Frank Kermode begins The Genesis of Secrecy with an invocation of Hermes, the god of Hermeneuts, and thieves, and crossroads, and puns, to name just a few of the worthy causes he patronized. In enumerating his qualities, Kermode writes: “He also has to do with oracles, including the dubious sort known as klēdōn, which at the moment of its announcement may seem trivial or irrelevant, the secret sense declaring itself only after long delay, and in circumstances not originally foreseeable.” Oh the Greeks, with their eternally fascination terms of art! I couldn’t quite figure out, from Kermode’s elegant but ambiguous gloss, what a klēdōn was. Was it the kind of insignificant minutia that the murder leaves behind him and is spotted by the sharp eyed police inspector? Was it a clue, such as the track left behind by a hunted animal? To find out, I looked up the word in William Halliday’s 1913 Greek Divination, a study of its method and principles. Halliday evidently was of the Golden Bough school, where one folk practice initiates comparisons to other folk practices among widely disparate people. Thus in discussing kledonomancy, he goes from Homer to a custom on the Isle of Man. His example of divination by kledon is clear enough, though: “At Pharai in Achaia an analogous rite was practised under the official patronage of Hermes, the market god. “In front of the image is a hearth made of stone, with bronze lamps clamped to it with lead. He who would inquire of the god comes at evening and burns incense on the hearth, fills the lamp[s with oil, lights them, lays a coin of the country called a copper on the altar to the right of the image, and whispers his question, whatever it may be, into the ear of the god. Then he stops his earss and leaves the market-place, and when he is gone a little way outside he takes his hands from his ears, and whatever words he hears he regards as an oracle.”
This is more like it. As a latter authority, Ogilvie, writes (in relation to Aeschylus’s use of the kledon): “It was a form of divination to pick up a chance word or remark and to accept it in a sense other than that intended by the speaker.”
Overhearing, eavesdropping – I have long thought that these are severely neglected topics in the philosophy of language and literary criticism. In the Pharai example, the inquirer intentionally overhears. He or she intentionally appropriates the word spoken and applies it to the question asked. But of course that an utterance can be inhabited by a wholly other spirit than that in which it is spoken gives us an eery sense of how the gods operate in the world. There is a great deal of this in the modernist novel. To give just one example that occurs to me right now, this was the sort of thing Evelyn Waugh loved. In Black Mischief, Basil Seal, making love to Prudence Samson, the daughter of the British envoy to Azania tells her she’s a grand girl and “I’d like to eat you up.” A phrase that the reader is not especially called upon to remember – it is all just lovey-dovey, innit? Yet, in the final chapter, when Basil attends a dance of the Azanian tribe that has overthrown the Azanian emperor and captured his entourage, including Prudence, he is treated to a feast at which he asks the headman where the white girl has gone, and the headman responds by rubbing his belly and saying “why here – you and I and the big chiefs have just eaten her.”
This is the overheard word that is not overheard by the person who speaks it – it is rather commandeered. All of us have surely had those moments when, in the thick of some bad situation, we think back to something we have said without thinking that seems to point to the future mysteriously.
However, I would like to broaden the idea of eavesdropping, or overhearing, to the “ontogenesis of language”, as Quine puts it in Words and Things – that is, to how babies learn to talk. I’m going through this now, and the lesson is rather un-Quinian. Classic scenari: the parent at the computer encounters some glitch that he can’t figure, out, and knows is going to take an hour to repair. He says “fuck”, with conviction – only to hear the baby repeat it. Scene ends with parents laughing and telling each other that they will have to watch their language.
Interestingly, it is dirty words, cuss words that make the parents aware of eavesdropping and its power. It is as if, from the first, there is a portion of language learning that is cursed –that the word overheard is the shadow-sibling of the word pointed out. The latter is the wanted word, the former the unwanted one.
The primal writer’s act, in my opinion, is a fierce fascination with and loyalty to the unwanted word. The unwanted word comes to us as a riddle, and seems inhabited by something else, some future we can’t otherwise see.
This is why I, at least, have a harder time with edifying literature, the literature of order – the police procedural with the inevitable catching of the culprit, or the novel that follows closely its time’s norms, whether these are the identity politics of today or whether they are the Victorian eras Christianity-n-Capitalism. These strike me as the progeny of the wanted word. Of course, in all literature, mostly it is the wanted word, mostly the social order as it is triumphs. But I like to think that the rarer literature of the unwanted word has a more long distance say, and that it propounds riddles that are never quite completed. It is a literature by and, to an extent, for the pre-eminently unwanted: the outsider.