The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

January 27, 2010

Ferdinand de Saussure was a brilliant Swiss linguist from the early 20th century. The Magnetic Fields are a synth-pop/indie-pop/I-don’t-understand-pop-genres band who specialize in ironic and depressing songs sung, if it makes sense to say it, in a dead-pan manner. One of these has written a song about the other; I’ll let you guess which way it went.

Recently “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (youtube link) has become one of my favorite songs, both for its catchy tune and (primarily) for its extremely clever lyrics (line numbers added in brackets to facilitate discussion later):

I met Ferdinand de Saussure
On a night like this
On love he said “I’m not so sure
I even know what it is
No understanding, no closure [5]
It is a nemesis
You can’t use a bulldozer
To study orchids”

[chorus:]
He said…
So we don’t know anything [10]
You don’t know anything
I don’t know anything
about love
But we are nothing
You are nothing [15]
I am nothing
Without love

I’m just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure [20]
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying “it’s well and kosher
to say you don’t understand
but this is for Holland-Dozier-
Holland” [25]

[chorus 2x]

First of all, let’s look at some of the rhymes he chooses. For example, between lines 1 and 3. See what he did there – rhyme “Saussure” with “so sure”? They’re pronounced the same, but they’re different words, spelled differently. He does something similar in lines 18 and 20, between “composer” and “composure” – in the same location in the stanza as the first time. I doubt it’s coincidental, particularly since it’s a fitting thing to do in a song about Saussure, whose linguist theory said difference between phonemes is how we decipher meaning. It also seems related to Derrida’s “differance“.

Anyway, this stanza is about how Saussure doesn’t know what love is. Why? Because “You can’t use a bulldozer / To study orchids.” This is maybe my favorite two lines in the song. The implication seems to be that Saussure is a linguist who approaches language scientifically, and love is something unscientific. But I think something a bit more complicated might be going on here. It’s about having a structure, a framework, versus having content. (Incidentally, structure v. content may be makings its way to my Dictionary soon; it’s related to deduction/induction, though.)

See, the problem is “No understanding, no closure” – he can’t diagram love and finish the diagram, close it, because love is not found in the structure of the mind, it is in the content of the mind. The bulldozer/orchid metaphor isn’t just about destroying something beautiful with an ill-fitted tool, though it is that; it’s also about the building of a structure (bulldozers are used for construction, even if they do knock things down) being unable to explain something non-structural. This fits again with Saussure’s linguistic theory, which looks only at the structure of language, not the content.

After this the chorus sets up the opposition of the song: Saussure says “we don’t know anything … about love,” but the narrator insists “we are nothing … without love.” The repetition here (“we don’t… I don’t… you don’t…” and “we are… I am… you are…”) I find interesting; it brackets off the fact that this is “about love,” “without love”, making us consider the statement first generally, then about love specifically. Saussure wouldn’t just say that we don’t know anything about love; the same applies to beauty, truth, God, other people. In his structuralist system, we can’t say anything or know anything about these things, the things that really matter; we only know about how they interact with each other, nothing about their content.

But it is this claim about love, specifically, that the narrator objects to. Why? The second stanza addresses this: the narrator is “a great composer,” a song-writer. And it’s “all well and kosher / to say you don’t understand,” but Saussure must die – why? Because he says more than “I don’t understand.” He says “we can’t know anything.” He moves from saying his system can’t make sense of something to saying that the thing cannot be known. Does the narrator believe it can be known? Or only that we cannot be so quick to dismiss the possibility?

Now, that reference to “Holland-Dozier-Holland.” I had to look it up, but that’s the name of the song-writing and production team behind a lot of Mo-Town songs – songs with names like “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” etc. Songs that don’t consider love philosophically, but rather presume love is important and just sing about some particular love, in terms of love as an emotion. It is for these that the narrator shoots Ferdinand de Saussure. He shoots, apparently, because that approach, that assumption of love, cannot coexist with Saussure’s claims.

But is it because they are right and Saussure is wrong? Or because the narrator wants to preserve their innocence (really naivete) from the harsh truth Saussure revealed? I don’t know if the song answers that explicitly. In support of the second theory, the narrator says “we are nothing … without love”: so the narrator acted to stop us from becoming nothing, as would have happened if Saussure succeeded in destroying love. Also, the love of Holland-Dozier-Holland songs is hardly deep spiritual love – it’s little more than glorified lust – so it would seem odd for the narrator to consider that the truth of love that needs protecting. In this interpretation the song has a somewhat nihilistic bent.

