True Words

A.D. Nuttall

  • The Names of Comedy by Anne Barton
    Oxford, 221 pp, £22.50, August 1990, ISBN 0 19 811793 0

‘The French call it pain, the Germans call it Brot and we call it bread; and we are right, because it is bread.’ So wrote (I have been told though I have not been able to verify the reference) an English theorist of language in the 17th century. The thought is at once robust and lunatic. The writer believes that there are true words and false. His is an extreme case of what Anne Barton calls cratylism.

The word comes from Plato’s dialogue, the Cratylus, which is all about the question of whether language is naturally rooted in reality or is merely arbitrary. Within the dialogue the character called Cratylus maintains the former doctrine, one Hermogenes the latter, while Socrates (here as always the philosophic hero) proves elusive. Professor Barton chooses to confine Plato’s problem to proper nouns. In the original dialogue the thought is allowed to overflow from proper nouns to common nouns and thence to all linguistic structures. Indeed, without this overspilling there would be little philosophic interest in the work. At the level of nouns we are all hermogeneans now; French and English vocabularies stand equal in the sight of God (or Wittgenstein) and anything could, in principle, be called anything.

Everything becomes more difficult, however, when we move to the level of the sentence. It may be nonsense to call a particular word ‘true’, but most people believe that sentences may be true or false. The account given of ‘sentence truth’, however, may itself be either hermogenean or cratylic: roughly speaking, those who hold a ‘coherence theory’ of truth believe that those sentences are true which cohere with the relevant body of discourse, while those who hold a ‘correspondence theory’ believe that ‘the cow is in the meadow’ is true if the cow is in the meadow – that is, if it corresponds with reality (ta onta, in Plato). This time the hermogenean line, which denies any link with a reality outside language, is no longer obviously correct. As long as we stick to nouns hermogeneans can readily concede that, although there is no absolutely right word for pain, bread etc, within a given culture it makes perfectly good sense to say: ‘You’ve used the wrong word; that’s not bread; the right word for that is “cake”.’ Here ‘right’ means ‘cohering with usage’ (‘correct’ rather than ‘true’). But, as we saw, when we move to the sentence, our hermogenean confidence may falter. There is, after all, no immediate contradiction in the proposition that an entire community may produce a great number of observations which agree internally with each other but are all in fact false. We can all understand how this could be the case. But the converse ‘correspondence theory’ has its own difficulties. How is one to check the supposed detailed correspondence of the sentence with the reality it successfully represents? Sentences are grammatical, have subjects and predicates, but in the world there are no subjects and predicates; matter has no grammar.

What then of ‘facts’? Are they merely artificially objectified propositions, hypostatised sentences? The philosophising undergraduate at the beginning of E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey obstinately thinks otherwise: the cow is there, he avers, in the meadow, whether or not people are talking about her. If a linguistic complex such as a sentence may designate (even if it does not structurally mirror) a fact, it would appear that the component parts of that sentence must refer, appropriately: the nouns must designate things. It may, however, be said that they do so by mere cultural fiat: that a correct usage may still be arbitrary in the sense that it is constituted by the unconstrained arbitrium not of an individual but of a nation, say. But then, surely, separate nations did not throw up their systems of nomenclature at random; all are obliged to find ways of naming pre-existing things. Yet (the oscillations of the argument get faster and faster) one cannot always trust a given noun to translate exactly its seeming equivalent in another language: in English a stream is distinguished from a river by size, simply; in French a rivière must flow into a fleuve or another rivière while a fleuve must flow into the sea. Since the publication of Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale some have begun to infer that meanings (signifiés, perhaps both sense and reference) are as arbitrary as the vocabulary (neither river nor fleuve exists, since both are unconstrained cultural proposals). This could be called an ultra-hermogenean position. I have no doubt that Plato’s thought carried him as far as this position, and that he rejected it. As W.K.C. Guthrie wrote, ‘the upshot of the Cratylus is that names do give information by distinguishing between classes or essences of things (“It wasn’t a burglar, only a cat”) but only if the essences are known beforehand.’

Professor Barton, in this admirable book, is not willing, one guesses, to be seriously puzzled about such things. She sticks to her proper nouns and sturdily divides comic authors into cratylists and hermogeneans according as they provide signifying or non-signifying names: Jonson is a cratylist, Shakespeare is usually hermogenean. The thought is perhaps a little too brisk. Jonson, after all, knew fact from fiction, knew that he was writing comedy, and may therefore be presumed to have known that names in the real world lacked the power of automatic illumination so evident in his plays. One can almost infer from the fact that Jonson employs signifying names in a comoedic manner that he was in ordinary life a hermogenean (your genuine, card-carrying cratylist at this period will be engaged in writing genealogies of the gods, or constructing an ideal language as Bacon tried to do).

