Paradoxes are not bizarre anomalies but the very stuff of language. The structure of the simplest narrative is paradoxical.


The simplest model of language recognizes only practical or instrumental discourse: “Where is the pencil?” “It’s on the table.” “How do you turn on the motor?” “Flip the switch on the back.” These conversations are what Wittgenstein calls language games. But as I showed in The Origin of Language, far from being a primitive form of language, the original interrogative is an imperative that our verbal answer disappoints rather than fulfills: “[Give me the] pencil!” “It’s on the table” (i.e., get it yourself!). Practical dialogue originates as a paradoxical structure where one uses a sign to ask for a thing (pencil!) and one is answered with a sign that is a model of the thing (pencil-on-table). The imperative word that was to be exchanged “horizontally” for the object it represents is shown to be only its “vertical” representative.

The paradoxical nature of instrumental dialogue is a part of its constitution, but not of our experience of it. But there is a second type of language whose paradoxicality is an end in itself. This is the esthetic or cultural use of language. Cultural language is not instrumental. When I listen to a story, I am not acquiring information. I hear a series of sentences and construct a series of actions on the scene of my imagination. These imaginary actions are irreversible; only the most self-conscious postmodernity violates this rule. The end of the story throws us out of our imaginary world, reminding us that only the language of the storyteller permitted this world to exist.

But an effective story must give us the sense of an ending: something within the story-world must justify the end of the story-language in our world. All stories in all cultures provide this sense of closure.

In a fable, the simplest kind of narrative, the story consists of an incident in which a moral is revealed. A fox sees some grapes; he tries to grasp them; he can’t reach them; he calls them sour: end of story. The fox will live on, but his grape-experience is closed. Yet had he simply walked away, the experience would end without producing a story. The fox’s story exists only because he deconstructs it; it has an ending because he denies its beginning. If the fox had originally known the grapes to be sour, he would never have tried to reach them, and there would be no story. On the other hand, had he really discovered them to be sour, his activity would have been useful, instrumental, and there would be no story either. In the first case, his act would be absurd; in the second, it would be rational. The elimination of both possibilities creates narrative as paradox.

Here the paradox is easily seen (through): we laugh at the fox, denouncing his deconstruction as an error in logic. In claiming that the grapes are sour, the fox makes culture triumph over nature. He heroically closes off the world of desire in which the lost succulence would be cause for regret. The fox is foolish only in thinking that his denial can regain the time misspent in leaping at the grapes. His ending closes off narrative time by absurdly switching to a new register, a transformation which is that of the joke, but a joke on the protagonist. Marcel Proust‘s 3000-page epic is a longer version of the same tale, where the fox makes an additional turn toward lucidity and tells the joke on himself.

An instrumental series tells no story because it says nothing about desire as distinct from mere appetite. The point of fable–and the point of its animal cast of characters–is the irony of seeing animal appetite transformed into human desire through the use of language. We tell stories about animals that talk because in one way or another their talk distinguishes their actions from the animal activities they appear to be.Culture is the denial of nature, but not its annulment, for it is both nature and its cultural denial that the story tells.

What is the moral of this fable? That we should not make alibis for failure; if we do, fables will be told about us. (In primitive times, there was no such thing as good publicity.) But to make such alibis is the universal and unique role of culture. Renunciation of desire, its deferral through representation, is what language and culture are all about. The fable cautions us as individuals from trying to create our own culture, from assigning meanings to defer our own desire, telling our own stories instead of limiting ourselves to the sacred tales consecrated by the community. In this most primitive form of secular narrative, we see the ridiculousness and yet the inevitability of adopting the sacred power of language to give meaning to our own individual lives.

For the fox gazing at the inaccessible grapes, as for the original group of humans surrounding the untouchable object of desire, the trick is to think of something to say, to redirect one’s energies from the horizontal world of appetite to the vertical world of representation. The paradox is the same here as at the origin of language; the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

Political discourses purport to be instrumental, and in some cases they are. But as a general rule, discussions about values perform a cultural task in proportion as their participants insist on the instrumental nature of their language. This is akin to the fox’s denial of the terms of his narrative; but here there is no fabulist to propose the alternative of silence. More about this next week.