Monday, May 22, 2006

"life I never see..."

Stanley Fish, Literary Critic of the Reader-Response School
(Photo Borrowed from Florida International University)

If you've been following the past couple of blog entries, you'll already know that I consider "Green-Eyed Lady" a great song.

I hear a few of you mutter "De gustibus non disputandem est."

Unfortunately, I don't know much Latin, so I've had to look that up in Wikipedia's list of Latin phrases, which informs me that "there is not to be discussion regarding tastes." Well, that's certainly a conversation-stopper.

No matter. I'll talk to myself. On blogs, you can do this without being considered crazy.

As I was saying, I consider "Green-Eyed Lady" a great song. However, I find it rather flat as a poem. Minus the music, it doesn't work, and those of you who've never heard the song have probably wondered why it hit me so powerfully.

Nevertheless, this song does achieve something of literary quality in its last two lines, and it does so by a clever linguistic trick:

Green-eyed lady feels life I never see,
Setting suns and lonely lovers free.
How are we supposed to take these final two lines? Does the life that my green-eyed lady feels include her experience of setting suns and lonely, if free-spirited lovers? Or does she possess some mysterious, magical power for setting free those suns and lonely lovers?

That ambiguous word "free" at the very end forces us to wonder at the meaning. Is is an adjective: free(-spirited) lovers? Or is it part of a phrasal verb: to set free?

In his book Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1967, 1997, Second Edition), Stanley Fish argues that Milton's intentionally ambiguous syntax draws the reader into an intricate maze of language that calls attention to itself and to the reader's own, fallen condition. For example, of the fallen angels who awaken in hell, Milton writes:

Nor did they not perceave the evil plight
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel; (PL 1.335)

On this, Fish remarks:

"The double negative is unexpected and for an instant the sense of the line remains unresolved. Do they or don't they perceive? Actually, they do and they don't and by forcing the hesitation Milton leads the reader to understand how the alternatives he hovers between are equally true .... 'Nor did they not perceive' is particularly nice since a defect in language is only the visible phase of a problem in perception" (Surprised by Sin, 99-100).
Without delving any deeper into the marine depths of Fish's analysis of Paradise Lost, we can at least latch onto his linguistic insight into how ambiguous syntax can hook the unwary reader.

In unsubtle terms, every pop song needs a hook, and "Green-Eyed Lady" has one in the ambiguity of that dangling word "free" in its final clause, "Setting suns and lonely lovers free."


At 9:17 AM, Blogger Chris Weimer said...

Why would you ever trust Wikipedia? The correct translation of the phrase is "it is not to be disputed about tastes". In more modern English, we use "to each his own".

It's not about preventing conversation, but preventing fruitless and base quibbles over minor and moot points.


At 12:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Although I find it useful if taken with a grain of salt, I don't trust Wikipedia, and I often express my distrust openly. Indeed, I warn my students not to use it as a source in their research.

I do understand the Latin expression and was simply making a joke.

For the record, even the expression "to each his own" can be a conversation-stopper.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:00 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I like Wikipedia. And it's at least as trustworthy as Encyclopedia Britannica if you want to take NPR's word for it.

As for "free," sometimes being a language not usually limited by cases is a wonderful thing. Mirabile dictu.

At 4:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, I distrust Wikipedia because I've often found flaws in its 'factual' information.

I've also heard that it's as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, but I can't believe this, and the good folks at EB have taken issue with the findings of that fine science journal Nature.

Wikipedia is, for the most part, reasonably accurate, but when I'm looking for serious, accurate information, I might use Wikipedia as a resource but never as a source.

I do like it, however, for its convenience and reasonable accuracy.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stanley Fish is one helluva crap linguist, unfortunately. His view of language is that we take in a sentence word-by-word. This can be demonstrated to be false by a variety of different methods: slips-of-the tongues and the fact of collocation, to name just two.

At 9:06 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Stanley Fowl, I agree with you that we don't generally read the way that Fish describes, but I find that with ambiguous constructions, I am 'surprised by syntax' and slow down to read it word-by-word.

The language then has me hovering between two possible interpretations in much the way that Fish describes.

Thus, his analysis fits my experience, e.g., with "Green-Eyed Lady."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you know what syntax means, you will see that you do not slow down to read the sentence word-by-word, even when faced with ambiguity. This is because syntax does not recognize words, but rather word classes or even constituent phrases. Thus, ambiguity is the result of being unable to decide what word class a particular lexical item belongs to. That is what occasions your surprise as well as (unfortunately) your agreement with the crap linguist, Stanley Fish.

Here is the definition:

Syntax, originating from the Greek words συν (syn, meaning "co-" or "together") and τάξις (táxis, meaning "sequence, order, arrangement"), can in linguistics be described as the study of the rules, or "patterned relations" that govern the way the words in a sentence come together. It concerns how different words (which, going back to Dionysios Thrax, are categorized as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) are combined into clauses, which, in turn, are combined into sentences. Syntax attempts to systematize descriptive grammar, and is unconcerned with prescriptive grammar (see Prescription and description).

There exist many theories of formal syntax — theories that have in time risen or fallen in influence. Most theories of syntax at least share two commonalities: First, they hierarchically group subunits into constituent units (phrases). Second, they provide some system of rules to explain patterns of acceptability/grammaticality and unacceptability/ungrammaticality. Most formal theories of syntax offer explanations of the systematic relationships between syntactic form and semantic meaning. The earliest framework of semiotics was established by Charles W. Morris in his 1938 book Foundations of the Theory of Signs. Syntax is defined, within the study of signs, as the first of its three subfields (the study of the interrelation of the signs). The second subfield is semantics (the study of the relation between the signs and the objects to which they apply), and the third is pragmatics (the relationship between the sign system and the user).

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Stanley Fowl, you will probably want to see the two blog entries that follow this one, namely:

1. "Neither Fish Nor Fowl?"

2. Surprised By Syntax

The first responds to your first comment, the second to your second.

By the way, thanks for your useful remarks, which have motivated me to dig a bit more deeply into these linguistic issues.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:48 AM, Blogger Jessica said...

Point well taken. It's the spellcheck of trivia--handy but not definitive.


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