The distinction between meaning and truth increasingly nags at the reader’s mind – but not at Professor Barton’s. She writes as if the mere attribution of meaning to a name stamps one a cratylist. But hermogeneans like A.J. Ayer have no difficulty in seeing how names, arbitrarily started, may acquire in time a certain force or resonance. Moreover, a proper name may be formed from a pre-existing adjective (‘Subtle’), in which case it can create expectations which may or may not be fulfilled by the bearer of the name. But at no point in this process do we discover a necessary, primary rightness. The word we use to express the idea of subtlety might have had a different sound; individuals may bear the name ‘Subtle’, and yet be coarsely insensitive.

Cratylus himself in Plato’s dialogue is sadly aware that many names have somehow gone wrong. He is especially excited by those places where Homer (already ‘ancient’ in Plato’s time) amazingly gives the gods’ word for something, alongside the human word: Hypnos (Sleep) hides in the branches of a pine, looking like the bird which the gods call chalkis and men call kymindis (Iliad, 14, 291). The gods’ word must be the right word (compare W.P. Ker’s reply to one who said, ‘It’s not my idea of a magpie’: ‘It’s God Almighty’s idea of a magpie’). There is something spooky about Homer’s ability to provide this information – the father of European poets having direct access to the True Language. In a somewhat similar way, for all Sir Thomas Browne’s descanting on the perennial mystery, ‘What song the Sirens sang’, one finds that Homer actually provides a complete transcription – and very beautiful it is too – at Odyssey, 12, 184-91. I always used to imagine that the god-words in Homer must be ‘trans-etymological’, having no linguistic roots because primordial, but I am told that in these passages, as often as not, the human word is the more mysterious; chalkis appears to be a simple colour word founded on the Greek for ‘bronze’, but kymindis – now that is mysterious. Professor Barton, following Genette, suggests that poets are naturally drawn to cratylism, because they scent meaning everywhere. It may be thought that my argument tends conversely to suggest that real cratylism is to be found only among seriously unbalanced theoreticians, never in the relatively sane universe of the poets. This is not quite true. When the thunder speaks in Sanskrit at the end of The Waste Land, the suggestion that we are hearing an Ur-language, Words of Power, is strong. Such ideas were in the air at the time: think of the way C.S. Lewis wrote of ‘the majestic root GNA’ (which lies behind know, cognosco, etc).

The Names of Comedy begins with an epigraph from Borges: ‘The rose itself is in the letters, rose, and the whole Nile flows in Nile’ (I paraphrase). One expects this piece of cratylism to be set against the most hermogenean sentence in Shakespeare: ‘A rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.’ Perhaps Professor Barton feels that this line is so well-known that there is no need to cite it. It seems to me that Shakespeare may here be ‘living dangerously’, as often. The unexceptionably level-headed hermogenean observation (set against the black insanity of family vendetta in Verona) is deliberately put in a form which seems designed to provoke a cratylic response from the more literary listener or reader: ‘If a rose were called a “stink-wort” I’m not sure that it would smell quite as sweet.’ The original reference to the sense of smell, so elementary, makes the counter-thought all the more powerful. If something as basic as a smell can be linguistically conditioned, then the whole notion of a prior, unconditional empirical access to ‘the things in themselves’ is now open to attack. At this point we may suspect the possible presence of an ultra-cratylist position, in which names possess not only an inner charge of meaning but also a power to create. One then notices that ultra-cratylism, with its names of power, looks awfully like ultra-hermogeneanism, with its denial of constraining essences. One then remembers that Cratylus was a pupil of Heraclitus, who taught that reality was mere flux. Nomina numina indeed!

If Professor Barton avoids the more dangerous features of her chosen subject, she has nevertheless many good things to say. The observation that Jonson’s characters are somehow frozen by their cratylic names while Shakespeare’s are freer to change and develop is one of those fundamental insights which will, I suspect, be endlessly qualified in years to come but will obstinately remain with us: the thought has a usefulness beyond its immediate application to Renaissance comedy. Dickens – in so many ways the natural heir of Jonson – is similarly bound by his own vigorous cratylism of quasi-onomastic catch-phrases, so that when Noddy Boffin turns out to be good the change is experienced by the reader as sheerly violent. Modern texts, Professor Barton notes, spoil the proper excitement of gradual dramatic apprehension by naming all the characters prematurely in a list of persons. Further, although cratylic names may on occasion ‘freeze’ character, dramatic cratylism is itself a startlingly fluid affair. Original etymology is far from being sacrosanct. Names which were once descriptive may become, in use and effect, entirely arbitrary. ‘Paddy’ as commonly used today preserves no sense of the original meaning, patricius, ‘noble’ (yet those Italians who referred to a certain painter of holy pictures as ‘Sodoma’ knew what they were saying). Rash, Caper and Starvelackey are (rarely, for Shakespeare) cratylic names but they could never be mistaken, says Professor Barton, for real names. Nor for nicknames? Perhaps not, though we learn that in 17th-century England there were still thousands who had no hereditary name, but instead names variously intermediate between nickname and surname. Professor Barton herself allows that ‘Tosspot’ and ‘Fillecuppe’ are a degree more realistic as names than they appear to modern readers. Later, in Restoration drama, names based on ‘heart’ and ‘wild’ perhaps imply a libertine ethic. In Middleton we find some split names, like ‘Folly-wit’. Here the reader begins to wonder whether cratylic comedy, faced with the real fluidity of life and the new complexity of drama, felt a need to hedge its bets. After all, at the end of the morality tradition the Vice attracted names which are rather studiously evasive: ‘Ambidexter’.

