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A Handshake with Halliday

The Origin of Style




This paper belongs to a larger work that concerns poetics and interpretation generally. In this instance I’m addressing certain trends in literary stylistics. The paper is an attempt to formulate a question about what is never reducible to substance, form, context or origin in works that can nonetheless be analysed for such elements on different levels of abstraction. The paper is neither critical of literary stylistics nor defensive of traditional notions of the literary, whether historical, formal, impressionistic or empathetic. It is rather an affirmation of what I see as a general project of interpretation that can only proceed on the condition that there remains an unanalysed aspect of the text, which I’ll provisionally call the literary, or alternatively, the poetic. Michael Halliday’s role in the development of stylistics can be regarded as not only remarkable but also in some senses singular (this apparently against his intention). The first section of the paper explores aspects of Halliday’s systemic model, which under the coinage lexico-grammar promises to be subtle enough to escape the ancient yet often still implicit distinction between the ideal and the empirical in models of language and meaning. I then go on in the second section to explore Halliday’s reading of literature, focusing on his extraordinary reading of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. In the final section I suggest a reading of In Memoriam that might, through the metaphor of the hand, in mourning and in loss, suggest a ground for stylistics in, and beyond, the literature it takes as its object.


0.0 Writing and Repetition

I want to begin by quoting from a fiction. The citation is from a story by Jorge Luis Borges. His narrator, in a meticulous parody of one the registers of literary scholarship, tells of a singular undertaking. It is the attempt by a nineteenth century symbolist from Nimes, Pierre Menard, to write Cervantes’ Don Quixote—not to copy Cervantes but to write a contemporary original himself. "His admirable intention was to produce a few pages that would coincide--word for word and line for line--with those of Miguel de Cervantes." Towards the end of the story the narrator compares a passage from each:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other, writes:

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and advisor to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases--exemplar and advisor to the present, and the future’s counsellor--are brazenly pragmatic. (69)

The citation raises some complex questions that I wish to take as seriously as I would be expected to take the work of any scientist, historian or philosopher. It is from a work of fiction that in a number of complex ways stages the fact of fiction. The fictional proposition is a kind of fantasy in which a nineteenth century novelist and symbolist poet writes parts of a fiction that properly belongs to a seventeenth century genius. The fiction not only separates a text from its proper historical contexts, but it also re-attaches it to those of a later period. What is staged in this repetition is a radical alteration of both function and style. So, still within the premise of the fiction, neither function nor style can be regarded as belonging to any empirical realisation or even instantiation of the text. The function and the style of a text are not to do with the way the text appears. One might be tempted, then, jumping to a premature conclusion, to say that context is the decisive determination for interpreting the function and style of a text. From a nineteenth century novelist the passage is astounding. From a seventeenth century writer it is just what we’d have expected. But the encryption by Borges of the historical complex that is today called modernity in the space between the two repetitions is made possible by a severe condensation of history that occurs within the folds of Borges’ deceptively short narrative. So the differing functions and styles of the Cervantes quotation are already connected in some way to its apparent subject matter--the denotative sense of the clause complex--which addresses the experience of history, of temporality, of action and exemplification, and fundamentally the notion--in whatever sense but always historical--of the truth. The allegory of Menard is a subtle and complex reflection on a profound condition of history and its interpretation, with a central question directed towards a radical shift in the sense of truth between one repetition and another. It should be noted, however, that the significance of the meticulous fictional construction of the literary context plays an exaggerated role in Borges’ fiction. The fictional context produces the new interpretation in such a way that the text is severed not only from its first instance as belonging to Cervantes but also from its repetition as Menard’s effort, which is, remarkable as it may seem, still only a repetition. There is now, within the fiction, no context as such proper to this text, which while remaining exactly as it is produces radical differences of style, function and interpretation each time it reappears in a different context. So in any attempt to establish the text to which an interpretation would wish to do justice—objectively and according to whatever systems of adequation—context cannot be considered as determining style or function either.

Neither the empirical remains of the text itself, which are open to analyses of evident grammatical form, nor the transcendent determinations of varying contexts can determine function, style or meaning. But it will be objected that this is just a fiction. The text properly still belongs to Cervantes and the seventeenth century and so speaks to us from that vantage as we look back from our later one. Already that potential objection sounds a little fragile given that the story has, to say the least, suspended the possibility of a ground from which to make observations concerning differences between historical vantages. Anyway it is doubtless correct to say that it is a fiction. But then it is a fiction that stages the possibility of fiction, which is what these repetitions each time represent.


