- Bilingual Aesthetics:A New Sentimental Education
Doris Sommer's new work Bilingual Aesthetics is the sort of book that takes one by surprise—and for good reason. Filled with punning twists, and itself a valorizer of word games and magic, this work has not a lot to do with bilingualism (in the standard sense), not a lot to do with aesthetics (again, in the standard academic sense), but a great deal to do with both. Whether the title is read (and Sommer's point is to forward the notion of alternate readings) as the aesthetics of bilingualism or as an account of what a bilingual might make of aesthetics, there is a startling amount of content in the work.
Briefly, Sommer essays to make the case that our multicultural society is distinctly better off for being multicultural and multilingual (or at least, in some threatening sense, emergently bilingual) because the literal bilingual has a distinct advantage over her or his monolingual counterpart. The bilingual can play language games, and those games shock, amuse, or jolt—whatever it is that they do, they rouse us out of any state of intellectual torpor into which we might have fallen and they serve to make us all individuals who, in Du Bois' memorable phrase, have "double consciousness."
Thus Sommer does in fact mean for her title to be read in at least two ways: Her work attempts to valorize and vindicate a sort of unofficial bilingualism (one of the blurbs on the back of the paperback edition begins by saying "Knowing a second language entails some unease . . . "), while she also attempts to let us in on the notion that there is an aesthetic that develops from the use of more than one code. Sommer plays remarkably on all these concepts: She is familiar with the standard, overt scholarship on bilingualism—she can cite work by sociolinguists and others. At the same time, as an author known for previous work on literature, especially with regard to Latin America, she is also familiar with much of the standard historical work in aesthetics, including Kant. Citing thinkers such as Kenji Hakuta, William J. Bennett, Wittgenstein, and Elena Poniatowska, Sommer leaves the reader somewhat bedazzled and breathless but better off for having read her work.
Her overall thesis, if one may attempt to employ such a phrase, is that bilingualism and code-switching create for us the same sort of uneasiness and inevitable access to the unconscious that works of art and literature produce—and that the edginess that is a concomitant of code-switching is beneficial. Her first chapter "Choose and Lose" reminds Americans that the United States has always been a multilingual place and focuses on how much can be gained from attempting to forward the notion. If there is any difficulty to Sommer's work, it is that she practices what she preaches. Every page demands much of the reader, since every page itself engages in the [End Page 121] sort of rapid-fire twisting and switching that Sommer is trying to support as the ground for a new aesthetic consciousness.
Early on, Sommer gives us the following:
Complaints about the danger to national coherence [of multi- or bilingualism] can be downright funny . . . . [One irate journalist wrote:] "How can immigrants identify with America if they can't read Lincoln's words in the language in which they were spoken?
(out of many, one) to a multicultural boarding house, . . . ?" No need to be upset at this harangue. It's obviously a joke, even if the author missed it (a common asymmetry in bilingual humor). Notice that the translation from Latin assumes that English-only citizens don't understand the very slogan they hold dear.(p. 26)
But of course the joke is to some extent on Sommer and on all of us, as she no doubt intends. It is highly unlikely that the journalist did get the humor, and the only funny part of the entire tirade is that we—assuming we have enough formal education—may be able to make something out of it...