Let us enter the world of that first great experimental novel, Tristram Shandy.
How, asks Tristram’s Uncle Toby, can someone speak about a white bear if he never saw one? Whereupon Tristram’s father produces this paean to the auxiliary verb and its power to conjure what isn’t there:
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one. Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I have seen a white bear (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted? – described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Rough? Smooth?
Is the white bear worth seeing?
Is there no sin in it?
Is it better than a BLACK ONE?
This is language as speculative decay, losing its grip on reality which – as we have known since Saussure (and Sterne) – it has never had anyway.
Bantu in the Bathroom
Jacqueline Rose on the trial of Oscar Pistorius
London Review of Books