1.0 Face to Face

The object of linguistics is language, of which one of the most characteristic features is its capacity for referring to, or describing, itself. The turning back of language upon itself provides the means for analysing language in language. A metalanguage implies a carefully restricted and classified use of pre-objective, intuitive, pre-theoretical sense. The possibility of such restriction is the very resource, the potential and the power for any stylistic project. But technical terms are not simply restrictions of pre-theoretical language. They imply an extension and mobilisation of what stylistics continues to refer to as "the canonical situation of utterance," the face-to-face encounter (Green, 1992), which is regarded as being the most typical, as well as the earliest, the most primitive type of language event generally. Accordingly, technical uses would thus have arisen out of the face to face situation in order to return to it and penetrate it with descriptive acuity. So long as we presume that language begins with a face to face encounter (empirically) and serves some finite function, and that this is the standard, or proper, situation for language use, then everything else that happens in language will be referred back to and measured against this situation. Empirical linguistics presupposes that language begins empirically. This is our problem. What happens when linguistics is applied to the literary text, which inscribes unseen, unheard of contexts apparently in advance of its own context of situation, and which mimics and stages events and encounters that are potential rather than actual? The stylistic understanding of the origin of style--whether this is thought of in terms of function, form or system--demands that linguistic phenomena like literature, which are discovered beyond the canonical situation, must be thought of as representations, extensions, elaborations or diversions.


2.0 A Canonical Encounter

I am aware of a particular form of address, the one I adopt here, determined in advance by certain rules and conventions, which I more or less acknowledge and to a degree accept. The address that I adopt invokes but is already called for by a situation that I can neither entirely comprehend nor control. I may have anticipated a provisional destination at the 26th Systemic Functional Institute and Congress, 1999. Specified in this way, this paper is part of a text that instantiates a system. The text is located at the point of intersection between the contextual configuration that the situation embodies and the cultural context, the socio-historical and ideological environment that engenders and is engendered by the text. I am here accounting for my text by utilising linguistic terms associated with Michael Halliday. These terms and arguments carry with them certain basic assumptions that function as their ground, and that allow them to function as part of a system, which they repeat and thus replace. As Halliday (1988) has written:

The text each time instantiates the system; and this is also a two-way process, since each instance disturbs the probabilities of the system and hence destroys and recreates it--almost identically, but not quite. (ix)

"Instantiation" describes the relation between text and system in terms of repetition--versions that are the same but in no way identical to their model, which they thus destroy while recreating--and implies that one necessary condition for textuality in general is repeatability. The demonstrable repeatability of all texts is in some senses both inimical to yet constitutive of any project in stylistics. On one hand, the quotation from Halliday suggests a metalinguistic view of language events that can explain them in a classically scientific and objective manner. Indeed, his whole project as it is unravelled over nearly 40 years manifests this aim. But on the other hand the quotation also already embodies a fundament of sense that is only available to metalinguistic theory by virtue of a pre-theoretical linguistic ground, which is strictly speaking indemonstrable, since it provides the only terms available for demonstration. Terms like recreation and instantiation need to be carefully controlled if they are going to retain a reliable sense for the linguist. Instantiations of a system (without which there would be no system) would have to be extreme condensations or encryptions, finite occurrences of the repeatable system itself. But they must always also have the potential to recreate the system and, thus, to present some aspect that does not belong within the system of which they are instantiations. So an instantiation is never just an instance. These terms and the conditions they attempt to describe--without which linguistic description and all the genuinely critical power of its increasingly complex formalisations could not proceed--are and remain given. The situation in the linguistic sense, then, already refers us back to a deeper situation, a situatedness that is less easy to delineate in linguistic terms, for these rely, if not insist, upon the particular cognitive mapping of a specific situation, a finite repetition.



In this spoken version of the paper, for instance, the situation may involve the number of participants, the level of formality, the nature of the ongoing activities here and so on.

