Language as Subject, Subject as Structure

In the post modern world, it is nearly impossible for creative artists not to consider the effects the medium of their work will have on the subject itself. As a painter, there are many points in my process when I step back and assess. Once a subject has evolved, I think about which tools to continue with, how an altered or strengthened composition might intensify the effect of what I want to get across. The writer half of me is interested in how this issue of Appropriate Medium, which I am used to addressing in the visual arts, translates to the written page.

One answer came to light after re-reading George Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead, from his 2013 short story collection, “Tenth of December”. On my initial read, it was Saunders’ scathingly tragi-comic satire (human testing of non-lifesaving drugs on prisoners makes up most of the present action of the story), and the fun Saunders has with language, that captured my attention. On subsequent reads, however, it became clear how substantive the role language in the piece is, how language itself is also a subject. And then I remembered Flowers for Algernon.

There are a lot of parallels between the Daniel Keyes’ 1966 novel (based on his 1959 short story) and Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead. The protagonist in each occupies a subjugated position in society. Each undergoes experimental scientific testing with only dubious buy-in on their part. For Keyes’ Charlie, it is his mother’s pathological denial of his mental retardation, her desire for him to be other than he is, that drives Charlie to crave intelligence. It is the one thing he would need, he assumes, to gain love and acceptance, and the reason he decides to undergo radical brain surgery. It is the equally self-centered profit-motive of a pharmaceutical company that is responsible for Jeff’s experimental dosing with experience-altering drugs in Saunders’ story.

As a result of ethically questionable scientific testing, the ability of both protagonists to express themselves with words changes drastically over the course of each story. After reading these two pieces back-to-back, I saw from a more subtle craft perspective how each used language not only as subject, but as structure, too; how the author’s choice of that particular structure was integral to the narrative’s success.

In Flowers for Algernon, Charlie advances from a child-like use of language, complete with misspellings though he is a grown man, to struggling-but-eloquent genius after his surgery. He then descends back to his original state, his ability to articulate again diminished, after the procedure proves to be impermanent. Structurally, this makes for a tension-building rising arc, a sped-up coming-of-age, until we reach the climax of the story, when eloquent genius-Charlie must come to terms with his troubling prognosis. We are then made to witness Charlie’s heart- rending decline, to experience the rise and fall of the controversial experiment’s consequences. A bell curve of linguistic prowess, intelligence and storytelling structure.

At the start of Saunders’ Escape from Spiderhead, the protagonist, Jeff, uses simplistic, general descriptions like “really nice” and “super-clear” to describe a garden. Once the drug— aptly and hilariously called VerbaluceTM—is administered, however, Jeff’s ability to articulate the specifics of his environment increases dramatically, as does his power to identify the ways in which this more closely noticed world effects him.

“[Abnesti] added some VerbaluceTM to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.” (Page 46.)

How appropriate that Jeff would, at his most lucid, arrive at Plato. After all, the philosopher’s Allegory of the Cave has prisoners chained, only able to look in one direction, a situation that mirrors his own (see more on the allegory here). This makes me see the “tight- seeming bushes” as a kind of wall around the prison’s internal garden, and the sun that makes “everything stand out” as the fire behind the chained prisoners that they cannot see, the drug maker as puppeteer, choosing which shadows to cast onto the cave wall for them to see.

Then there’s the mention of the eternal (or everlasting) and the ephemeral (or fleeting) concepts that Plato also considered in relation to the mind. He argued that the reasoning intellect alone is able to comprehend the pure, bodiless forms that exist in the eternal realm.1 Its mention together with Plato sets up the expectation that in order to be saved, Jeff must find a way to stay connected to the verbal centers that VerbaluceTM has given him greater access to, in order to achieve that eternal realm.

Sure enough, as the story progresses, we see how Jeff’s access to more sophisticated language results in his growing awareness. Situations that might once have been poorly articulated and abstract—including his own past violent crime—become very real. Particularly when he is asked to harm others while equipped with enhanced descriptive, and therefore reasoning, powers. In a beautiful paradox, VerbaluceTM, a drug inextricably linked to unethical cruelty, is also instrumental in Jeff’s transformation, its gift of language directly tied to his developing consciousness.

In the title piece of his essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone, Saunders addresses language in the following passage:

“We consider speech to be the result of thought (we have a thought, then select a sentence with which to express it), but thought also results from speech (as we grope, in words, toward meaning, we discover what we think).” (Page 4.)

Though VerbaluceTM is the catalyst, we see how Jeff’s thoughts are transformed through this linguistic groping toward meaning. In Jeff’s case, just as in Charlie’s, greater engagement with language leads to greater self-discovery. For both Charlie and Jeff, this self-consciousness, in turn, leads to the ultimate agency for the subjugated: self-determination. After a lifetime of dependence, Charlie’s self-awareness enables him to leave the custody of others and make his own life choices. And once his unfortunate fate becomes clear, he is free to plan for his less intelligent self’s future. The only way for Jeff to leave his cave of darkness, his prison, in pursuit of true enlightenment, is death. With a self-administered overdose of DarkenfloxxTM he achieves this end, and is finally able to reach the light—at the end of the tunnel.

So structurally, where we follow Charlie’s arc of elocution and understanding up around and back down, Jeff’s trajectory, and therefore his story’s structure, too, is one of steep incline, one that launches him straight out of the prison into the afterlife, where even without VerbaluceTM he is eloquent, a poet able to engage with beauty and forgive, where he is enlightened, and free to fly weightless with the birds, a killer no more.

1 Cataldi, Sue L., Hamrick, William S. Eds. Merleau-Ponty and Evironmental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. Page 153.


Allegory of the Cave Summary: Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to designate names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. (Wikipedia,, 11-7-2014 11:50PM EST

514 a, 2 to 517 a, 7
Translation by Thomas Sheehan

Click to access cave.pdf

Works Cited

Saunders, George. Tenth of December. New York: Random House, 2013.

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1966.

Cataldi, Sue L., Hamrick, William S. Eds. Merleau-Ponty and Evironmental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007