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A New Community: the Language of Morrison and Mpe

Supervisor: Minesh Dass
Rhodes University
Honours in English Literature
February 14 2013
Words: 10101

Shared Meaning

Once, we were warriors, and we wrote a group research essay on the South African writer Ivan Vladislavić, entitled “Imagining the ‘Unimaginable Latitudes’”. In the course of that work, it became apparent that the attempt to imagine “the unimaginable” (Vladislavić 13); or Orpheus’s attempt to gaze on Eurydice; or any attempt to quantify exactly what the scarlet letter; or the phantasmal, iconic, Moby-Dick; or what Kurtz’s final, horrific words mean must suffer from the same difficulties as those pointed at in what follows. Therefore, the primary focus of this supposedly individual essay is rather that most ancient and important feature of unimaginable words: the community which give them meaning.1 Language which reflects communal meaning - and community which employs self-reflexive language consciously - requires immersion, along with recognition of all participants as valid members in a matrix of belonging, in order for any utterance to be understandable.

Writers like Toni Morrison and Phaswane Mpe are exemplary in their attempt to re-inscribe the community which sits at the heart of any consensually-arrived-at word. When reading them, one comes to realise that both are attempting to use language to give meaning to and extend that which gives language meaning: community. In a similarly self-recursive vein, the truth is that ‘I’ cannot write an essay which changes anyone’s conception of language but ‘my’ own.2 However, it is only in acknowledging this, and pointing to the infinite possibility allowed for by Derrida’s “différance” (18), that we can even hope to achieve the aim of this paper: an old sense of communal language rendered anew for a hyper-individualistic age.

We ought to use language in a way which displaces (as opposed to ‘removes’) the individual as our central concern and which, instead, expresses a communal sense of knowledge and its various manifestations. In using language, the aim should be to emphasise the community which invests it with meaning. If we do so, we can presumably overcome the contemporary tendency toward excessive focus on the individual and find more wholesome ways to tell stories, in all the multi-faceted complexity that defines life (and meaning) within any community.

Moreover, we can do so in a way which escapes the violence we commit to any object, person, or idea when we conceptualise it through words and description.3 Even if the language we employ in narrative acknowledges the community as the very thing which makes communication possible at all, this inclusive approach can still do violence to “the other”, but not if its structure simultaneously recognises what is technically called “alterity” (Levinas 47). The basic idea here is one of differentiated sameness: the root from which all meaning comes is one and the same community. How it is expressed (i.e. the particular stories we choose to tell and the mechanisms we employ when telling them - like call-and-response or strangely mixed pronouns), allows for and can in fact encourage differentiation or otherness.

The community within which any individual is located consensually arrives at the basis on which the discourse which represents it is built. If the language we choose reflects this basic truism, then ‘I’ can only ever give a partial definition of a community. Much like Eurydice, where to actually gaze on her is to de-form her, to invest her with a form she does not have; to define community as an individual is to de-form it and warp it onto my own, prejudiced views of what it is or should be. In recognising this, we can look to achieve the hospitality that Derrida spoke so highly of toward the end of his career – it all begins with the acknowledgement of Eurydice as “the other night” (Blanchot 171); of “the unimaginable” (Vladislavić 13) as precisely that; the scarlet letter as an irreducible symbol still “capable of being loved” (Hawthorne 63); Moby-Dick as God, Dumb Brute, “monomaniacal” (Melville 241), malevolent Nature and Fate all-in-one; and an acknowledgement of the undefinable community at the centre of a consensually-arrived-at language.4

Hopefully composed in such language, this essay will look at two primary texts: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow. The idea is to point at Morrison’s text as an example of how community can be created through language and then extend this sense of community by looking at Mpe’s unique techniques. Perhaps how we read and write can thus be refocussed on the community which exists at the centre of language. Perhaps this will help generate more meaning-full discourse and interaction.

I Sing In Our Chain

First, the foundation: modern community is defined by exclusion. I know that ‘I’ belong because ‘I’ am able to say that another does not and support this with a reason – be it creed, colour, religion, sexual orientation or any other arbitrary feature ‘we’ agree on. The only thing that a community cannot exclude is exclusion itself, as this is its founding principle.6 It is the use of ‘I’ which creates all the contradictions: it posits an individual existence within a language which has meaning only through communal consensus.7 In attempting to define this ‘I’, we are forced into the quasi-scientific procedure of considering the individual and then the individual's context and then the epistemological systems surrounding that individual ad infinitum in an ever-narrowing spiral toward the completely incomprehensible. What happens, though, if we define community as a generative, dynamic process in the same sense as the consensual meaning which arises from language? Community, in this processional view is not inclusionary or exclusionary, but rather about one’s relationship to a constantly shifting matrix of relations. Community includes us insofar as we relate meaningfully to the language it develops within its boundaries and it excludes us on account of the fact that the self can never fully be defined in language, which forms the basis for any community.

This is illustrated by the question “Who are you?” There is no one answer that I could give which would be absolutely complete and so there must exist a part of ‘me’ which exceeds language.8 This leads to an interesting conclusion: the idea of a ‘global community’ is quite obviously impractical, but if we can begin to understand the duality of both always being a part, and always being separate from, any community in which we are involved, we can begin to generate interactions between different communities. Mpe shows us that meaning-full interaction is still possible (even if we can’t communicate with others due to an actual language barrier) through rendering a famous English quote in Sepedi and translating a Sepedi idiom into English.9 In so doing, the South African writer proves that we can recognise how different languages can be used to express the same sentiment and so begins to come to grips with what he calls “the World of our Humanity” (Mpe 113).

If you’ll forgive it, we must make a shamelessly Shandian digression10 to “trace” (Derrida 16)11 the idea that language structured such that it reveals its own ‘failure’ to give full voice to the community which invests it with meaning, is pivotal to meaning-full expression. This involves at least some philosophy, for language which does this brings us to understand that such ‘failure’ is the condition of possibility for any meaning whatsoever. This particular kind of linguistic paradox was perhaps at its height in the Elizabethan Ages, as seen in the concept of a felix culpa, or happy fall, of Man through Adam’s so-called original sin. We have in this communally-accepted construction a deep and unique awareness of the plight of humanity, caught as we are between the bestial and the divine. E. M. W. Tillyard, in The Elizabethan World Picture, argues that the dual nature of humanity was commonly accepted knowledge at the time. In fact, it is precisely this communally-accepted paradox at the heart of what being human means (potentially divine, potentially bestial), which led to the kind of language which still scans profoundly today. Just consider one of Hamlet’s (many) soliloquies:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
Express and admirable! In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the
World! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
What is this quintessence of dust?
(Hamlet, II, ii, 295-300)

The Elizabethan world is a nuanced and complex place to understand from a modern perspective. There rests at the centre of this world view a great Chain of Being (Tillyard 28) which connects everything with everything else, defining one’s position in life relative to the world around one and requiring each individual to perform a specific function in order for the entire picture to be in harmony. Concepts like harmony and order are at the forefront of the Elizabethan mind-set and it is thus that they can conceive of the entire Universe as one piece of music, which requires all parts of the orchestra to perform as directed for symphonic and ordered sound to emerge. The concepts of order, harmonic music, and a Chain of Being all work together to bring about a unique conception of language as being intimately bound up with life; for language is the medium through which order (or disorder) is propagated.