Who are my addressees? When I was writing the paper I might have wondered about this, knowing then that I was destined to present it at this conference. But even at this event I am strictly speaking not simply reading that already written version, but I am also its perhaps surprised addressee, called into being as I am reading a text for which, by necessity, no fully determined reader exists in advance of its being written. Despite the formally measurable aspects of what I deliver now in a particular form of address, the condition of possibility for both my writing it (once), reading it (again), and perhaps rewriting and publishing it (later) involves a random and potentially infinite determination with respect to its addressees. This means that the situation is necessarily randomly determined too, one situation in a potentially infinite number of other possible situations. Thus it is a condition of possibility for each empirical situation that its deeper situatedness remains unmarked.


3.0 Halliday’s System

Halliday has shown how system governs the choices that speakers and writers make. Systemic analysis can show what functions texts serve, as instantiations of a system. In order to comprehend the instantiation of texts with regard to their function stylistics is involved in tracing a series of boundaries. Halliday, for instance, charts a triadic boundary between what in theoretical terms may be regarded as substance (phone or graphe), text (grammatical and lexical organisation) and context (linking the text to the "extra-textual" environment of the event itself). Linguistic method provides a series of reductions and distinctions that can be used to comprehend what, in more traditional terms, would have been considered as the "meaning" of a text. Reduction is one of the most powerful yet least stable of analytic processes: a term such as meaning may be adapted or even simplified by classification and further analysis. But the ghost or spirit of the old term, whose formerly enigmatic power is reduced, is now disseminated unpredictably among the new terms of the classification. Halliday’s reduction of the classical concept of "meaning" allows him to consider it as a function of the description of any complete language event. The reduction achieves a simultaneous extension of the domain of the linguist, made possible by the same potential that the linguist aims to control:

The term "meaning" will not be used; Meaning is regarded as a function of the description at all levels, so that reference to context in a grammatical statement implies the establishment of relations between grammatical and contextual meaning. (1956 179)

Meaning is thus a function of relations and cannot be separated out from any one level of the language event, allied for instance to "content" in contrast to "expression." Meaning rather is considered by Halliday to be "a function of the whole text," the interconnection between formal, grammatical aspects and social context:

A descriptive grammar of the language of a given text deals with ‘the meaning of the whole event’; the meaning is not separate from or opposed to the linguistic form but is a function of the whole text. The complete text has meaning in the social context in which it operates, and this is to be stated by the procedure of ‘contextualisation.’ (1959, 9-10)

So descriptive grammar must deal with "the whole event," that is, the interaction between a coherent set of syntagmatic relations ("a text") and the social context in which this text operates. Meaning in this sense has two dimensions, contextual meaning and formal (grammatical) meaning (1964, 37-8).



So Halliday does genuinely offer something like a radical reduction of meaning--in all its traditional ideal or empirical senses--to the functional relations between substance, form and context. It is worth contrasting Halliday’s reduction to Aristotle’s ancient yet much quoted sentence from De Interpretatione on language and meaning:

Now spoken sounds are symbols of affectations in the psyche [soul], and written marks symbols of spoken sounds. And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs of--affectations of the psyche--are the same for all; and what these affectations are likenesses of--actual things--are also the same. (16a 3-8)

In metaphysical terms Aristotle’s description of language confirms his general teaching on the relationship between ideality ("the same for all," or the universal) and technological or historical contingency (matter, history, art, language, etc.). Intelligible forms must always be embodied by the sensible matter they inform (which is as true for physis as it is for techne, that is, animals are divided into ideal forms and material instances in the same way as language is divided into intelligible forms and their material symbols).



Form in Halliday’s account is distinguished from the "substance" of language--its accidental written or spoken appearances--in a way that repeats but also disturbs the way that Aristotle distinguishes form (eidos) from matter (hule). Halliday’s framework of levels (form, substance, context) not only reveals the scope of his reduction of ideal meaning to describable functions of language and context; but it also reveals the nature of his conceptual edges:

The complete framework of levels requires certain further subdivisions and additions, and is as follows:

(a) Substance may be either ‘phonic’ or ‘graphic’

(b) If substance is phonic, it is related to form by ‘phonology’

(c) If substance is graphic, it is related to form by ‘orthography’ (or, ‘graphology’), either

(i) if the script is lexical, then directly, or

(ii) if the script is phonological, then via phonology

(d) Form is in fact two related levels, ‘grammar’ and ‘lexis’

(e) Context is in fact (like phonology) an ‘interlevel’, relating form to extratextual features. (Halliday: 1961, 244)

