Learning the Language

by Matthew Marsico

Illustration by Ben Ross

published October 3, 2014

That has been all. Should I throw in my hand? I am giving myself one last chance to penetrate the Within — using the medium of its language, the difficult “Northern Mandarin.” From now on I shall employ no intermediaries, no eunuchs; I shall wait for the opportunity that shall enable me first-hand to...say, or do...what? I have no idea. —Victor Segalen, René Leys

When I Google the words “penetrating insight,” about 3,190,000 results appear. You’ve probably heard or read the phrase, maybe on the back of a book, and you probably know what it means, more or less. “X writes with penetrating insight into [the Gaza conflict/ football culture/the state of pop music.]” (Googling “penetrating insight New York Times” nets 2.4 million results.) It’s one of those phrases, like “more or less,” whose actual words seem, at times, to fade into the background, behind the meaning we’ve associated with it.

But if we allow the words to fade unchallenged, we might miss something important. Underneath words exist ideas, histories, whole theories of the way things work, or ought to. A not unrelated example: the word “hysterical” comes from the Greek hysteria, meaning, literally, uterus (think “hysterectomy.”) So on some level, whether we like it or not, to say someone is crying “hysterically” is to do the same kind of work as saying someone throws “like a girl”: it’s to link a whole field of negatively charged activities and dispositions to the unrelated female body. (Misogyny is, in this case, a category error.) Likewise, to conceive of thinking as “penetrating” links the pursuit of knowledge to, among other things, the archetypically male role in the heterosexual sex act. This kind of knowledge, if I am thinking, speaking, and writing carefully, could change the way I use these words, or perhaps whether I use them at all.

To answer a traditional objection: sure, meanings change, but when you throw words out there into the world, their meanings aren’t only what you might think or feel they are, on a conscious level. History exists, and its burden is distributed unequally. Besides, there is a difference between policing or self-censorship and deliberateness, carefulness. Part of what becoming an adult means to me is becoming aware of my responsibility to others, and I believe that responsibility inheres in our roles as users of language. I don’t understand how I could learn the etymology of “hysterical,” for example, and still want to use it to describe things I find unseemly. I do believe that working to understand the context our language grew up in and carries with it still can go a long way towards reducing the violence I might unwittingly commit with it.


Victor Segalen’s René Leys, first published in 1922, three years after the author’s death, is an epistolary-novel-cum-thriller in which it’s assumed that “penetration” is a good way to think about understanding the world. In the novel’s case, this question’s stakes are concrete and high: the narrator—like Segalen, a Frenchman named Victor—resides in Beijing (then Peking), and those whom he violently attempts to understand are the Chinese people themselves.

The primary plot of the book is Victor’s quest to gain access to a part of Peking resolutely off-limits, not only to Westerners but also to non-royal Chinese: namely, the Imperial Palace, or the “Within,” of the Forbidden City. And he wants access not merely for the experience, but because he wants to confirm his vague conspiracy theory surrounding the Emperor’s death: that to be Emperor in China is to be “the victim appointed for the last four thousand years as intercessory sacrifice between Heaven and the People on earth.” Segalen’s conceit here is elegant: for Victor to find the truth, to get to the bottom of things—as if things have bottoms to be (forcibly) gotten to—he needs to physically penetrate the inaccessible, literal center of Peking.

But the book is, from the beginning, a failure. “I shall know no more, then,” it begins, as the narrator renounces his desire to enter the Imperial Palace, at the heart of the Forbidden City:

I must close, having only just opened it, this journal of which I had hoped to make a book...better than any imaginary account it would have gripped its readers, at each of its leaps into reality, with all of the magic contained within those walls...which I shall never enter.

For Victor (if not Segalen), imagination exists to be superseded by an absolute, objective reality. Elsewhere, he writes that his imagined book would be “more ‘substantial’ than any other collection of so-called human documents.” The fundamental irony here, an irony underpinning the whole novel, is that the reality he’s anticipating only exists in his imagination. This becomes a defining theme of the novel: the difference between reality and imagination, and the way in which imagination irrevocably shapes our perception of reality.

Recall his earlier formulation of his conspiracy theory: that the Emperor’s role is to serve as an “intercessory sacrifice between Heaven and the People on earth.” Victor’s Emperor is, essentially, Jesus Christ. Victor doesn’t understand how tremendously particular his vision is. He doesn’t leave room for the possibility that his imagination is distorting and Westernizing his reading of the Emperor’s role in Chinese culture, that the reality at the end of his “leaps into reality” might not look like what he thinks it will.

Victor lets slip the existence of this disjunction in his mind without comment: at one point he writes of Marco Polo’s travel journal that it’s “the Great Bible of the Exotic, the Conquest of Elsewheres Beyond Belief, wondrous penetration of the realm of the Diverse, with the title—even finer than all it contains—The Book of the Wonders of the World...” The title is finer than the book itself because Victor is more satisfied with the world he imagines it contains than the world it actually does. And these moments are what made the book, for me, interesting. I found myself in a completely hostile relationship with its narrator. I mistrusted almost everything on the page, and it was through this particularly paranoid experience of skeptical reading that the ideas underneath the language began to become visible for what they are.

