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Vietnam Generation Journal

Volume 4, Number 3-4

November 1992

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Semiotic and Agonistic Reason in Thmenh Chey1, Part II

Phillipe Hunt, Comparative Literature, Yale University

Named, or nameless

I don't wish to go into a detailed narratological analysis, and will only add one more point, concerning characters. Thmenh Chey, or Thnenh Chey (or Dhnanjay), is the only one in the whole story to be named. We could even say that the story is nothing but the development of the meaning of that name--Chey means "victory"--as if this were an etiological narrative, aimed at providing the reason why he was given that name.30

Though his wife is named in the episode of their meeting--their respective names constitute one of the riddles--she henceforth becomes TC's wife, no more no less. The other characters are never named, and are only identified by their social and/or professional function: the king, the sethey, the hora, the samdech chauvea, the mohatlock, the amat... Some of them are not even individualized: "four sooth-sayers", "the dignitaries", "the concubines". And yet, nomination is an essential symbolic operation in this text, as we shall see when we talk about TC as interpreter.

Names are not the only type of index or informant to be in short supply in this text. The story tells us nothing, or almost nothing, about time (and duration), or about the places in which the action unfolds. There is actually no description at all in the text, by which I mean that no descriptive element is autonomized. When things are named, or provided with one or two descriptive features, this is never done merely in order to establish a spatio-temporal, or a cultural frame for the action, but only because those details have an immediate narrative functionality, or a symbolic import. I will only mention one example, in version C. TC, confronted with four Chinese soothsayers (this is the second incursion) asks the king for four mohatlocks, four boxes of stylets, four square boards, four small jars. It seems obvious that this repeated figure does not correspond to any narrative necessity (the riddle would have worked just as well with any other number), and I don't think that this can be a reality effect,31 so it has to have symbolic value. Solange Thierry (Op. cit.: 86) talks about the importance of numbers in the definition of characters, even when they are not named, but her explanations don't seem entirely relevant here, since the four in TC are in no way differentiated. The presence of four soothsayers may be related to the fact that two had not done the job the first time, and perhaps TC responds with four times four (numbers, and mathematics, had played an important role in the first fight of riddles). There may be more to it, as four is a classic magical number, though I don't know whether that is the case in buddhist or "pre"-buddhist Khmer culture. At any rate, according to Chevalier and Gheerbrant's Dictionnaire des symboles, four, and sixteen, are sacred numbers in the Vedic Hymns, where they symbolize totality.32

Never trust the lit critters

I now come to the main object of this talk: the motif of hermeneutics, of the constitution and decipherment of meaning, a motif which pervades the whole narrative. Indeed, the whole story is full of texts, of discourse, of reality constituted as discourse,33 and these texts-within-the-text are obscure, ambiguous or enigmatic, hence call for interpretation, whether in words, in actions or in gestures, which interpretation is itself multiple, or contentious, at any rate never definitive.34

As we have seen, the narrative opens on a scene of interpretation, a scene which could be considered (in the same way as, for instance the name of Thmenh-Thnenh-Thun Chey) as a matrix of the text, as an enveloped, implicited figure of what in developed, explicited form, will be the narrative as a whole. This founding scene, which comes before TC's birth, and in a sense determines his entire life, is very different from what will become the functioning of interpretation once TC himself enters the stage. Indeed, the text proposed for interpretation is a dream, a message coming from elsewhere, and it is the only dream in the entire narrative, and one of very few interventions from anything which can be called a "transcendence": unless I'm mistaken, the only other instances are a comparison, or rather an argument a fortiori (the sethey telling the king that TC would outwit the very Tevada), where the divine beings are therefore not actually present, and the passage in which TC wants to commit suicide, and is saved by the Tevada.35 The message of the dream is actually quite clear: no-one needs a hora, a literary scholar or a psycho-analyst to understand that it predicts abundance, enjoyment, the accomplishment of desire: Freud's Wunscherfüllung, though the beneficiary is not the dreamer, but her son-to-be. To a very clearly encoded message, one which does not demand much interpretive work, can only correspond an obvious decoding, or else a blatant error dictated by ignorance, stupidity or dishonesty. This is exactly what happens: the professional hermeneut (or his wife, in version C) takes advantage of the ignorance, the stupidity or tendency to submit to authority of TC's mother to tell her, not just any old nonsense, but exactly the opposite of what the dream means. TC, instead of being destined for a life of grandeur, is destined to lead a very lowly life. Instead of endangering the social fabric through a dangerous upward mobility, he has to become one of the most exploited instruments of that social order. And the one who claims this, to use an anachronism, is an established ideologue--in other words, a "technician of practical knowledge" (Sartre), or a "watchdog" of the bourgeoisie (Nizan)--as opposed to an intellectual. He is thus the opposite of what we would see, ideally, as a true interpreter, a hermeneut. An interpreter is someone who allows himself to be confronted with the uncanny strangeness, the irreducible opaqueness of a text, to which he can only lend a conjectural meaning, a process which is not only unfinished de facto, but even de jure. Interpretation goes from uncertainty to an explicitation or a modification of that uncertainty, which is what TC will do, in his own highly idiosyncratic way. Indeed, if TC plays tricks on/with language, on the one hand he does not do it ex officio, on someone's orders or for a salary, and on the other hand he is not trying to (fore)close a question, but rather to give it maximum aperture.

