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The Limits of Language

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The Limits of Language China Miéville’s This Census Taker, The City & the City, and Embassytown

And so … these two words suggest motion. A movement away from what directly preceded them. 

The world is things and their interaction, the motion. But language, especially the written, can seem flat. At best it can only suggest motion and interaction. The actions and interactions that we describe as love or as beauty are made still. The photograph as memory: instead of the vibrancy of emotions the photograph can spring forth from someone who was there when the photo happened, was in the experiencing of it. 

This stillness is one problem of language, shall we say a limit to it. And still we try using language. We don’t know how far we might get with language, and we also know we could fail, and could fail our entire lives in the trying. But language allows some communication, and quickly, it provides descriptions of important things that happen and are happening, it aids our nonverbal communication as we interact, and at moments, in glimpses, it produces something sublime, something in the realm of art. 

China Miéville admirably writes in genres outside his pulp traditions, outside of his beloved Lovecraftian beginnings, made full and rich in places like Bas Lag (beginning with his Arthur C Clarke winning Perdido Street Station) and in his video-game-surrealist novelty, The Last Days of New Paris. Why such diversity in form and content?  When asked during a book tour of October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, what the through-line or vector of his work was, he answered: he thinks it is about the limits of language. It is about anti-theology, god is not small, god is not big, and he has been feeling the pressure of completing his work as he ages (Miéville is now in his forties). In this middle writing stage of life, China has written three novels which directly address the limits of language. 

Whether China intended for these three novels to thematically work together is not the focus of this essay. Instead, this essay intends to draw the patterns out of those texts and create a patchwork from the limits of language salvaged from those stories, as Miéville himself continues his life’s work. 

In this essay I will mention three of Miéville’s novels: This Census Taker, about a childhood trauma, memory, and loss in a strange world recovering from a recent military conflict; The City & the City, a crime thriller in the interstices of two cities that exist in the folds of the other, where merely noticing civilians in the other city is cause for criminal conviction; finally, Embassytown, the most hard science fiction of the three, where a girl becomes a simile in the truth-only language of an alien race.


Language is no stop to the body.  Language is a choice, a bargain the body  enters into. In this not unlike sex.  Body chaining into body, generative, generational.  If we like the same things are we then  sculpted by ……. that liking, that likeness. 

These words come from G.C. Waldrep’s longish poem, Testament’. 

(Interestingly, very interestingly, Medium’s software is not letting me not say something. Try starting your own story and putting more than one space between words.)

The spaces left blank on the pages of Waldrep’s poem echo the row of dots recalled by Miéville in October, used famously in Chernyshevky’s What is to be Done? 

There is something implicit in the blank space, the row of dots. Don’t worry, our mind easily fills them in. Is this subtext in the literary form Charles Baxter describes in The Art of Subtext, or is this the authors’ understanding that language cannot do what he wants to convey in this moment?  In one sense, where there is subtext, the text still matters. There is a setup that language facilitates, but the punchline isn’t given. The punch requires no line. It punches. 

Whatever it is. And you feel it. What is hitting you? Surely, not the language. Is it the images or the memories or the remembered emotion, like the last song at prom, or the exhilaration of your first kill in the Vietnam War? 

Suddenly, what matters isn’t the language at all, but what the reader brings to their experiencing of the text and the language, and we see this give and take, but mostly this give. So why did the language matter to begin with? Maybe it is about attention.  In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s artful depiction of the Vietnam war, there is a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress, who, gun in hand, does not pull the trigger only because his dogs scratched at the door to be let in. Language also scratches at the door of experience, draws attention, arranges the our consciousness on a limited set of experiences. Instead of a wallowing and willowing of the everyday, we are pulled somewhere. 

Still, the mind completes (like this word processor’s autocomplete function). It looks for interpretation. Each mind with a text sees what it will see. 

What do you want? What do you want from literature, poetry, your newspaper? 

These questions matter. This is the idea of the reader as giver, again courtesy of G.C. Waldrep, poet of Testament and others, who said in a lecture given at the Upper House in Madison, Wisconsin, after reading The Orchard’ in full, that awareness of this want mattered. 

The poetry or the literature could not make you give it anything . The author wrote something to someone about something. There you are in the receiving, so you might think. But there you are in the giving, because what you want matters. 

In This Census Taker, there is no language for the 9-year-old boy coming down the hill like a dust cloud to say something has happened to one of his parents. He wants it to be his father who was killed, instead of his mother. Then suddenly his memory collapses into itself. It festers, propagates, radiates. There are no words to properly portray this trauma, the indecision, the fear, the inexplicable that the boy has seen, thinks he has seen, and hopes he was been wrong about seeing.  The evidence in the contrary of what he has seen raises doubts, for reader and narrator. The narrator, the adult version of the boy, still finds few words to interpret retrospectively his boy version of the reaction. The dialogue with the townspeople in the opening pages is all the more the reader can and will get. 

We see the boy is in trauma, and that is all we can know. The language cannot tell us what trauma is like. Unless one has had trauma himself can one relate. So it goes with depression and so many other unusual states of the human experience. How can we access the quality of these experiences. //hy do we want to? 

In The City & the City it is the law, rather, it is a crime to see people in the neighboring city. This is difficult not to do, since the very cobblestones mere feet away from my shoes are cobblestones in another city, upon which are the shoes of those people the law has said I am forbidden to see. What emerges is a practice of unseeing. She saw and she unsaw. 

What is this unseeing but the very thing we do everyday? We unsee problems we’d rather not confront. We unsee the beggar, we walk well around him, for if we were to look into his face, into his life, for too long, we would feel criminal not to help, to not aid another human, to feel his solidarity. 

So we unsee. 

In The City & the City, Mieville’s addressing of language’s limits occurs at the macro. He is describing this everyday occurrence of pattern recognition and the near-simultaneous de-configuration of patterns. We see, we unsee. We are so good at this. Maybe it is part of our survival. Too much empathy makes us ill, one might say. Maybe not. Mieville’s poetic approach at the level of the novel is effective in illuminating this human foible, rather, the dark side of the equally valorous charity and solidarity so many show on a day-to-day basis.

This thematic message could perhaps be written in essay form, or in a declration, but the reverberation rings far wider and stronger as it page by page is part of the fabric of the story, unavoidable, at the margins of consciousness for the reader. In one sense, the reader is not fully aware of this criticism of himself, for if at any moment Miéville’s commentary was too overt, the natural tendency might be to look away. 

Instead, the truth is revealed slowly. In Embassytown, the truth of language is put center stage in the vessel of an alien language wherein untruths cannot be spoken. The aliens can only speak truth, and what is true. 

Metaphor is impossible. 

As such, when these aliens meet humans for the first time, and grow fond of their play with language, they first must reenact true events so as to use them in speech later. The protagonist becomes loosely speaking she who in the restaurant was given food, and ate what was given to her’. She becomes a simile. 

With simile and metaphor, with their existence as categories of language, we are confronted with direct evidence of language’s limits. Why so should we require similes and metaphors if we had words for a description of a thing or action? These three novels share the motif of the limits of language. A combined 100,000+ words to scratch the metaphorical surface of how little we might know and admit languages limits confront us in our daily and existential lives. 

A conversation perhaps worth having with oneself, or not having. Can you see and unsee in the same moment? Maybe a walk in the woods will suffice.



Posted on November 5, 2017 • Source