And the book is designed for this. Victor is stunningly inconsistent and unreflective. One of the frustrations and tensions of the book arises from watching his pre-constructed narrative subsume the facts of the world he’s inhabiting; the journal format is particularly suited for this. At multiple points in the novel, Victor describes the feeling of language falling into an intelligible order: “Words which, at first hearing, seemed ill-chosen now take on the precision of a...a piece of arithmetic...a banking or police operation...” It’s a familiar paradox for those who’ve spent a long time studying a single text or writer: to understand the language, you have to understand the order or logic underpinning the language, connecting each word to those before and after; but the only way you arrive at that understanding is by studying the words themselves. René Leys takes idea of linguistic order one step further. We get hints of the world outside Victor’s totalizing ideology: the book is set against the backdrop of the 1911 republican revolution, the end stages of the Chinese Empire; and it is primarily through the figure of Victor’s teacher, the titular René Leys, that reality disappointingly asserts itself.

Leys is Victor’s “Northern Mandarin” language instructor, a Belgian himself, and barely older than a schoolboy. Leys’s progress into the inner sanctum of Peking life constitutes the main narrative of the novel, which Victor tracks with credulity and envy. By the end of the novel, Leys has allegedly impregnated the Empress: he has taken the logic of penetration to its logical conclusion. Immediately following this revelation, however, political power changes hands, and Leys is found dead in his bed.

At first, Victor is suspicious. Did the Empress poison him? But in the last journal entry of the novel, Victor writes that, upon rereading his manuscript, he has established “with certainty the fact of my own guilt.” It was not that reality was out there, somewhere, with the capacity to displace his imagination, if only he pushed hard enough:

René Leys did not kill himself. They did not poison him. And yet he clearly died of poison. This paradox is in fact the truest of confessions. The poison: it was I that offered it to him—and with the worst will in the world! It was from me that he received it, accepted it, drank it...and that from the very moment of our first meeting...

This is the conclusion of the idea that penetrating something is a way of understanding it. The force of the penetrating imagination irrevocably—sometimes fatally—damages its object. There was never any way for Victor to get into the Forbidden City, because even if he somehow found his way in, the place would have been changed so dramatically by his necessarily violent entry that he would not actually be seeing it; besides which, it is only at the end of the book that he realizes that the world as it is and what he imagined the world to be don’t harmonize. The world has pushed back. The book ends with Victor in terror “of being suddenly called upon to answer my doubt myself.”


Sociologist Alice Goffman recently received widespread acclaim from predominantly white media outlets for her 2014 book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, about the time she, herself a white woman, spent living and working in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. (The book, in positive reviews, was frequently described as “insightful.”) In her article “Black Life, Annotated,” in the The New Inquiry, professor Christina Sharpe criticized the work and its reception. Sharpe writes, in response to a passage from Goffman’s methodological appendix: “In other least one year into her study, Goffman is unable to discern as class difference the differences among black lower middle class, working class, and poor people. That blackness made that difference illegible as class is one problem that should raise questions about what else Goffman is unable to hear, see, and make sense of.” Goffman failed to adequately address the impact her presence and imagination had on the information and stories she was collecting, and, by Sharpe’s reading, the book ultimately serves not to increase the general field of sociological knowledge but to affirm the resident meaning of blackness imperially occupying the white imaginary: to, as she puts it, “appeal to the ‘moral conscience’ of the dominant culture.”

I think that there must be a way for me to conceive of crossing borders and discovering others, of “penetrating,” if you will, consensually and eagerly. I think that I can become aware of the impact my presence has on the situations I’m in. By coming to understand the particular ways in which the burden of history has and has not fallen on me, I can better understand the world, by which I mean the worlds others are coming from. As Toni Morrison puts it in her study of American literature, Playing in the Dark, “I open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest.”

But in a nation where wealthy, white gentrifiers are displacing and destroying vital, endangered modes of urban life; and in a world where nations like ours continually invade and colonize those poorer and less well-armed, a world with a mass media whose images force some of us, without our consent, into psychic states of violent self-loathing and invisibility—in a world where men still need to be told not to rape—it is difficult, sometimes, to feel that transcendence of the mandate for conquest is at hand. 

René Leys is an uncomfortable book. For one, while I was reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that “Victor” and Segalen were perhaps too close to one another for comfort, that not everything I found problematic with Victor was knowingly inscribed by his creator. But another, more profound reason for my discomfort was the fear that I wasn’t quite catching everything, that I was letting things go unchallenged, that I lacked the knowledge to criticize everything that needed to be criticized. My imagination was affecting, coloring—penetrating—the world of the book, too. The paranoia I felt while reading René Leys uncannily resembles the paranoia I often feel towards my own imagination, my own memories and understandings of events and people ever since I began to realize that my thoughts were not exclusively my own: that my mind and heart have been deeply, perhaps irrevocably, impacted, and by political and cultural forces I’ve had no say in forming. In this light, its ending reads as a harsh consolation: a world of other people, actual people, people who exist outside our myriad, individual, disjunctive imaginations, will always retain the capacity to assert itself, to surprise us, to show us what we’ve accidentally made and the damage we’ve done with it; to take us out of the place we thought we were and throw us back onto ourselves.