Why spend all this time talking about chains and falls and paradoxical harmonies? Well, work written in the Elizabethan era which has survived to the present day, is the direct result of writing from a perspective that is not predominantly concerned with the individual, but is rather about a far more general concern with the role of humanity in the order of the universe and the ever-present possibility each person houses within themself to become either bestial or divine.12 This is not to say that the Elizabethan picture of reality was perfect: the idea of free will, for instance, is too dynamic a concept to be contained within a static Chain of Being. This has been further complicated in modern times with the ‘death of God’ (Nietzsche 108) and the assertion of fundamental uncertainty and relativity.13 It follows that the greatest issue most modern people still have with the Elizabethan world view is that it is too hierarchical and does not allow for the free and unhindered expression of individuality.

However, this whole essay is based on ousting the individual from the centre of our conception of language and therefore on emphasising a different way of perceiving the “world of our Humanity” (Mpe 124). Which leaves only the modern feeling of an autonomous, free will as a hindrance to returning to a more Elizabethan-like conception of the world (if, that is, we wish to replicate the powerful and meaning-full language that seems to be a hallmark of that age). Schopenhauer, gloomy though he may be, enters the debate here, as he argued for a philosophy that has - as its central tenet - the “will to live” (Schopenhauer 5), which is something very different from individual “free will”:

Every glance at the world […] confirms and proves that will to live, far from being […] an empty word, is the only true expression of its inmost nature […] the will to live […] lies at the foundation of all explanations… [and thus is] the kernel of reality itself” (Schopenhauer 5)

This “will to live” which is the “kernel of reality itself” is common to everyone. We are bound to propagate life by means of the exertion of our will. Each exertion has the appearance of individuality, though this seemingly individual expression is forever rooted in the shared, perpetual, ongoing nature of life itself. While it is certainly true that only the individual can meaningfully experience anything that is felt, this paradoxically leads to the insight that the communal “will to live” is transcendent. It is universal. Indeed, Schopenhauer claims that we know the will primarily by recognising it as the immediate root of our own being, and secondarily as characterising everything else around us. So, the question of feeling/knowing the will is inescapably paradoxical. The individual perceiver comes to see that s/he does not exist as such at the deepest level of reality, which is one and undifferentiated - and only comes to knowledge of herself through an acknowledgement of communal consciousness.

Our shared will to live “lies at the foundation of all explanations” (5). It is the “ding an sich” (Kant 34) about which we cannot, sensibly, say more. Therefore, we see at the centre of both the Elizabethan world view and Schopenhauer’s philosophy one basic premise: the lack of an individual consciousness, which is replaced either by a prescriptive Chain of Being (Tillyard 28) or a communal “will to live” (Schopenhauer 5). Incidentally, Schopenhauer and the Elizabethans would also have agreed about music being the highest form of art, because of its ability to represent directly, as opposed to language which can only ever be a representation of a representation of the ding an sich. Both metaphorical models - the Chain of Being, or the communal will to live - can be used to overcome the need modern people feel for some assertion of ‘free’ will. These models allow for an Elizabethan-like world view with the amendment that the individual is a more like the pause between notes which renders meaningful the entire symphony by virtue of its relation to a shared sound which “forms the foundation of all explanations [… and is] the kernel of reality itself” (Schopenhauer 6). Just as with Eurydice, Kurtz, Moby-Dick, and the scarlet letter; there is an emotional directness in music that one cannot describe, which is perhaps why both Morrison and Mpe’s most important renditions of community tend toward this same, lyrically indescribable sound.

Beloved and Positive Capability

The references to music are of particular import given the narrative techniques Toni Morrison uses. Beloved is one of a very select group of novels which can justifiably be called monumental. This refers both to Morrison’s claim in her famous essay, ‘A Bench by the Road’ that a new canon of literature was required to “re-memory” (Beloved 61) the slaves and the tragedies they suffered, as well as the immense achievement of the novel in doing so with such depth, force and power.14 It is the language in Beloved which most imparts these qualities because the American writer uses it to create a monument so different to any one we might visualise. By refusing to sum up, or truly encapsulate, the reality of “Sixty million and more” (Epigraph to Beloved) her words signal “deference to the uncapturability of the life [they] mourn” (Nobel Lecture, 1993). It is this “ineffable” reach toward description of a history we have willingly forgotten which makes the novel so poignant. It is the fact that our self-consciousness – that which affords us “a glance […] into the interior of nature; inasmuch as this is nothing else than a glance at our own inner being” (Schopenhauer 6) – recognises the shared truth of our human condition in such a description of history which truly haunts us about Beloved.

Morrison asserts that “Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable” (Nobel Lecture, 1993). One can barely help noticing remnants of Keats’ “Negative Capability” in her ideas; that ability to remain in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats, Letter 21 Dec 1817). Certainly, both writers recognise “that language can never live up to life once and for all” (Nobel Lecture, 1993), but after this, they start to differ. For Keats, we must allow contradictions to exist so that we may get at the “Beauty” of what is described, to the point where such “Beauty obliterates all consideration”. He argued that if one is able to generate Beauty, then Truth must naturally follow (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn, ll. 49). For Morrison though, language is caught up in the greater circle of community, ritual, healing, memory and repression. Language is not an abstraction that allows us to appreciate different possibilities simultaneously; it is a force that requires our interaction with all its different possibilities to signify at all; “we do language. That may be the measure of our lives”.

The creative nature of words like “re-memory” (Beloved 61) implies both the personal and communal: memory is a personal phenomenon; re-membering is something done together, through the medium of a shared narrative (which is also capable of acting on the personal memory that gives rise to it, as in any dialogue). Morrison’s words and sounds are more than just the concepts that they signify; they become woven into the interplay of “différance” (Derrida 18) and “trace” (6) which constantly supplements our understanding and allows us to locate ourselves within a space; relating and singing and dancing and crying with all the others. The difference between Negative Capability and Morrison's approach lies in her specific purpose - “I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words” (‘A Bench by the Road’) - other than the abstractions of Beauty and Art in which an author like Keats was interested. In order for her writing to achieve this purpose, she ritualises her text; lacing it with a barely readable lyricism which is not just beautiful and true, but terrible too, so that we may come to appreciate why “this is not a story to pass on” (Beloved 324).