So the terms of the ancient dichotomy between the ideal and the material are now distributed throughout the different levels of the system. Halliday consistently makes clear that these are levels of abstraction, or analysis, designed to allow the linguist access to otherwise intolerably complex linguistic events. As such, the linguist, and literary critic, has access to the text itself in its entirety only on the "interlevels," the phono-graphological translations of the phonic or graphic substance (as exponents of both grammatical and lexical form), and the context (relating form to the extratextual situation). Only through contextualisation can form be comprehended as language-in-use, language understood in terms of a social context:

The context is the relation of form to non-linguistic features of the situation in which language operates, and to linguistic features other than those of the item under attention: these being together "extratextual" features. (1961, 243-4)

Thus descriptive grammar, which will ultimately describe lexis too, must link a knowledge of structures, systems and probabilities--that is, a knowledge of conventions--to an even more contingent, but less than empirical, relation to context. Context in Halliday’s sense describes those extratextual aspects that are relevant to the analysis, that is, anything that can be comprehended as relating to the form of the utterance:

Context is an interlevel since it relates language to something that is not language; it is an interlevel because it not with the non-language activity itself that linguistics is concerned but with the relation of this to language form. (1961, 269)

So whilst form plays a clearly central role in Halliday’s linguistics, it cannot be separated from the substance and the context of the linguistic event itself and must therefore be comprehended in the intervals that relate the different levels. The object of stylistic thus begins to emerge as a series of pure relations.


4.0 Form, Function and Telos

On the basis of what has already been said it is probably an obvious point--and one that Halliday himself consistently makes--to say that the analysis of any "linguistic item" must inscribe itself as a new context of situation. How then, without falling into infinite regress (the context of contextualisation), does Halliday comprehend the form of the utterance? First, form, if it is not reducible to grammar in the traditional sense, must be understood in terms similar to those of mathematical probability--that is, as an infinite "meaning potential" restricted by probable occurrence (strong to weak collocation). The effect of this is to expand the realm of linguistic knowledge so that it covers areas not traditionally associated with empirical linguistic description:

The grammarian’s dream is (and must be, such is the nature of grammar) of constant territorial expansion. He would like to turn the whole of linguistic form into grammar, hoping to show that lexis can be defined as ‘most delicate grammar’. The exit to lexis would then be closed, and all exponents ranged in systems. (267)

So while grammar in the traditional sense can indeed be described in formal terms, Halliday reveals that semantics in the traditional sense can also, or should also, be comprehended in this way, thus making empirical work on the "meaning" of texts an attainable end:

It is too often assumed that what cannot be stated grammatically cannot be stated formally: that what is not grammar is semantics, and here, some would add, linguistics gives up. But the view that the only formal linguistics is grammar might be described as a colourless green idea that sleeps furiously between the sheets of linguistic theory, preventing the bed from being made. What are needed are theoretical categories for the formal description of lexis. (275).

If grammar can be grasped in terms of structure then lexis can be grasped by analogy with grammar but in terms of collocation, linking the selection of lexemes to the tendency for them to be linked or associated with other lexemes, i.e. in paradigm. In other words lexis takes over from grammar in a text at the point at which syntagm is informed by paradigm.

In every language the formal patterns are of two kinds, merging into one another in the middle but distinct enough at the extremes: those of grammar and those of vocabulary (or, to use a technical term, of lexis) (1961/66 4)

With Cohesion in English (1976) Halliday and Hasan finally outline the achievement of his aim of developing "theoretical categories for the formal description of lexis," based upon the potential, in analogy with information theory, for an equivalent to mathematical probability:

The whole of the vocabulary of a language is internally structured and organised along many dimensions, which collectively determine what goes with what; these tendencies are as much a part of the linguistic system as are principles of grammatical structure, even though they are statable only as tendencies, not as ‘rules’. [...] It is the essentially probabilistic nature of lexical patterning which makes it so effective in the creation of texture. (1976, 320)

Having located form within a set of limits established by its manifestation (in substance) and its relation to an extratextual situation, Halliday must stabilise the tendencies of the linguistic system. The resource for this is, of course, already in place under the heading of function. Why is language the way it is? "Because of the functions it has evolved to serve," says Halliday, revealing not simply a functional grammar on an empirical level, but a metaphysical theory of language that informs every development and every statement in the Halliday oeuvre. Language in other words is guided by a telos over and above the local uses that can be described under different functions, over and above the different situations that each item serves. Language does not only serve this or that function in this or that situation, but language itself is animated already by a general purposiveness, guiding its evolution, the historicity or essence of the social and historical contexts within which it is discovered at work or play.