But on the other hand, the narrator is a song-writer himself – and he writes about love. I find it hard to believe a man could do that if he believed love was not real, as he would have to, under the first interpretation. So either the song is even more nihilistic than we had thought, or the narrator still believes in love, and did not allow Saussure to claim that love cannot be known because he believes he can know love, through music, through art.

Then why did he not say what love is, in response to Saussure’s doubt? Because he does not know himself. In this interpretation, the singer is, albeit with respect to love rather than God, a kind of Christian nihilist, a la Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. He does not know what love is, but, taking a leap of faith, he believes that knowledge is possible, and that love itself is possible. But it cannot be understood through philosophy, through reason, through Saussure’s methods; rather, it can be known only through art.

Of course, the song-writer for the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt, is gay and was raised Buddhist, so any Christian undertones are likely unintentional. But the nihilistic slant is there, as is the conflict over having faith in something not understood.

PS: This post is 1157 words long, and has 11 tags – probably a new record. But they’re all relevant, so I can’t remove any!

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Kasparov on Chess

January 25, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily‘s links today include this article by Garry Kasparov about computers and chess. It’s quite fascinating, and touches on the issue of finitude that I’ve been talking about recently and find so fascinating; it also ends with the suggestion that poker, rather than chess, is a better fit for the modern age – a suggestion I tend to agree with, for basically the reasons he gives.

Incidentally, the most recent XKCD is among the best; they hadn’t been all that great in recent weeks, but this one completely reversed that trend.

Anyway, for now, have fun with those links; I’ll hopefully have a substantial post up sometime later this week.


Back to School

January 18, 2010

Break is over and the new semester starts tomorrow. (I already have homework though.) For some reason this break felt really short; I know it’s been almost five weeks, but I still think I ought to have a week or two more… ah well.

So how did I do in terms of my reading list from the beginning of break?

  • (finish reading) The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky – yes
  • The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky – yes
  • Seascape, Soulscape by Eugene Curtsinger (a book of literary criticism about Moby-Dick by a recently-deceased professor of literature at UD) – began it, but didn’t finish (yet)
  • The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville – no
  • Light in August by William Faulkner – kind of; instead I read his As I Lay Dying
  • also read Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
  • and Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction as I try to get a handle on what I’ll need to know for the English subject GREs

so, I read six books and began a seventh, though they weren’t exactly the ones I planned on at the beginning of the semester… well, I’ll be reading The Confidence-Man for a class this semester anyway, and I’ll work my way through the Moby-Dick book as I re-read Moby-Dick itself. So everything I planned, I’ll have read by the end of the semester, except for probably Light in August. Which isn’t that bad, considering I didn’t get a chance to go to the library over break (meaning I own all of these books! Cool!)

What else did I accomplish over break? I got two more chapters written for one of secret projects, and began a short story before realizing I couldn’t go anywhere with it at about page 16. Hm. Not an overly productive break writing-wise.


Kirillov and Lolcats

January 10, 2010

There is a character in Dostoevsky’s novel Demons (also titled The Possessed or The Devils) named Kirillov who refuses to use proper grammar. Oh, he’s not ignorant of correct usage, though he claims that he has forgotten how to speak properly. He is simply intentionally agrammatic, using the wrong tenses, the wrong cases.

Oddly, what I first thought about when I encountered this chararacter was, lolcats! You know, the bizarre internet phenomenon where a picture of a cat is given an amusing, often grammatically incorrect or misspelled caption, and that makes it hilarious? They can be found on the website icanhascheezburger.com, which name pretty well captures what I’m talking about.

What the two have in common is that they involve people who know correct grammar intentionally misusing words in order to provoke a reaction. Yes, lolcats are meant to be humorous – but they achieve their humor through self-conscious absurdity. They point to themselves and say, “I’m misusing the language, and I know it!” If you show that you are aware of the absurdity of language, it puts you above it.

How is language absurd? Firstly, it’s arbitrary. We collectively agree on what words mean, how they go together, how sentences are formed, but we could just as easily speak a different language. The fact that Kirillov and lolcats are comprehensible even though they break the rules proves that arbitrariness – they’ve made you understand them even though they refused to follow the rules. You know exactly what “I can has cheezburger?” means, even though “I can has” shouldn’t mean anything and “cheezburger” won’t be found in any dictionary.

