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3. National languages as visions of the world: the theories of psycholinguistics



b) From ideas to words

Neuropsychology studies the way in which the objectivity of perception is altered by the characteristics of the human consciousness: the processes whereby the mind, when observing something, in reality perceives its own self in the act of observing something. Language has always been one of the loci sacri of neuropsychology, ever since Piaget and Laborit began to draw a parallel between a child's comprehension of the world outside and an ability to establish subordinative links in discourse. According to their theory, a child three years of age sees every name, or noun, as associated with a reward: the magic word with which wishes are fulfilled. Picking up on what was said previously, we might try this formula: for a child of three, the first level of language is the ritual; at this level, the primary code is the conative, whereas the function of expression is the driving force of desire. The word riverrun with which Joyce ends Finnegan's Wake falls into this system of variables. Anyone attempting to translate that verbal enigma which is late Joyce, without being resigned to dirtying their hands with soil as would a child playing with creation, has no chance whatever of getting it right.

The next step in the formation of linguistic consciousness is the appropriation of territory. Finno-Ugric languages see linguistic territory as space, as a system of relations between co-presences, rather than the chronological sequence typical of neo-latin languages. The fixity of the weather, the unfailing alternation of the seasons with their unchanging moods characteristic of the Finnish climate' doubtless these have had their effect on the genesis of Finnic language, with its tendency to group terms together by assonance, to create unadulterable linguistic stocks that seem to recall both the sacred ancient oaks and the clan structure of the social fabric. Likewise Hungarian, a language in which the stem, the heart of the word, holds the connotation of every term, a language that can belong to the code of the emotional, or the scientific, or the legal, or whatever else; the way in which a Hungarian word conserves in its root the bond with tradition, yet having inflections that can be moulded to every kind of individual expressive feeling, seems bound up with the story of the people themselves, who have managed to preserve cultural roots intact throughout their history only by developing an increasingly subtle ductility in the face of so many foreign dominations. Hungarian belongs to that category of languages able to employ the behavioural tactics of certain microorganisms, which escape their enemies by assuming similar genetic traits.

An Italian scholar, Luciano Mecacci, has analyzed the way in which pictographic languages like Chinese and Japanese describe the world as an expression of ideas rather than of concepts. For a Chinese, an idea is an idea only if it can be depicted. A limit of no little consequence: if applied to the German language, there would be no more Nietzsche. The fact is that western languages are based on a principle of what one might call 'satisfying expectations'. Only if we know beforehand where the reasoning is likely to lead can we be certain of understanding what is written.

The popularity of Mishima in the West during the nineteen seventies stems from a misunderstanding. His suicide by seppuku during a television programme made him a heroic figure in the tortured western conscience. With that single act of thrusting a knife into his own stomach, performed by a man who in the aftermath of Hiroshima had recruited a private army of samurai in a bid to resist the penetration of American technological culture into Japanese life, a myth was created overnight. As it turns out, western translations of Misihima's novels have been taken largely from French versions. Musical instruments 'à cordes' are rendered slavishly as 'stringed' even in languages where the customary expression would be 'bowed'. And there is Pa Chin, Chinese author of Cold Nights, who in translation reads like Balzac. To Westerners, ideograms are a dead letter. According to Mecacci, the reason lies in the fact that for 'figurative' languages, a concept remains a concept by virtue of its being related to something else, not of its own self. In Chinese, terms like 'absolute', 'infinite' and 'immortality' are used as indeterminate extensions of the concepts of 'limit', 'time' and 'life': they amplify and enlarge as footnotes, on the fringe, but do not exist as 'concepts'. And besides, the nonsense against which Wittgenstein waged war all his life was precisely the fact that the most important concepts, in western languages, are those which mean nothing.