On Jacques Derrida
Whoever composed the German Nibelungenlied, writes
“Daz wer et wig mit swerten” So sprach Gernot
“da sterbent wan die veigen die lazen ligen tot.
“If they venture to attack with swords,” Gernot said,
“Those fated to die will die they’ll be left lying dead.”
I wish to draw attention to the word in Mittelhochdeutsch written “veigen”. In the twelfth century this word meant “one whom Fate has chosen for death”. This concept was entwined with old Germanic belief that Walkuere – that is, “choosing maidens” – selected certain warriors beloved to them for death in battle. In this way, the miserable fate of being hacked or clubbed to death in combat was transformed into a privilege – the Walkuere lifted the slain man from the battle field and carried him to Walhalla, the place of the “chosen ones”. (Wal means “chosen”). Hence, after the battle with the Luediger and his Saxons:
do wurden ouch die veigen von vriwenden sere gekleit
(Then, the men killed in battle (veigen) were much mourned by their friends.)
Mittelhochdeutsch veigen is cognate with Old English faege. In Beowulf, this sentence employs that word:
Bil eal (th)urhwod
Meaning something like:
The sword pierced right through
the flesh-body of the man doomed to death.
And, in my favorite formulation of the old Anglo-Saxon ethos, the word occurs:
Wyrd oft nere(th)
unfaegne eorl (th)onne his ellen deah.
Which may be translated:
Fate often spares
a warrior who is not doomed to die (unfaegne) if he does brave deeds.
lines 572 - 573
Beowulf was written in the ninth or tenth century of the common era. The Nibelunglied, although based on much earlier material, reaches its current form by monastic labors in the 12th century. By the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the word faegne has vanished from English, leaving no traces. In German, however, the word has morphed into feigen or feige. Curiously, feigen now means “cowardly”.
This history is an interesting demonstration how the meaning of words will subtly change into a related, but, often, opposite concept. Feige is not quite the opposite of veige, but the meaning is shifting in that direction. Veige might denote reckless courage, since the man doomed to death in battle knew that he was destined for the pleasures of Walhalla. Christianity intervened and condemned to oblivion the charming battle-maidens. Without Walkuere and the hope of Walhalla, death in battle might seem a sordid misfortune. Indeed, in the absence of the Teutonic mythology underwriting heroism in combat, a reasonably man might well regard the prospect of being doomed to death by sword or axe as something that might induce fear or cowardice. Thus, I think, the word subtly shifts in meaning to, ultimately, signify something approaching the opposite of its original meaning – or, at least, something related to the original meaning, but radically changed in color and texture. It’s not so much that the old notion of veigen has vanished, but that it is hidden within the modern word, still imparting something of its weight and density to feigen but in a concealed, or occult, way.
These reflections are inspired by a song that I heard on the radio one afternoon while driving home from Minneapolis. The program was about torch singers and one of lyrics that I heard puzzled me:
Sounds corny and seedy, but, yes, indeedy,
Give me the simple life.
These words occurred in the context of a song praising simplicity over sophistication. “Corny” seemed a stretch to me – signifying yokel humor and sentiment – but, at least, I could make sense of the word in the lyric’s setting. “Seedy,” on the other hand, seemed totally wrong – “seedy” means to me “shabby and disreputable.” So I was lead to wonder whether “seedy,” as recently as 1959, had a meaning different from the present: did the word once mean something like “hayseed” – that is, a rural, unsophisticated person?
In fact, I can find no evidence that “seedy” has ever had any connection to the so-called “simple life” lead by farmers and small town merchants, the life of the “hayseeds” in our society. Mark Twain used the word thus:
He was soiled and seedy and fragrant with gin.
And, since the mid 1700's, the word has been attested to refer to rundown, shabby, disreputable people and things. This constellation of meanings seems based on an etymology that describes a flowering plant in its decline as “seedy” – the bright blossoms are faded and withered and the dying plant is full of seeds; in its senescence, the plant is physically dilapidated. “Seedy” has never been a synonym for “corny” or for “rural and unsophisticated”. The use of the word in the lyric is simply wrong, an artifact of a rather contrived rhyme scheme.
“Give me the Simple Life” was a hit in 1959 for Julie London. The song is a standard and has been performed, in one shape or another, by artists as disparate as Rosemary Clooney, the Four Freshman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Taylor, and Benny Goodman. Consulting the lyrics, I find that the actual chorus in which the word occurs is:
Some like the high road
I like the low road,
Free from care and strife,
Sounds corny and seedy,
But, yes, indeedy!
Give me the simple life.
From this example, it seems abundantly clear that the lyricist either doesn’t speak idiomatic English or is so casual with the meaning of his words that, in effect, the chorus is a kind of scat singing – just nonsense syllables to form a bridge. The low road in idiomatic English certainly doesn’t mean the “humble, unassuming way.” Rather, as with seedy, the phrase low road has an entire complex of moral meanings, implying deceit, treachery, and shamelessness. Surely, the fresh-faced lady singer can not be implying that she is prepared to take shameless, deceitful, and backstabbing low road in preference to the high road. Accordingly, it seems that the peculiar and distorted meaning of seedy connoted by the song is a rather severe perversion of the ordinary meaning of that idiom, the result of inartful phrasing and a rather naive desire to have “corn” rhyme metaphorically with “seeds”(and rhyme literally with “indeed”).
But, what if, for some reason, Give me the Simple Life were to become established as culturally significant? What if lots of people knew the words and sung them frequently? What if choral directors performed the song often at high school concerts? In that case, I would wager that the meaning of seedy would shift. If Give me the Simple Life were to become iconic and inescapable, there is no doubt that seedy would be transformed like veige into feige. Under that improbably circumstance, seedy would come to mean “rural and unsophisticated” – perhaps, in addition to its other definitions – and, for that matter, the low road would suggest a “humble and unassuming” approach to life. But older meanings of seedy would not vanish. Rather, they would sound within the word when pronounced, the way that overtones resonate subtly, unheard but present, when any musical note is intoned.
My point is that words signify within an aura of related meanings. Most words imply and, in a ghostly way, invoke their opposites. Furthermore, a word bears within itself a long penumbra of subtly contradictory meanings – concepts that are akin to the word’s ordinary meaning, but variant.
All poets know this.
On this humble insight, Jacques Derrida founded a system and doctrine with a thousand apostles and as many heresiarchs.