Speaking Without Words

Language and language use is unquestionably connected to the human acts of speech, writing, reading, thinking, and tasks which are dependent on these human capacities. Chapter 23 of Possession, however, seems to contrast this notion of language with a different notion of “language.” Byatt appears to develop a “language” without any of the aforementioned human acts, or more precisely, a “language” which is not spoken, written, read, or thought, but one that is acted out in the absence of any linguistic signs. Byatt collapses Roland and his “language” (among other human facets) into a single unit, capable of communicating without the need of the physical act of speech. Roland learns to see himself, “theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected” (459). He sees himself in terms of an “electrical message-network of various desires … language-forms and hormones and pheromones” (459). In this “crossing-place” centered description of Roland, Byatt portrays him as an interconnected network, where all of the complexities of humanity converge into one. Here, the conventional understanding one has of the relationship between a human and his language is confused; Byatt seems to posit that the human is the language, as much as the human is his desires or his bio-chemicals. Roland comes to see himself, not as independent from language, but as intimately connected to language-forms, almost as if he no longer uses language, but rather, lives through language. While other human characteristics are likewise collapsed into the very essence of Roland – a sense of longing and his sexuality – his linguistic capacity has become so deeply integrated within him that word-forms become indistinguishable from his hormones and pheromones; they are all heard by Maud without having to be physically spoken to her.

The instances of “silence” to which Byatt refers during Roland and Maud’s trip to Brittany signify to the reader that Roland and Maud consciously choose not to speak (or think) and find pleasure in not speaking (or thinking). Just to list a few examples, “They drove silently back to their hotel” (455), “Maud was muted” (457), “He would have been in a panic if he had allowed himself to think” (458), “They took to silence” (458), “They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night” (458), “Speech … would have undone it” (459), “not stirring, not speaking” (459). All of these examples revolve around the idea of silence, while most underscore the love that develops between them despite the lack of any spoken language. If language is not dependent on signs which are spoken, but is intertwined with the essence and body and soul of a human being as presented in the paragraph above, this silence could be argued to not be a silence at all, but rather a deep non-linguistic discussion of their growing love. Such an analysis can be coherently applied onto passages such as “One night they fell asleep, side by side… He slept curled up against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase” (458). Here, literally, Roland is described as sleeping in the shape of a comma. It is impossible, however, to maintain such a literal interpretation of the description of Maud as a “pale elegant phrase.” A human being cannot take the shape of a phrase the way they can take the shape of a comma, but literarily, this description help us maintain the above discussion of the collapsing of a human being and language into one. Byatt’s description, even if not taken entirely in line with the reasoning presented here, gives the reader the impression that even without spoken language, these two individuals are still communicating harmoniously in some other form of language. Roland is the punctuation to Maud’s phrase.

Roland and Maud are literary types. That is to say, Roland and Maud are scholarly, they engage in textual analysis, they speak in a higher academic language. These two individuals are language-oriented and linguistically inclined, yet they are capable of resisting discussion about their romantic interest for one another. In light of their education and literariness, Byatt states that Roland “was in a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously” (460). The romance between Roland and Maud is “high” in that, when the two do speak, they engage in intelligent conversation about poets and poetry, yet “vulgar” in that the romantic aspects of their relationship are communicated in a lower manner, without any language at all. Byatt continues, “Romance was one of the systems that controlled him” (460). Byatt’s description of Roland as “a crossing-place for a number of systems” gains in significance once Byatt describes the idea of a “Romance” in terms of a “system.” Roland is incapable of speaking about the growing romance because his “language” is being controlled by the system of Romance. Recall that “desires, language-forms, hormones and pheromones” are all intermixed within Roland, suggesting that Romance, as a system which controls him, renders him unable to fully control these human qualities under his own will. In reality, the two primarily converse of “the problems of the dead” (456-457), avoiding at all costs any spoken recognition of the romance building between them. Underneath these discussions of deceased poets, however, a far more interesting and intimate discussion is taking place without any words being spoken at all.

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