BUT THAT.

Terrence Malick is an amazing director, and his films—though long, often hard to understand, and occasionally seemingly pretentious beyond necessity—are always worth seeing; he focuses on the beauty and mystery of existence more than any other contemporary filmmaker other than perhaps Kiarostami, and I commend to the attention of anyone with access to the LRB Gilberto Perez’s recent review article on him. But this is not a cinema blog, and I will quote a paragraph from the article to point out that the English language can make clarity difficult to achieve (Perez is discussing The Thin Red Line; I could have quoted less of the paragraph, but I like the point about unschooled philosophies and their “eloquent colloquial poetry” so much I wanted to share it):

Fear is as central to Jones’s novel as to Malick’s movie, the fear all soldiers feel and each in his own way tries to deal with. Unlike the novel, however (and like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Absalom, Absalom!), the movie gives the characters not just sentiments and opinions but philosophies of life. These mostly unschooled, regionally accented, often ungrammatical and inconsistent philosophies, which some critics snobbishly belittle, are presented in the movie as an eloquent colloquial poetry we are to take quite seriously: living in the world, facing death in it, surely qualifies a person to express a worldview. In Malick’s introduction to his translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons – Malick taught philosophy at MIT for a year before turning to the movies – he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in the terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’; and he added that we ‘share certain notions about the measure and purpose and validity of things’ but ‘sometimes we do not, or do not seem to, share such notions.’ In The Thin Red Line the soldiers put forward several such notions, which they may or may not share among themselves and we may or may not share with them. A movie constructs a world, gives the things it depicts measure and purpose and validity in its schemes, but The Thin Red Line offers various worldviews without deciding for us which serves us best to understand things.

What I want to focus on is the first quote from Malick’s introduction to Heidegger. In the first place, it’s a slight misquote (as Google Books tells me); Malick did not write “that in the terms of which we understand them” but “that in terms of which we understand them,” which makes the sense a little easier to grasp. But either way, I think it’s harder than it would ideally be, because of the inherent ambiguity of that. In normal usage, that can be a stressed pronoun (“that’s him”), a stressed adjective (“that tree over there”), or an unstressed conjunction (“he said that he’d do it”). The construction “that which” is bookish but familiar. But once you separate that and which by a preposition, as here (“that in terms of which”), it tends to require rereading. And when you preface it with but, you add in a separate source of confusion, since “but that” brings to mind constructions like the fairly archaic “I do not doubt but that he will recover” and the more common “moral skeptics hold not that no truth is known but that no ethical truth is known.” All this makes “but that in terms of which” a nasty stumbling block; I imagine that in some languages—certainly conlangs built to be logical—one could express the thought in a straightforward way, but English is not such a language.

Comments

  1. That was exactly the sentence where I started skimming the article rather than get bogged down trying to make sense of its abstruse logic. Turns out it wasn’t abstruse logic, just poorly written English.

  2. So it should have been ” … he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’ …”
    I’m still none the wiser. Are the “them”s referring to the nearest preceding plural noun – i.e. ‘things’ – or to ‘movies’ or to even to ‘Reasons’? Nope, stumped. It is, I suspect, muddled English clothing muddled thinking, but who knows?
    “It is not error that is the enemy, but confusion.” I can’t remember where I learnt that, but it’s a pretty handy rule of thumb.

  3. It’s not you, dearieme.
    If he had just written them in the coloquial forms he was praising earlier, he would have been a lot clearer.
    So:
    ” … he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but in the terms we understand them by, what gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’ …”
    Sometimes real English is superior to “proper” Englisih as a meanas of communication.

  4. I don’t see the difficulty here. The world isn’t things themselves, it’s what they’re understood in terms of. What else could it mean? No muddle or poor writing as far as I can see.

  5. The world isn’t things themselves, it’s what they’re understood in terms of. What else could it mean?
    I agree, but the fact that you don’t see the difficulty doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, as you can tell from the reactions of prior commenters. It’s not poor writing (though it might, with effort, have been made more transparent), but it’s not easy reading.