In order for the healing Morrison seeks to occur, her novel must be both a recovery of, and from, our shared history. It is both an imaginative and actual reconstruction of the past so that we supplement the authoritative discourse with our own interaction as readers. This mirroring technique lies at the very heart of Beloved; Sethe’s individual processes of recollection and “re-memory” are reproduced on an historical level so that, as Sethe heals, so can the reader.15 The techniques used to achieve this include the fragmented nature of the plot: Sethe’s crime is not revealed until the intensely-personal context of slavery is described so that we do not jump to an easy judgement of her action. Morrison also uses a shifting narrative voice which allows for call-and-response, a key part of traditional African-American music.16 For instance, Beloved’s cry of “Tell me” (Beloved 267) is a call requiring a response from both Sethe and the reader; it calls for some explanation or justification which seems just beyond our reach. Call-and-response also creates some of the more haunting passages from the novel, such as Baby Suggs’ preaching in the Clearing. Her voice permeates this essay too, reminding all that:

’Here [...] in this here place, we flesh; we flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon prick em out [...] And O my people they do not love your hands. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! (103)

Here, not only are we told to respond, but to actually touch the members of the community invoked by Morrison’s words. The second person narration at the end of the quote complicates any interpretation: who is talking, and to whom? This almost physical power, combined with palpably oral techniques, such as repetition of phrases like “Nobody saw them falling” (Beloved 205), “crawling-already? baby” (142) and “This is not a story to pass on” (324), means that Morrison is able to simulate the aural, participatory, communal nature of ritual in the private world of her text.

The musicality we find in such instances is genuinely notable. It serves as the link between Morrison’s work, ‘The Elizabethan World Picture’, Schopenhauer, and Mpe; connecting everything with everything else. Music is central to both the manner in which stories are communicated, as well as the experience of the stories themselves. This essay began by arguing that we must use language which points at that which informs its words with meaning if we are to reconstitute a lived sense of community appropriate to our time. How, mechanistically, are we to do this? Well, musicality is a good start: this sound somehow exceeds the representational framework of ordinary language, so its overt use in - for instance call-and-response sections of a text - can harmonise that which is included with that which is excluded. Its tone can re-member that which is inevitably left out, if you’re willing to listen closely. Lengthy examples are numerous, but a brief excision must suffice here:

I will never leave you again
Don’t ever leave me again
You will never leave me again

You went in water
I drank your blood
I brought your milk
You forgot to smile
You hurt me
You came back to me
You left me
I waited for you

You are mine
You are mine
You are mine

Beloved, 256 17

We cannot understand the “ritual chant of possession” (Krumholz 117) above in and of itself – it must be understood by interacting with the text as a whole so that much more than a mere story gets passed on. What should be passed on is an understanding of both what the story says and what it cannot say because this is what it means to use language in a non-exclusionary fashion.

Love This Sound

The very structure of language cannot withstand the attempt to interiorise Beloved. As the narrator says, “the leaves are not for her she fills the basket she opens the grass” (Beloved 248) and, in some of the more experimental moments of the novel we get this almost unintelligible, though deeply haunting, lyricism. The point is that we cannot even understand such lyrical writing, and thus Beloved, through “Negative Capability”. Morrison is showing us the inability of language to express appropriately certain pivotal experiences, such as the Middle Passage, which are, quite literally, unspeakable. Therefore, she draws on traditional, oral notions of call-and-response in an attempt to arc toward some valid meaning beyond the confines of a language that both oppresses and is oppressed by individual history. Perhaps it is only communally that we can understand certain things? This communal understanding, far from accepting contradictions as a necessary part of seeing the beauty behind, exceeds the contradictions imposed by language entirely. For instance, when Ella and the women of the community approach 124 to intervene as Sethe is held in thrall to Beloved, they move beyond mere words:

“They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (Beloved 305).

This leads one to an entirely different kind of beauty. Call it what you will, but it is not (just) aesthetic; it is the (sometimes terrible) beauty of a mother’s love, a man’s love, a sister’s love, a daughter’s love and the love of a human heart that knows that its beat belongs to One.

The musically-ritualised nature of the work leads to an understanding of knowledge as spiritually-derived, context-dependent, multiple and collectively-asserted. This is so much more than Keatsian “Negative Capability”; Morrison is not merely allowing for contradiction to exist, she is asserting it as a ruling principle which must be interacted with collectively. For her, interaction - achieved through ritual and epitomised by music - is the key to understanding and thus to healing. Just as the individual notes in a symphony are not as important as the combination of all into a cohesive, harmonised whole, the reader must interact with the implied community in the text in order to come to any meaningful understanding of Morrison’s monument.

Such interaction would seem to indicate that a central tenet of her philosophy is that good and evil are not static moral dictates, but rather, arise from “the method of characterizing, judging, understanding and distributing knowledge” (Krumholz 110). These ideas are best exemplified by Baby Suggs, holy. She says, “Everything depends on knowing how much [...] good is knowing when to stop” (Beloved 102). For Baby Suggs then, morality is not definite; it is based on the method of engagement and interpretation rather than on some God-given dictate that can easily be defined. Consider:

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until... Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her own great big heart. (103)

Keats would have wanted us to appreciate the possibility that women can both dance and cry simultaneously and that there is indeed great beauty (and thus truth) in either. However, through the application of her own “great big heart” (Beloved 103), Baby Suggs brings them - and the reader - to understand that dancing and crying are not just things of beauty; they are actual ways of understanding the world. One cannot understand Beloved (novel or character), or truly appreciate the beauty of Morrison’s words, if one merely reads them – one has to dance and sing and cry with her.18 In order to do this, we must necessarily engage our communal “will to live” (Schopenhauer 5) as we are trying to discover the “ding an sich” (Kant 34) at the heart of this monument; this shared history; this trauma we perpetrated on one another; and the path we must tread together in order to heal. At the heart of any appreciation of beauty (and meaning or ‘truth’) lies a sense of the communal, a sense of the connection we share with every being - indeed with all being. This is as beautiful as literature gets.

Beloved, then, is precisely that which defines the difference between Morrison and Keats. Typically Keatsian, she is both the pain and the cure, the catalyst and reactant. However, Morrison makes her more than the ghost haunting Sethe, or the ghost of shame and powerlessness that Paul D faces, or Denver’s ghost of remembrance and re-memory, or even the reader’s ghost of a past communally and culpably forgotten. Beloved contains so much more than mere “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”. She is, quite literally, the living embodiment of such uncertainty, mystery and doubt. Morrison does not allow us to let Beloved merely exist because she consistently evades any sort of definition. We cannot properly call her a ghost, nor can we call her a human. She both symbolises the past and catalyses the future, caught up in the contradiction inherent in her very existence, that she is both symbol and irreducible personality.

