SEMIOTICS : the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior; the analysis of systems of communication, as language,gestures, or clothing.
Semiotics is a simple concept. Signs are behavioral markers that exist within a cultural context; and the ability to interpret them is a sign of social maturity. A traffic light, for example, is understood by everyone world over. Green, yellow, and red mean exactly the same thing in India and Mississippi. Other signs are more culture-specific. ‘Thumbs up’ signifies that all is well in the United States, but something quite different in Russia, Italy, Greece, and the Middle East. Other, more personal signs – like a furrowed brow– are standard in many cultures, but interpretation can only depend on knowing something about the sign-giver. For one person it is a sign of worry, for another distaste, and for a third perplexity. Missing the sign will result in misinterpretation, miscommunication, and worse.
Husbands and wives communicate largely through signs. Especially as marriages age and verbal communication becomes less frequent, couples rely on practiced symbols for meaning. A wife’s slow tread down the stairs in the morning may mean a bad night’s sleep, a good night’s sleep, or some resentment that had festered all night.
When Paulie Bosco heard his wife slowly descending the stairs, he knew that something was up. Ordinarily her step was quick, light, and cadenced; but when that predictable rhythm was off a beat, so was her emotional pendulum. He was so practiced in this art of reading signs that he was as sure as daybreak that she would ignore him and head into the kitchen.
The rattle of dishes was confirmation, for his ordinarily careful and patient wife always cleared the drainer with a light touch. A rattle of plates or the banging of a cabinet door meant that whatever was eating her had kept her up; and that she was on the verge of saying something; but like most wives choose to eat it, swallow it, and no matter how poor the metabolism, digest and eliminate it.
Women complain that men don’t listen. They are too wrapped up in their own worlds to pay attention, too disrespectful and dismissive, and too limited by their hormonal imbalance to even notice the flashing lights, blinking arrows, and neon signs placed in front of them.
The truth is far different. Most men do indeed listen, hear and consider what their wives say. They pick up all the signs – the unusual silences, impatience in the kitchen, and unmistakable hardness and resolve that mean trouble – and do not ignore them; but instead of trying to elicit a more vocal, forthright, and complete accounting; they start calculating how to deflect, justify, or dismiss the coming accusation.
Men in fact are often better readers of signs than women, despite women’s stereotypical sensitivity, empathy, and concern. Women make signs for understanding, consolation, and comfort; but men want nothing to do with such feminine needs. They know that if they wait long enough, the storm will never materialize, and if it does, the shutters will hold. In other words, men know exactly what is going on in women’s heads. They just don’t want to be bothered.
Men of course display their own signs and know that that women will immediately pick up on them; but rather than ignore them or quickly build a defense, women will want to know more. Paulie’s wife was always after him to ‘open up’ and to ‘talk about it’. She must have known that she was the cause of his brooding, although she would never dare to admit that in these vile moods he was thinking of wringing her neck. Otherwise she never would have asked.
Men and women both understand that signs are useful for punishment and retribution. My aunt used to make her husband suffer through a whole week of stony, cold, indifferent silence before she showed even a glimmer of recognition let alone affection. The drawn curtains in the den in the afternoon were not to cut the glare, but a sign of moody desperation. The cold, bland, barely edible pot roast was a symbol of her own wretchedly routine, dull, and uninteresting life. Serving it to her unappreciative family was a way of making them suffer along with her.
In an ideal world, direct, open, responsive communication would be the only reasonable medium of interpersonal relationships. Why show signs when an honest explanation would air grievances quickly, bring them to resolution, and avoid days of unnecessary bile and repressed hostility?
Paulie felt that his problems were his own and certainly not his wife’s. There were too many sunken costs in their marriage – two children, a sizeable portfolio, a million-dollar house, and a cottage on the Vineyard – for him to shiver the timbers. He had done his best to keep his infidelities under wraps; and if he was feeling a bit uncertain about his paramour’s intentions and her increasing carelessness about their liaison, it was his affair. If he was feeing a bit dodgy about his libido and interest in women and saw the light beginning to flicker at the end of life’s tunnel, no one need know; let alone his wife who would pour out Hallmark card treacle and actuarial tables to make him feel better.
“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella. In one’s final moments, the vanity of friends, wives, and lovers disappears. The only relationship left is with one’s Maker who alone will judge the nature and value of one’s life. Social communication – signs, language, gestures, actions – are only convenient constructs to keep things in order. Unknowability is the elephant in the room and acknowledged only when it is too late.
Paulie’s wife had invited her mother over for a dinner en famille. The old bat was an opinionated, sour, and thoroughly unlikeable woman who carried a sea-bag full of warning flags and pennants; and she was quick to run them up the mast as soon as the breeze shifted. “Oh really?”, she would say, the unmistakable sign of arrogant dismissal. By now Paulie was used to her nasty brand of semiotics, and unlike with his wife, he was flummoxed by the irremediable stubbornness of his mother-in-law. She either banged on about nothing, vying for valuation or sat in the corner waiting for her daughter’s undivided attention. Her signs were obvious and unmistakable; and rather than attract, they repelled. Mother and daughter passed signs to each other, and Paulie painfully didn’t miss a one.
Except for personal relationships, semiotics is nonsense. In a highly-mediated commercial world, signs are everywhere. Advertising is based on image, signs, signifiers, and social clues. Politics is all about image. The signs candidates send to prospective voters are idiotically simple – pants suits vs skirt and a blouse; carefully-coiffed hair or a mane of unruly, senatorial white; smiles or smirks. Police cars in increasingly violent, crime-ridden cities are painted in happy colors and designs. ‘We care about you’, the prowlers say. SWAT teams on the other hand are all business.
Hollywood, Wall Street; and the Unitarian Church are all about signs, images, advertisements, and PR promotions. Nothing new in the public domain; but semiotic signing in marriages is important, for there is more at stake and in play. Intimate relationships are based not only on mutual trust and love; but on suspicion, doubt, infidelity, deceit, and vindictive torment. Miss a sign, and you are in trouble. Fail to act on it, and you lose.
The devil in Ivan’s Nightmare (The Brothers Karamazov) says that without him, the world would be a very dull place indeed. Imagine a world where everyone went to church all the time. Signs in marriage are the devil’s work – once they are misunderstood, every nasty bit of psychological misery is in play.
Edward Albee understood that marriage is the crucible for maturity. Men and women locked in an inescapable room will do terrible things to each other, but as he wrote in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, they are better off for it in the end. In other words, if there were no signs to be misinterpreted, only honest, forthright, and unmistakable speech, nothing would every be ventured, and certainly nothing gained.
Paulie Bosco, more savvy than most men, enjoyed the theatrics and melodrama of marriage, and would have it no other way. In other words, without the fireworks, why bother. “If it weren’t for that nagging old crone”, he said referring to his mother-in-law, we would be on Broadway.”