  6. If anyone hasn’t seen The Thin Red Line I recommend they run out — or rather stay in — and watch it right now. Malick is everything Hat described him to be, and The Thin Red Line is his best film, even better than Days of Heaven, for many of the reasons articulated by Gilberto Perez and perhaps also because the plot is so simple — soldiers land on a beach, take one hill and then another — giving structure to Malick’s sometimes overly freewheeling style (the way Mulholland Drive, albeit more complicatedly, did for David Lynch’s).

  7. Sorry, Jim, I don’t understand your version either.
    “but in the terms we understand them by, what gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’ …”: is it the “terms” that have m and p and v, or the “things”? Are you using your first “them” to refer to the nearest preceding plural noun – i.e. things – and your second “them” not to refer to its nearest preceding plural noun i.e. not to refer to “terms” but instead to refer to the previous one, to wit “things”. Sorry, chaps, this is just lousy writing.
    It’s a separate issue, of course, whether “things” (or “terms”, as the case may be) may usefully be said to have m, p or v. I haven’t a clue what he thinks he means by it, I admit. Does it mean anything at all? Can a thing be “valid”? What on earth does that mean? How can a thing not be valid? Is he attempting to allude to Platonic ideals? Is he trying to conjure up an image of some old Western film:
    “What do you make of that, Hank?”
    “Well, Jethro, ah don’ rightly know. I don’ like to judge by appearances.”
    I know: it’s an allusion to Forrest Gump. Or not.
    And while we are at it, what the devil does he mean by “schemes”? Does he mean “scheme” in the narrow sense of plan or plot, or in the sense of a great overarching view of the nature of things: there are more things in heaven and earth ….?
    Bah, what a load of codswallop.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    he wrote that the world, in Heidegger’s sense, ‘is not the “totality of things” but that in the terms of which we understand them, that which gives them measure and purpose and validity in our schemes’; and he added that ….
    I’ll try! The sentence is indeed confusing.
    He wrote that …
    - the world (in H’s sense) IS NOT the totality of things
    - but [the world IS]

    - that [concept/entity] in terms of which we understand them [=things]
    - [or, using different words], that [concept/entity] which gives them [=things] measure etc.

    The first “that” (after “he wrote”) is the conjunction. The other two “that”s are the pronoun, and the phrases they are in are parallel.
    I must say that this is my second attempt. At first I was as confused as anyone else and misunderstood the structure of the last segment (after the third “that”). The sentence is not ungrammatical but it is definitely not reader-friendly.
    I think that if we heard the author reading aloud (one of the few circumstances where that would help), the structure might be clearer, but without the help of rhythm and intonation the sentence is too elliptical to be readily understood at first reading. The use of the pronouns “that” and “them” rather than actual nouns does not help. But it may be one of those complex sentences that even the author might have trouble with when rereading the text after a long interval.
    schemes
    I wonder if schemata would be the right word here.

  9. dearieme, your last comment puts me in mind of the old joke about the university administrator who is talking with the physicist about physicists and mathematicians. I wonder if you know it.

  10. Let’s all hear it, Empty.

  11. The difficulty in this particular case, it seems to me, is not the prose in which Malick trys to convey what he thinks Heidegger meant. The difficulty is what Heidegger meant. How can one discover what Malick wants to describe, and then reformulate it more clearly, without that which he wants to describe, i.e. Heidegger’s ideas in that book?
    Nobody here is likely to have read Das Wesen des Grundes (I sure haven’t), much less left their heads wrapped around it over a period of time to soak. But it’s so tempting to fine-tune the words to obtain something, anything that makes more sense. Just polish the sentence structure !
    One might react in a similar way to a crossword puzzle, half-finished by someone, that contains a number of inconsistencies and some of whose clues have gone missing. One feels that it can be “fixed up” with a little effort. Nothing wrong with that. As Luhmann says, it is impossible to escape sense, so might as well go for it.
    Heidegger’s originals tend to be more like crossword puzzles with invisible clues, no black boxes and no grid. In a way, though, his books are easier to make sense of than crosswords, because there is so little intelligibility already present to constrain interpretive efforts. One can riff a whole raft of things on them, they float any boat.
    Malick taught philosophy at MIT for a year before turning to the movies
    I sympathize.

