Cucurbits

John Sturrock

We semioticians who are also family men know well how to Say It With Flowers, commissioning long-distance posies and garlands to be the messengers of our good will or our condolences. Provided the It is not too deep or idiosyncratic a message, the fond blooms can carry it. But has the hour not now sounded to swap vehicles and Say It With Vegetables? We are recessing into straitened times, and should we not therefore value the nutritious above the emptily decorative? A trug-load of shallots or broccoli spears, gift-wrapped and delivered by Intergreens, would make a more practical birthday greeting than the customary inedible spray of irises. A nosegay of piquant radishes would be a healthier restorative for a wilting diva at the final curtain than those armfuls of cellophaned roses.

Unfortunately, the language of vegetables is positively dyslexic compared with the language of flowers. The symbolic status of the leek and the cabbage is undecided. Were we to communicate through vegetables as we now communicate through flowers, our messages would prove ambiguous. In our existing code, vegetables are interpreted as a gift, not as a tribute: they are for eating, not displaying. Even when they are displayed, as at harvest festivals, it has to be made clear to thrifty congregations that immediately after matins the symbolic marrows will be reharvested from the altar steps and distributed free to OAPs. The ignoble vegetable finds it hard to escape the biological round of cultivation and consumption; it is a hopelessly natural object.

It may, however, as anything in nature may, find its way into literature, and thence into the literature of literature, or in this instance Nature and Language. The subject of this jaunty, promising but muddled book is the symbolic potential of one family of vegetables, the cucurbits. The Cucurbitaceae, to do them the honours of their botanical Latin, include gourds, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons. And according to the two Scandinavian authors, they are ‘inherently’ absurd, ‘a taboo subject because of their ridiculous connotations but also because of their association with sex’. Thus the relative silence about cucurbits in our culture, to which we would all, I imagine, testify, turns out to be a guilty one. The cucurbits are victims of repression. Those of us who, before we took up this book, hadn’t thought the pumpkin and its unhappy kind were ridiculous, or erotic, or even taboo, had simply failed to look them in the face – we were operating the well-known taboo on taboo subjects.

Ralf Norrman and Jon Haarberg spend almost half their space assembling references to cucurbits in literature or folklore. Their industry is praiseworthy, they have put in some deft spadework. The dossier they have compiled is impressive and often amusing. Back to Seneca they go, and forwards and outwards to Richard Brautigan. Busily, the melons, pumpkins and gourds are gathered in. Each quotation is given, cacophonously, in its original language (the translations appear elsewhere, which is a monstrous imposition), and its meaning rapidly adduced. Bit by bit – cucurbit by cucurbit – Norrman and Haarberg circumscribe what they call the ‘semiotic matrix’ of the Cucurbitaceae: in other words, the full range of connotations the members of the family evoke in their literary guise. These connotations are not, annoyingly, organised in any way, but tumble out in disorder as if from some cucurbitic cornucopia. We could have done with a clearer map of this intriguing ghetto in semantic space. The sources are astonishingly various, but some authorities recur: Browning, Tennyson and John Updike would probably rank highest here on any cucurbit-count.

I shall not question the charm or the exhaustiveness of Norrman and Haarberg’s research – though some at least of their quotations have been wrongly transcribed. What I do now turn to question is the main argument of their book, which is ambitious and weirdly misguided. They offer Nature and Language as a contribution to the ‘continued debate’ (their words, my italics) between the naturalist and conventionalist accounts of language. The naturalist side in this disagreement holds that the signs of a language – its words – bear some natural relation to the things they stand for: that there is something equine in the sound horse. The conventionalist side holds the opposite: that the relation of words to things is not natural but arbitrary, that the speakers of a given language community agree that certain sounds should refer to certain things. This is an ancient debate, but also one which most people would assume ended a long time ago, in favour of conventionalism. Norrman and Haarberg assert that it continues, but they do not say where, in what terms, or who conducts it. They have merely tried to throw a naturalist cucumber into the conventionalist works.

At the outset of their book they describe their literary cucurbits as being ‘naturally motivated’ signs. One would have hoped that all they meant by that description was that the sign cucurbit in English has a natural referent, as do all the signs of English which refer to natural objects. But they obviously mean much more, and different; and they draw conclusions from this natural ‘motivation’ which are quite unwarranted. They seem to wish us to see their cucurbits as natural intruders on the conventional scene of language, and their connotations as natural rather than cultural ones. The cucurbits are promoted to the rank of inevitable, rather sinister presences in literature as Norrman and Haarberg pose, on the strength of the lessons they believe they have learnt tilling their patch, such brazen questions as ‘Does a literary work write itself?’ (one chapter heading), or ‘Is a literary work written by the author or by the readers?’ (a second). Provocations these, of the punk kind, unsupported as they are by any serious reasoning.

The authors have been bemused by their own terminology. The ‘natural motivation’ of which they write has nothing whatsoever to do with the debate between naturalism and conventionalism in language, for that debate was concerned with the relation between the sound of a word and its signatum. Were the sign pumpkin truly naturally motivated, that would mean that the acoustic – or perhaps the graphic, the point is worth considering – form of the word were somehow conditioned by the natural properties of the cucurbit so designated. Norrman and Haarberg barely touch on motivation of this sort, presumably because they would get nowhere by doing so. Onomatopoeia is notoriously tricky to argue for, and doubly so when the referent is not something noisy like a cuckoo but something silent like a pumpkin. The supposed derivability of a word’s form from its referent is sometimes known as ‘folk etymology’: it is fun to indulge in, but is a purely imaginative hobby.

Norrman and Harrberg are ruinously lax in their use of such terms as ‘sign’ and ‘motivation’, bending their sense to suit themselves. Theoretically, their book is a nonsense. They won’t because they can’t allow that ‘inherently’ cucurbits are nothing, they have no connotations at all. Connotations are the product, not of nature, but of history and culture – even though they are conditioned by the properties of the objects themselves. Norrman and Haarberg have fetishised the cucurbits, attributing to them magical powers they do not have. An example: they introduce, at some length, the ‘gentleman in small-clothes’ from Nicholas Nickleby, who tossed cucumbers over the party wall in a highly suggestive manner as an expression of his desire for Mrs Nickleby. Our authors hasten to the conclusion that in this very Dickensian episode the cucurbits can be ‘recognised as a symbol of courtship’. But that is a false conclusion. It is the throwing of the cucurbits that must be so recognised. Mrs Nickleby’s amorous neighbour was putting his cucumbers to an incidental not a compulsory use. Cucumbers may be phallic, but not in themselves. God planted them in the Garden of Eden, but it was Adam and Eve who first spotted the resemblance.

Nature and Language would have been a quaint and pleasing book if it had not taken off into cloud-cuckoo-land. It is written with humour, and its data are unusual. But it will, I know, further blacken the name of semiotics, a modest, respectable and enlightening study when coherently pursued. Norrman and Haarberg have pursued it in a dreadfully slapdash fashion. Their case for the cucurbits fails. Which is not to say that if, in retaliation for what I have written, they put a volley of putrid watermelons through my windows, I shall not get the message.