When we said goodbye, I suppose we weren’t always sure when we’d see each other again, G. would always say, ‘see you when I’m looking at you’. The phrase had the sound of purpose. Yes, it’s a plan, we will see each other when we are looking at each other. But in fact, it is like play in its purposelessness [i]. If I say, ‘here, can you carry my bag?’ and hand over my rucksack you will say, ‘sure, no problem’. That is purposeful and it solves the problem; ‘no problem’. If I say, ‘here, can you carry my bag?’ and hand over an imaginary rucksack, it is purposeless because there is no bag. The words exceed themselves. The phrase is funny because it has the sound of a plan when there is no plan. G.’s phrase is a pleonasm; it has the linguistic redundancy of ‘wet water’. It is brilliantly inefficient underneath its productive guise, and this uselessness creates an excess that in turn has a very exceptional use; it carves out a comic space that softens the eventual blow of ‘goodbye’.
G.’s phrase is like a container which serves its purpose by overflowing. This ‘spilling over’ not only buffers the goodbye. Whilst having a particular use in a particular situation, a personal phrase also comes to surpass this instance; it comes to stand in for a spectrum of other instances. It is in this second kind of ‘spilling outwards’ that the phrase builds its momentum and takes on the character of the ellipsis: it goes without saying (it has already staked a place in the aural imagination), and it is yet to be said (again and again). It has a temporal swell that magnetises all past, present and future utterances of itself. The repetition of the phrase serves a self-referentiality: the phrase references itself, the speaker references their self, and the ensuing accumulation of this repeated phrase perpetuates a long-term vocal thread, which like an umbilical cord sustains this voice that speaks this self.
Even when parting ways, our shared understanding of this phrase hangs between us, it holds us; ‘I speak in order to locate myself near you.’ [ii]
So, the personal phrase can also be seen as a container in a second sense: the phrase holds. It holds bodies together, holds personal meaning, holds a self, holds a voice, holds other moments outside of its current utterance. As a receptacle then, the personal phrase can be thought of as impoverished, in the way that Stewart describes the souvenir [iii]; the personal phrase is a souvenir of this voice, it is metonymic to this person, and it must remain impoverished and partial, in order to be supplemented by a narrative discourse. The phrase speaks this speechless narrative of the speakers; a smile with a knowing look. Just like an ellipsis, the personal phrase is always incomplete. Each repetition supplements it, and it accumulates and flows like the energy of a waterfall; always flowing as if it is overflowing, the phrase is active. This narrative discourse, Stewart says, ‘articulates the play of desire.’ [iv]
The dance of the personal phrase brims with desire—in the attachment found in the repetition of the phrase, and the possibilities that swarm in the gap between the meaninglessness and meaningfulness of it: the potential emptiness of the phrase falling onto any old ear, and the needs and promises of a self that are projected into it. As Merleau-Ponty says for speech, the personal phrase, ‘takes flight from where it rolls in the wave of speechless communication…’ [v]
Lydia Davies is the second recipient of the John Calcutt Prize for Critical Writing presented annually by The Glasgow School of Art in collaboration with MAP Magazine. Based in Glasgow, she works across writing, voice, sound, and moving image. www.lydiadavies.co.uk
[i] Joseph Meeker, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic (Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1997)
[ii] Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), p.3
[iii] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. (London: Duke University Press, 1993), p.136
[v] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p.17