Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Can You Put a Word to It?": Language and Epistemology in the Dwarfs

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"Can You Put a Word to It?": Language and Epistemology in the Dwarfs

Article excerpt

In Harold Pinter's only novel, The Dwarfs (written between 1952 and 1956, shortened and adapted as an one-act play in 1960, but not published as a novel until 1990), Len poses to his friend Mark the existential question that we find at the center of so much of Pinter's work, "The point is, who are you? Not why or how, not even what" (151), a query all the more urgent because only by determining the nature of the other can we (perhaps) arrive at self-knowledge: "until I know who you are how can | ever know who I am?" (152). Throughout the novel, Len remains tormented by what he calls the question of "the who?" (130), which not only raises the issue of self-definition, but also confronts us with epistemological and linguistic challenges. If we assume the possibility of an answer to Len's question then we must assume the possibility that "the who" can be made available as an object of knowledge; as an entity about which truth claims can be made; as a kind of substance rendered transparent to language theorized as a re-presentational system that forecloses any potential gap between world (whether external or internal) and word.

It is precisely such assumptions, however, that Pinter interrogates throughout his career. Len exhibits here a specific "desire" that Pinter identifies in his speech "Writing for the Theatre:" "the desire for verification on the part of all of us, with regard to our own experience and the experience of others," a "desire" that, Pinter hastens to add, "is understandable but cannot always be satisfied" (11). Perhaps we could achieve such "verification" if we ask Len's question not in the strong terms of "who are you" but in the weaker terms of "why or how ... [or] what." Len himself admits, "I can see what [you are], perhaps, clearly enough. I can see something perhaps, of what you are" (151, emphasis added). Even here, the assertion of fulfilled epistemological desire finds itself undone by the repetition of "perhaps," which seems to place the meaning of being beyond the capacity of language to define, a point echoed by Len's other friend, Pete, who confesses, "If we are going to define what we are, and our territorial limitations, then I'm afraid I can't honestly do it for myself" (178). The reader must determine whether the failure here belongs to Pete or whether we must locate it elsewhere, specifically in the rules governing the epistemological language games providing the frame of intelligibility for our assertions of knowledge and truth--the games that posit language's ability to define the nature of an external object, like a room, or of our interiority, our "who" ness.

While neither "who?" nor "what?" seem to admit the possibility of ultimate answers--the elusive "last word" (135) Len seeks, laying all ontological questions to rest--we should not, Hannah Arendt observes, view the two questions as interchangeable, as Pete apparently does. (Note that, unlike Len, Pete does not distinguish between "who" and "what" but employs "what" to demarcate the "territorial limitations"--"the who"--of our existential being.) Arendt seems to share Len's frustration with the question of "the who," which, in turn, manifests itself as frustration with a language revealing its own "territorial limitations." Arendt writes, "The moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is ... all definitions being determinations or interpretations of what man is, of qualities, therefore, which he could possibly share" (181). Therefore, "his specific uniqueness'--"the who" Len urgently needs to isolate--cannot be included among those "things whose nature is at our disposal because we can name them" (181-82). When dealing with the "who," Arendt exhibits a skepticism about language's ability to yield the object in its irreducible essence shared by Len and voiced by Pete when he asks the question, "can you put a name to it?" (174).

What I find most noteworthy about Arendt's comments is that they posit a breach between language and being, her own version of the Lacanian distinction between the symbolic and the real. …

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