In this sort of complex interplay and connectedness, I believe Beloved comes as close to the greatest characters of Elizabethan writing as any modern character in the canon. As already pointed out, the attempt to interiorise her fails as language cannot properly quantify her. We encounter a similar ‘failure’ of language in The Tragedy of King Richard II when Richard is asked whether he will abdicate. This is his response:

Ay, no. No, ay; for I must nothing be.
Therefore, no ‘no’, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me how I will undo myself:
I give this heavy weight from off my head.

There are at least three distinct, and disparate, ways in which we can interpret this ramble, but the point is that Richard’s sense of self, position and purpose is so intimately tied up with the way he expresses himself that when this position is challenged, his language too breaks down. Shakespeare uses this to create pathos for the loss of a definite, and definitely signifying, language ultimately guaranteed by God. The breakdown of language in Morrison’s text points at something different: it was never God who stood as guarantor of meaning in language. The Middle Passage (i.e. the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic) precludes this interpretation, and forces us into a lived realisation that language, ultimately, can only ever signify what the community who invests it with meaning is willing to face. Signification is limited to the dynamic of who’s in and who’s out; how permeable we are able to make such definitions; how directly we can express the inexpressible, or imagine the unimaginable. It is a function of how clearly we can see that the otherness which defines ‘us’ as a community is at the heart of what makes each of us an individual worthy of belonging. Consider this lyrically elusive, allusive Middle Passage that leaves one feeling, appropriately, completely as sea:

All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked. (248)

We must fill in the gaps ourselves and so become inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the story. We cast around blindly for something with which to fill this awful, haunting passage. Morrison does, 57 pages later, finally give it to us as a “sound” (305) which we all recognise, deep down in a part of our “Humanity” (Mpe 113) beyond the reach of language.

This sound, which exists within all of us, is Kant’s “ding an sich” (Kant 34), Schopenhauer’s “will to live” (Schopenhauer 5) and Shakespeare’s pathos extended by common emotion. It is Moby-Dick and the scarlet letter, and it is indistinguishable from whatever noise leaves Kurtz’s lips with his dying breath. Conrad expressed it more eloquently than most: “The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense […] you cannot fail to see the power of mere words […] Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world” (Conrad, A Personal Record). If we employ language such that it reflects the fundamentally communal nature of sound, the response any call implies, then we can recognise each individual (simultaneously) as someone who experiences, just as ourselves, as well as a part which belongs somewhere in exactly the same symphony of existence as we do. If this is achieved, then meaning-full (and perhaps beautiful) language is the logical result.

It is once we understand this that we can appreciate Morrison’s closing words, “This is not a story to pass on” (324). This actual story, the one in printed words, is not one to be passed on. The story you read, which encapsulates your entire experience, is what may be passed on, but no longer as a mere story. Her work has become a monument precisely because it is not a story. It is something more like a feeling that this world is both far more beautiful and far more terrible than we can imagine. This is why I would term Morrison’s language “Positive Capability”. Inherent in it is the ability to realise that knowledge is not singular or definite, without any irritable reaching after generalisation or authoritative discourse. Her very language shows that while life may be synonymous with contradiction, it must still be lived, and can only be lived, communally. Life, much like Beloved, continually escapes our grasp, hampered as we are by the limitations of a language which can only “arc toward the place where meaning may lie” (Nobel Lecture, 1993). While such an arc can never truly connect experience and perception, we nevertheless must “Know it and go on out the yard” (286).

Welcome Home

It’s worth returning to the chorus to remember what this is all about: an essay aimed at describing how language can be used to emphasise the community which gives language meaning, thereby overflowing into a lived experience of otherness and belonging; of Beloved being both right here, in our heart, and beyond our grasp forever. The modern interconnected world, though, is no longer just about a call-and-response between individuals and the communities to which they belong; but between different communities of meaning, and the way they relate as groups. Enter Phaswane Mpe and the strange second-person narration of Welcome To Our Hillbrow. Mpe begins his work between two languages, Sepedi and English:

‘Motho ke sera seo fela se rego ge se rakeletšwe se lahle marumo se hlabane ka leleme...’
A human being is a beast that when cornered throws away weapons and fights with the tongue...
(O K Matsepe)

‘Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction.’
Mmadi, tseba gore kanegelo yekhwi ga se nonwane.
(W E B du Bois)

The South African writer begins by breaking down the barriers we construct between our different communities and thereby starts, before the text itself, to widen our sense of exactly what a community could include. This theme then runs through the entire novel. Phrases like “Bone of my Heart” (Mpe 36) are direct translations of Sepedi idioms which require an imaginative leap from English readers to understand and so are used to span across the two languages and reach a greater community. For purely English readers, it requires a level of imaginative involvement to come to terms with the various possibilities of meaning in such a seemingly strange phrase. It is the same level of imaginative involvement Morrison’s call generates, and it again points to language that allows for possibility, rather than definition or closure, as the route toward a greater sense of community in language.

Both texts invoke a strong sense of community – Morrison through call-and-response and Mpe through the use of second-person narration which draws us inexorably into his story and implicates us at every turn. Moreover, both writers resort to passages which approach the lyrical and Mpe constantly references different pieces of music throughout his novel (such as the recurring song See the World through the Eyes of a Child). After the analysis of music in Section II, it should not be surprising that there are also strong links to Schopenhauer’s philosophy in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, as well as echoes of the best of the Elizabethan writers, especially Milton. Ultimately, Morrison’s language attempts to tell a story that cannot be told in words and so invokes a sense of community through forcing a response from the reader to complete her novel, but this is not quite enough for the conception of language this essay is after. Mpe invokes a community through second person narration and then uses language to show just how arbitrary the differences that we construct are, and it is this awareness, inherent in his very words, which can complete the enunciation of our ‘new language’.

