26 July 2009

Caroline Bergvall

[from Caroline Bergvall's essay "A Cat in the Throat: On Bilingual Occupants," in Jacket #37, 2009]

In French, one doesn’t just clear one’s throat, one has a cat in the throat. One would need to spit the cat (‘le chat’) out to clear one’s throat. Literally, ‘un crachat’ is a spittle. One could also clear one’s throat and realise that one has spat out a chatte (French slang, pussy). This adds and maintains a crucial libidinal and erotic bond with one’s pussycat. At a profound level, one could certainly argue that this phrase is a reminder that what separates humans from animals, at least since the 18th Century, is articulated language. It is articulated language that keeps the cat from turning into a human. Articulated language that separates the human from the asocial groaning of the ‘noble savage’. Articulated language is all that which becomes possible once the cat, the animal, the pure physiology of sound, has been successfully removed from my throat.

Conversely, it is all that which is threatened with inarticulacy if the throat is not cleared, if the cat still meows. As I become aware that I am trying to speak, my body morphs, my cat appears. Cat is the tone in my speech, its accentedness, its autography. Cat is my hesitations, my speech’s subjective accent, the tone in my speech, the stutter of my silencings, the explicit accentedness of its functionality. So what if I were to decide to talk with a cat in the throat? The question is highly charged. While it leads to libidinal fantasies, it also addresses questions of cultural and linguistic dominance, and attending issues of language policy and language erasure within the culture.

I am reminded that English-speakers do not so much struggle with cats as with frogs. It is a croaking frog that the English will wish to clear. Given the dubious and long-standing historical traffic of culinary jokes and insults between the French (‘frogs’) and the English (‘rosbif’) and bearing in mind the old wars of invasion and occupation between the two countries, one could here speculate that ‘having a frog in the throat’ resonates more with military and political history, and the known influence of French on the development of English vocabulary, than with strictly contemporary matters. However, John Tranter brings contemporaneity to it when he signals to me in a correspondence the wonderful John Ashbery line: ‘I hear the toad crooning’.

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