Johanna Vennemann : Mothertongue or the tongue set free.

“Show the tongue! Now we are going to cut off the tongue. Not yet today, tomorrow.”

These are the words of the first – screen? – memory that Elias Canetti, writer, Nobel prize for literature, recalls.

At the age of two he finds himself in the arms of his nurse-maid, when a man, the secret lover of the nurse, threatens him with a knife he opens and closes.

Every morning the scene is repeated and the little boy, trembling with fear, obeys and puts his tongue out.

“The threat has functionned – writes Canetti – the child has kept silent about it for ten years.”

About what has he held his tongue, keeping it, without knowing? He didn’t tattle a secret which adults would certainly have interpreted as linked to sexual desire.

The episode opens Elias Canetti’s autobiography entitled: “DIE GERETTETE ZUNGE” litterally “the saved, rescued tongue”; the english title, however, is “THE TONGUE SET FREE”, excellent translation one might call interpretation.

It is the writer who shifts the tongue from a part of the body to a word, “kept silent”; otherwise in German ZUNGE (tongue) does no longer indicate “language” but only the organ tongue. Only in the Bible, when the Holy Ghost descends and all men can speak and understand the tongues of the others, it is said “Zunge”, as if the German language is telling us that the word becomes flesh, another impossible copula eliminating any difference, any cut.

Nobody is foreigner, stranger anymore. There is no more Other, except God. And there are the angels, as a matter of fact, their singing gives leave to the expression with “ENGELSZUNGEN” as a pure message of seduction.

Let’s come back to Canetti.

It is in German that Canetti writes, It is a language in which you can hear the continuous presence of the body inside the words. But what strikes you in several of Canetti’s titles is the refering to the ear or the voice:

“The flambeau in the ear” (volume 2 of his autobiography), “The ear witness”, “The voices of Marrakesch”, but then “The conscience of the words”. Might this be because German has been for him “another, under much pain implanted, mothertongue”?  as he writes.

It is his story that will put us on the track of what “mother tongue” means, can mean.

Elias Canetti was born in a place, Rustschuck, inBulgariawhere it is normal to hear from 7 to 8  different languages in a same day and where it is vital to speak several. The language of his immediate surrounding is bulgarian whereas his mothertongue, and the language his family speaks, is a somewhat archaic spanish, as they are spanish jews called “spanioli”. They are very proud and want to be distinguished especially from the German jews called “todesco”. Even the simple pronouncing of the word “todesco” is filled with dedain; inimmaginable that a man of their family could marry a “todesca”.

Now, the secret language of love of his parents is German. They had met and fallen in love while studying inVienna. Every evening when his father comes home from work, the first thing he does is to speak with his wife – who has been waiting for him impatiently – in this foreign language the child does not understand, is not supposed to understand. They sound very happy when they speak like this – about literature and theatre – will write Elias Canetti later. The only understandable word they release to him is the one of a place: WIEN (Vienna).

What wonder then, that the most fervent wish of the little boy is to understand this forbidden language. Alone in his room and secretely, he repeats aloud the sound of the words he has heard but not understood. He bears a grudge against the mother and not against the father for excluding him. This is the way his Oedipus structure will be constituted.

A child seaks the objects of his desire in the mother. In the case of the little Elias the object seems to be indicated by a foreign language, but at the same time it is the language itself – a pure sound. So what remains is the voice: object ‘a’, cause of desire.

The language itself is doubly foreign, strange, i.e. hostile. It is German and what is “todesco” is seen with hostility by his family; but most of all it indicates, at the very moment the father appears, the elsewhere of his mother’s desire taking her away from him.

When Elias is seven years old his father dies.

“The mother had lost the ear of my father” he writes “and thus her talks of love had gone silent”.

It is her oldest son, Elias, who will now have to speak German, who learns it tought by her. And she puts it into him like a ‘real’ mother tongue, by speaking only, reading to him phrases taken from a grammar, explaining them but once and requiring that he repeats, understands and remembers them. She does not allow him to keep or even to have a look at the book. It is a torture for the little boy. The forbidden and most fervently desired object for him was now to get a book and the letters written in it. When he had been a very little boy his father had already introduced him to the importance of printed letters. But now it is only when, with the help of his nurse, he manages to convince the mother that he wants to learn the writing and the German letters that obtaining the book is his deliverance. German becomes the language of love between  his mother and him. His love for books and taste for writing is born and fostered. As a writer, and writing in German, he will go in search of what had been named by his father as the unknown desire of the mother and what had been expressed in a foreigh language. In this tongue he will explete his talent, the rests of his mother’s desire. What had been animated in him by the mother’s desire has to be recognized as the desire of the Other. The writing will set his tongue free, as a writer he will try to get hold of, to dominate, re-transform the foreign tongue of the mother. Destiny of an obsessional, perhaps…

I have dwelled so long on the story of Elias Canetti as it illustrates so well what mother tongue can be.

The native tongue  is called mother tongue because, when we speak (and then write, as in the case of Canetti) we always adress ourselves to the Other, that our mother has been. The crying of the new born gets demand when adressed to the Other, we can read in Freud’s ENTWURF (“Project”). Then the language can be born through the mother’s mouth. If and how we continue speaking depends on how the first demand has been received or welcomed. We can only “rescue” the tongue if we set it free.