It is possible now to isolate four dimensions that interest me in Halliday’s project. First, there is form, generalised to cover grammar and lexis, and reducing meaning to the relations or intervals between form and the other levels. The second dimension involves the scale of exponence on which formal elements are manifested, i.e., substance or matter, the visible or audible aspects of language. The context of situation emphasises a third, no less important dimension, which takes in the role of interlocutors, addressers and addressees, those who effect discourse, the efficient causes of a language event. And, in so far as a language event is informed by the function it serves--the ideational function, for instance, where language serves the expression of some "content" or experience, or the imaginative function of "lets pretend" (1974b 111, 1975c, 20)--the fourth and final dimension is that of overarching sense-of-purpose. In other words, and he could not be any more Aristotelian here, Halliday’s functional grammar is thoroughly teleological in theory and practise. The telos here, though, is not natural or universal as it always is according to Aristotle, but it is overdetermined variously by historical, ideological, philosophical, and imaginary structures that can never be made fully explicit nor brought entirely under control, and so it remains obscure, still powerful, and still unmarked. This telos is in principle the origin of whatever style we choose to adopt or approach.


5.0 On the Function of the Literary Register

With the concept of "register" the telos implicit in Halliday’s account emerges with a quite paradoxical force. Register, or functional variation in language, can be contrasted to dialect. Dialects differ from registers in a way that recalls and displaces the Aristotelian distinction between symbol and intelligible form (as well as the Saussurian distinction between signifier and signified). That is, dialects differ in expression, as is the case with handwriting and typography, they are "different ways of saying the same thing" (1994: 136). Registers, on the other hand, are ways of saying essentially different things, "the features that go together in a register go together for semantic reasons" (1994: 137). Registers are thus translatable in ways that dialects are not. Again, the concept of register serves to make it possible for features of language to be analysable in terms of the needs they evolve to meet. Registers are "best thought of as spaces within which the speakers and writers are moving; spaces that may be defined with varying depth of focus ... and whose boundaries are in any case permeable, hence constantly changing and evolving" (1994: 137). So it becomes possible to analyse the tensions and specific demands of a register like ‘scientific English’ in terms of historical evolution, and in the context of social hierarchy: "what we call ‘scientific English’ has to reconcile the need to create new knowledge with the need to restrict access to that knowledge (that is, make access to it conditional on participating in the power structures and value systems within which it is located and defined)" (1994: 137). The concept of register thus allows analysis and description of language events to be made in terms of the social, historical and, ultimately, personal needs they serve. The telos of language emerges with reference to the value systems that language serves.



So when Halliday makes an "application of linguistic theory and method to the study of literary texts" (1964: 57), he is, in his own terms, describing features that occur within one register in the space provided by another. Or, as "Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies" suggests, he is inhabiting one register (literary studies) by another (linguistic science) in order to describe a third (literature). Literary studies is thus the ground for the meeting between science and literature, a meeting that consistently informs and stimulates Halliday’s work. In fact the motif of the meeting is what repeatedly returns, often unannounced or unnoticed. The motif of the encounter provides the pattern that stylistics takes generally, the pattern of application, folding into itself all the senses provided by its Latin root plicare (folding), the implicatures, the explications, the duplications, multiplications and complications that arise when the register of linguistic science meets the register of literature at the permeable boundaries of each.



In "Descriptive Linguistics in Literary Studies," Halliday takes as one of his examples Yeats’s "Leda and the Swan." Given that he makes a vigorous defence of linguistics as a hard science here, it is an appropriate place to begin raising the question of the meeting between the registers of science and literature. According to Halliday, "the linguistic study of literature is textual description, and it is no different from any other textual description" (1964: 67). The concept of register, which effectively reduces content to empirical style, enables objective descriptions and comparisons to be made: "we may talk of the register of literature, subdivided into the registers of prose and verse, each subdivided further into the various genres" (1964: 67). But in order for the range and validity of description to be assured, that description must itself belong to an institutionalised register (linguistic science):

If the linguistic analysis of literature is to be of any value or significance at all it must be done against the background of a general description of the language, using the same theories, methods and categories. [...] Prelinguistic linguistics is no use for literary studies ... the study of language perhaps more than anything else shows up the artificial nature of the dichotomy between arts and sciences. (1964: 68-69).