If cratylic naming with its premature clarity can be reductive, the withholding of a name can, we learn, be reductive in another way. The ‘lovely boy’ whose name Shakespeare promised to eternise in his sonnets remains bleakly anonymous. All this is fascinating, as is the perception that certain names in Twelfth Night are related almost anagrammatically: Olivia, Viola, Malvolio (corroborated by Malvolio’s own musing on the cryptic letter he finds). What does Professor Barton think of ‘Caliban: cannibal’? I am not persuaded by her suggestion that ‘il’ in ‘Emilia’ represents ‘ill’, but I can (just) believe that ‘hell’ is deliberately lodged in Othello’s name.

This is a book at which the reader frets not because too much is said but because too little. There is nothing on the story in Herodotus of the Egyptian King who sought to discover the true, primal language by bringing up children in isolation and noting their first utterances, nothing on Chaucer’s mysterious (and non-existent?) authority, Lollius, nothing on the greatest example in English of unsubdued cratylism, Flora Finching’s disquisition on the meaning of ‘Dorrit’: ‘... like a place down in the country with a turnpike, or a favourite pony or a puppy or a bird or something from a seed-shop to be put in a garden or a flower-pot and come up speckled’ (Little Dorrit, Book I, Chapter 23). The last is especially interesting because it shows how a name which looks colourlessly hermogenean is, in the violently cratylic mind of Dickens, teeming unmanageably with meanings. It would have been easy to step from the discussion of Wilde’s Gwendolen on the name ‘Ernest’ (‘the only safe name’) to Walter Shandy’s high hopes from ‘Trismegistus’ for his little son, in Sterne. Similarly, in a book haunted by cats, we never learn whether ‘Tybalt’ (‘prince of cats’) really does mean ‘cat’. From this one might have stepped to the extreme cratylism of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno:

For the sound of a cat is in the most useful preposition cat’ euchen (‘according to prayer’) ... For two creatures the Bull and the Dog prevail in the English. For all the words ending in -ble are in the creature. Invisi-ble, Incomprehensi-ble ...

All the best cratylists turn out to be certifiable.

Meanwhile the strange case of Coriolanus, who was ‘a kind of nothing, title-less’ till he was named after his own conquering exploit, is not discussed. Professor Barton notes briefly that Coriolanus loses his title when in exile but we need more. The play, I grant, is a tragedy but space should nevertheless have been made in a book which is about Plato’s problem for this extraordinary figure, so terrible in war yet so lacking in substance that he can be constructed from the outside in, by mere nomenclature and by his hating, loving mother.

There are many places, as is inevitable in so rich a book, where one wishes to argue with the author. Professor Barton says that identity of name and nature is a cardinal rule of the Morality, but then cites a passage in which Wit is deceived by Idleness. Manifestly on this occasion at least, Wit was a little stupid. St George in Spenser’s Faerie Queene defeats error because he is Holiness itself, yet he also undergoes purgation in the House of Holiness as if he were merely a fallible, would-be-holy individual. She sees Falstaff’s remark about the recruits – ‘They’ll fill a pit as well as better’ – as merely callous and reproves the coarse cratylism of his comments on their names.

All this is just, but there may also be a certain moral force in Falstaff’s insistence that, while the ‘better’ sort may see war as glory, the business will end with better and worse dead together, filling pits. Falstaff’s cratylism, meanwhile, is only (like Jonson’s?) a bitter joking; his friends know that really he belongs to the other, sceptical camp. His great speech on honour as mere ‘breath’ is technically Nominalist in its refusal to believe that universal terms are rooted in reality. Late Medieval Nominalists are all, in one respect, children of Hermogenes. ‘Honour’, certainly, is not a proper but a common noun: but Plato would have called both onomata, and would have listened to Falstaff with both ears. Professor Barton says that Shakespeare avoided London as a setting for comedy all his life, but wherever Falstaff is, there is comedy, and Falstaff’s favourite pub is in Eastcheap.

Last week I happened to hear a person say, apropos of Private Eye’s feature, ‘The Secret Diary of John Major aged 47¾’, ‘he looks like an Adrian’ (making the link with Adrian Mole). I thought – Professor Barton made me think – ‘Cratylus, thou art mighty yet.’