Variegated and versatile

Later on in the narrative, TC will be the interpreter par excellence, and though he is repeatedly confronted with counter-interpreters, these will never (after his earliest trial with the sethey) manage to outwit him: the match with his most successful adversary, Suos-Dey (his future wife), ends in a draw. But it is not enough to assert that TC is the master of interpretations, or the master of reversals, using against his adversary that adversary's strength, and his own weakness. It still remains to be seen how he does it, what tricks he uses, what are his strong and his weak points. Being both weak and dependent, he evidently models his response on his powerful adversary's challenge, on its form and its semantic field.

That is why his devices, and the sphere of activity in which he displays them, vary from macro-sequence to macro-sequence. In the initial, and initiatory, trial, confronted first with the sethey's wife, TC interprets "a lot" to mean a limitless, infinite number, compared to which any finite number is necessarily "little", hence too little. The merchant then intervenes, and transforms the open question into a closed, binary one: on one side there is a lot, on the other side, little, and TC allows himself to be trapped inside this alternative, in which "a lot" simply means "more than something else, which is little". After this defeat in the final leg of his first battle of interpretations, TC vows to take revenge: he does not ask himself whether the merchant was right, or had some rights. For TC, what matters is to gain the upper hand, to be cleverer: the true, the good, the just don't enter into his calculations. However I wish to stress again that his calculations are not of the lowest pragmatic kind: what matters for him is not to obtain titles, institutional power, or wealth. Though his behavior is not moral, not just, not truthful, it isn't opportunistic either36--so what shall we call it? Could it be aesthetic? Or, so to speak, sporting (though hardly sportsmanlike, or cricket!). Or else sportive, playful, ludic? Or lawyerly? I shall leave that question open for the time being.

A merchant outbid: TC as literal fool37

The trials in the first series, where TC confronts the sethey, who has become his master, all belong to the same type: the sethey gives his servant an order (follow me quickly, don't bother to pick up things which may fall out), which the latter interprets in a rigorously literal, or literalist, manner. When his master reproaches him for not having done what the order meant, TC retorts that he has carried them out to the letter. The interpreter is innocent of all error, of all misappropriation of meaning, it is the message itself that is guilty, because of its ambiguity, and hence also the sender of the message: the sethey38 But TC doesn't even mention this ambiguity, he pretends to be aware of only one meaning, and treats language as if it were entirely decontextualized, as if the situation didn't usually disambiguate the message. Of course, "too bad if things fall out" could mean that it doesn't matter if everything falls out, that the sethey couldn't care less if there was nothing left in his betel set. But everyone knows that this is an improbable reading, a paradoxical one (against received opinion, doxa). Faced with this deft piece of sophistry, the sethey can't convict TC of error, willful or otherwise, he can't prove anything, since TC's version is possible, authorized by the form, by the words (if not by the co(n)text). So he thinks he can counter TC by next giving him an order which is the exact opposite of the first one, as though TC, when faced with a given task (carrying to court the sethey's betel set), only had one wile at his disposal--or as though, in natural languages, a double negation necessarily amounted to an affirmation. As though "Don't do the opposite of what I said," or more precisely "Do the opposite of what you have done, which was the opposite of what I had asked you to do," boiled down to "Do what I told you to do." But TC is quick to prove him wrong: after he has interpreted literally an implicit "(pick up) nothing," he interprets just as literally an explicit "pick up everything." He acts as though "everything" meant "everything in the universe, anything whatsoever," rather than "everything in the betel set," as the context makes obvious--so he fills the betel set with horse dung!39 But TC has done nothing more than actualize a highly improbable possibility, which was however inscribed in the literality of the message, so the sethey again can't punish him.40 Just as the first time, he is condemned to silence, as TC's other opponents will be, whereas TC is never at a loss for words. The merchant simply demotes the all too clever subordinate. The same scheme which I have outlined in the "court" meso-sequence is at work in the two following meso-sequences: looking after the garden/guarding the cows, delivering messages/being discreet. Likewise, in a final task, when TC is entrusted with a police investigation he does literally find the culprit: the stove, which caused the fire. Each time, TC decontextualizes the order he has received, and provides the most literal, most improbable, weakest interpretation--and he gives it more strength, in his exchange with the sethey, than the strongest interpretation possesses. TC is the master of the signifier and the signified, and the master of reversals: he gives strength to what is weak, and makes weak what was strong. It goes without saying that such reversals can have direct political implications (those who don't have power of any sort can, through their cunning, prevail over those in power41), but the text does not draw such a conclusion, and even invalidates it in a way. Indeed what happens here, as we shall see in the rest of the text, is not the weakening, much less the overthrow of the sethey/courtier's power: TC is only interested in defeating him symbolically, in humiliating him, in showing his own intellectual superiority. TC has more in common with a rebellious intellectual42 than with a revolutionary, or a putschist (moreover, he is always acting alone, against all others).

