The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

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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3 Responses to The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

  1. music turtle says:

    great review…i am writing about 69 Love Songs right now, and will be linking to this post. thanks!

  2. […] the Bunnymen. But what are they talking about? I had no clue, looked around online for a while, and this blog provided my favorite […]

  3. James says:

    I appreciate the time you put into this. Very well thought out. I have loved this song since it first came out and always meant to look up Holland-Dozier-Holland but never did. Turns out to be more significant than I thought. But I should have known. Stephen Merrit never ceases to amaze me. And my enjoyment of this song has just gone up to a new level. Thanks

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