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3— Luck and Love
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Semantics and Memory

In this context, it is worth returning briefly to Noam Chomsky and recalling some of his problems in elevating syntax into the primary (or perhaps even sole) object of study. From the first, Chomsky's critics have argued that the phenomenon of language is richer, more contingent, and less formalizable than a syntactic theory would allow and have called for a supplement, in the form of a semantic theory.[60] John Searle, one such critic, has objected (not surprisingly) to the inability of syntax to account for actual speech behavior, actual linguistic performances. Language, Searle argues, is not primarily an instrument of thought and only secondarily an instrument of communication (as Chomsky would have it) but is irreducibly, constitutively shaped by its communicative needs, and thus centrally organized by semantics, the production and reception of meaning.[61] Of course, Searle himself is speaking from a partisan position—that of speech-act theory, of which he and J. L. Austin are the leading exponents. That tradition, in giving pride of place to the contexts of utterance, has built its case, understandably, not on the formal universals of syntax but on the substantive contingencies of semantics. The meanings of words—their situational variations occasioned by different rules and intentions, and their etymological variations occasioned by historical change—make up the life of language as Austin and Searle understand it. Words come to us "trailing clouds of etymology," Austin writes, for "a word never—well, hardly ever—shakes off its etymology and its formation. In spite of all changes in and extensions of and additions to its meanings, and indeed rather pervading and governing these, there will still persist the old idea."[62]

Semantics, then, is that domain in which the historical life of language is honored and preserved, and in which human history itself is also silently but diligently recorded. Words have memories here, and the passing away of a usage, a manner of speaking, or a mode of association is never without residue, never without a shower of de-


posits, clouding up the orthographic clarity of words, giving them their particular texture and opacity. Unlike syntax, then, which begins as a clean slate each time it is used anew, empty of any traces of the words that previously composed it, semantics is a slate that can never be wiped clean, being written upon over and over again, accumulating meanings that settle and thicken in time. This is what Mikhail Bakhtin has in mind when he refers to semantics as a domain in which language becomes "saturated," each word pervaded by the "tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life."[63] Bakhtin is speaking of the saturation of words within the historical life of an entire society, but, on a more modest scale, we might also imagine the same process of saturation within the biographical life of a single individual, or within the textual life of a long poem such as "Song of Myself." Here, too, prior usages might have left behind memories of their passing, accumulated nuances and inflections that make it impossible for words to be quite innocent, quite neutral, quite pristine, impossible for them to begin unencumbered.

This historical memory of words is what the poetic form of "Song of Myself" is out to combat. The "subject of language interests me—interests me: I never quite get it out of my mind," Whitman writes. "I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment." It is a language experiment designed, most especially, to imagine "new words, new potentialities of speech" to match the "new world, the new times, the new peoples."[64] Such newness can come only with the primacy of syntax, and it is this that gives "Song of Myself" its peculiar resilience and regularity, its promise of substitution and guarantee of permanence. This is its great source of strength, a strength that, in Whitman as in Chomsky, comes from a necessary abstraction, an insistence on formal universals, that transforms the randomness of the world, its accidents and its vulnerabilities, into the pristine form of its syntax. "All goes onward and outward . . . and nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier," Whitman writes at the end of section 6, his famous paean to the grass which, like language, and most particularly like syntax ("so many uttering tongues!"), is ever substitutable, ever renewable, and therefore ever emblematic of our luck (30). And he immediately goes on, in section 7, to repeat that crucial last word all over again: "Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it" (30).


