In the mid-1950s, six months after escaping from an insane asylum "thanks to the negligence of two or three guards," a young Louis Wolfson decided to devote himself wholeheartedly to the study of languages. He was in his mid twenties and living in Brooklyn with his one-eyed mother, who had called the police to have him committed. This period of his life, dominated by his fixation on language, became the subject of his first book, Le Schizo et les langues - which was written in French and printed in part in 1964 in Jean-Paul Sarte's journal Les Temps modernes. Referring to himself in the third person throughout, Wolfson uses ironic phrases such as "the schizo," "the mentally-ill young man," and "the schizophrenic language student" to describe his condition prior to his linguistic obsessions:
Despite his apparent incapacity, the psychotic had an exaggerated idea of his competence. Sometimes he even had the sense that he could do almost anything in almost any field if only he wanted to, and his major weakness was his lack of decision, these thoughts giving him an excuse to waste a lot of time doing nothing but think k about what to do.
It was, therefore, with the expectation of accomplishing great things that Wolfson began his immersion in foreign languages, starting with French, German, Russian, and Hebrew. Having acquired the ability to read and write in his own language belatedly and only with difficulty, and furthermore socially outcast, sexually impotent, and apparently unfit for work of any kind, Wolfson's desire to prove himself by becoming a polyglot quickly became fanatical. Though he continued to live in his mother's apartment, Wolfson decided to eschew any contact with the English language. To drown out people speaking English, he used a short-wave radio tuned to foreign language or a classical music broadcasts, or alternatively stuck his fingers in his ears, wriggling them about and making gurgling noises in his throat when, for instance, his mother burst into his room to tell him something.
It was, of course, inevitable that spoken and written English would repeatedly penetrate Wolfson's defenses. In order to deal with this, he attempted to transmute whatever English words he encountered into foreign words similar in both sound and meaning. The word milk, for example, was relatively innocuous since Wolfson could effortlessly convert it into any number of exact equivalents, such as the German Milch, the Russian moloko, the Danish maelk, or even the Polish mleko. More difficut words, such as ladies, could cause Wolfson hours of anguish. (The word was conjured every time he heard his mother play the tune Good-Night Ladies on the electric organ.) In public places, he was hesitant to go to the bathroom because he feared seeing the word Ladies written on the adjascent bathroom door. He considered using the German Leute, a gender-neutral word meaning "people," as the l-t combination was close enough to the l-d in the original, and ladies are a subset of people. He wasn't, however, fully satisfied until he came across the Russian lyudi. This also meant "people," but he preferred it because he had only recently learned the word, and from then on he could use ladies as a mnemonic device that would help him recall the Russian word and all of its declensions.
In addition to accepting a certain level of semantic deviation, Wolfson's defensive system permitted the mixing of languages, the use of repetition, and the addition of superfluous sounds or syllables. He even allowed himself occasional foreign neologisms. For instance, when trying to do away with the word early, Wolfson considered a French expression for "right away," sur-le-champ, since it contained the proper r and l sounds. He also considered the semantically closer de bon heure, which would have to be followed by matinalement to incorporate the l sound - effectively saying early twice and using seven syllables to replace two. He finally settled upon a combination of the German prefix Ur, denoting something prehistoric or originary, and the suffix -lich, a cognate of the English -ly, creating Urlich, a non-existent word that literally denotes "in an antediluvian manner."
THough difficult words caused him anguish, they also provided a greater sense of accomplishment when finally neutralized. Wolfson was proudest when he felt he had discovered a general rule. For instance, he discovered that the letter combination dg in English words can generally be replaced by ck in German: thus the German word for "bridge" in Brücke, the English word edge has a similar meaning in Ecke, and the German word Rücken (back) is, geographically, not so far in meaning from the English word ridge, which is also used to describe the back of an animal. For Wolfson, such discoveries constituted scientific breakthroughs, and gave him the sense of contributing to the sum total of human knowledge.
Whether or not this was true, Wolfson made a considerable contribution to the discourse of a generation of (primarily French) intellectuals. In the 1960s and 1970s, just about every major figure in the French intellectual life - including Jean Paulhan, Jacques Lacan, and Roman Jakobson - read Wolfson. Raymond Queneau thought he was extraordinarily funny. Gilles Deleuze wrote about him in The Logic of Sense, and went on to write a preface to Le Schizo et les Langues, which he extended and revised in Essays Critical and Clinical. In 2009, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis published Le Dossier Wolfson, a collection of texts on Wolfson by such prominent figures as Michel Foucault, Paul Auster, and Jean-Marie Le Clézio. Although Le Schizo et les langues is still read and discussed in France, Wolfson's second book, Ma mère, musicienne, est morte, did not find a wide audience. Neither of Wolfson's books has ever been translated into English (and Le Schizo, being in part a tract against the English language, perhaps never should be), and Wolfson is only read outside of France by a small number of Francophone academics interested in French theory, problems of translation, or psychoanalysis.
It is unfortunate that Wolfson so often appears in critical literature as merely an interesting psychological case study or a pleasantly eccentric and extreme illustration of certain observations on language and translation - even Deleuze bluntly stated that what Wolfson created was neither a literary nor a scientific work. Wolfson is a talented writer, and although he was unquestionably paranoid, he was not generally delusional. Parallels have been drawn, notably by Foucault and Deleuze, between Wolfson's linguistic transformations and those of writers Raymond Roussel and Jean-Pierre Brisset. Another interesting parallel can be drawn to German judge Daniel Paul Schreber (perhaps the most famous paranoid-schizophrenic memoirist and one of Freud's most celebrated case studies). Schreber believed that God was sending down rays in the form of birds to pour "corpse poison" into his body, and this they would do by repeating certain words and phrases learned by rote. Schreber would often cut the birds off by saying something very similar to what they were supposed to be saying, for instance, Atemnot in place of Abendrot, and this would confuse the birds, preventing them from delivering their poison. Schreber also continually had to block the voices of spirits, which would pester him if he ever stopped thinking or making noise. Playing the piano helped him to drown them out, and occasionally if Schreber had no educated companions for conversation and no equivalent distraction, he would slip into prolonged, uncontrollable fits of bellowing. Spirit voices spoke to him in "God's language," which was an antiquated but recognizable and beautiful form of German. By stimulating nerve endings in his head, the spirits (themselves nerves) could make Schreber think certain words against his will (as piano tunes did for Wolfson). Whereas Schreber, who was always painfully earnest, is sometimes unintentionally comical (insisting that God employs miracles to make him go to the bathroom and simultaneously ensure that the bathroom is occupied), Wolfson is quite aware that his predicament is ludicrous, playing up the absurdity of his own life and character, as is clear from the earliest pages of Le Schizo:
read the rest in Cabinet Magazine, issue 37, Spring 2010, Bubbles, out now.
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