But, apart from language itself, the very idea of communication is absurd in certain lights. What does Kirillov care what you have to say? Nothing. And conversely, he realizes that you do not (or at least ought not to) care about what he has to say. He will invite you to have tea with him, but the phrase intentionally sounds forced, because he wants you to know that he does not really care whether or not you have tea, that he knows you don’t really care, that he’s going to ask anyway to be polite, but that he does not care. As he says near the end of the novel: “Makes no difference.” Not, “It makes no difference,” but, “Makes no difference.”

I find myself reacting thusly every so often. If I have to text someone about their location, I won’t say “where are you?” but rather “where is you?” or “where be you?” I’ll do the same for myself; “i’z in my apt” rather than “I’m in my apartment.” Or I’ll try to respond in German rather than English – I constantly find myself using “wo?” instead of “where?” and “wie ist die uhr?” instead of “what time is it?”

In a way, it’s an attempt to break through the banality of life, to transcend earthly existence. Kirillov refuses to use correct grammar, and his entire philosophy is centered around the idea that he should commit suicide in order to become God: “I want to put an end to my life, because that’s my idea, because I don’t want to be afraid of death.”

But that statement itself perfectly demonstrates Kirillov’s error. He does not want to be afraid of death, but he is – he’s afraid of the power that death has over him. His solution is not to fight that power, but to give in to it entirely. Kirillov is afraid of being “merely” human. His suicide is, in the end, still an act of cowardice.

The same applies to his bizarre speech patterns. He’s refusing to engage his fellow human beings as human beings – he insists on being agrammatic so that he doesn’t have to do so. In fact, this seems true of most such breakings of grammar, including my own. The phrase “where is you?”, after all, conjugates “to be” not for the second person, but for the third person – changes the “you” from a person to interact with into an object to be dealt with.

And the lolcat caption does the same thing. Instead of saying, “can I have a cheezburger?” the cat says “I can has cheezburger?” Whomever the cat is addressing is thus treated as a robot, with an input of “ask for cheeseburger” and an output of “get a cheeseburger,” without being given the respect of a grammatically correct question.

This is funny, of course, because this is exactly how pets treat people; they use them. I’ve seen “lolcats” of dogs, horses, walruses, etc – but rarely people, and I don’t think it would work for people. For people, I think, it would just be disturbing, as the character of Kirillov is himself disturbing.


Winter I – Allegro non molto

January 9, 2010

It snowed here in Dallas on Christmas Eve. My brothers and I decided we had to do something to take advantage of the situation – but there wasn’t yet enough on the ground to have a snowball fight (that came later). So we put on trenchcoats, got out the toy guns (including a homemade model of an M16 rifle – that’s what I’m holding), and started filming stuff.

Then, as we were filming, we realized we had no characters, no story, really nothing except two guys in different color coats shooting at each other. So we decided, in lieu of trying to add those things, to make it a music video for Vivaldi’s Winter, the first movement: Allegro non molto. Because classical music, Weird Al, and the soundtrack to that Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode are the only things my family listens to.

Anyway, today, my brother finally finished editing it, and we uploaded it to youtube. For reasons, it’s not available in Germany.


Book Review: Demons

January 7, 2010

Today I finished reading Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Verdict: like everything Dostoevsky writes, frustrating but also quite rewarding. Demons is less frustrating than The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot, though; it’s also, I think, less rewarding than Brothers, not attempting as much.

Demons is basically about how liberalism leads to socialism leads to nihilism, and how life, according to Dostoevsky, boils down to a choice between Christianity and suicide. An important concept, to be sure; but the book is entirely about intellect and will, leaving out the physical being that is the person; that’s what has always bugged me about Dostoevsky, that he ignores the real world in favor of the world of ideas. At least the Karamazovs were sensualists, and had Dmitri to go on sprees all the time…

Demons has other qualities than its predominant thought, of course; it’s a very engaging novel, more suspenseful than others of Dostoevsky, both because it’s more violent (being about socialist nihilist anarchists and all), and because it takes a long time to get a sense for what motivates the main character, Nikolai Stavrogin.