Luck, that bane of democracy, is here mentioned by name, three times in the space of three lines and even in the face of death, its most terrible ally. It can be mentioned because, like the self which it overshadows, it too has been formalized, neutralized, made amenable to reason through the agency of syntax. In a complex play of crescendo that might be called the rationalization of luck, the syntax here focuses on the different degrees and gradations of it—"lucky," "luckier," "just as lucky"—using them to ask some rather abstruse questions (is it luckier to live or to die, or are both just as lucky?). What is happily missing here, among the available options, is one item which ordinarily would perhaps be of greatest concern to most people: namely, the category of the "unlucky." Indeed, even in "Song of Myself," that category is not altogether unknown (in section 4, Whitman has alluded, after all, to "The sickness of one of my folks—or of myself . . . or ill-doing . . . or loss or lack of money"), and yet it is just that memory that the syntax here works to erase, as it holds out for our contemplation a logical progression beginning with luck. The Whitmanian self is thus always lucky, he can only be lucky, all memories to the contrary being forgotten in the inflectionless use of the word. That inflectionlessness also makes him as lucky as everyone else. In being so assured of that fact, in having so little room for surprise, let alone for complaint, he might also be said, paradoxically, to be beyond luck, beyond its caprice and, above all, beyond its inequities.

What does it mean for a self to be beyond luck? Martha Nussbaum has argued that an ethical life that aspires to be noncontingent is also one that is necessarily impoverished. There can be no goodness without vulnerability, she suggests.[65] "Song of Myself" affirms her insight, qualifies it, and offers perhaps an alternative political context for its interpretation. Taking the noncontingent self, then, both as a necessary foundation of democratic justice, as Whitman urges, and as a potential case of experiential impoverishment, as Nussbaum warns, I want to think further about the epistemology underwritten by such a figure, and about the shape of the world radiating outward from its particular form. Whitman, as always, has indirectly supplied an answer here. In section 7 of "Song of Myself," immediately following his declaration that "it is just as lucky to die," he goes on to invoke a world of "manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good, / The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good" (31).


These particular lines, celebratory in a way that borders on the syrupy, might perhaps lend themselves to the charge of facile optimism, but it would be unfair to read them in that light. They rather have to do, I think, with a democratic impulse (driven perhaps as much by anxiety as by hope) to so construe the world as to render the faculty of discrimination unnecessary. After all, judgment can cease, can truly cease, only in a world where there is no occasion for it. Luck of the Whitmanian sort, commissioned by a syntax so pristine as to be memory-proof, makes such a world thinkable, credible, habitable. Under its oversight, one can indeed live one's life "judg[ing] not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing," unburdened by the thought that the "helpless thing" might turn out to be a snake, a porcupine, a snapping turtle. It is this image of luck, disarmed and discharged, that enables Whitman to imagine a world that is epistemologically democratic, a world in which he can dispense with preference altogether, so that even among objects "no two alike," he can still surrender himself to a syntax that is nothing if not a chant of equivalence:" and every one good, / The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good" (31).

Good, good, good, good. That chant of equivalence brings to a head the hope as well as the frailty of a democratic poetics, as of a democratic polity. The equivalence is secured, of course, by the regularity of the syntax, which neutralizes luck by making all eventualities equally indifferent , both in the sense that none is distinguishable from the others and in the sense that none is preferred to the others. For preference is indeed hard to justify, hard even to imagine, given the blanket attribution of goodness. In a world filled with objects all generated by the same syntax and all described by the word good, how can we make sense of the fact that some particular objects, some particular persons, will appeal to us in a manner altogether disproportionate to their grammatical description? And how can we make sense of the fact that some other objects, some other persons, will not appeal to us, certifiably (because categorically) good though they are?

A self that is beyond luck is not simply beyond the contingent, it is also barred from the contingent. It is barred, that is, from that circumstantial domain, inhabited by densely featured people, some of whom are miracles and some of whom are just unhappy freaks of accident, but all of whom, whether as objects of affection or as objects of aversion, can materialize for us only through a particularizing lan-


guage. Whitman's democratic poetics, in short, can have no access to that chaotic world of special loves and hates. It is silent about those objects that, for us, are not categoric, not interchangeable or substitutable, not adequately described by grammar or fully accounted for by syntax. In that silence, "Song of Myself" is at one with the entire philosophical tradition from Immanuel Kant to Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. It is not at one with that tradition, however, in making that silence so eerie, so restless and untranquil in its willed uniformity. If nothing else, Whitman makes us long for what he does not and cannot offer: an ethics of preference, one that, in foregrounding what is not exhausted by a language of formal universals, what remains as its conceptual or emotional residue, might suggest some way of acknowledging both the democratic and the affective, some way of rethinking the very terms and limits of justice itself.

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