From the Box: Amy Hempel

“Linguistic practice is not for something…[it is not] a means to secure some other end specifiable in advance of engaging in linguistic practice- not adaptation to the environment, survival, reproduction, nor co-operation- though it may serve to promote those ends. Even if.. those functions explain why we came to have language, once we did have it, our transformation into discursive creatures swept all such considerations aside. For discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends.” – Robert Brandon

If this is true- which I believe it is- then the languages we use to talk and write are weighty, wonderful things.

But it is also true that there are simpler languages,  ones which skulk around the edges of our linguistic practice and cannot hope to transform us in the same way. These languages are sometimes imagined, sometimes stipulated, sometimes required to fulfil a certain role. They rub uneasily against our native languages- too different for adequate translation, too similar for us to not try and attempt it.

The imaginary language of Wittgenstein’s builders in the 2nd section of the Philosophical Investigations is an example of such a language- one “more primitive than ours” and initially only  consisting of four words, which a builder uses in order to request materials from his assistant. The point of this, and other primitive-languages and language games in Wittgenstein is to exist as “objects of comparison which are meant to throw light on the facts of our language by way not only of similarities, but also of dissimilarities.” (130)

But since the words of this language (block, pillar, slab and beam) also have a meaning in our own language, the question is whether this language is merely a degenerate and shortened form of our own, instead of being something we could fruitfully compare it to.

It is true that Wittgenstein is happy to call “Slab!” as a sentence from the builder’s language elliptical, but this is importantly “not because it leaves out something that we mean when we utter it, but because it is shortened- in comparison with a particular paradigm of our grammar.” It stands alone as a “complete” language, even though its words also have meaning in our own.


It is this lengthening and shortening, this translation between two different languages that Amy Hempel’s short story ‘Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep’ gets some of its magic from.

In it a women is attempting to mend her life following an abortion, a process complicated by the pregnancy of her close (or perhaps only) friend.

For her “learning to knit was the obvious thing. The separation of tangled threads, the working-together of raveled ends into something tangible and whole”. She finds a kind of companionship around the table of a woman who owns the store she buys wool from. “Often I go there when I don’t need a thing. In the small back room that is stacked high with pattern books, I can sift for hours. I scan the instructions abbreviated like musical notation: K10, sl 1, K2 tog, psso, sl 1, K10 to end. I feel I could sing these instructions. It is compression of language into code; your ability to decipher it makes you privy to the secrets shared by Ingrid and the women at the round oak table.”

And yet this deciphering does not, yet, have anything to do with our own language- it sits entirely within the practice of knitting. Being able to decipher the code is having the ability to transform the instructions Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep” into the the neat, overlapping pattern of looped wool. (To bring it back to Wittgenstein Hempel’s knitting is the perfect example of language as a custom.)

This translation of this code to our own language comes later, when the reader has finally gained some sense of the internal mess the narrator is trying to smooth out and knit back together. (And after one of my favourite sentences in Hempel’s canon: “I had accidents. I had bigger ones. But the part that hurt was never the part that got hurt.”) It becomes clear that the title words of the short story are indeed capable of being successfully translated into our language: Begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat, a beautiful sequence that recalls both the root of this unhappy state of affairs the narrator now finds herself in, and the ways she is trying to find out of it.

But here a similar question to the one asked in Wittgenstein becomes important: is the “real” meaning of this code the language the English words she has translated it into? Certainly there is more fullness to them- they mean something more complex than just an instruction for how to do things with wool. They mean- taken as a whole-  something to do with both conception and recovery, begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat.

And yet if the language of knitting was simply a degenerate form of our own language, how could those simple, instructional verbs have the power to alleviate her suffering or begin some process of healing? The ‘lengthened’ form belongs to a richer language, granted, but the words themselves are barer; they don’t, by themselves, have the power to do anything.

By contrast Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep and all the other knitting “codes” that go with it do. They are they key element in a  practice that enables her to deal again with life. When she has a distressing conversation with her friend’s husband about what she will do when the baby arrives she uses her eyes to weave “strands of tinsel over the Blessed Virgin”. She wants to “knit the cold linguini, laying precisely cabled strands across the oily red peppers and beans” when getting food out of the fridge for the new mother, whilst the baby sleeps. “That was the great thing about knitting” the narrator thinks. “Everything was fiber, the world a world of natural resource.” And not only things which could feasibly be knitted together (like tinsel or linguine or steel wool) but also harder things, where knitting clearly is just a metaphor.

Perhaps these languages cannot enable the envisaging of new ends in the way that capital L language does, or transform us in the same way, but they can transform us in some way.

The story ends with more of the sacred code:

“K tog rem st. Knit together remaining stitches.

Cast off loosely.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s