Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Nice day." "Looks like rain." "Hot enough for you?"


In his introduction to Romantic Weather, Arden Reed calls attention to
the sheer fact that the weather should be, as [Leslie] Brisman puts it, a "topic of conversation," that it should translate with apparently little difficulty into language so as to become the subject that "everybody talks about." Indeed, the propensity to discuss the weather seems to be strong enough that it can overrule good sense: "It is commonly observed," said Samuel Johnson, "that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm." His lightly mocking tone notwithstanding, Johnson here points to something crucial, for he allows that, however trivial a "topic of conversation" it may seem, the weather can generate language independent of any significant referent; in fact, its very triviality attests to its power to produce discourse. Whatever else it may prove to be, then, the weather has a linguistic dimension.
This "power to produce discourse" (discourse whose content is presumably beside the point) appears in DeLillo's White Noise as well, when Howard Dunlop, the reclusive German instructor, describes reengaging with the world after the death of his mother through talk about the weather. "I began to come out of my shell, talk to people in the street," he says. "'Nice day.' 'Looks like rain.' 'Hot enough for you?' Everyone notices the weather." Roman Jakobson would categorize such utterances as "phatic," expressing the fact of communication.

Weather is a common subject of phatic speech. At the bus stop or in line at the bank, among strangers, weather offers a way to speak. I would also argue that weather is prosaic, in the sense of prose developed by M. M. Bakhtin in "Discourse in the Novel." Bakhtin argues among other things that prose is a "heteroglossia" of lived discourse, continually circulating, spoken, in use. One might add that prose in everyday use is frequently boring, tired, clich├ęd. Saul Bellow's lament for American language gets at this, I think:
In public life everybody uses the same formulas--presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen, secretaries of state, leaders of the legal and other professions, celebrity financiers, talk-show hosts, university presidents, disc jockeys, leaders of the various liberation movements, star athletes, rock musicians, artists, singers, Hollywood personalities, publishers, the clerics of all churches, environmentalists … Sportscasters, rap musicians, university rightists, university leftists, all employ the same language.
(I find this observation delightful, although I doubt Bellow was delighted by what he observed.) In advertisements and public service announcements, in the workplace or over a shop counter, prose is put to use--very often, in the form of talk about the weather.

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