In the end, it turns out that he is the quintessential doubter; he claims to believe in nothing, to feel nothing, to be empty. But the thoughts he does have – though he doesn’t believe them – are what the people around him – Shatov, Kirillov, and Verkhovensky, in particular – latch on to; they make themselves into manifestations of those ideas (the ideas being the “demons” of the title, those three the Genesarene swine?). By embodying these ideas, they destroy themselves; Stavrogin’s eventual fate is determined by whether or not he is able to overcome the demons and achieve faith.

Interestingly, Dostoevsky says, through his mouthpiece Tikhon, that absolute doubt immediately proceeds absolute faith; thus Stavrogin, as the quintessential doubter, is also the closest among the main cast of characters to true Christianity. This idea, that a person must not give in to his ideas, must strain against them to be a person, is a fascinating one… unfortunately, there’s no really good word for it that I can think of; otherwise I’d add it to my dictionary.


Those Who Live and Die for Numerology

January 4, 2010

During my Junior Poet panel I was asked a question about the first line of Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves – my exemplary poem which I have discussed elsewhere – involving medieval numerology. It starts with a string of six unimposing adjectives, then an ellipsis (“…”), then on the eighth beat, the adjective “stupendous.” The professor drew a parallel between this and the six days of creation, the day of rest, and the “eighth day” that is ETERNITY. 8=eternity.

I’d never heard of anything like that, though, and so answered with a “nope, never heard of that, sorry, interesting though.”

Anyway, that got me thinking a bit about numerology in general. What are we to make of using certain numbers to symbolize metaphysical concepts? And, even if we do decide it’s a good move, are we to take those symbols as anything more than conveniences?

I tend towards it being a good idea, mainly because my attitude is “the more symbols the better,” and many of them are so intuitive they will be used anyway. But, is there anything more to them?

From what I’ve read, a traditional Christian numerology would go something like this:

  1. unity – duh
  2. duality – duh
  3. divinity – Trinity, duh
  4. creation – 4 cardinal direction, 4 elements; humanity – one more than 3, so not divinity, and the 4 humors
  5. law – the Pentateuch
  6. incompleteness – one less than 7; humanity – man created on 6th day; evil – 3(divinity)x2(duality)=opposition to God
  7. perfection – on the 7th day God rested; concord between earth and heaven – 3(divinity)+4(creation,humanity)
  8. eternity, super-perfection – one more than 7
  9. super-holiness – 3(divinity)x3(divinity) (from Dante’s Vita Nuova)
  10. government – 10 Commandments, 5(law)x2(duality)
  11. ?
  12. Israel – 12 Tribes, etc
  13. treachery – Judas was the 13th at the Last Supper, one more than 12

Then there’s more stuff like 40=tribulation, 100=even more perfection, 666=lots of evil, etc. But I don’t like those because they’re relics of the base 10 system (which as I’ve said before is bad because it’s not universal). So – what about these?

I think my attributions for 1, 2, and 3 are not only inarguable, they’re unavoidable – the numbers don’t just represent those things, they are those things. Heck, my faith demands that I treat the number 3 with a strange sort of mysticism; God is triune and yet united. Here the symbols are not just symbols, they have real substance.

What about the rest of them? 4 as “creation” is fairly omnipresent – corners of the earth, elements, cardinal directions, humors – and it makes sense with it coming after 3=God. But in the end, is it any more than a convenient symbol? We no longer believe in the 4 elements or humors. On the other hand, creation really is determined by 4 dimensions – height, width, depth, time. So I’m willing to grant 4 a tentative place in canon of “real numerology.” And the same with 6, 7, and 8, all of whose meanings can be derived from only what we’ve said 1-4 are. But those associations are weaker.

I don’t really buy 5 and 10 as law and government, though – both because those are based entirely on revelation, not nature, and so seem are more likely to be human inventions, and because I don’t like the numbers 5 and 10 to begin with. (Personal grudge, I suppose.) 9 as super-holiness seems suspect as well; if squaring a number had that effect, why isn’t 4, uh, what, super-dualistic? I don’t even know what 11 would be; 12 as Israel I’ll buy as a useful symbol, but not as anything sacramental in nautre; and the same with 13 as treachery.

The issue with all of this, of course, is that different cultures have different numerologies. For example, in Oriental cultures 4 is death (though actually that works here, with 4 as creation/man… OK, take a different example). And if different people find different symbols in numbers, can any of them really be inherent?


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