Il va neiger and the Limits of Language

Since I work in political philosophy and linguistics, I get to think routinely and intensively about language - how it works (semantics, pragmatics, syntax, semiotics), how we make it work (policy, politics, ideology), and also, in a sense, how it ends up ‘working us’ in return (epistemology, ontology, ethics). This is the most fascinating field of research that I can think of, even if it can - and indeed does - generate instances of severe cognitive overload every so often.

In recent years, however, I have become more and more interested in the question of the limits of language; that is, those places, times and occurrences in which language breaks down, functions in a imperfect way, or is almost entirely absent. Extreme emotional states are a useful example of such breaking points – those very happy or very sad situations in which we feel that we have ‘no words’ to describe how we feel. It is usually then that we become much more aware of how fundamentally reliant we are on linguistic interactions in making sense of our world and our selves. Taking a closer look at those places in which language is not so obvious or even useable reveals many interesting insights about the linguistic/nonlinguistic interface that is so elemental to the human condition.

Francis Jammes’ il va neiger (‘It Is Going to Snow’) is one of the most incisive and thoughtful poems to trace, with great gentleness and care, that very delicate threshold between the linguistic and the nonlinguistic, and its connection with human relationality. Its tone of introspective sadness always resonates something very deep within me, so deep and primal that I’m not even sure what to call it. But, then again, that is precisely the point.

Il va neiger... (1893)

À Léopold Bauby

Il va neiger dans quelques jours. Je me souviens
de l’an dernier. Je me souviens de mes tristesses
au coin du feu. Si l’on m’avait demandé: qu’est-ce?
j’aurais dit: laissez-moi tranquille. Ce n’est rien.

J’ai bien réfléchi, l’année avant, dans ma chambre,
pendant que la neige lourde tombait dehors.
J’ai réfléchi pour rien. À présent comme alors
je fume une pipe en bois avec un bout d’ambre.

Ma vieille commode en chêne sent toujours bon.
Mais moi j’étais bête parce que tant de choses
ne pouvaient pas changer et que c’est une pose
de vouloir chasser les choses que nous savons.

Pourquoi donc pensons-nous et parlons-nous?
c’est drôle; nos larmes et nos baisers, eux, ne parlent pas,
et cependant nous les comprenons, et les pas
d’un ami sont plus doux que de douces paroles.

On a baptisé les étoiles sans penser
qu’elles n’avaient pas besoin de nom, et les nombres,
qui prouvent que les belles comètes dans l’ombre
passeront, ne les forceront pas à passer.

Et maintenant même, où sont mes vieilles tristesses
de l’an dernier? À peine si je m’en souviens.
Je dirais : Laissez-moi tranquille, ce n’est rien,
si dans ma chambre on venait me demander: qu’est-ce?

It Is Going to Snow... (1893)

(trans. hincentinde)

It shall snow in a few days. I remember
The previous year. I remember my sorrows
Beside the fire. If someone had asked me ”What is it?”
I’d have said, “Let me be. It’s nothing.”

I thought at length, last year, in my room,
While the heavy snow fell outside.
I thought for naught. Now, as then,
I smoke a wooden pipe with an amber mouthpiece.

My old oak chest-of-drawers still smells good.
But I myself was foolish, because so many things
Could not change, and it’s folly
To want to drive away the things we know.

Why then do we think and speak? It’s curious;
Our tears and our kisses, they don’t speak,
And yet we understand them, and the footsteps
Of a friend are sweeter than sweet words.

We’ve christened the stars without considering
That they had no need of a name, and the numbers,
Which prove that the beautiful comets will pass
On into the shadow, will not make them  pass on.

And even now, where are my old sorrows
Of last year? I scarcely remember them.
I’d say, “Let me be. It’s nothing,”
if someone came into my room to ask me, “What is it?”