Sunday, July 03, 2005

When is an umbrella not an umbrella?

I picked up a copy of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in Fopp – not because I’d ever heard of him at the time but because the book was cheap and I quite liked the look of the cover. That was a while ago. I’ve gone through a phase of re-reading some of the many books on my shelves recently. This was one of them.

I am going to have to quote at length from Auster because I just couldn’t do the Professor’s idea justice in my own words. It’s appealing, unworkable and absurd and I love it:

Consider a word that refers to a thing – “umbrella” for example. When I say the word “umbrella”, you see the object in your mind. You see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a waterproof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain. This last detail is important. Not only is an umbrella a thing it is a thing that performs a function – in other words, expresses the will of man. When you stop to think about it, every object is similar to the umbrella, in that it serves a function. A pencil is for writing, a shoe is for wearing, a car is for driving. Now, my question is this. What happens when a thing no longer performs its function? Is it still the thing or has it become something else? When you rip the cloth off the umbrella, is the umbrella still an umbrella? You open the spokes, walk out into the rain and get drenched. Is it possible to go on calling this object an umbrella? In general, people do. AT the very limit, they will say the umbrella is broken. To me this is a serious error, the source of all our troubles. Because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella. It might resemble an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else. The word, however, has remained the same. Therefore, it can no longer express the thing. It is imprecise; it is false; it hides the thing it is supposed to reveal.

I have to admit jealousy – my thoughts and ideas are rarely very original and even if they were I wouldn’t be able to articulate them in such a pleasing way.

I think one of the reasons this appeals to me so much, though, is the use of the word umbrella as the example. When I lived in both France and Germany I had an absolute mental block when it came to using the word umbrella. For some unknown reason I always said ‘banana’. The people around me used to find it highly amusing. I was actually quite alarmed and scared by it. It wasn’t conscious; it wasn’t done for laughs; it just came out. It was freakish.

Anyone like to suggest what an umbrella that is no longer an umbrella might be called?

1 comment:

pat said...

stick ?
cane ?
broken ?