The Logic of Nonsense: Stein’s Meaning in the Meaningless

It’s fascinating that we come to this week’s topic, Psychoanalysis & the Critical Interpretation of Narrative, through texts that strive to be profoundly un-narrative. Or perhaps queerly narrative? Unnatural narrative? In any case, there seems to be a definite trend in human knowledge-making to only see things clearly when they cease to work normally, or when they take up a position of enough distance and difference.

Let’s start with narrative when it succeeds though, and here we probably mean that it succeeds when it is communicated correctly. In their article “Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication”, Stephens, Silbert, and Hasson discuss their findings in a fMRI study of storytelling. Specifically, they note that brain activity seems to undergo “coupling” in communication, meaning that the brains of speaker and listener demonstrate remarkably similar activity in the process of relaying information (with delays accounting for the time it takes to speak and then hear the information). Furthermore, the closer the neural coupling, the more successful communication becomes (14428). These findings suggest that the processes of producing and comprehending speech (and thus auditory narrative) are similarly engaged in by both speaker and listener in communication. The implications of this for narrative are profound. It provides more evidence for what game narratives have been suggesting to us for some time–that narratives of all kinds are inherently interactive, involving listeners (and readers/players?) in creative and interpretive processes of storytelling.

What happens when neural coupling is frustrated or blocked, however? Does communication and meaning itself just stop? Our readings in Stein this week might suggest otherwise. While Stein’s writing often seems to forego meaning altogether, it also operates on an internal logic that progresses through both repetition and sudden turns. For example, consider this passage from “Rooms”: “A lilac, all a lilac and no mention of butter, not even bread and butter, no butter and no occasion, not even a silent resemblance, not more care than just enough haughty.” Here several words are repeated and iterated upon as the sentences progresses. “Lilac” leads to “all a lilac”, taking a sudden turn to “butter”, repeated in “not even bread and butter”, and finally taking a sudden turn to “occasion” and “a silent resemblance”. While the sudden turns render the narrative here fragmentary, a sense of progression remains to both the sentence and the concepts it contains thanks to the repetitions and additions of words. This internal logic simultaneously obfuscates meaning while also suggesting it, forcing the reader search for meaning perhaps absent and recognize the relative limitations of meaning in doing so.

Stein’s writing is by no means the first to accomplish this internal logic of nonsense, and it appears prominently throughout Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. For example (just one of many), the exchange between Alice and the Red Queen in TTLG demonstrates the relative meaning of nonsense in a similar way: “‘You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,’ [the Red Queen] said, ‘but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!'” (140). This statement is part of a longer passage where the Red Queen repeatedly contradicts Alice with nonsensical comparisons. Notice how the structure here is similar to Stein’s–repetition, addition, and a sudden turn (in this case an inversion).

What stands out in both these cases is how nonsense–an apparent rejection of meaning–can never fully escape meaning either. The instant anything enters language (or perhaps even consciousness itself), it becomes a thing, and importantly a thing that cannot be entirely divorced from meaning. Lerer recognizes this in his chapter, “Gertrude Stein: The Structure of Language”: “Because words are always interconnected by syntax, they can never say nothing” (166). Despite the difficulty of identifying any stable meaning in nonsense (if meaning can ever be really stable in any condition), the reader inevitably engages in the interpretive and creative acts of finding such meaning, even if only on a surface level. This point about reading and language speaks to a larger difficulty that nothing as a concept poses to consciousness, a difficulty I think is similarly posed by the concept of the infinite. The active conscious cannot truly inhabit or comprehend nothing, as the instant nothing is recognized it becomes something. At the same time, nothing always lurks beyond the boundaries of consciousness, much the same way meaninglessness lurks beyond the boundaries of language. And there always seems to be something generative about grasping after the ungraspable, as there is meaning in grasping after nonsense.

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