Through a Glass, Darkly


This Biblical allusion dates from a time when glass was so cloudy that it obscured, rather than clarified, an image seen through it. It is a good metaphor for the value of the Metalingual speech function [as in, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”]. In the “Dog Eat Dog” post, I presumed to “know” what the guy in the elevator really was talking about [which I called his “subtext,” like the English translation at the bottom of an Ingmar Bergmann film]. It was just my guess, based on his “semiotics” [words, voice inflection, facial expressions and body language]. Figuring out what the other guy is actually trying to say is not rocket science–in fact some rocket scientists can’t do it very well at all. The Austrian whose name is now associated with the “syndrome” of the interpersonally challenged [Asperger], called it “Severe Engineer’s Brain.”

Dogs [also cats, children, and “clairvoyants”] are naturals at discerning the other guy’s subtext. The less fluent you are in the speaker’s language, the more you pick up on other clues about the message. As a born quidnunc [literally, Latin for “What now?”]–known in other cultures as a Busybody, Nosey Parker, or yente–I have always loved to listen in on fellow travelers’ conversations on public transport, as if trying to figure out the backstory of a movie already in progress, with extra points for “foreign language films.” It has helped in my work with Paranoid Schizophrenics, who [dedicated readers will recall] use lots of Poetic speech, in order to make themselves obscure.

The way you “know” you have successfully “cracked the code” of a schizophrenic’s obscure utterance, is to humbly [I try to channel Capt. Columbo, “Jeez, I’m just guessing here, but…”] offer a possible “translation” of their cryptic remark. If you’re wrong, they smile enigmatically; but if you’re right, stand by for mayhem. [I learned the hard way, to be closer to the door than my interlocutor, when “going for the whole phrase, Monty (or was it Vanna?).”] There’s nothing a schizophrenic likes less than a clairvoyant, lemme tell ya. I put “know” in quotation marks, because no earthly soul can know for sure what another one really means–sometimes, not even the speaker.

So, how does it work with less obscure speakers, in everyday life? One option, which I took with the guy in the elevator, was to assume I caught what he was pitching, and respond to his [presumed] subtext, by replying [in my subtext], “Exercise is a non-zero-sum game, pally. Lighten up.” If I didn’t want to guess at his meaning, I could deploy my favorite Michigan response: “What’s yer point?” [Unfortunately, the subtext of that remark is almost always hostile, so it’s not great for elevator conversations.]

Whatever you would have said [including nowt], it is a skill worth practicing, to become a quick subtext reader and “writer.” As we all know by now, I tend to favor the comic retort; but other options work just as well. To be continued in the next post…

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Filed under pragmatics, secret code, semiotics

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