Reading C by Tom McCarthy #2


I continue my discussion of C by Tom McCarthy

Chapter 2
‘In the beginning’ says Simeon Carrefax, addressing a small group of parents. We learn that he runs the Versoie Day School for the Deaf, and that he is ‘proud to call myself an oralist’. That is, he teaches deaf or hearing-impaired children to speak. (Manualists, it may be worth noting, teach sign language, and it should be recalled that in Chapter 1, Carrefax was concerned that his children were signing instead of speaking.)

Carrefax’s thesis is simple: speech is divine, and also necessary, and by speech I think he means not so much communication as sound and the production of sound. It was striking in the first chapter and is again how just how loud Simeon is, even on the page, emphasising how quiet everything and everyone else is. In the first chapter he does bark and boom, and here he ‘draws his head and shoulders back’, indicative of producing loud speech, but McCarthy doesn’t just tell us how Simeon sounds, he manages to communicate it through his choice of words on the page, in a way that of course undermines Simeon’s very thesis about the supreme importance of speech and sound.

For Simeon, speech is everything:

It is through our participation in the realm of speech that we become moral, learn to respect the law, to understand another’s pain, and to expand and fortify our faculties through the great edifices of the arts and sciences: poetry, reason, argument, discourse. Speech is the method and the measure of our flowering into bloom. It is the currency and current of our congress in the world and all the crackling wonders of its institutions and exchanges.

It is, though, striking that he sees deaf children as engines and instruments, to be fixed, tuned, although also to have speech ‘wrung’ from them, ‘wrenched out’, the sense of physical struggle at odds with the sense of dealing with delicate mechanisms. Also, bearing in mind that these children are deaf, they are having to lip-read when Simeon speaks, and he often directs them with gestures. It all points to a fundamental contradiction in Simeon’s philosophy.

There is an interesting descriptive phrase as the deaf children recite: ‘His words […] seem to issue not from him but rather to divert through him – as though his mouth, once it formed and held the correct shape for long enough, received a sound spirited in from another spot, some other area, eerie, ear.’ [At the end McCarthy is playing with the sounds the children made earlier in the exhibition, when they demonstrated sound sequences.] One starts thinking about ventriloquism, about radio, about other means of producing voices from the air, and wondering what McCarthy hints at here.

Section ii contrasts sharply with the full schoolroom and sounds of the first section. It’s not clear if the action is running concurrently, but what is striking once again is the silence in this room. The floor is ‘muffled’ by a rug. Serge, the son of Simeon Carrefax, the child whose birth we saw in Chapter 1, is now two and a half years old, or so the maid has told him, suggesting that he isn’t getting much from his parents in the way of communication. This is reinforced by his playing alone.

I’m struck too by how the description of the school room sounds like a laboratory: wooden blocks with geometric figures, labelled jars containing toy figures. Tellingly, I think, ‘[m]ore labels, unattached to objects, spill from a low table to spread a debris of words across the floor.’ (20) Words/speech makes me think of Derrida and Plato’s Pharmacy, in which, among other things, Derrida examines the Platonic preference for speech over writing, that is, ‘logocentrism’. I suspect McCarthy is almost certainly, in some sense, referring to this, and doubtless will again.

Also worth noting is how McCarthy dwells on the flatness of what Serge is playing with. ‘The figures all appear in profile, flat; the landscape across which the cyclist rides […] is as shallow as the round wheels above which his trapezoid body sits – as though, even within the painted world of the block’s surface, he were no more than a cardboard cut-out posed in front of a piece of stage-scenery.’ (20)

The lack of depth contrasts sharply with the multilayering of the garden, the enveloping landscape, the voluptuousness of Mrs Carrefax nursing her new-born child. There is already a sense of disconnection between Serge and his surroundings, and this is strengthened in Section iii when Serge retreats to the garden after an encounter with Sophie, his sister, similarly ignored and clearly highly precocious. Neither seen nor heard, she is an observer, at times a voyeur, sexually as well as intellectually precocious. The garden, unlike the house, is filled with sound, but not words. People wave to Serge from a distance, bees buzz but of course do not articulate. Movement is blurred. The gardens fold round on themselves, as noted in chapter 1, like a labyrinth. Indeed, there is a maze, and it’s two-dimensional, lacking walls. He encounters his mother, but she is also detached, disconnected. The phial lying beside her, linked to the missing phials of the earlier chapter, suggest some sort of drug addiction, reinforced by the image of a wasp’s needle-like mandible sucking up the honey that goes in her tea.

Left to his own devices, Serge floats his toy blocks on the stream and then tumbles in after them, almost drowning (and here we must recall that he was born with a caul, sovereign against drowning). He is rescued by the maid, Maureen, who seems to be the person who mainly takes care of him. (And I have to say that it is very peculiar to see one’s own name constantly surfacing in the text; really disconcerting) and it is she who doesn’t quite articulate a criticism of his parents’ ignoring him.

In passing, I note again the oddity of the landscape, as though it too were fictional through being mostly so very descriptive: Crypt Park (it really has a Crypt), Telegraph Hill, Mulberry Orchard, Low Lawn, Lime Garden, Maze Garden. Only Arcady Field doesn’t quite fit the sense of utilitarian naming.