A king outranked: TC and metaphors

When he faces the king, TC acts in the same way, he shows himself to be the master of language, but the field in which his power operates is different, and so are his devices. On the one hand, the tasks he is forced to accomplish are no longer practical ones (economic or sycophantic): they are what I would call "kratic"43 challenges, in which the king is putting at stake both his political and his symbolic power.44 Contrary to the practical tasks set by the sethey, these challenges are in principle unfulfillable. On the other hand, the physical, geographical sphere of activity is different: we here leave the immediate vicinity where we had stayed with the sethey, to go to the forest, the lake, the wat outside the city, ... outside the srok.45 In subsequent macro-sequences, we will go even further afield: first there is the incursion of the foreigners, then the trip to the region of the Great Lake, then to China, which to the teller must have been one of the ends of the known world. As for the devices used, I will mention two things only: first, the king constantly uses his political, or even police, power to prevent TC from taking up the gauntlet: by having him given an elephant which is too old, by forbidding people from giving him information, by requisitioning all horses, by forbidding people from selling or renting horses or cocks to TC... Thmenh Chey's, always victorious, retort rests on his symbolic power, or rather, his power to symbolize, to make symbols, to metaphorize. There is some paradox, even some scandal involved, since, as David Chandler shows, the power to name the real, to make symbols, to create meaning, was reserved to the king (and, in some special areas, to official specialists, like the hora), simple subjects being confined to silence or to a precoded answer. Now TC, faced with literal, and literally insoluble, challenges, will here again displace the locus of the debate; but instead of moving from a derived sense, from a dead metaphor to the letter, as he had done with the sethey, he here jumps in the opposite direction, from the letter to metaphoric creation. Whether it is the boat-elephant, the horse in the chess game,46 or the cock-chick (or the calf-buffalo), what we have is the creation, or the unusual use, of a metaphor. In the case of TC-cock, we can say that the king produces the initial (realized) metaphor: his courtiers are nothing but hens, weak, stupid (but productive?) animals, moreover of the female gender, and they are quite prepared to jump into the water in their extreme submissiveness and toadyism--in French, we would say that these hens (poules) in the water are "poules mouillées": chicken-hearted. There is also an implausible feature: since when have hens started laying eggs in the water? But this is quite consistent with the unlimited power of the king, who doesn't acknowledge that reality, even biological laws, can impose any limits on him. As for TC, he cannot be a hen: on a surface level because he doesn't have an egg, on a deeper level because he isn't a capon. Hence he transmetaphorizes, to the king and his hens he opposes a cock, a proud animal, and one which (not least in my native Wallonia) symbolizes, metaphorizes masculinity, power, the sun...47 The king is metaphorically designated as a capon, an emasculated cock. As he has already insulted the king and his courtiers, there is only one symbolic authority left for TC to debunk: Buddhism.48 What he attacks, in this case as in all others, is not the doctrine, or this or that tenet in it, but the man who supports or represents the institution: his arguments are invariably ad hominem. In the case of the chief of the bonzes, as later in the case of the king of China, the insult concerns physical appearance. But in this case, there are other points of note. First, TC only insults the chief of the bonzes in order to win a wager against the mandarins, and to go back to court in spite of the king's express ban: the bonze is a lever, not a target. On the other hand, TC utters a sentence "The hair on my head is comparable to a peacock's tale. Your shaven head, master, is more attractive than my buttocks!" (M: 69), the literal meaning of which (physical description) the bonze understands perfectly. However, when the king summons him and demands that he should explain himself, TC alleges a metaphoric explanation: he was in fact alluding to their respective place with regard to the king, hence their social status., which also leads to an inversion of values. The peacock (TC) acquires a negative connotation, the buttocks (the chief of the bonzes) a positive one: clearly this is a paradoxical, forced interpretation.49

Continue to Part III

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