Culture Decoder

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Image for One Hundred Years of Solitude

The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Recently, as I was re-reading Gabriel García Márquez’ 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude — the story of the fictional Colombian town of Macondo, and the rise and fall of its founders, the Buendía family — my attention was caught by the short episode about the plague… of insomnia. The plague’s side effects are a collective loss of memory, followed in turn by a loss of language. Writing within the territory of magical realism, García Márquez provides beautiful descriptions of the loss of “the name and the idea of things” among the populace of Macondo, which leads them to lose track of… everything. Meaning, we’re given to understand, holds society together.

Four of the story’s characters exhibit a semiotician’s abilities to diagnose and solve the problem.

Visitación, a native woman of the (real) Wayuu people, is the first to recognize what’s going on. Precisely because she’s an outsider to Macondo, she lacks their preconceived notions — and can therefore analysis the situation accurately. And when Aureliano, the second son of the Buendía founder, discovers the minds of his fellows becoming “empty,” he presciently begins to mark every object round him with its name. (Aureliano was born with his eyes wide open, leading some to believe he was clairvoyant.) José Arcadio, Aureliano’s father, puts this strategy into practice throughout the household and village — and he goes further, inscribing operating instructions for everything. For example:

This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she produces milk, and the milk must be boiled and then added to coffee to make coffee with milk.

All of which reminds me of a quote from the French linguist André Martinet: “Languages are not nomenclatures; language does not simply consist of anchoring a unit to an object, since human beings also speak of the intangible, that is, language is also a metaphysical creation, of aspects that cannot be perceived by any of the senses.” Semiotic analysis is a continuum, one that begins by categorizing signs in relation to each other, then follows the associative chains that convey the meanings inherent in the corpus, and finally uncovers the underlying set of cultural codes that shape its imaginary reality. José Arcadio’s efforts, while helpful in providing “anchors” during the plague, are not sufficient, then.

Luckily for Macondo, Visitación brings the wise gypsy Melquíades, a fellow outsider, back to town. Through his knowledge of science and magic, the plague is defeated. How does José Arcadio feel when, back in his right mind, he sees the overly simplistic messages he’d posted all over town?

His eyes became moist from weeping even before he noticed himself in an absurd living room where objects were labeled and before he was ashamed of the solemn nonsense written on the walls, and even before he recognized the newcomer with a dazzling glow of joy.

Semiotics is an emotional practice! It opens the mind to new levels of consciousness and provides new perspectives. The learnings from semiotic analysis can cause surprise — provoking tears of joy! Or sorrow! In its ability to make us perceive the taken-for-granted in an enlightening new way, we might even compare semiotics to surrealist art. Wouldn’t José Arcadio have felt the same way if he’d discovered this label on his cow?

Ceci n’est pas une vache.

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING | Eugene Gorny (Thailand) on TBD.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Books, Decoder