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Losing Language

caleb.eckert's picture

In my documentary film and photography studies, I've been taught never to take images at face value. They are mired in power, privilege, time, place, representations—all emerging from various contexts. They are framed, lit, cropped, valued, and sold in others. In each image, there is always levels of indexicality, or the feeling of “truthiness,” that we sense when examining an image. The trained eye begins to wonder: What is cropped out? How does the audience look at it? Who is this for? What is beyond the image's frame?


Language, as explored in The Hungry Tide, deals with similar questions. Much of our knowledge of the world comes through interpreted language, filtered through contexts and translated into an understandable concept. Both image and language are skewed representations of knowledge for better or worse, and only approximate one kind of reality. Amitav Ghosh anchors the novel in the nuances and mistrust of language. Distrusting language surfaces in the content, structure, narratives, presenting itself in various motifs and incidences throughout the book. Presently, I'll be looking at the encounter between Kanai and the tiger as a place where language fails in its ability to authoritatively describe the world “as it is.”


In this section, we first learn that language is never free. It is always chained to the systems of power and oppression that it exists in, has historically been used by, and perpetuates. Kanai in his post-fall-in-the-mud rage unleashes a fury of words, all coming “from sources whose very existence he would have denied: the master's suspicion of the menial; the pride of caste; the townsman's mistrust of the rustic; the city's antagonism towards the village” (Ghosh 269). Language is here not a freedom of expression but a tool of the oppressor. The valuation of “Self” and “Other” as absolute objects has been historically codified by determinations of difference. Hierarchies have arisen using its power: it is the literate elite that record history, decide what is important, and privilege written words over oral transmission. The rest—oral traditions, cultural heritages, mythological stories, alternative forms of communication—are called inferior, uncivilized, primitive, illegitimate in comparison with written intellectual rational thought. J.M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals illustrates this all too well. Elizabeth Costello is considered irrational, non-functioning, and generally confused. She is merely an old, senile woman who is unable to think clearly or argue rationally. She, like Fokir, is no match for the trained reasoning inherit in elite intellectual knowledge. Fokir is also addressed in a derogatory toneas Kanai uses the informal Bangla “tui” (263). Their metaphors, their “emotion-ridden” expressions, like “the resistance of unshaped clay” (263), are not considered serious but childlike. Their knowledge, and their identity, is devalued by those who have a higher command of language. Language thus emerges from and enforces the power dynamics catered to those who value and command them.


But the breakdown of language through transformative experience causes this intellectual language to falter. As Kanai, following Fokir, steps onto the island, Fokir addresses Kanai in the informal “tui,” and the roles of certain types of knowledge reveal themselves. Because Kanai's intellect and lingual knowledge is valued in metropolitan society, he is considered Fokir's superior. Yet in different contexts, where intellect and lingual ability do not serve a valuable purpose, local knowledge of the place reveals how dependent and untrained the elite city-dweller is.


Kanai comes into contact with the tiger, which he can only describe in the moment as “the thing.” Here is his breakdown of language and translation—the knowledge that he has built his identity on. In this moment, he cannot remember what the word for “the thing” is in the overwhelming flood of “pure intuition” that “[exists] so intensely” (272). His ability to categorize, describe, and translate the world into rational thinking breaks down. No word is exchanged in their encounter. Kanai's fear arises from the tiger's ability to kill, but also from the breakdown of his trained mind, so adept at and reliant on translating the world into something comprehensible. The tiger, which is never to be named by the people of the tide country, remains unnameable—“without words it could not be apprehended or understood (272). Language as way of accurately describing the world—translating it—has been tried, and failed.


Language, we realize, can only an approximation of the world, of human experience, of “the thing itself.” It is not to be fully trusted because it cannot tell the Truth. The act of translation—of language to language, of event into narrative, of feeling into words—can only go so far. Like a photograph, in its representation many aspects will inevitably be left out of the frame. Kanai at first cannot put words to what he has seen, nor does he attempt to explain to his companions the trial he has undergone. Always approximated, he wordlessly understand thatlanguage tries to harness the intangible and render it tangible: she is an American, it is a tiger. During his encounter, Kanai transforms from being confident, witty, and quick-to-reply into being unable articulate quite what he wants to say. He becomes perpetually at a loss for words, unable to trust in the translation he once trusted in. In rich, overwhelming sensation, language seems only to obfuscate meaning. “The thing,” the tiger, cannot be “apprehended or understood” through language. Its being can only be pointedat by its name. Language, perhaps, is a wallthat delineates the self from the world, where “simply to exist [is] to communicate” (132). In Kanai's encounter, language erodes, like the bãdh that keeps the force of the tides at bay, in the wake of the cyclone of inarticulable experience. It is a brush with an experiencebeyond “our translated world” (172).