Just as we find in Beloved, there is an intense focus on sound in Welcome to Our Hillbrow, although we first encounter it being used in an exclusionary fashion: “Makwerekwere was a word derived from kwere kwere, a sound their unintelligible languages were supposed to make, according to the locals” (20). Instead of recognising Morrison’s fundamental “sound” (Beloved 305), the locals label outsiders by virtue of the sound their languages make. Mpe uses this to identify the negative impact that language and words can have:

The shocking precision of her words and the determination in her voice had drawn your heart away from Tiragalong. (Mpe 48)

Terror’s words were madness itself. Lerato hated him and his words with acid hatred. (67)

She wanted to be laid to rest in our Tiragalong, even if it meant exiting this world amidst the ignorant talk of people who turned diseases into crimes. (116 – Emphasis added)

Here, Mpe shows how words can come between us and our home, engender hatred, and twist reality to suit the speaker’s “ignorant” (116) point of view. However, he is always at pains to show just how “constructed” (43) and ultimately arbitrary these words and the differences they generate are. Such “linguistic chisels” (122) can always be overcome “because Tiragalong [is] in Hillbrow” (49), and with this realisation comes the knowledge that “home always travels with [us], with [our] consciousness as its vehicle” (55).19 If this is so, then we are always a part of a community, because ‘I’ can never be properly at ‘home’ in a solitary sense – ‘home’ requires a sense of belonging which can only ever be achieved relationally. Mpe goes on to show how the “Makwerekwere” (20) become “Mapolantane” (73) who, in turn, become “Africans” (102) depending on the context. He says of “Mapolantane” (73) that “the word had been stretched and stretched like elastic. It now referred to any black non-South African who was from any African country. Mapolantane was a Tiragalong equivalent of Makwerekwere” (73). Such extensions show up the completely arbitrary nature of exclusion. The point here is that if we can stretch words “like elastic” (73) and “graft” (Derrida 21) them onto new meanings so as to extend the definition of those excluded by a community, then it follows that we can do the same with our definition of what our own communities include. Mpe shows us the power words have to define boundaries; we are left to decide whether we use them to include: “welcome to our Hillbrow” (Mpe 2 – emphasis added), or exclude “Makwerekwere” (20).

One of the greatest challenges facing us is that it is easier to use language in an exclusionary fashion. This certainly explains why, in order to start a conversation, all anyone in the J9 group “needed to say was: Ah! These English are really strange!” (105) and thereby negatively define themselves as a separate community. One of the fathers of linguistics, Ferdinand De Saussure, supports this in his claim that “in language there are only differences [...] without positive terms” (Course in General Linguistics 120). However, he goes on to point out that “the statement that everything in language is negative is true only if the signified and the signifier are considered separately; when we consider the sign in its totality, we have something that is positive in its own class” (120).20 It is exactly the recognition of the “positive” possibility contained in language that Mpe refers to when he claims that “you had found a mission in all this omission” (Mpe 30). He seems to suggest that language must be used in a way which is cognisant, always, of that which it naturally omits. It is thus that we circle back to Morrison and the need she feels to “re-memory” (Beloved 61) the slaves combined with her “[plea] for that [omitted] wall or that bench or that tower or that tree” (Morrison, ‘A Bench by the Road’). Mpe and Morrison have the same aim in their writing – to tell the story which has been left out, to make us hear the voices which have been suppressed by making us aware of both our own culpability as well as “our [fundamentally similar] Humanity” (Mpe 113). “[These are not stories] to pass on” (Beloved 324) because stories blithely told always, inevitably, omit.

Both writers demonstrate the inability of words to describe certain pivotal experiences (as already highlighted). When describing Sammy and Lerato’s amorous encounter and comparing it to Refentše and Bohlale’s similar experience, the narrator reminds us that such acts involve “a humanness that could be viewed as human only so long as it remained uncovered by prying eyes and unpublicised by enthusiastic tongues” (50). The point here is that there is some fundamental humanness at the core of each of us which escapes the power of words to describe and is, in fact, destroyed by the attempt.21 Such a ‘failure’ of language is precisely why Morrison and Mpe have to develop a sense of community in what could well be viewed as a very roundabout way. Any attempt to describe fully the communal sense which they are trying to evoke will destroy that very sense by defining it and therefore making it, at least in some small way, exclusionary. It can only be captured by the common “sound” (Beloved 305) which existed before words, to which music is our closest approximation.

Perhaps this is why we find the song See the World through the Eyes of a Child echoing through Welcome to Our Hillbrow (Mpe 63). Children have not yet learnt to construct difference through language – they can only express themselves in the simplest sounds and forms and so are incapable of stripping the “painful and complex realities of humanness” (59) from others. Refilwe plays the song for Refentše and tells him that she still loves him. She goes on to say:

I wish we could go back to those days of yesteryear. When we were children trying to find our way through the valleys and hills of life. When we could still live without cynicism. When we still had the innocence of children… (87)

This is strikingly similar to Morrison’s “step back to the beginning [… when there] was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (Beloved 305). Both writers seem to be after a more fundamental mode of expression lost as we grow up and learn how to use words to construct difference and, like Terror, to generate hate (Mpe 67). Moreover, both seem to “arc toward” such expression in beautifully lyrical passages which somehow seem to capture the rhythms of their story more appropriately than any other parts of their novels.22 Mpe does away with punctuation on a number of occasions and we are presented with fast-paced, rap-like language which captures a certain element of inner city rhythm and way of life. To read these passages is, almost, to experience life itself in Hillbrow:

All these things that you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words…

Welcome to our Hillbrow… (27)

Bohlale and the Hillbrow child dying as they hit the concrete pavements of Johannesburg Refilwe rewriting the version of your living and dying Tiragalong condemning both of you and the Bone of your Heart the scarecrow woman of your fiction stifled by the repressive forces of democratisation and Hillbrow and Tiragalong flowing into each other in your consciousness […] you have heard seen heard about felt smelt believed disbelieved shirked embraced brewing in your consciousness would still find chilling haunting echoes in the simple words…

Welcome to our Hillbrow… (61-2)

We cannot draw breath, cannot escape the emotional attachment Mpe wills us to feel, cannot deny the striking resemblance to life such passages evoke because they too do not give us the opportunity to step back and analyse each passing moment. We are drawn in, we become part of this our story and so it is that we come to the realisation that “Heaven […] is not some far-off place where God sits in judgement” (47): it is to be found in “the milk, honey and bile regions of [our] own expanding brain” (79) and is, finally, “the world of our continuing existence located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us” (124).

It is here that the link back to Schopenhauer can be seen clearly, for his collective “will to live [which] lies at the foundation of all explanations [and is] the kernel of reality itself” (Schopenhauer 6) leads us to the conclusion that:

individuals are fleeting as the water in a brook; the Idea, on the contrary, is permanent [… and so] the will shows itself to us as something toto genere different from the representation. (6)

Mpe’s “Hillbrow of milk and honey and bile, all brewing in the depths of our collective consciousness” (41) or “Heaven [which] is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us” (124) strangely echoes Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, published one hundred and eighty-three years prior.

What frustrated her so much was the extent to which publishing was in many ways out of touch with the language and events of everyday life.

