Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 1
Spring, 1982



2. Winston Weathers, The Broken Word: The Communication Pathos in Modern Literature. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, 1981. xi+226 pp. $35.00.

Mr. Weathers' volume--the first of a series, Communication and the Human Condition, edited by Lee Thayer--is divided into two parts. Five "introductory essays" posit a view of human history as a continuum punctuated by moments of crisis and alarm, each giving rise to some "governing preoccupation." He argues that the latest of these periodic preoccupations, because of a variety of influences in the late nineteenth century and later (Darwinism, industrialism, Freudianism, urbanism, militarism, relativity and the population explosion), is "the loss of faith in communication" (p. 28); and he emphasizes both the importance of modern literature as a record of that loss of faith, and the value of modern writers as the best diagnosticians of communication failure and as guides, in some instances, to its alleviation. In the second part of the book, five "exemplary essays" focus on the study of communication in the work of five writers--Melville, O'Neill, Joyce, Eliot and Salinger.

Mr. Weathers is a revealing anatomist of the modern world's "governing preoccupation," the "pathos of communication." However, since I am not a linguist or semanticist, and since the Newsletter is not the appropriate forum for assessing the overall study, I will consider only the chapter on O'Neill ("Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Word," pp. 93-108).

According to Weathers, O'Neill, whose "semantic awareness supports a tragic vision," and who "seems thoroughly aware of the part non-communication plays in creating and maintaining the tragic moment," has a "theory of communications that delineates a fundamentally tragic world" (p. 93). To oversimplify a lengthy and complex argument, the world is "fundamentally tragic" because communication is virtually impossible; and the impossibility is the fault of all three parts of the communication process--the communicator, the medium (both verbal and non-verbal), and, in the author's infelicitous phrase, the "communications receptor" (p. 99).

The would-be communicator, like Yank in The Hairy Ape, is driven by the compulsion to connect with others, "to escape ... the insular grief of non-communication" (p. 93). While the compulsion--whether its goal be therapeutic, penitential or aesthetic--is strong, the attempt to satisfy it usually fails. Sometimes the failure arises from "individual incapacity to articulate" (p. 98), as is the case with Edmund Tyrone and the fog people; sometimes it is the result of "special inhibition" (p. 99), as is true of the Mannons--an inhibition that, in characters like Orin Mannon (Mourning Becomes Electra) and Ned Darrell (Strange Interlude), is "encouraged by a sense of social propriety or decorum" (p. 99). At other times the compulsion to communicate is overpowered by "fear of articulation" or by "recognition of the uselessness of communication" (p. 105)--in which case the character frequently dons a mask, either literal or figurative, and achieves self-expression, if at all, only in the form of interior monologue.

As for receptor and medium, the former adds to the dilemma by failing--through "deliberate refusal" or "simple incapacity" (p. 100)--to play his/her part in the process; and the latter proves inadequate, either (as Nina Leeds notes) because of "the great discrepancy between symbol and meaning," or because of "our ... predilection to use meaningless labels" (p. 101). And so, "in spite of our desire and willingness we can never achieve a truly adequate language" (p. 101).

This is Mr. Weathers' summary of the theory of communications that he draws from references to nineteen of O'Neill's plays (p. 107):

Normal man has an innate desire to communicate, but the best he can do is simply strive toward communication and accept the imperfection of it. Because of his own incapacities and those of his receptors, and because of the inadequacy of the language medium, man can never achieve the perfect understanding via the perfect communication that he desires. The worst that can happen to man is that he may reject communication altogether--out of fear of what it will reveal, out of a realization of its imperfections and failures--and fall into the tragedy of silence that is our final separation from fellow man.

My first response was cynical: how much better O'Neill himself said all of this! But it is convenient to have the diverse and separate strands drawn so neatly together.

I have only three criticisms of Mr. Weathers' chapter on O'Neill. First, it is hard to agree with his assertion (p. 94) that O'Neill shared Brutus Jones's initial belief "that articulation without meaning, communication becoming non-communication, would suffice to preserve him in power (or would suffice to preserve a culture)." And yet Weathers claims, parenthetically, that this was something that "obviously O'Neill the modern man believed." (Perhaps he has himself fallen victim to what he calls "the inadequacy of the language medium"!) Surely a writer who, in Jean Chothia's words, "struggled throughout his career to forge a fully achieved language,"1 would not endorse Jone's fallacious initial assumption about it. Secondly, to cover nineteen plays in sixteen pages is to do full justice to none of them, even within the restricted scope that the author has chosen. (Nevertheless, it should be noted that four plays--The Emperor Jones, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night--do receive extended and significant comment.) And thirdly--certainly most important--the chapter is less than authoritative because it ignores all recent studies of O'Neill--studies in which the playwright's use of language has received increasing attention. A footnote reveals that the chapter is a revision of a 1962 article, but there is no reference to any work since the Gelbs' O'Neill, which appeared in the same year. To omit reference to the work of more recent scholars--of such important voices,
to name but a few, as Carpenter (1963; 1978), Raleigh (1965), Sheaffer (1968; 1973), Bogard (1972), Floyd et al. (1979), and especially Chothia (1979)--is to run, oneself, the risk of failing as a "communications receptor"!

Nevertheless, Mr. Weathers' brief study makes a strong case for O'Neill's importance as an assessor and dramatizer of one of the major dilemmas of the modern age, and as such it deserves to be read. Its rather stiff price might make it unattractive to the individual collector, but it would be a worthy purchase for any institutional library. Were I not limited to the O'Neill coverage, I would discuss the Melville chapter, which, because it deals in depth with but two works, Typee and Billy Budd, is particularly fine.

--Frederick Wilkins

1 Jean Chothia, Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 15.



Copyright 1999-2007