The Third Tower (2018)

by Deborah Eisenberg

We read a series of stories this semester that took up the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign—the most important feature of language, according to Saussure—and troubled it in various ways.

  • In ‘Funes the Memorious’ we saw a mind incapable of abstraction and thus compelled to coin new words, generating an ever-changing and unshareable lexicon.
  • In Every Boy Should Have a Man, we encountered a society with no language variation or change and thus no recognition that words could mean different things to different people.
  • In ‘Elliott Spencer’ we heard the narrative voice of a man recovering from a memory wipe, and watched in real time as his signified-signifier associations became progressively freer and more expansive.
  • In Embassytown, we saw a society that believed that each word directly exposes a thought, rather than symbolically representing a thought, and were thus unable to lie, use metaphor or recognize machine-generated speech.

I’m glad we ended with ‘The Third Tower.’ It’s a troubling and confusing story, and it’s good to be left troubled and confused about the nature of language, community and freedom.

‘The Third Tower’ shows us the mystery of the linguistic sign…and leaves it a mystery. Therese struggles to describe her experience of words; she gropes for metaphors and analogies and comes up with casings, twins, explosions, halos, floppy margins—all extraordinarily evocative and not at all explicit.

At the same time, ‘The Third Tower’ makes me think about what stories mean. When I read it I struggle to figure out the story, to answer questions like those we discussed in class today—Is Therese in a hospital or a prison? Are her visions real or hallucinatory? What’s the title referring to? But the answers remain obscure and out of reach, evocative and suggested but not pinned down. There’s no key.

(Holy shit—key! Remember the keys?!)

Please read this really insightful and generous blogpost by one of my students last semester. I owe my initial appreciation of this story to Dani, Nico and Trinity from Fall 2023. And you all deepened my appreciation of it today. I was very much moved listening to your comments about ‘Elliott Spencer,’ The Hunger Games, Peter Pan, dreams, fascism, neurodivergence, conversion therapy, and ordinary human imagination.

To wrap up, here’s a comment by the anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber that I found myself thinking about after class today, from his book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy:

“It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. It is not for nothing that we all have the pictures of the schoolmarm rapping a child across the knuckles for some grammatical error as one of our primordial images of oppression. But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any kind–no semantics, syntax, phonemics–we’d all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other at all. Obviously in such circumstances none of us would be free to do much of anything. So at some point along the way, rules-as-constraining pass over into rules-as-enabling, even if it’s impossible to say exactly where. Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating. And this is what linguists always observe. There is no language without grammar. But there is also no language in which everything, including grammar, is not constantly changing all the time.” (p. 200)

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