In other words linguistics, like all sub-registers of scientific English, must, if we recall Halliday’s words, "reconcile the need to create new knowledge with the need to restrict access to that knowledge (that is, make access to it conditional on participating in the power structures and value systems within which it is located and defined)." And this is indeed what occurs impressively throughout Halliday’s work, as Systemic Functional Linguistics becomes more clearly bounded as a specific school within which a growing number of scholars produce mutually supportive and illuminating research. But an aspect of his analysis of "Leda" reveals a potentially devastating limitation. In his description of the verb patterns in the poem he shows that "verbal items are considerably deverbalised" (1964: 62), with the lexically most powerful verbs rankshifted and functioning grammatically as parts of speech other than verbs. With scientific description as his aim at this early stage Halliday scrupulously avoids and warns against any tendency towards evaluation, for the object of linguistic science is description and comparison alone. Thus "of various short passages examined for comparative purposes, the only one showing a distribution at all comparable to that of "Leda" was a passage of prose from the New Scientist concerning the peaceful uses of plutonium" (1964: 62). On one hand this fact has no evaluative significance, because "the two are quite different registers, and what is effective in one register may not be effective in another" (1964: 62). On the other hand (though Halliday does not remark on this here) what is pertinent to register as such would have little to do with the sub-registers of verse, prose, etc., but ought to relate to the question of purpose, or function. The function of scientific prose is to describe, argue, demonstrate, prove, in short, to reconcile the given and new, and Halliday has many times drawn attention to the lexico-grammatical probabilities that have developed within this register for these purposes. At this stage Halliday has not yet developed his answer to the question of function (the telic cause of linguistic style) with regard to literature (his object), apart from making the following comment on originality and interest. He writes, "the originality of a person’s use of his language consists in his selecting a feature ... where another would be more probable ... as in the lexis of ‘Leda and the Swan,’ which is an interesting blend of old and new collocations" (1964: 69). The literary text is clearly capable of combining features of any other register, but does it have features that especially distinguish it from others? The possibility remains that the literary text contains an interpretation of language’s telos generally, which is at odds with the scientific one. Halliday’s application is a folding of linguistics over into the text of literary study in order to meet the literary text. In so far as this is so then the function of meeting is already anticipated, staged and, in a sense that I will try to demonstrate, made possible by an aspect of the literary text that both escapes and contains the scientific register, whose function is to locate its object’s function. I am talking about that which makes meetings possible, that which constitutes its subjects (addressers, addressees) as functions of the meeting. The meeting may be figured as an ambivalent, perhaps violent encounter--Leda and the Swan, the syntax and the subjects of the poem itself--or it may refer in advance to the linguistic encounter, satirised in this new context by the mythical encounter described by the poem. Each meeting involves an ambiguous relation of "knowledge" and "power" ("Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?"). While the linguistic register would describe the literary, it seems that the literary has already inscribed the meeting itself.



Language functions, certainly, but is there not something in language unglimpsed by the scientific eye that, avoiding all function, answering to no need, nonetheless makes the functioning text possible, produces it within its field? I suggest that the literary text (itself a term serving a perhaps domesticating function) consistently demonstrates a displacement of function and of telos, and always through a syntax that has already inscribed its readers within itself, and which contains each potential approach within its random scheme of possibilities. Not a proper register in itself, the literary register is the register of registers, the register that demonstrates the arbitrary and contingently repeatable patterns of any register whatever. Halliday, in reducing meaning to lexis, and lexis to formal probability, indicates this other non-functional interpretation. And in extending linguistic description so that it encompasses interpretation (not evaluation but the means to explain the function of highly valued texts) his own singular engagement becomes visible. His hand, in the sense once reserved for handwriting ("I recognise the hand"), becomes visible through encounters with the literary text.


6.0 Waiting for a hand

With the motif of the meeting in mind, I now want to move towards the fiction of a handshake, a meeting of friends, a filiation of science with its other, of stylistics with literature. It may turn out that the example of the handshake just is fiction, as condition for the meeting.