  12. “His books, and those of his commentators, are easier to make sense of than crosswords …”

  13. “You physicists with all your expensive lab equipment — why can’t you be like the mathematicians? All they need is paper, pencil, and a wastebasket. Or the philosophers: all they need is paper and pencil.”

  14. Or the vainglorious, politically expedient, morally exempt cine-asses: all they need is a boatload of funny money and a ticket-buying public of naifs.

  15. why can’t you be like the mathematicians? All they need is paper, pencil, and a wastebasket. Or the philosophers: all they need is paper and pencil.
    I didn’t know that mathematicians are so wasteful. To save on paper, perhaps they should think more carefully before writing things down.

  16. Paper has not always been as cheap and available as it is today. Did writers in the past scribble, draft and correct less, for that reason ? The only thing I can imagine is that they “thought more carefully before writing things down”.
    Perhaps, due to the older educational methods, their thought process were more organized than mine, I who am a martyr to free-association. Possible exceptions spring to mind, of course: Montaigne, Rabelais, Böhme and many a religious “mystic”.
    Over the years I have learned that there are various descriptions, in historical records, of how this or that person composed a manuscript. Can anyone recommend a book on the subject of writing practices in history ?

  17. That got a yelp of appreciation from me, Ø .
    Do you know this one?
    Four Cambridge dons take the train to Edinburgh to attend a conference. As they cross the border, the physicist says “Look, the cows in Scotland are black.” The mathematician says “No, at least one cow in Scotland is black.” The philosopher says “No, at least one side of one cow in Scotland is black.” The engineer says “It’s a bull.”

  18. Not to be a downer, since sometimes philosophers do indeed makes as risible spectacles of themselves as octogenarians with glabrous domes and hirsute bellies playing Twister, and also since there isn’t much in this world worth more than a joke; but it should still be noted that philosophers find themselves in those silly poses because, by definition, they are trying to answer, or formulate how one might answer, truly hard questions: the stuff that can’t merely be quantified and qualified — that doesn’t comprise a set of facts arrangeable into a discipline. As every schoolboy knows philosophy used to be indistinguishable from science and knowledge in general. Then in ancient world biology and astronomy broke away, leaving the philosophers with everything else that couldn’t yet be approached methodically; in the seventeenth century it was physics, the nineteenth psychology, the twentieth linguistics — so that now, to have a grasp on contemporary philosophy is to know what exactly what we don’t know, at least not with any reasonable certainty (not to mention what some smart people think we may never know, what might be just around the corner, and how we might best approach everything in between). That seems something worth knowing, to me at least.
    Can anyone recommend a book on the subject of writing practices in history ?
    I got sidetracked after the first twenty pages or so, but there is this short book, in a generally good series of short books, History: A Very Short Introduction. There’s also A History of Histories, from which I also got sidetracked, though you shouldn’t read anything into that — I get sidetracked from most books I start and this one (like the other, I believe) got good reviews.

  19. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    As others above, I’m unsure if the thought is straightforward enough to be expressed in a straightforward way. Yet it strikes me that the sentence curiously has the flavor of a lazy translation from another language, and in fact it becomes much clearer (to me at any rate) if I translate it into Italian word for word:

    il mondo, nel senso di Heidegger, non è la totalità delle cose, ma ciò nei termini del quale le comprendiamo, ciò che dà loro misura e scopo e validità nei nostri schemi.

    I cannot imagine that this precise correspondence with Italian syntax is anything but coincidental, but it gets me wondering if the sentence might be more straightforward in German (which I don’t speak) than in English.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    GP, I think that the main problem with the English translation is the ambiguity of the word “that”: your Italian sentence does not include the preceding words (he wrote that the world …) in which I think that “that” is ‘che’ in Italian, while the other two “that”s are ‘ciò’. In French too, the words would be different (‘que’ and ‘ce’ respectively). There would be less ambiguity if the sentence was not complicated by additional phrases which separate the “that”s from the words they relate to.

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