Kanai is humbled by this powerful contact, as the very structures of his identity are irrevocably shaken. But then where does that put us? If language itself is only a translation, a feeble attempt to name that powerful deep sensation-filled existence, what then do we do? Language permeates our very way of thinking. One can scarcely imagine what a world would be like without language. We learn to translate the world through interpretation upon interpretation, stories and knowledge tightly woven into one another. There is no permanent escape from the intricate fabric of knowledge and language.


Ghosh seems to point us in the direction of the poet. The poet straddles the barrier between language and “the thing itself.” They gesture to the thing itself, the wordless nature of a thing or experience, without attempting its domination by definition. It is the difference between describing and gesturing towards that differentiates language: the former is an articulation of capital-t Truth, the latter asks us to look closer ourselves. Stories inhabit this space insomuch as they speak to something below the surface, something that the reader must unearth for themselves. One who “lives through poetry,” such as Nirmal, is breath that creates the surface ripples of language, ripples which suggest—but do not directly describe—the “river [that] lies beneath” (214). This breath, sometimes called metaphor, does not assume that it can explain “the thing itself,” but seeks to brush against it through feeling. The direct, non-metaphorical “this is what it is” telling of the world assumes the knowledge and understanding of itself.1 We must look towards “things themselves” as one looks at the full moon: one can see the craters better when looking just off to the side of it.


Suffice to say, I'm having difficulty turning these thoughts into tidy, neat sentences that express my tenuous relationship with language (I feel that Ghosh may share this, too). It seems that I've wrapped myself up too much in attempting to describe the world rather than circle it. Let me, for now, let the poet David Whyte have the last word here:


This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.





Note: I wrote a touch on this topic in response to our snow-day online webby discussion.


1: I'm thinking about anthropologist Jeremy Trombley, who writes on his blog Struggle Forever: “The idea of 'knowing' or 'understanding' can easily mask a more domineering sort of relationship than is apparent from those simple words” (Trombley, “What Ontology does for my Politics”).


Works Cited


Coetzee, J.M. The Lives of Animals. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1991. Print.


Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2006. Print.


Whyte, David. “Loaves and Fishes”. The House of Belonging. 1996. Web.



Anne Dalke's picture

Last month, you invited us to engage with ecological art; this month, you step off from your work in film and photography to meditate on the limits of words. Like images, you say, they are always “indexical,” always pointing to “something beyond.” Are you familiar with Lacan? He argues that language actually arises in the moment of loss—when the mother’s breast is no longer available to the child, and he must ask for food; language, in this analysis, is always a stand in—and always an inadequate and insufficient stand-in---for what is not present. To use language, in other words, is to acknowledge loss. Only if we have what we need, can we rest in the fullness of silence.

That works well, I think, for the scene you decided to focus on for your analysis: the moment of profound breakdown of language @ the center of The Hungry Tide, when our facile translator Kanai loses access to words, no longer “only an approximation of the world,” but woefully inadequate to the deep sensations of fear and abandonment that he is experiencing.

Where I’d nudge you a bit more is in the way you frame such “failure” as a lament: “both image and language,” you say, “are skewed representations of knowledge.” I would say both are representations, both “re-present” what is, and—in failing to capture the totality—invite both further art-making and (as my friend Paul wrote) further conversation. Kanai, recognizing that he was “out of his element” in the tidal country, refused that further conversation, and retreated to the city. In recognizing that words also fail you, as you try to wrap up your analysis of language’s failure, you also open the possibility for further art-making. Poetry, perhaps, as an example of “gesturing towards” rather than “describing,” and you’re certainly quite clever in finding your way out of this conundrum with a poem—esp. a poem that juxtaposes “the age of information” with the ramifying “food” that is poetry.

But to walk deeper into the queries you’re posing here would not be to search for “the last word,” acknowledging, rather, that there will never be one.

Caleb and Celeste— give a look @ (and comment on?!) your very different (one linguistic, one religious) readings of the same scene!