Category Archives: Main readings

Elliott Spencer

by George Saunders
The New Yorker (8/27/2019); reprinted in Liberation Day (2022, Random House)

Noam Chomsky is sometimes asked how the two parts of his work intersect: Do his linguistic theories have anything to do with his political ideology? In one interview he says:

“At the core of human nature is an instinct for freedom, which reveals itself both in the creative aspect of normal language use and in the recognition that no form of domination, authority, hierarchy is self-justifying.”

This strikes me as a deeply appealing, noble idea: generative syntax is an expression of human creativity; creativity is understood as a capacity in every ordinary human, not just geniuses and artists – and this creativity is an outgrowth of our natural yearning for freedom. 

But does this claim have any substance? How do we know that language and freedom are connected? Does the creative power of syntax really have anything to do with our desire to escape oppression? I want to know what the substance of this claim is – where can I see this connection made manifest and tangible?

‘Elliot Spencer’ offers a compelling response to this question. 

Nutshell. The first-person narrator is ‘89,’ a man who lives alone in a place called Room Valiant where he is regularly visited by Jer, an employee of some unnamed organization. Jer’s job is to teach 89 language. 89 is apparently a kind of blank slate – even though he has an old man’s body, he has no memories before Room Valiant and can only recognize the words he has learned since he arrived there a few weeks ago. Otherwise his cognition appears to be normal: he understands and retains new information, asks questions, understands causality and makes inferences.

It soon emerges that there are many others like 89. Periodically they all get loaded onto buses and delivered to protests, where their job is to shout down the demonstrators. Distressed by the violence at one protest, 89 suddenly recalls the word beatdown – not a word Jer has taught him – and then begins remembering events from a previous life, including the fact that his name was once Elliott Spencer. Tension builds as we find out how Elliott came to Room Valiant and wonder if he is there against his will.

How it made me see language in a fresh way. What first made me want to include this story in my class was its depiction of first(?)-language acquisition by an adult brain. This makes for a good compare-and-contrast exercise with Frankenstein.

Unlike Frankenstein’s creature, Elliott narrates his story while his language acquisition is still in progress – so his prose is marked by sentence fragments, ungrammaticalities, odd word choices and pauses (represented by spaces) between roots and suffixes. These are fun details to pore over with students, and those who have read Lincoln in the Bardo may be reminded of the voice of the recently deceased and disoriented Willie Lincoln.

As with Frankenstein, linguist-readers of “Elliott Spencer” may be tempted to gripe about how unrealistic the mode of language acquisition is. Frankenstein’s creature apparently learns French by eavesdropping on Felix’s tutorials and somehow reading books from a peephole across the room. Elliott Spencer is supposed to learn English from a tape playing all night (to improve his syntax) plus lessons from Jer assisted by flashcard-like “HandiPics.” Among other things, these HandiPics teach Elliott that:

Freedom = cartoon bird flies above land, smile on beak.
Poor = sad child, pockets sticking out of pants.
Weak = guy in desert, trying to reach water glass, failing.

With “Elliott Spencer,” though, the ineffectiveness of the language instruction is the point. Of course nobody would seriously try to teach abstract concepts with cartoon flashcards. The crudeness of the approach makes us suspect that whoever’s in charge doesn’t really want Elliott to understand these words, only to parrot them. We also find out that Jer is under some pressure not to teach Elliott too much: “Big waste,” a coworker tells Jer. “He just needs to know enough so we can move his old ass around.”

Despite his impoverished input, Elliott does learn language. And crucially, it’s when he is allowed to leave Room Valiant and experience the outside world that he starts using language creatively. He notices details in his surroundings and gropes for ways to talk about them, e.g. describing a small branch falling from a tree ‘as if sung down    By bird.’ He metaphorically extends the word river to a police line at a protest. Later, endearingly, he starts creating novel compounds: icepants for pants that have been submerged in water on a winter day and started to freeze; lightshape for the rectangle made by light shining from an open door onto the dark ground outside. And in turn, he inserts these novel compounds into novel phrases: ‘They cross yard    open door    lightshape runs out.    Lightshape runs back in.’

This is quintessential language acquisition by a normal human brain (as Chomsky sees it): creatively combining a limited set of building blocks. And in this story, it emerges in tandem with Elliott’s freedom. He is driven to use language creatively by the stimulus of the outside world, and the more he uses language, the more he remembers and the more he wants to retain control of his memories, even the painful ones.

Of course a fictional story can’t prove that Chomsky’s claim is valid; it isn’t ‘evidence’ in the usual sense. But it achieves something equally valuable: it demonstrates to me what Chomsky’s claim means and how his hypothesis might manifest in real life. It helps me imagine. This is the quality I look for in all the stories I’ve selected for this class.

Other discussion points: Students will likely be reminded of other sci-fi that asks how much of our self-hood depends on our memories. What if you could transplant memories from one body to another, or into an AI – would some kernel of the self be lost? Conversely, what if you lost all of your memories – would some kernel of you remain? Some texts to compare: Ted Chiang’s ‘Truth of fact, the truth of feeling’; Ken Liu’s ‘The gods must not be chained’; Marcel Theroux’s novel Strange Bodies; the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; an episode of Black Mirror called ‘Be Right Back’; Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels Klara and the Sun and The Unburied Giant.

“Elliott Spencer” could also read as a counterpoint to Orwell’s description of Newspeak in 1984. Elliott’s lexicon has been pared down to almost nothing – which by Orwell’s linguistic-determinism principles should mean that his mental concepts are also severely constrained – but Elliott has the mental concepts anyway, and creates ways to talk about them. Elliott doesn’t know the word freedom – for him it denotes a grinning bald eagle – but he undeniably has an ‘instinct for freedom.’