwood comments:
This is often advanced in support of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. (Actually, given the context in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, I’m not at all sure that that’s what he was saying, but it’s a good quote, anyway!)
Although I recognized this quotation immediately as coming from a voiceover commentary in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (mentioned in my previous entry), what struck me was an observation that Language Hat had made about Godard’s films:
The funny thing is that as I read your post I had my video of Comment ça va? on the tv. I find it helps with Godard to not always watch intently but also to just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that I might not notice watching in a more connected way. You’re never going to get everything in a Godard movie, after all. And the more I see the movies, the more I realize that a huge percentage of the dialog is a quotation of or reference to something else, poetry or philosophy or other movies. Tout se tient.
Of course you’ll need to understand French in order to “not always watch intently but… just have the movie going, picking up bits here and there that [one] might not notice watching in a more connected way.” I certainly can’t do that with Japanese movies though, now that I think about it, that sounds like something worth trying.
But Language Hat is absolutely correct about Godard’s movies being packed densely with quotations or references to poetry, philosophy, linguistics, and—of course—other movies.
The Wittgenstein quotation occurs in one of the most arresting sequences in any Godard movie, the one that James Monaco calls in his book, The New Wave, “the café universe,” in which shots of Juliette watching a young couple alternate with close-ups of a cup of coffee, as a male voice (Godard himself?) speaks:
Perhaps an object like this will make it possible to link up… to move from one subject to another, from living in society, to being together. But then, since social relationships are always ambiguous, since my thought is only a unit, since my thoughts create rifts as much as they unite, since my words establish contacts by being spoken and create isolation by remaining unspoken, since an immense moat separates the subjective certitude that I have for myself from the objective reality that I represent to others, since I never stop finding myself guilty even though I feel I am innocent.
A spoon is stirring up the cup of coffee. It is withdrawn. A small circle of foam is left swirling round on the surface.
Given the fact that every event transforms my daily existence and that I invariably fail to communicate… I mean to understand, to love, to be loved, and as each failure makes me feel my loneliness more keenly, as… as… as I can’t tear myself away from the objectivity that is crushing me nor from the subjectivity which is driving me into exile, as I can neither raise myself into Being nor allow myself to sink back into Nothingness… I must go on listening. I must go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.
…the world today, alone, where revolutions are impossible, where bloody wars haunt me, where capitalism isn’t even sure of its rights… and the working class is in retreat… where progress… the thundering progress of science gives to future centuries an obsessive, haunting presence… where the future is more present than the present, where distant galaxies are at my door. My fellow creatures… my brothers.
A lump of sugar tumbles into the coffee and breaks into crystals. The dark circle of the cup glistens with bubbles, like galaxies.
But where to begin? But where to begin with what? God created the heavens and the earth. Of course, but that’s an easy way out. There must be a better way of explaining it all… We could say that the limits of language are the limits of the world… that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. And in that respect, whatever I say must limit the world, must make it finite. And when logical, mysterious death finally abolishes these limits, and when there are, then, neither questions nor answers, everything will be blurred. But if, by chance, things become clear again, they would only become so through the phantom of conscience. Then, everything will fall into place.
It’s impossible to do justice to the spectacular beauty of this sequence, particularly in a cinema, where the coffee cup fills the gigantic TechniScope screen, acting as a counterpoint to the intimate tone of the narration. “This is not a film talking, it is a man,” writes James Monaco. “It is the most personal—and most painful—moment in all of Godard.”
I was surprised to learn from Language Hat’s comment that he loved Godard’s films, that he’d “wanted the video [of Two or Three Things] for years, and finally got it.” And yet I shouldn’t have been, since I cannot think of another filmmaker who cares as much about language—and, by extension, the ethics of film language—as Godard.
The limits of my language are the limits of my world.
Language is the house in which we dwell.
I bought the video of Two or Three Things I Know About Her ages ago and must have watched it a half dozen times. Might be time to watch it again.