My French is rather terrible, regardless of the courses I’ve taken at the amazing L’Institut Catholique de Paris.
This has not, of course, dissuaded me from trying to speak it whenever I’m in Paris.
Last week was one example. It had been a year or so since I was last there, and thus since I last tried to speak French, which, in all honesty, is limited to ordering drinks at cafes.
Because I was taking a taxi to my hotel, I practiced three or four times, in my head, how to say: “13 Rue Des Beaux Arts.” I made sure to pronounce ’13’ as ‘treize,’ and that I properly pronounced the ‘liaison’ between the ‘z’ sounding ‘x’ in ‘Beaux’ and the ‘a’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-art.’ Also, I reminded myself not to pronounce the ‘t’ or the ‘s’ in ‘Arts:’ “boze-arr.” Likewise, I reminded myself that the ‘r’ in ‘Rue’ had a simple ‘roll’ to it, like clearing my throat, while also lifting my bottom jaw: “rrrooo.”
When I approached the taxi driver, readily prepared, I completely fumbled it. I said something like, “roo da boze-arts,” with an emphasis on the ‘t’ and ‘s.’ He looked at me oddly, to which I simply said the address in english. He smiled, said it back to me in perfect French, and we were off.
On the way to the hotel, with that sweet smell of wet earth coming in the open windows, I started thinking of the language game we had just played. Perhaps not exactly like what Wittgenstein meant in his section of Philosophical Investigations, but something at least related to it.
That is, where Wittgenstein’s philosophical theory of the ‘language game’ posits the notion that the meaning of a word should be achieved via a complex understanding of the similarities that ‘overlap’ and ‘criss-cross’ the uses of that word, and thus the ‘family resemblances’ that these similarities inspire, my interests were more connected to the idea that one of the meanings of a ‘language game’ is a type of ‘play-acting,’ a ‘dramaturgical’ back-and-forth between two players.
In his The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), Erving Goffman refers to this dramatical ‘vis-a-vis’ as a ‘presentation’ of one’s self. Relating this to the pragmatic manner in which an actor will construct his or her fictional identity as a character within a dramatical recreation of an imaginary (yet, similarly no less ‘real’) person, this equally means that when we present our identities, we are just as fictionally constructing the type of identity that we wish to be seen (and validated) by others. In this same way, we may find ourselves ‘switching’ or ‘altering’ our self-characterizations in order to fit within differing contexts.
My interaction with the taxi driver was no different. In my hope that he would recognise this as a return trip, and not my first experience in Paris, I practiced my lines before presenting the ‘Ethan’ that I wanted him to see. I had, in this way, constructed a particular identity, a character within our little drama, that was both the real ‘me,’ as well as a ‘fabricated’ one designed for a specific reason, that I then ‘performed’ as if on stage.
I might argue, then, that this occurs constantly, a continuous identity alteration, from context to context and indefinite in its usage. My horrific misuse of the taxi driver’s own language was an isolated example, a tableau of the dramatical construction between two selves presenting their identities for validation, and thus embodying a type of definitional interaction.
Which got me thinking. If I designed myself in order to present an identity that I wanted both validated and defined by an other, wouldn’t that ‘other’ be presenting itself to me as well? Did the taxi driver construct his own presentational self for me to recognise and validate? What was the ‘self’ that he wanted me to see?
As I was thinking this, he quite timely turned down the French pop-music and tilted his head back.
“Are you American?” he asked with a heavy accent.
“Oui,” I responded.
“Ah, George Bush. I no like ‘im.”