BODY & ENGLISH
It is an allegory! cries the woman in the street; but he can see no allegory for the life of him.
In 2003, J.M. Coetzee gave a strange lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In it he spoke of language as one speaks of ducks. “Fens are tracts of wetland,” he said. “There are tracts of wetland all over Europe, all over the world, but they are not named fens, fen is an English word, it will not migrate.”
I don't mean a whole lot, just a little lot with nothing on it.
The Marx Brothers’ Cocoanuts (1929) helps to locate within the duck an expression of the definitional anxieties inherent to language:
A: I say, here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.
B: Alright, why a duck?
A: I’m not playing “Ask me another,” I say that’s a viaduct.
B: Alright! Why a duck? What that… why a duck? Why a no chicken?
A: Well, I don’t know why a no chicken; I’m a stranger here myself. All I know is that it’s a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken and you’ll find out why a duck. […] It’s deep water, that’s why a duck. It’s deep water.
And so he breaks out again with this bitter, resentful, passionate clinging to life.
The Marx Brothers' rhetorical moment could be rehearsed infinitely. That interminable repetition is mirrored in the para-geography of the duck: possibly endless, visceral and fugitive. Inside the duck, there is a maze, a clamorous coil like that of a horn that stands in alternate dissonance and consonance to the paludal world the animal inhabits. From Charles Ives’ introduction to The Unanswered Question (1908): “The trumpet intones the perennial Question of Existence and states it in the same tone of voice each time. […] The Fighting Answerers, as the time goes on, and after a secret conference, seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock The Question – the strife is over for a moment. After they disappear, The Question is asked for the last time, and the Silences are heard beyond in Undisturbed Solitude.”
I shall wring its neck!, said she, but she had not the courage to do so.
Coetzee described gentle “duckoys” bred in Lincolnshire. They exist, he explained, to seduce German and Dutch ducks away from their homelands: communicating purely in “duck language” they convince the Continental flocks to leave their frozen rivers and snow-covered banks for more temperate English seashores, where they will find nourishment and comfort. “The decoy ducks are stroked and made much of,” said Coetzee, “but as for their guests, these are clubbed on the spot and plucked and sold by the hundred and by the thousand.” This is not a question of ethics; it is a question of communication, existence, and the end thereof, and an allegory for the void there between.
The daily money swim.
In speaking of voids one mustn’t forget that there is a critical reciprocity, a fluidity between the immaterial and the material. Scrooge McDuck articulates this in a lesson on inflation to his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie. Money can cease to be worth the paper it’s printed on – “It’s what you can buy with what you’ve got,” he says. “That’s what counts.” McDuck indulges in a daily swim in a vault full of coins; they become liquid-pliable when he plunges into them yet maintain the weight, the materiality and the value of gold. He is a duck; he occupies a world that is both solid and aqueous.