Friday, 26 November 2010

Carroll's Name of the Song

In her essay 'Metalanguage in Lewis Carroll', [SubStance 22: 2/3, issue 71/72: Special Issue: Epistémocritique (1993), pp. 217-227] Sophie Marret considers 'the name of the song':
The White Knight's suggestion to sing a song to Alice gives rise to the following logical imbroglio:
"Let me sing you a song to comfort you." [...] "The name of the song is called 'Haddock's Eyes'."

"Oh, that's the name of the song is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.'"

'Then I ought to have said 'that's what the song is called'?" Alice corrected herself.

"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways And Means': but that's only what it's called, you know!"

"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

"I was coming to that," the Knight said. 'The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate': and the tune's my own invention."(Through the Looking Glass, 305-306)
There is no doubt that the White Knight's logic is faulty, but the reader still finds it hard to grasp his mistake unless he takes a closer look at the text. One could think, like Alice, that he is the victim of a semantic confusion, and that he should have said "The name of the song is 'Haddocks' Eyes'," but he points out that he did not make a mistake and that he knows the difference between the name of the song and the name of the name of the song. Alice is mistaken when she thinks she can make a distinction between "the name of the song" and "what the song is called." The difference, if any, the White Knight points out, is purely semantic, because of the ambiguity of the expression "what it is called" (in French, the distinction has to be made between "c'est ainsi qu'elle s'appelle" and "c'est ainsi qu'on l'appelle"). Alice's error thus finds a logical justification in the explanation of the White Knight, who takes advantage of it to underline his mastery of the subtleties of semantics, preventing us from interpreting his first assertion as a faulty performance. Equivalents may actually be found for the expression "what the name is called," such as "a title" or even "a noun phrase." The most disconcerting thing in the first assertion of the White Knight is that he should choose an expression from the same level as the name to qualify the latter. He remains within the register of the specific, instead of finding an equivalent in a generic category-a class of names. If he makes it a point of honor to distinguish between the level of language and metalanguage (the name of the name), he contents himself with bringing metalanguage down to the level of language, thus confusing these two levels again.
I'm not sure this is right. There are plenty of examples from ordinary usage where 'the name of the name' does not elevate us into metalanguage. Marret is thinking of an exemplary instance such as (as a guess) 'the song's name is 'To Be Or Not To Be'; this name is a quotation': but not all name-of-the-names are like this. To pluck one from the top of my head: "The name of the song is 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. This song is called (ie the name of this name is...) 'the Anfield Anthem', on account of its close association with Liverpool Football Club." Other examples suggest themselves: for example, the distinction between the name of the play 'Macbeth', and the name of this name, 'The Scottish Play' -- because the name of the play itself is deemed unlucky to utter. Besides, as Marret goes on to say:
In order to make the White Knight the victim of such a confusion, it seems that Carroll himself had to be able to make the distinction between these two levels, and we may go as far as saying that to set his paradox, such an intuition was necessary. In both cases he seems to point out that the distinction between language and metalanguage does not go without saying. In contrast to Alice's discourse that remains concerned with the relationship between name and thing ('That's the name of the song;" "that's what the song is called;" "what is the song?"), the White Knight sets the subtlety of his own logical processes, which imply the necessary distinction of the level of metalanguage ("what the name is called") although he immediately makes it equivalent to the level of language. The White Knight thus stands out as a parodic double of the author.
Quite right.

7 comments:

mahendra singh said...

I'm stuck in my broken record groove but once again, an infinite regression.

Carroll was very fond of that sort of thing which is why I've always regarded him as a crypto-Hindu.

Gotta go, a mob of enraged Carrollians are after me with pitchforks

nick said...

Why should we think that the 'Scottish Play' is the name of the name of the play in question? Surely it is just another name for the play, as 'the Iron Lady' and 'Margaret Thatcher' name one and the same individual. It's not unusual for an individual to have one or more descriptive or semi-descriptive names in addition to a proper name.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Well, the theatrical superstition is that it's unlucky to say the name of the play, to say 'Macbeth'. It's not unlucky to say the play itself, or there wouldn't be any performances. So 'The Scottish Play' stands in, specifically, for the name of that text that runs from Act 1 through to Act 5. It names the name, in short.

nick said...

Standing in for a name is not the same as naming a name, or at least not obviously so. An example: pronouns stand in for (in some sense) proper names. I can say 'John smokes' or 'He smokes', but I don't think anyone says that 'He' is the name of proper names; rather that pronouns (like proper names) can be used to refer to individuals. The same goes for descriptive phrases like 'the first roman emperor' and for their conventionalised use as descriptive names (e.g. 'The Scottish Play', 'Jack the Ripper').

nick said...

By the way, I suppose I should have introduced myself first, since these are my first comments here, rather than launching straight into nit-picking. I'm a linguist specialising in pragmatics and semantics, so making fine distinctions in these areas is my day job. (Doesn't mean the distinctions I make are right, of course.)

The Carroll quotation is very interesting. My take on it is that he is pointing out a perfectly viable distinction that we mostly fail to use.

I suppose that he was echoing things like "Therefore is the name of it called Babel" (Genesis 11:9). In early modern English it seems to have been idiomatic to say 'the name of x is called' for 'the name of x is' or 'x is called', and Carroll was drawing attention to the fact that a name _could_ be called something, but that (notwithstanding the idiom) we generally don't make use of the possibility.

mahendra singh said...

Carroll is being very logical and careful (as always)! If the construction of a language demands as a given that everything must possess a name, then the name itself must have a name(s).

In fact, it seems very illogical to have names without names, that would imply that they are not proper subjects for language.

This is jolly stuff, poor Adam has opened quite the can of worms!

Adam Roberts Project said...

Very interesting stuff. Good to e-meet you, Nick; and of course I yield to your superior expertise in semantic philosophy. As Mahendra says, a can of worms is opened. But like Darwin, and unlike Dahl's Mrs Twit, I like worms.

"I can say 'John smokes' or 'He smokes', but I don't think anyone says that 'He' is the name of proper names; rather that pronouns (like proper names) can be used to refer to individuals."

This is obviously right, but I'm not sure my example is quite of this sort. 'He', after all, is a general signifier, and could apply to all manner of men, not just John. 'The Scottish Play' only means one text.

Looking back at my post, I'd agree that a more commonsensical approach would be to say 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and 'The Anfield Anthem' are two different names for the same song. Except that the name of the song is actually 'You'll Never Walk Alone'; 'The Anfield Anthem' is a kind of unofficial name, that substitutes for the official name in, for instance, a footballing context. The Macbeth example seems to me even more acute, since the superstitious 'problem' here is the unsayability of the name, not of the thing named; so the euphemism refers specifically to that name.


As for the Biblical "therefore is the name of it called Babel" example, isn't this just idiomatic for 'the name is Babel, and people use this name in speaking'?