Tennyson’s In Memoriam has been the object of many stylistic analyses, one of the most impressive being Halliday’s "Poetry as Scientific Discourse," in which he argues that Tennyson mobilises his grammar in the service of constructing a new "semiotic universe at the intersection of science and poetry" (Halliday 1987: 44). Halliday suggests that, at a time when scientific discoveries, served by the peculiar language of scientific discourse, were threatening to alienate humanity, Tennyson provides an affirmation of the new science in a language (poetry) closer to everyday discourse:

Tennyson was not bound by the tradition of scientific discourse; he was free to use the syntactically intricate, dynamic, non-metaphorical lexico-grammar of the everyday spoken language, and to create within it a form of discourse that could realise his own poetic imagination. (1987: 42).

Science (stylistics) meets poetry at the capricious moment of decision and the interpretation (the intersection between science and poetry) repeats the aspiration of the interpretive project, fulfils that project, the projected meeting of science and poetry. That is, Halliday’s interpretation of Tennyson finds Tennyson performing Halliday’s own defence of science in poetry.

Halliday focuses on what he calls the central sections of In Memoriam, sections 53, 54 and 55, which comprise 17 stanzas pretty much in the middle of the poem. What the interpretation reveals is that, with the support of lexico-grammatical analysis, it is possible to be more precise about the effective meaning of a poem than it would be without this support. The relations between grammatical construction of the clause complexes, on the one hand, and what the speaker is saying on the other, combine to produce a consistent pattern of argument. The meta-functional patterns of the lexico-grammar support a very specific reading of the poem against other alternatives. There are three main instances in which, on the logical level, a clause complex is each time controlled by projections (e.g., "we trust that") followed by repeated constructions that are either hypotactic or paratactic. On the interpersonal level the mood oscillates between declarative and non-declarative and this oscillation carries a rhetorical pattern of, "assertion and challenge, terminating in an apostrophic code where the clauses are exclamatory in function" [Table 2.1] (34). On the experiential level the processes move from material (creative: destructive) to semiotic (mental or verbal) [Table 2.2]. A series of antinomies clearly emerge between knowledge and faith, purpose and futility, good and ill, spirit and death, which also range from certainty to uncertainty (e.g. from know to dream).

So the line, "I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope," although it repeats the motif of the hand that recurs throughout the poem, can be comprehended as a phase of the larger pattern that Halliday has analysed. Present futility reaches out, groping for a projected future that will in the next stage be dashed by the speaker’s continuing dialogue with Nature. In the following phase Nature replies and dashes what remains of the larger hope. Naive faith in a hopeless future is now pushed into the past, to be replaced by a growing confidence in the new knowledge. This is Halliday’s interpretation of Tennyson’s five-phase dramatic dialogue between speaker and nature:

The challenge then sets off the dialogue with Nature: "If the hopes are vain, here is the explanation." We now pass to phase B, where the assertion (phase 3) is again declarative; but now enhancing (so careless … that …), with the expansions in the PRESENT tense. We have moved from the unreal to the real (non-projected present): abandoning the original hope, and clinging tenuously to the larger one (faintly trust). This is immediately dashed, in phase C, by Nature’s uncompromising assertion all shall go: no direct idea but a direct locution, and written in stone—the rock-hard evidence of the fossils. And there is no appeal, because the "soul" is itself an illusion. (36)

In the later phases futile trust is pushed into the unenlightened past, replaced now by a present condition that may acknowledge the loss of hope for a mythical future. We have been able to take our place in nature and accept this demystifying knowledge as an "exhilarating" value in its own right. This interpretation makes Tennyson the conscious author of a gently affirming demystification of onto-theology. Science has destroyed all hope for a belief in the human soul. Tennyson affirms and supports that destruction of belief, translating scientific statements into his own poetic discourse: "The Spirit does but mean the breath: I know no more." Halliday’s gloss is as follows: "In other words: the soul is dead; you have no more need of that hypothesis" (39). In this way the meeting between Halliday and Tennyson is now rather clearly analogical. The reduction of meaning to lexico-grammar repeats the reduction of the human soul to finite natural existence by 19th century science. Halliday makes the point himself:

You appeal to me, says Nature, and your soul goes puff! This "spirit," the fiction of ancient Greek and Hebrew philosophy, is simply a puff of breath: a dressed up pneuma and psyche—the breathing in and out, the painted deities of Heng and Ha that guard a Taoist temple. (39)

So the soul was always just a fiction—like the non-grammatical notion of meaning, of lexis separated and independent of analysable fields. At this stage it looks like a replacement. The substitution of an affirmed scientific truth for a debunked theological one maintains the notion of the truth as such, a notion against which this new exhilarating knowledge must always be measured (is this truth in Cervantes’ sense or is it Menard’s?).

