Wherefore goest thou, my Apocalypse

So I have two mes? According to Mrs. Margaret, one is subject I one is object I? But I only one I. Unless Mrs. Margaret talking about incarnation or after life.

She also telling me I disorder when speaking English. Chinese we starting sentence from concept of time or place. Order like this:

Last autumn on the Great Wall we eat barbecue.

So time and space always bigger than little human in our country. Is not like order in English sentence, “I” or “Jake” or “Mary” by front of everything, supposing be most important thing to whole sentence.

Xiaolu Guo. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, p.22

The sample snippet is a woman’s journey into learning English in London on a study visa from her native China. The quote above combines rudimentary English and a cultural observation: in the West the person is out in front in language and thought. This cultural dissonance comes to the forefront in the chapter ‘self’ where she feels ‘Western loneliness’ and her own rage at feeling ignored by her lover after 5 weeks of travel.  She also feels alone in a room of conversation about the costs for transsexual surgery. It’s an interesting book.

The chapters are like diary entries, often a page or two, often hilarious and at times, poignant. As the book starts, her English is poor but intelligible to the reader and with each chapter the language-acquisition process progresses, the insights, and observations move from the acutely anxious to the nuanced. The reader reads and feels all her frustrations through her picaresque adventures. The cultural clashes are evident on so many levels; she falls in love with a bisexual man and travels with him and then by herself throughout Europe. Falling in love is a seismic, cultural collision, as she does not understand his bisexuality, the difference between intimacy and privacy. In fact, she learns about his bisexuality when she reads his journal while he is away for the weekend. He is incensed. She thinks that because they are lovers that everything is open, like it is with family in China. The chapter ‘discord’ paragraphs out several cultural misunderstandings. On Tibet. On food. On career.

There is a chapter about buying condoms. She avoids one place because the owners know her. She is afraid to purchase them from the nice Muslim shopkeeper because she knows his faith’s views on sexuality. Meanwhile, she tries to define her views on sexuality. She thinks all Westerners are obsessed with sex and that condoms in their wallets are a sign of a predatory nature. Always armed and always prepared for hedonism. In another chapter she struggles with the word ‘homosexual.’ It is mystical koan to her, as is ‘romance.’ In another chapter she is aroused by exotic dancers in a sex shop and when she learns about masturbation from a book (in English with drawings) she is genuinely shocked that she could be the mistress of her own pleasure, that a man is not necessary. She literally understands self-reliance from that experience on several levels. There are chapters (‘colony’ is one example) that offer exquisite poetic meditations that begin in innocence and end in wisdom. I also found it interesting that for her, as a woman, the first thing that she is drawn to in the man she loves is his scent.

On the verb “to go” Guo writes, “People say ‘I’m going to go to the cinema’…Why there two go for one sentence? Why not enough to say one go to go?”

Hilarious are her frustrations with language learning. English verb tenses are “moody.”  At first she thinks adding “ed” to all verbs will solve the matter, until she encounters irregular verbs; and she feels particularly vexed when she encounters the present progressive tense. Chinese seems to have no future tense? These are all issues that we take for granted until we learn another language. I mess up my past perfects and use ‘whether’ and ‘if’ interchangeably. Ask a friend to explain the imperfect tense (the past continuous tense in English), or ask yourself why using the third personal impersonal “one” sounds so archaic or stilted, yet it was proper usage well into the first half of the twentieth-century. T.S. Eliot’s critical essays are riddled with them and Henry James, along with more than half of the writers of the nineteenth-century, used it promiscuously.

We take for granted that as speakers of the English language that we know one of the world’s difficult language. English borrows vocabulary from several languages, particularly French, and English is an inflected language like German. English is like French in that what we say is often spelled and written differently from what comes out of our mouths. All subordinated clauses in German are set off by commas; and then there are modal verbs, the equivalents of ‘can’ or ‘to be able,’ and ‘must’ and ‘have to,’ etc. that also drive the second verb the the end in a German sentence. And lest we forget…English has lost the formal and intimate you.

It all comes down again to marks on a page vying for understanding inside the head. Culture adds yet another dimension. Speaking another language requires more skill. The objective is communication. Ever notice that contractions are the last thing a student of English “gets”? The logic is counter-intuitive and cultural and even, in some instances, regional.

And for writing?

In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” That injunction presumes the writer has something to articulate and a facility with language to say it.

Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett swapped out long, prim Victorian verbiage for a lean and simple style that influenced twentieth-century prose. Multisyllabic words dropped weight and became monosyllabic titans of innuendo, or cinematic creatures. Hemingway favored double entendre. Was this all done as an expression of anti-intellectualism? Was it a changing of the guard? Is this new style the Kiss Method – keep it simple, stupid – in practice? I don’t think so. Faulkner and Joyce, for example, carried out language in the other direction with their baroque styles. Intent is delayed with their very long sentences, if the reader has the patience. It is a matter of taste and proportionate to a reader’s disposition: savor the meat, or trim off the fat.In short, it can be said that a simple style demonstrates power and starkness, where what is left out, left unsaid, draws the reader in.

Guo is addressing fundamental understanding, if not survival in navigating language. Culture compounds the difficulty. Her narrator knows she can mangle the language and get by, but she wants to understand the soul of the language. A Chinese protagonist is learning a Western language through Eastern eyes. Think of an American trying to understand the British and learning the difference between King’s and Queen’s English.

Guo’s character tries to understand her lover, understand his soul, her own soul, but she finds out that she could never fully understand him. Understanding language is one thing; understanding another human being is another; and both require a lifetime of compassion and curiosity.

All of this on language reminds me: Russell Hoban died this month, albeit, much like Louis Auchincloss — unnoticed in most newspapers. Discussing how we learn language, his post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker, comes to mind because language is built from the ground up in the novel. While the characters all sound alike to me and the writing is self-conscious at times, RW is the precursor to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Sadly, Hoban’s Pilgermann still remains out of print. Hoban is another writer who appropriates medieval culture and comments on the evolution of language, between sign and symbol, the marks on a page, and meaning.  A good example, I think, of the profound disconnect between medieval and modern can be seen when one reads another novel published in the same year, 1983, as Pilgermann, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Eco is another writer who appropriates medieval culture. From Italian to English by translator William Weaver, medieval to modern by Umberto Eco, the Il nome della rosa is a challenging book. The   Italian novel first appeared in 1980, the same year Riddley Walker appeared in the UK.

The good thing is if there were ever an Apocalypse and humans managed to survive, the language process would start anew. Riddley Walker or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash? Whether those who remain “make it new” or “replay the old,” language will persist and cultural memories of the survivors will restructure human speech and perception. Our verb tenses may start with time or place.

Of course, if human did not survive, I am sure that there is a Homer among the cockroaches (and rats on land) and (dolphins) in the sea.


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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