The elusive past of je ne sais quoi

February 17, 2006

The rise to fame of a well- worn phrase illuminates writers' use of language, says Richard Scholar

Modern linguists have long had, I suspect, a reflexive turn to their thinking. It may be that the process of studying a foreign language and culture prompts one at certain moments to see one's own habits of mind as if they too were foreign - however hard that critical distance may be to sustain. The need for greater critical distance, or at least a heightened awareness of the deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that it is all too easy to bring unquestioned to one's work, is also one of the key insights that critical theory has brought to the humanities in recent decades - and critical theory has found a home in modern languages departments. Whatever the reasons for doing so, it is useful at times to stand back from the task in hand, as it were, and consider what it is that you do, and how, and what value there may be in it.

Modern linguists have good reasons at the moment for doing a little more of that reflexive thinking aloud. The current plight of modern languages in the UK will hardly come as news to readers of The Times Higher . Only one in five 15-year-olds learns a foreign language, there is a critical shortage of language teachers in schools and some university language departments are contracting or even closing. Presses in the English-speaking world are increasingly reluctant to publish research into, even translations of, authors who write in foreign languages. It is true that certain languages, departments and publishers' lists are faring better than others, so the doom and gloom should not be generalised, but there is no room for complacency.

It is important for those of us who work in modern languages at university level to contribute to the wider debate about the future of the subject at all levels that has been taking place in newspaper columns and other public forums. This debate might also serve as a prompt to us to think aloud, not just about the future of modern languages but about what it is we do at present. In other words, one productive response to the crisis might involve integrating the questions that it raises within our work. Why is it, for example, that we tend to insist on studying our chosen language in connection with its surrounding literature and culture? What do we learn from this? We will never reach a collective answer to such questions, but many linguists would have valuable things to say about them from a wide variety of perspectives, and in that case - let us at least hope so - the current crisis might even prove to have an invigorating effect on the work being done in modern languages in the UK.

My recent work has been concerned with those experiences for which it is difficult to find any words. This might well seem like a self-defeating project for a linguist to undertake, and it certainly felt so at times. But the idea behind it was that one might in fact learn most about a language by examining those very moments at which it encounters its limits - at which writers in the language are forced to put all of their available resources to the test. To limit the terms of this potentially enormous project, I chose as my case study the phrase " je ne sais quoi ", which I had encountered in various texts of the period that interested me. Dropping that phrase into conversation today might raise an eyebrow, but in the early modern period it posed a problem. It happens sometimes, in our encounters with others, that we are moved by something for which we struggle to find an explanation or a name, even as its effects transform us. What is that something? And how - if at all - can it be put into words? Such questions fascinated early modern Europeans and are to be found at work in a wide range of their literary and philosophical texts. These texts show the je-ne-sais-quoi , a term with precursors in Latin and the Romance languages, emerging in early 17th-century France as a keyword in that debate. The term spreads to other vernacular languages of early modern Europe, particularly English, in the following decades. By the middle of the 17th century, the earlier questions are ready to be rephrased: what is the je-ne-sais-quoi ? And how - if at all - can it be put into words?

Examining major literary and philosophical figures such as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Descartes, Corneille and Pascal alongside lesser-known contemporaries moved me to suggest some provisional answers to those questions. The je-ne-sais-quoi serves above all to trace a series of first-person encounters with a certain something that proves to be as difficult to explain as its effects are intense. And it can be expressed only by being expressed differently , since as soon as the phrase is established as a fixture of the language, it becomes a refuge of ignorance and an empty affectation. Writers need to look to other words and phrases if they wish to put that certain something into words.

One such writer is the late 16th-century essayist Montaigne, who belongs to that threshold moment when the je-ne-sais-quoi is still unestablished as a keyword but alive as a phrase, and who presses it into service when attempting to come to terms with his experience. He says of his peculiarly intense friendship with Etienne de la Boetie: "Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union" (" il y a, au dela de tout mon discours, et de ce que j'en puis dire particulierement, ne scay quelle force inexplicable et fatale, mediatrice de cette union "). This sentence only deepens the mystery of the inexplicable force that brought the friendship into being. "Inexplicable" here reinforces the semantic power of the preceding phrase "[ je ] ne sçay quelle " (I know not what). The sentence is one example among many of the strange beauty that Montaigne's writing possesses - and of its lasting fascination.

Montaigne, whose essays were read by Shakespeare and remain a landmark of European culture, is above all perhaps a masterful exponent of the art of thinking aloud. He possesses the learning of a late Renaissance humanist, but he treats that learning with an aristocratic lightness of touch, and in the Essais , he creates an experimental and inherently reflexive mode of writing that makes fundamental questions accessible to his readers.

Whether examining colonialism in the New World, the capacities and limits of belief and doubt, or the power of poetry to encapsulate the workings of desire, Montaigne never sticks to his theme, preferring instead to privilege the unfolding process of reflection over the matter ostensibly in hand. In thinking aloud in this way, he invites his readers to follow the twists and turns of his mind and imagination and also to embark on an inner adventure of their own. The value of reading Montaigne today is that, in addressing questions that still concern us, he puts his readers, along with himself, to the test.

I think it is fair to say that Montaigne is read most often in the English-speaking world today by readers of Shakespeare who want to track down sources for the ideas found in his plays. But to approach Montaigne's text in this way alone is to miss the point. It transforms the text into a repository of ideas and the author into a thinker with a fixed set of "positions". To take one frequent example, a transformation of this kind takes place each time Montaigne is characterised in secondary literature as an out-and-out "sceptic". Montaigne does, of course, borrow material - ideas, topics and commonplaces - from various philosophical traditions, including scepticism, but one needs also to understand how he operates upon this material, thinks aloud about it, by exploiting the resources of language and literature at his disposal. These two resources go hand in hand, and if you don't study the one, you may miss out on the other. If I were pressed to explain why I think the study of modern languages is valuable, my answer would go something like that.

Richard Scholar is lecturer in French and fellow of Oriel College, Oxford.

His book The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a Certain Something is published by Oxford University Press.

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