There remains an unanalysed aspect of the poem, which I want to explore with reference to the function of the hand. What Halliday’s interpretation cannot easily take into account is the way that In Memoriam anticipates the meeting between Halliday’s reading and the poem. The role of the hand, which I’d say is reducible neither to theme nor style, although they are both mobilised and made possible by it, is decisive for In Memoriam. From the very first section, the image of the hand reaching out through time for a meeting that cannot take place opens the possibility for phantasmatic contexts. Past and present loss becomes future possibility:

But who shall so forecast the years

And find in loss a gain to match?

Or reach a hand thro’ time to catch

The far-off interest of tears?

The clasping of grief, "hollow forms" and "empty hands," fuel the tone of loss, while the anticipation of a "sudden hand in mine" and the solace of the living, "in a circle hand-in-hand," reveal the necessity of the other’s hand, even if the other is eventually no one. Section VII presents the emptiness of an impossible anticipation:

Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more--

Behold me, for I cannot sleep,

And like a guilty thing I creep

At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away

The noise of life begins again,

And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain

On the bald street breaks the blank day.

This impossibility revealing only emptiness is at the same time in Tennyson the possibility of the meeting itself in repetition. The repetition of section VII, shortly after the beginning, in section CXIX, somewhere close to the end, reveals the impossibility as condition of possibility:

Doors, where my heart was used to beat

So quickly, not as one that weeps

I come once more; the city sleeps;

I smell the meadow in the street;

I hear a chirp of birds; I see

Betwixt the black fronts long-withdrawn

A light-blue lane of early dawn,

And think of early days and thee,

And bless thee, for thy lips are bland,

And bright the friendship of thine eye;

And in my thoughts with scarce a sigh

I take the pressure of thine hand.

In repeatability, under whose law that which repeats is the same but in no sense identical, and in the difference between repeated systems, something insignificant emerges beyond styles, resisting all attempts by science to make poetry into science and thus not poetry, but at the same time making the meeting between poetry and science possible. So when linguistics moves from the analysis of the language of literature to the interpretation of literature itself, the decision on which the interpretation is based can only have been made possible by the wayward fiction of a promised hand, the memory of a loss, and the original "beyond" of discourse, which makes the thought of the face-to-face possible, the thought of the hand-in-hand. In other words the possibility of fiction (and the absent possibility of those theological fictions of the soul, psyche and spirit) remains necessary for any future engagement with the poem itself. Perhaps Tennyson has in advance taken Halliday’s five-phase interpretation a stage further. This would by no means invalidate Halliday’s interpretation—which as I have suggested remains among the most convincing of readings. But it would suggest that readings of this kind must "take their place" as the cost of increased systematisation within a field that cannot ever be fully systematised (a point that is entirely congruent with Halliday’s own statements). What the reading reveals is not so much the generality of Halliday’s argument but more the singularity of his interpretation. It is this singularity—standing out from the general—that is exemplified by Halliday’s reading, as an instantiation in which he leaves his mark, the mark of his hand, in the space made possible by the Tennyson’s text, Tennyson’s hand.

Tennyson’s recent biographer, Robert Martin, provides us with an early example of what he calls "the distinctive Tennysonian style," a poem found in manuscript thought to be written by the poet at the age of eight

Whate'er I see, where'er I move

These whispers rise and fall away;

Something of pain, of loss, of love,

But what, twere hard to say

The trace or whisper of loss: from the beginning the deictic moment points to absence as the condition of all further contexts. It comes to dominate the tone of Tennyson’s style, revealing this absence to be beyond style, before style; in Tennyson it opens a reading space for the styles of stylistics, making possible interpretive decisions as meetings, placing one hand in another. The handshake is merely a fiction, but this "merely" is the condition of all meetings, all situations, all contexts; it is the origin of style.



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