David Cronenberg on inventing a language

People invent languages for different reasons. It’s always a creative act, but artistic expression is not always the main motive, as it was for Tolkien. It may be a political undertaking, as with Esperanto. It can be a pastime, a linguistic or an intellectual exercise, or a job, which is how Klingon came to be. And it can be a mixture of these and other things.

Filmmaker David Cronenberg came close to ticking a few of these boxes early in his career. On a recent re-read of Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley (Faber & Faber, 1992), I came across this brief discussion of Cronenberg’s linguistic aims for his first film, the avant-garde Stereo (1969):

Cover of 'Cronenberg on Cronenberg', Faber & Faber paperback edition. It features a photo of Cronenberg on the set of Naked Lunch, sitting facing the camera with his hands resting on a large tentacled prop. Similar items hang behind him, strapped and chained. He is facing the camera and wears round glasses and a black sweater.I wanted to create a novel mode of interrelation. There is no speech [in the film], but we know there is a kind of speech in gesture. Every community has a whole unspoken dictionary, and I wanted to invent one of my own. I had seriously thought of having the people in the film speak a tongue I had invented, but it’s very tricky to avoid making it ridiculous. I tried to get the alienness of culture involved in the film in subtle ways. One of them was to have that balletic sense of movement.

Cronenberg – who in college studied science, then literature – has always been a voracious reader, and I imagine he has dabbled in linguistics. But he obviously knew the difficulty of creating a language or even a simulacrum of one that would sound authentic enough to serve his directorial purposes. It’s hard to infer from the quote just how far these efforts went.

Cronenberg’s films are engaging as both genre exploits and thought experiments, carefully following the psychosocial consequences of a given What if: often a science-fictional premise. The quote above shows he was also thinking beyond language, about communication more broadly – and unconventionally if necessary. William Burroughs was probably an influence in this regard.

In the end, pragmatic concerns determined matters. Stereo was made on the cheap, with no crew aside from Cronenberg himself. So he shot the film without synchronized sound, adding a voiceover later. The ‘novel mode of interrelation’ had to be solved in some way other than conlanging.

Cronenberg on Cronenberg is a rich read for fans, giving the filmmaker space to elaborate on his work and the ideas it burrows into. (It also has a notable hyphen, which I discuss briefly in an update to my post on unselfconscious hyphenation.)

And it shares its name with this video interview, which will appeal to enthusiasts of his work or to anyone interested in filmmaking more generally:

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3 Responses to David Cronenberg on inventing a language

  1. Elena says:

    Many years I read your blog and study English through your articles. It helps me to explore the language deeper. Your approach, subjects and style of writing is inspiring. Even the picture of clear sky has a positive effect for me. Just want to say THANK YOU

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re very welcome, Elena, and thanks for your lovely comment. I think you’re the first person ever to mention the photo of the sky that I use in the header!

  2. […] happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly […]

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