May 12, 2004

The verbless of the earth

In recent news from France, an exciting new theory has emerged about what's wrong with the world and how to fix it. Someone writing under the name of 'Michel Thaler' has published a novel "Le Train de Nulle Part" ("The Nowhere Train") composed entirely without verbs, dedicated "à tous les partisans de la décolonisation de l'écrit et de la mise à mort ... du verbe" ("to all the partisans of decolonization of writing and of putting the verb to death").

Thaler describes verbs as "invaders, dictators, and usurpers of our literature", adding "the verb is like a weed in a field of flowers ... You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish." He has banned infinitives as well as tensed verbs entirely from his writing, but he does exempt past participles from his linguistic Nuremberg Laws.

Thaler is also quoted (in a verbfully hypocritical passage) as saying

"I am like a car driver who has smashed the windscreen so he cannot see into the future, smashed the rear-view mirror so he cannot see the past, and is travelling in the present."

I've occasionally encountered drivers like that, but none who has also written a novel. Confusingly, Thaler's road rage is applied not to other drivers, nor even, in the novel, to the guilty imperialistic verbs, but instead to the many passengers on an imaginary train, whom he attacks individually, at length, and in vitriolic (though verbless) detail.

Since Thaler's portraits of women make use of sexist stereotypes ("...those women there, probably mothers, bearers of ideas far too voluminous for their brains of modest capacity"), there is apparently some controversy in France about whether the novel is misogynistic. A spokesperson for his publisher has defended him on the grounds that he is "a very charming, courteous man who loves women", and that he "attacks both sexes". Neither defense seems relevant -- many misogynists of my acquaintance have good manners and are quite fond of some parts of women, and the fact that someone (not Thaler, as far as I know) hypothetically also attacks Jews and Asians would not absolve him of racism for attacking Africans in terms of offensive social stereotypes.

Not having read the novel (a state in which I plan to remain), I have two reactions. First, Thaler's attempt to become the Frantz Fanon of the anti-verb international seems only slightly nuttier than the ideas of the many previous theorists who have inveighed against adjectives and adverbs. Not being French, the anti-adjective militants haven't actually practiced what they've preached, but then Thaler himself seems to use a normal number of verbs in discussing (as opposed to composing) his novel. And second, I'm glad to see a French theoretician who blames the world's problems on verbs rather than on Americans. Next: the Protocols of the Elders of Conjunction?

[via Maud Newton and Language Hat]

[Update: Mark S, in a comment on Language Hat's site, points out that Thaler was scooped in 2001 by Miranda Tedholm, a 17-year-old New Jersey high school student. A female New Jersey high school student, in fact, whose brain capacity was enough larger than Thaler's for her to have the idea first, and then to give it up after seven paragraphs and a Scholastic "Art and Writing" award in the category of humor.

Seriously, I wonder whether some of the differences between American and French intellectual life can be explained by the fact that we Americans have the opportunity to get this sort of thing out of our systems in high school and college, while the French, with their more formal and rigid educational system, do not. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 12, 2004 06:54 AM