The best thing to do will be to choose the path

macaque monkey at an Indian temple

The best thing to do will be to choose the path to Galta, traverse it again (invent it as I traverse it), and without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, go to the end — without being concerned about what “going to the end” means or what I meant when I wrote that phrase.

So begins The Monkey Grammarian, the novel… uh, poem… um, well, book by Octavio Paz (translated by Helen Lane).

The instant I saw that book almost twenty years ago in the remainder bin of the McGill bookstore, I snatched it up. After all, I’ve heard of Octavio Paz, I like monkeys, and I like grammarians (many of them anyway). You could even say I am a grammarian. So how could a monkey grammarian not be coolest thing in the world?

The monkey grammarian in question, what the book is “about”, is Hanumān of Hindu mythology — trickster, king of the monkeys, god of strength and enterprise, son of the wind, faithful sidekick of Rama, epic poet (unpublished), and “the ninth author of grammar”.[1] What better muse for a blog about linguistics than the primordial and ultimate linguist?

But the book isn’t really about Hanumān, or even about Paz’s touristic day-trip to see Hanumān’s temple in the ruins of the city of Galta. It’s about what it means for him to remember that trip, to think about it, to write about it, to think, to write, to use language at all. The book is about the nature of “about” — with all the limpid clarity you’d expect from a poststructuralist surrealist Wittgenstein meets stream-of-consciousness mash-up.

There’s one interpretation of the opening passage that I can easily imagine passing through Paz’s head as he sat safely in his study in Cambridge, trying to work himself up to begin his book:

“Stop trying to plan everything in advance. Just get off your butt, get moving, and make it up as you go along.”

What better advice to somebody who’s never quite worked himself up before to actually start a blog?[2]

So I name this blog in honour of the Monkey Grammarian, both book and monkey. And also in honour (or appeasement) of the colony of monkeys that have taken up residence inside my skull. (“Shut up, Luit, and sit down! Yeroen, stop playing soccer with my hypothalamus!”)

In an inaugural post like this, I’m supposed to announce what the blog is going to be about, what its theme is, what its philosophy is. Well, I don’t have one. Most of my posts are likely to be about language and the discipline of linguistics, ’cause that’s what I do with my days. Maybe some will be about the relationship between academia and society. Probably none will share what I ate for supper or the last movie I saw.

But there’s no theme, no mission statement, no agenda. I’ll be inventing the path as I traverse it. Maybe, without realizing it, almost imperceptibly, I’ll figure it out — without worrying about what “figuring it out” means. Oh, wait a minute. I’m a linguist. Of course I’ll worry about what it means.

  1. So there were eight other divine grammar writers, which is impressive, though I presume none of them were also monkeys, which is disappointing.
  2. Okay, I’ll admit the reading is strained. But if even Octavio himself doesn’t worry about what he meant when he wrote a phrase, why should I?

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Thomas Schoch on Wikimedia Commons]

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