It was a very different story with other creative forms; music for instance. (94)

The individual’s relative insignificance in the greater scheme of events is nowhere more evident than when Mpe reminds the reader that “such laudatory noises appeared forgetful of the fact that Mandela was not the only player in this game of politics” (100) – as stark a statement of the importance of community over the individual as a South African writer could perhaps ever make. Ultimately, it is only when we acknowledge that “I do not own life” (67) that we can come to a realisation of how fundamentally similar we all are. This lack of individual possession leads to empathy and understanding which extend to something as extraordinarily complicated as

The choice between suicide and life [which] was not merely a choice between stupidity and intelligence, [because] sometimes, when people threw their own life away, it was because they were intelligent and courageous enough to see and admit that they did not own this life. (117)

This, finally, completes our great circle and brings us back to the Elizabethans for whom the notion of owning life would have been nonsensical. Elizabethan echoes abound in Welcome to Our Hillbrow:

This Heaven that is your present abode is a very different thing. It carries within it its own Hell. (47)

God and the gods of our happiness […] lived in the skulls and hearts of the people. (111)

Both of which share the same sentiment as those most famous lines from Milton’s epic poem:

[…] then wilt thou not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A Paradise within thee, happier far.
Paradise Lost, XII, 585-7

Milton, Morrison, Mpe: all of them highlight in their own ways the fact that true happiness is only to be found by reaching an internal peace with one’s self. With the Elizabethan poet, this is achieved through subservience and obeying the will of God. Lacking such divine direction three hundred and thirty-four years later, Mpe shows us that such happiness can be achieved through an acknowledgement of the “many-sidedness of life” (95) which allows us to build communities without destroying the “humanness” (59) of others with “ignorant talk” (116).

Old Words Anew

We require a language which - at every turn - makes us aware of and draws us into the community which gives it meaning. We can take the theoretical approach and quote people like Mikhael Bakhtin, who conceives of language in his The Dialogic Imagination:

not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather […] as ideologically saturated, as a world view, even as a concrete opinion ensuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life. Thus a unitary language gives expression to forces working towards concrete verbal and ideological unification and centralization, which develop in vital connection with the processes of socio-political and cultural centralization. (Bakhtin 271)

Or, more succinctly (and under his adopted pseudonym):

I give myself verbal shape from another’s point of view, ultimately, from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another [...] A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor. (Voloshinov 86)

However, it is still necessary to extend Bakhtin’s “bridge” (271) with a more modern metaphor. Morrison and Mpe point toward an entire community within their language and do so using imagery and narrative technique far less definite and definitive than a bridge which can only ever connect two, well-defined points. Our language needs to invoke more than merely “addresser and addressee” (Voloshinov 86). Our language needs to be the equivalent of a wireless link, sent out into the world so that anyone who wishes to receive it need only connect to the network, which can support a myriad of concurrent connections if one sets it up to do so. Furthermore, when the narrator of Welcome to Our Hillbrow describes why Refilwe is so taken with Refentše’s short story, he says that it is “because it made her see herself and her own prejudices in a different light” (Mpe 96). This should be the aim of our language beyond merely inciting a community which all texts can, to some extent, be said to do. Our language must carry within its very structure an awareness of its prejudices, of the manner in which it excludes and does violence to that to which it gives expression.

This is not to say that the individual must be entirely done away with, she must simply be removed from the centre of our conception of language and therefore from the centre of our socio-political and cultural ideology. Samuel Barondes puts it thus:

Each of us is ordinary, yet one of a kind. Each of us is standard issue, conceived by the union of two germ cells, nurtured in the womb, and equipped with a developmental program that guides our further maturation and eventual decline.

Each of us is also unique, the possessor of a particular selection of gene variants from the collective [cf. Schopenhauer] human genome and immersed in a particularly family, culture, era and peer group. With inborn tools for adaptation to the circumstances of our personal world, we keep building our own ways of being [cf. Mpe] and the sense of who we are. […]

Recognizing how much we share with others promotes compassion, humility, respect and brotherhood [cf. Morrison]. Recognizing that we are each unique promotes pride, self-development, creativity [cf. Shakespeare] and achievement. (Barondes 32)23

Language put in service of expressing our unicity is exactly that which can make the definitions of community as malleable as the meanings of words. The clue is in the language itself24: “unicity” means both ‘the fact or quality of being unique’, and ‘the fact of being or consisting of one, or of being united as a whole’. Barondes' words emphasise that the individual should not be entirely forgotten, lest we wish to lose the creativity that inspired Shakespeare, Milton, Marlowe, Morrison, Melville and Mpe to write what they did in the first place.


Arguably the most important moment in Welcome to Our Hillbrow occurs when Refilwe finally approaches “the-stranger-who-is-not-a-stranger [in] Jude the Obscure” (Mpe 109-10).25 The moment is narrated thus: “She did come closer. She dared to start a conversation. She complicated her life” (111). Mpe shows us that no stranger is truly and absolutely strange to us. Such understanding is not necessarily straightforward, but we must complicate our lives if we are to ever overcome the simplistic, authoritative, oppositional and individualised discourses which seem to dominate modern thought. Furthermore, Mpe’s intertextual references to texts like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying (109) are yet another way in which he invokes a sense of community that extends beyond the confines of his own text. Just as he extends the idea of text beyond his own work with such references, Mpe makes us see that “Tiragalong was in Hillbrow” (49) or “in Johannesburg” (79) or indeed that “Hillbrow” (2), “Alexandra” (79), “Johannesburg” (79), “England” (97), “All” (104), “Humanity” (113), and “Heaven” (124) are, ultimately, one and the same thing. We just need to use language in a way which reflects this fact.

Schopenhauer’s will is “independent of all knowledge” (7), Shakespeare shows us that “There are more things in heaven and earth […]/ Than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (Hamlet, I, v.174-5), Morrison writes of an indeterminate “sound” (Beloved 305) which existed before words and is common to all, and Mpe highlights the power arbitrary definitions have to enclose or extend communities. All are after some unnameable thing which unites humanity beyond the bounds of definition. However, precisely because it is beyond arbitrary definitions based on context, because definition is the one and only thing it lacks, it must finally escape ‘my’ power to enunciate fully.

Herein lies the beauty, and the frustration, of this conception of language: we can only ever strive to “come closer. [We can only ever] dare to start a conversation” (Mpe 111), never knowing what the outcome will be. Language complicates our lives – it excludes far more easily than it includes and primes26 us for stories which perpetuate authoritative, individualised discourse. However, it is also the possibility that such complication allows for, of which Morrison and Mpe’s lyrical passages are exemplary, that is most relevant to a 'new language'. The real key is in seeing this complication as the ultimate simplicity: we need only use our words in a way which consciously points at that which gives them meaning - the community who interprets us. Nothing is hidden, it's all noted right here between us, so “Know it [and] go on out the yard” (Beloved 286).

If You're Lost...

Works Cited

Please note: a lot of these links are either expired now, or only available to Rhodes University students. However, the links to Morrison's essay and Nobel Speeh still work and are well worth exploring.

