Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Semeiotic Density in Almayer's Folly

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Semeiotic Density in Almayer's Folly

Article excerpt

IF THE PLEASURE of the text is to be found in sound, it can be equated neither with the relief provided by plots, suspense, or characters, nor with the pleasure of bombast and other so-called literary flourishes. 'Sound pleasure' is not autoerotism.1 The former originates in meeting the Other,2 while the latter consists in screening off the Other.3

Plots, for example, organize a possible world in such a way that it becomes fully rational and understandable. This surely offers assuagement. The known world is in such turmoil that it is reassuring to be able at last to make sense of a fragment of history or of interpersonal relationships. But by fitting all events within a broader scheme, by making them graspable by the intellect, plots leave no room for any Other, whose defining feature is escaping expectations and familiar norms. Plots provide relief, not pleasure.

The same applies to thrillers, horror, or suspense fictions. These harp on the attraction-repulsion string, which means that they tease our Unbewußt, our unconscious, which Jacques Lacan defines as "the discourse of the Other" (1955: 89). But what is really at stake here? Otherness per se, or alienation from it, in a Brechtian sense? Do readers seek pleasure in meeting an arch-criminal, or the satisfaction of squeezing his deeds into a fictional framework that is acknowledged as such? Whilst the known world and unsolved investigations let us face our worries without any hope of ever mastering or abating them, thrillerlike episodes make worries delicious by having them one notch removed thanks to their fixed duration - that is, thanks to the expected eventual crushing of the Otherness in them. Thrillers, horror, and suspense fictions thus also aim at autoerotic relief, not sound pleasure.

Then again, take characters. What is this identification business, if not the screening-off of Otherness in a fictional Other? To identify with fictional protagonists means sharing part of their ethos or ideology - at least, enough for them to provide readers with a mirror image, an (alter-) ego. Characters, too, allow for autoerotic satisfaction more than healthy pleasure. Thus only the text as language can retain such amount of Otherness that cannot be reduced, framed, integrated, and, therefore, ultimately tamed. But text is not logorrhoea. Text is texture, substance, density of meaning.

How many novels, then, allow for a sound pleasure of the text, a genuine meeting with an untamed Other through a startling semeiotic density? The present essay means to show that Almayer's Folly is one of these.

Meeting the Other in Almayer's Folly takes only two words and four syllables at the novel's incipit. "Kaspar! Makan!" (5). Un-English words opening an English novel, they are unaccounted for by the narrator since they belong to a character's voice. They come as a direct speech. We thus begin with an Other's discourse in an Other's tongue and are utterly unprepared. This is shock treatment.

The Otherness effect is reinforced by a metric frustration to English readers. The iambic pattern sounds promising, compensating by a familiar, even classic, rhythm, the unfamiliar sounds. But it turns short. Gone are Chaucer's iambic pentameters. We end up with an iambic dimeter here, a poetic coitus interruptus, as it were.

Alliteration is a familiar device in poetry. Here, the sound [k] is insisted upon, but, notwithstanding its harshness, it combines with the unique vowel [a] to form a syllable working more as gobbledegook, a childish code inserting such syllables in words to make them indecipherable. The poetical (alliterative) promise does not hold here either, which deepens the metric frustration already mentioned. The only consolation we have is that if the utterance is ciphered through syllable insertion, then by removing the syllable -ka- we might squeeze some meaning at last from the incomprehensible chain of sounds. Minus -ka-, we are left with spar, man. …

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