There is another side of what mother tongue means: it is the language of a country, rehandled, rethought, censured by the mother. It is the language the “infant” receives from the first Other Real and then Symbolic Other, the mother.

With its word mother-tongue, the English language makes us hear directly that the Other, besides of being the locus of the word, is also the body, and first of all the body of the mother. As there is tongue and language in english, tongue always evokes the organ tongue. In latin languages, with “LINGUA” for both the organ and the language, the “carnal” element has been much more repressed.

At this regard, I want to mention an extraordinary article written in 1922 by Sabina Spielrein. Sabina Spielrein, russian analyst, is known through Jacques Nobecourt’s book “SABINA SPIELREIN BETWEEN FREUD AND JUNG”, as Jung’s patient and Freud’s pupil.

The article is called ”The birth of the children’s words ‘mamma’ and ‘papa’ and it deals exactly with the genesis of signifiers, phonema as sound opposed to another sound (that is a definition of signifiers). Sabina Spielrein’s thesis is that the word “ma-ma” or “me-me”, “mo-mo” springs from the simple sound which is uttered by the mouth of the baby when it starts to suck the mother’s breast. It is a sort of “m…m” which promptly will be translated, transformed and sent back to the baby with the special adition of a vowel as MAMMA. In the same way “pp” “dd” stem from the movement of the baby’s mouth when it stops sucking and is satisfied. Of course this sound is transformed and sent back as PAPA, DADDY. Sabina Spielrein ads: “that is why a baby calls the mother when it is sad, unhappy, i.e. hungry, and calls the father when it is happy, i.e. no more hungry.”

One could say, that there isn’t anything maternal but the tongue.

So, how do the mother tongues speak?

The mother of the psychotic speaks as if her child was still and would always be included in her body. One tongue is enough for the two of them. No “patrio sermon” – juridical term – has opposed itself to the “parlar materno”. No third person, representative of the law, the social order, of the symbolic has interfered. Nothing foreign has penetrated into the closed world and closing discourse which absorbs and unites mother and child. Hence, the child will never be able to disengage from his mother’s tongue, never be able to appropriate it, to make it his own language. 

But also in the case – let’s say it’s the normal one – of neurosis it happens that a child remains too entagled in, too captivated by his mother’s language; and being thus imprisonned in her representations, her phantasma, he will hardly be able to find an access to his own desire and recognize it as the desire of the Other. In that case he may speak, for instance, through his symptoms. For also the symptom has a structure of language if we admit the silence as being one of the essential functions of speach. The body will then speak without the subject’s knowing it.

Well, here a psychoanalysis can help, can be the appeal to a third. A psychoanalysis in which the Other to whom one adresses oneself is no longer the mother, but the representative of the ‘elsewhere’ of her speach and of the image this speach had referred to. Thus as an analysand one speaks – it speaks – from another place, in another, foreign language, the one of  the Other. One’s own word will make a new sense, signifiers will be returned, given back, extended to new significations, because of the disentaglement of these signifiers from the mother’s language. Analytical interpretation is a symbolic encounter. The efficacy, the effect of an analysis stems from this transformation – we may say poetical transformation – passing through the recognizing of the fact that when we speak we say more or we say less than we wanted or thought we would.

By the mere existence speach introduces untruth – as words, introducing what is, introduce at the same time what is not. The truth of the unconscious, however, only raises through a “lacking” of the word in the speach: a slip of the tongue. Again the english language gives us a hint of what the unconscious is as copulation of body and language. Something of the unconscious reveals itself only through a mis-take, a “slipping of the tongue in the mouth”.

But let’s see what Lacan says in his seminary LE SINTHOME:

“Somebody… made the observation about the “tongue” in so far as it indicates the instrument of speach, and that it was also the “tongue” having the papilla so called of the taste. Well, I retorted him that it is not for nothing that what ‘one says lies’… After all, that’s the only thing we have as an arm against symptom: equivocation. It’s only through equivocation that an interpretation operates. Something is needed that “resounds” in the signifier…”    

I should like to know from our english speaking hosts how it feels when, entering analysis, as soon as you lay down you lie!…

Well, I should come to an end, just a few more words to conclude.

Thus, it is natural that one makes analysis in a foreign longue, the one of the Other. Freud calls the repressed whose representative is the symptom, “inner foreign country” (INNERES AUSLAND). There is the place one revisits learning to decipher its tongue and its language.

It may happen that in order to be able to do so one really needs a foreign language which helps to or enables to detach from the body of the mother’s tongue. German, for instance, is a language in which everything seeems to go out from the body or an image of the body and everything returns there. So a risk exists to remain nailed down to the body, stuck to its fragmentation. Even double senses of words often simply send back to another body-image.

So what a surprise for a child when for the first time it hears a foreign language, starts to learn it. It is the discovery that words refer to other words, and not only to images or bodies, that something said makes sense without being understood by everybody and by the mother. It has not passed through her mouth or tongue. In this way, through a foreign language, a treasure of signifiers can be recognized as coming from an outside and no more from the inside of the mother’s tongue.

One is tempted to say that it is the passage from “MUTTER” (mother) to UTTER. To utter meaning not only ‘to express oneself in an audible voice and then in words’, but also ‘to utter coins, to counterfeit coins’.

“Speach, even when almost completely worn out, retains its value as a TESSERA” says Lacan. The TESSERA is money of echange or foreign currency…

Thus from “mother tongue” to foreign language.

Johanna Vennemann