Bakhtin, Mikhael. The Dialogic Imagination. 2 May 2013. Originally published by University of Texas Press (1981). Link

Barondes, Samuel. “Each of us is Ordinary Yet One of a Kind.” This Will Make You Smarter. John Brockman ed. London: Transworld Publishers. 2012. 32-3.

Blanchot, Maurice. “Orpheus’s Gaze.” Department of English, Rhodes University. Literary Theory Honours Handout, 2013. 16 May 2013. Link

Coetzee, J. M. Dusklands. London: Vintage Books. 1974

Coetzee, J. M. Age of Iron. London: Vintage Books. 1990.

Conrad, Joseph. “A Personal Record”. Cornwell, Gareth. Honours Handout on Conrad. Department of English, Rhodes University. 2013.

Conrad, Joseph. “Preface to ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’”. Cornwell, Gareth. Honours Handout on Conrad. Department of English, Rhodes University. 2013.

De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course on General Linguistics. Department of English, Rhodes University. Literary Theory Handout, 2013. 16 April 2013. Link

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature, Event, Context.” Department of English, Rhodes University. Literary Theory Handout, 2013. 2 May 2013. Link

Einstein, Albert. "Kosmologische Betrachtungen zur allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie". Sitzungsberichte der Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: 142. (1917).

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, Leland S. Pearson ed. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 2005.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physikalische Prinzipien der Quantentheorie. Leipzig: Hirzel English translation The Physical Principles of Quantum Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement (1892). Department of English, Rhodes University. Literary Theory Handout, 2013. (Published by Liberty Fund, Inc.) 15 April 2013 Link

Keats, John. “Letter, 21 December 1817”. 4 pars. 23 September 2012. Link

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. 5 verses. 23 September 2012. Link

Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Toni Morrison’s _Beloved: A Casebook_. Ed William L. Andrews and Nellie Y McKay. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 107-125.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Collected Philosophical Papers. Trans. by Alphonso Lingis. 47-59. 21 May 2013. Link

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil _(original title: “Jenseits von Gut und Böse.” Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft_). 16 April 2013.

Oxford Dictionaries. 22 May 2013. Link

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Tony Tanner ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Morrison, Toni. “A Bench by the Road”. January-February 1989 1.1.89: 4 pars. 24 September 2012. Link

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. London: Vintage Books, 2005.

Morrison, Toni. Nobel Lecture, December 7th 1993. 35 pars. 3 September 2012. Link

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Barbara K. Lewalski ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 2007.

Senghor, Léopold. “Ce que 1’homme noir apporte,” in Claude Nordey, L’Homme de couleur.

Paris Plon, 1939: 309–310.

Mpe, Phaswane. Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Durban: The University of Natal Press. 2001.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation (originally Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung). Department of English, Rhodes University. Literary Theory Handout, 2013. 04 April 2013. Link

Shakespeare, William. _Hamlet. _London: The Oxford Shakespeare. 1987.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV Part 1. London: The Arden Shakespeare. David Scott Kastan ed. 1986.

Shakespeare, William. _The Tragedy of King Richard _I. London: The Arden Shakespeare. Charles R. Forker ed. 1995.

Smitherman, G. Talkin and Testifyin: The language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 1977.

Sterne, Laurence. _The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. _London: Oxford University Press. 1976. (First published in 9 volumes, last in 1767).

Tillyard, E. M. W. The Elizabethan World Picture. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1972.

Vladislavić, Ivan. Propaganda by Monuments. Propaganda by Monuments & Other Stories. Claremont: David Philip Publishers, 1996.

Voloshinov, V.N.”Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.” Trans. by L. Matejka and I.R. Titunik. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1973.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own _and _Three Guineas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2008.

Additional Reading

Attree, Lizzy. “Healing with Words: Phaswane Mpe interviewed by Lizzy Attree.” Department of English, Rhodes University. South African Post-Apartheid Writers, 2012. 07 April 2013.

Barondes, Samuel. Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality. New York. 2011.

Bizela, S., Coetzer, T., Jackson, E., Laue, K., Tudhope, A. “Imagining the ‘Unimaginable Latitudes’: Transition in Form and Content in Selected Work by Ivan Vladislavić”. Department of English, Rhodes University. South African Writers in Focus Honours Group Research Paper, 2013.

Clarkson, Carol. “Locating Identity in Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow.” Department of English, Rhodes University. South African Post-Apartheid Writers, 2012. 07 April 2013.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Oxford University Press. 1986.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. Harper & Brothers. 1945.

McKay, Nellie Y. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1988.

Mda, Zakes. Ways of Dying. Cape Town. Oxford University Press Southern Africa. 1995.

Morrison, Toni. “Memory, Creation and Writing.” Photocopy. From: Thought: a Review of Culture & Ideas, 59 (Dec 1984): 385-390.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. London: Picador, 1993.

Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable things Unspoken: the Afro-American Presence in American Literature” Photocopy. From: Michigan Quarterly review, 28.1 (1989): 1-34.

Phelan, James. “Sethe’s choice: Beloved and the Ethics of reading” Style, Summer 1989. 12 August 2012. Link

Samuelson, Meg. “The city beyond the border: the urban worlds of Duiker, Mpe and Vera”. Department of English, Rhodes University. South African Post-Apartheid Writers, 2012. 04 April 2013. Link


  1. This is an idea that really gained ground after Ferdinand De Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics was published. If the meanings of words are consensually arrived at, there must, necessarily, exist a community at the centre of any sensible language. 

  2. Virginia Woolf sums it up neatly: “The worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter ‘I’ all is shapeless as mist [...] ‘I am bored!’ But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there” (A Room of One’s Own 144-5) 

  3. This is another idea supported by Blanchot, for to illuminate the “other night” (171) is to make it precisely that which it is not, and is thus to do violence to it, to de-form it. 

  4. The “other night” exists only as an other, to include it within a system of representation is to make it into something it is not, or perhaps one should rather say that it is to make it into some thing. However, if we acknowledge and recogniseMcCaffery this fact, we can allow it to continue to exist as other and so act on the discourse which acts on us. In other words, we can assert the agency necessary for creativity etc. while still remaining within a communal system of representation, in this case, language. I include references to Hawthorne and Melville because these two writers, in particular, would have understood the possibility for meaning inherent in the interplay of “différance” (Derrida 18) between different narrative layers, mixed descriptions of the “Actual and The Imaginary” (Hawthorne 26), and different characters (Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg) had the Frenchman theorised about signatures, events and contexts a century before he did. 

  5. “Positive Capability” is a term I explain in detail later in this essay. It is derived from Keats’ “Negative Capability” (Keats, Letter 21 Dec, 1817) with the difference that it recognises the possibility of creating a sense of community and hence greater understanding and meaning through language. 

  6. In the work of authors like J. M. Coetzee, we see that it is this construction of difference upon which we build our sense of identity as in, for instance, Dusklands, where Jacobus Coetzee discusses the differences between his conceptions of his own people versus the Hottentots (Coetzee 61). 

