The Great Passage

Words, water, world. Do words separate us or connect us to each other and the world? In this post find out what answer Japanese film The Great Passage prompted post author Emma Nicoletti to arrive at.

The Great Passage. A Japanese film about the making of a dictionary. I know, it doesn’t sound particularly riveting. Maybe even a little of-putting when you find out the film runs for nearly three hours. Nonetheless, it’s thoroughly engaging, not least because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is full of endearing, quirky characters.

Piquing my interest is the film’s central simile and the way it inverts an idea from psychoanalysis that has, on occasion, made its way into literary theory. As I will get to below, these ideas, I think, have some interest for ecocriticism because they reflect on representation and its impact upon how we understand our relationship to others and the world.

The simile that the film features is that a dictionary is like a ship. As a ship helps people to cross the distance between places, words help people to cross the distance between each other (and the world in which they exist).

This struck me for the way it inverts the Freudian idea (via Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristevia) that the acquisition of language fractures the seamless connection between the self and world, and uses the same metaphor of the ocean to boot. Kristiva summarising Freud notes:

the oceanic feeling of connectedness […] concerns the intimate union of the Ego and the surrounding world, experienced as an absolute certitude of satisfaction and security […] this pre-linguistic or trans-linguistic experience dominated by sensations, shores up belief.

This oceanic connection is akin to the Lacanian Real: something that can be sensed, but never articulated in words. The Symbolic, by contrast, is the world of words that divides the Real into discrete units of meaning, severing the connection between the self and the world in the process. The Symbolic can represent an approximation of the Real, but in doing so concedes its disconnection from the Real.

So what I am to make of this? Do words connect us or separate us from the world around us? Taking this to the extreme, if, as some environmental philosophers have suggested, one of the reasons why we fail to attend to environmental problems is because we are disconnected from our “life world,” then do media (including literature, poetry, film, art, etc.) engender the problem?

I shall return to the film and the metaphor of the ship traveling though the ocean to preliminarily navigate these troubled waters. The ship, as it travels, sits both above and below the water line. That which is below the water line experiences the oceanic feeling of connectedness; that which is above the water line is somewhat separated from this experience. Nonetheless, it exists as one unified ship that is simultaneously partly connected to the surrounding ocean and partly separated. Humans, it seems to me, are similarly partly above and below the waterline of oceanic connectedness. We have direct experiences of the world through our bodies (our “below the water line”), and these experiences are made communicable through a shared symbolic system, including, but not limited to, words (our “above the water line”). So while we may not be able to think without symbols, and while we largely make ourselves intelligible to others through the use of symbols, and while symbols can never express the entirety and immediacy of an experience, symbols do not thrust us out of our “life world,” and by the very fact that they highlight the difficulty of communicating our existence of being in a “life world,” may in fact draw attention to the world in which we exist.


One thought on “The Great Passage

  1. It’s definitely a paradox; without language, which is made up of systems of symbols, less opportunity for communication of self-aware consciousness; with it, the subject/object divide. But there’s also the systems of complex inter-relationships that enable us to place subjects in communion with each other, which can work to ameliorate the ‘damage’ without losing the gain…
    Thanks for offering the opportunity to reflect upon this. Looks like a quirky, fun film.

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