Colloques & Conferences de l'Universite Lyon 2, Modernism and Unreadability / Modernisme et Illisibilite

'Representing incomprehension: multilingualism in modernist texts'

Juliette Taylor-Batty

Temps: 2008-10-25  05:10  – 05:45
Dernière modification: 2008-07-07


A significant number of modernist writers use different languages for stylistic effect and/or to represent intercultural contact, travel, migration and exile, and/or make use of interlingual compositional processes. The 'unreadability' of many modernist works is closely linked to such multilingualism: T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, for example, or Joyce's Finnegans Wake are difficult precisely because they make use of so many different languages; in a different way, the extreme linguistic estrangement of Beckett's trilogy is partly the product of interlingual and translational compositional processes. The issue of multilingual 'unreadability' is important even in less extreme cases, however: texts by writers such as D.H. Lawrence, Jean Rhys and Dorothy Richardson, although on the whole more immediately comprehensible than those by Eliot, Joyce or Beckett, nonetheless present the reader with often untranslated passages in languages other than English. In such cases, the use of different languages is usually matched by a thematic concern with the difficulties of interlingual communication, and present us with protagonists who have trouble using or understanding languages other than their own.

It is such passages that I propose to focus on in this paper, with a view to evaluating the precise function of multilingual difficulty in these texts in thematic terms and in terms of the effect of such language upon the reader. Representative texts under scrutiny will include: Lawrence's exploration of intercultural contact in Women in Love, Richardson's representation of the young Miriam Henderson's experiences in Germany in Pointed Roofs, and Rhys's evocation of Sasha Jensen's linguistic anxiety in Good Morning, Midnight. In all cases, the protagonists are confronted with discourse in language/s that they understand imperfectly or not at all. As I will demonstrate, such limited comprehension is then imparted to the reader, not merely through narrative explanation, but through the text's presentation of events and dialogue in such a way as to limit the reader's comprehension. The result is a paradoxically effective representation of incomprehension, and the reader is forced to feel a form of linguistic estrangement in keeping with that of the character/s.

Such multilingualism is not merely representational, however, and the paper will also examine the stylistic function of different languages in such texts, particularly in relation to Viktor Shklovsky's theory of ostranenie ('enstrangement') which is based upon an implied relationship between 'foreignness' and defamiliarisation. I will thus relate the passages under scrutiny to Rhys's stylistic use of translational effects, for example, or to Richardson's pioneering development of stream-of-consciousness technique. More broadly, I will examine the modernist representation of interlingual incomprehension in relation to the general sense of linguistic 'crisis' characteristic of the period.