  7. A point made by, and agreed upon by most critics since the father of modern semiotics and linguistics; Ferdinand De Saussure in the Course on General Linguistics

  8. The saying apocryphally attributed to Samuel Beckett: “I say I, disbelievingly”, is here illustrative of my point. There is a part of all of us beyond the reach of any language, be it our own or the community’s, to describe. 

  9. Instances of these abound in the text, the most oft-occurring being “Bone-of-my-heart” (17) to describe a lover and various other idiomatic representations of “homeboy[s]” and “homegirl[s]” (64) etc. 

  10. And, true to Sterne himself (I hope) in that it might be of great use in understanding the final product. Nor is this the only similarity I wish there to be between the two texts. Sterne was able to challenge, through the clever and careful use of language, an entire world view predominant at the time of his life, namely Realism and the other forms of determinism that went with it. This, to my mind, proves the power of language, and it is one which I wish to harness in support of my, far more academic and far less entertaining, argument for a language which fundamentally challenges the individual-as-centre and resulting materialistic world view I see as predominant in my own lifetime. 

  11. I hope that a tracked change proving the “citationality” and “iterability” (7) of Derrida’s argument in “Signature, Event, Context” is appropriately meta-textual for an essay about language. (Of course, tracked changes don't translate from Gdocs to markdown, but I'll let you use your imagination here.) Also, much like Derrida’s equivocal writing reflects the nature and content of his argument, I hope that the number and length of footnotes provides a complex, multiple, simultaneous understanding of this argument. 

  12. Even in Milton, perhaps one of the strictest adherents to a hierarchical world-view, we find this to be a most central concept: “A Paradise within thee, happier far” (Paradise Lost, XII, 587). Bertrand Russell has this to say: "Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes our mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind is also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good". Even if you disagree about how good Elizabethan writing is, the point remains that it is in considering that which is greater than merely ourselves (something not done by many modern individuals convinced of God’s death) which makes us greater, whether it’s a long golden chain, a great symphony or God himself. 

  13. See Werner Heisenberg’s (in)famous Uncertainty Principle and Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. 

  14. What is the function of a monument? A monument memorialises individuals who should be remembered by printing their names on a plaque, but this is always subsumed by the monument itself, of which an individual’s name is but a small part. It will, for instance, show American troops capturing Iwo Jima, but the point is that this depiction is not of individual troops – it is of a communal success (or failure) and advancement of ideology (another good example of this would be the Voortrekker Monument). Nothing, to my mind, could be more symbolic of Schopenhauer’s “will to live” (Schopenhauer 5) which, while experienced by the individual, exceeds notions of individuality. 

  15. That is, we travel with Sethe through the healing processes of repression, painful reconciliation and, finally, some peace, although never a fully-realised one. 

  16. Smitherman defines call-and-response as “spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener” (104). She suggests that responses function to affirm or agree with the speaker, urge the speaker on, repeat what the speaker has said, complete the speaker’s statement in response to a request from the speaker or in spontaneous talking with the speaker, or indicate extremely powerful affirmation of what the speaker has said. This affirmatory role is an important element of Morrison’s work, because our (affirming) responses further complicate any moral or ethical judgement of Sethe and/or Beloved. Linda Krumholz speaks extensively about the relationship between African-American music and traditions of call-and-response in her essay “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”. 

  17. See 254-6 for this entire passage. Also see 95-6 for an actual song that appears in the novel. There are numerous other passages one can find on even the barest inspection. 

  18. Moreover, I would argue that one should do so in a way that attempts to uncover “what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential – their one illuminating and convincing quality – the very truth of their existence” (Conrad 145). 

  19. Already, we see Schopenhauer’s “all that we know lies within consciousness” (Schopenhauer, 2), but this point will be developed fully later on in this section. 

  20. “Signifier” and “signified” (De Saussure 67) are the two terms de Saussure uses to denote what he calls the “sound-image” (66) and the “concept” (66). The sound-image is “not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. The sound-image is sensory, and if I happen to call it "material," it is only in that sense, and by way of opposing it to the other term of the association, the concept, which is generally more abstract” (66). 

  21. Again, we find a link with Blanchot’s “Orpheus’s Gaze”, but this time, Eurydice is that indefinable part of self which makes community, responsibility and hospitality such important terms through ensuring that we can never fully know an other human being. 

  22. Although perhaps with slightly different intention, Léopold Senghor has this to say of rhythm: “It is the thing that is most perceptible and least material. It is the archetype of the vital element. It is the first condition and the hallmark of Art, as breath is of life: breath, which accelerates or slows, which becomes even or agitated according to the tension in the individual, the degree and the nature of his emotion. This is rhythm in its primordial purity; this is rhythm in the masterpieces of Negro art, especially sculpture. It is composed of a theme—sculptural form—which is set in opposition to a sister theme, as inhalation is to exhalation, and that is repeated. It is not the kind of symmetry that gives rise to monotony; rhythm is alive, it is free. . . . This is how rhythm affects what is least intellectual in us, tyrannically, to make us penetrate to the spirituality of the object; and that character of abandon which is ours is itself rhythmic.” For a further sense of how interlinked all this is, merely consider the degree to which exactly the same sort of breath, the spirit and life are constantly equated in Shakespeare. 

  23. Barondes is, interestingly enough, Director of the Center [sic] for Neurobiology & Psychiatry at the University of California – San Francisco and author of Making Sense of People: Decoding the Mysteries of Personality. I use him here specifically to show how our language need not be confined to literature; it must be used in all spheres of life if it is to have any meaningful impact. 

  24. A point Aldous Huxley makes, over and over, in The Perennial Philosophy which is, unfortunately, out of scope here. 

  25. It is no mistake that Mpe chooses this text for one of his most central intertextual references. Unlike Hardy’s novel, which is deeply cynical and argues, essentially, that man is alone and that society is violent and harmful to individuals, Mpe uses the name to create an opportunity for Refilwe and “the-stranger-who-was-not-a-stranger” (Mpe 110) to meet. 

  26. This is a psychological term taken from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and essentially refers to an object or some other cue which makes one (subconsciously) predisposed to a certain reaction. For interest’s sake, in one experiment, Kahneman describes how subjects, ‘primed’ to think of money (via a pile of dollars left on the table or a dollar screensaver shown on a computer), were less likely to help experimenters pick up pencils they specifically dropped on entering the room. Similarly, if asked to set up the room for an interview after again being primed to think of money, the subjects would set up the chairs for themselves and the interviewer further apart. I mention this here because I believe it goes to the necessity for a communal conception of language in a modern, materialistic world where we are so often encouraged to act individually, sometimes without our even being consciously aware of it.