The topic today is language, words and their use, or mis-use perhaps. I open this week with a poem I wrote in philosophy class back in 1992. I was young, excited about the world, in love, and ready to charge off into life with no specific plans. It was a time when I was perhaps a little clever, but had too little wisdom (some wisdom has come in dribs and drabs since then, but there is so much more to learn)... But, boy, was I starting to have fun:
Self Condemning Language Games
On the floor rests what
by our words is called
by the name “orange chair.”
The antagonist understands but chants…
“Chrome seat, chrome seat.”…
But on a twin earth with twin things, rests a twin chair
which is called
by the name “purple iron.”
The antagonist understands and chants…
“Language game, language game.”…
In another plane on another place rests another twin
which has not been called
by any name at all.
The skeptic says, “It can’t be perceived, it hasn’t been named.”
The antagonist states questioningly…
“Oh?! It can’t be seen? It can’t be seen?
The boy who knew not its name
bumps into it rather than avoids it
knowing not its name, its name!”
The skeptic says… “It can’t be understood, it hasn’t been defined.”
The antagonist says… “I’ll whack you over the head with it.
I’ll smack you on the head with it.”
The man from twin earth says to the antagonist…
“You whacked him on the head with the iron!”
The antagonist says… “Maybe so, maybe so, if you call it by that name,
but at least the skeptic is dead, is dead.
At least the skeptic is dead.”
The failure of words: I have been realizing lately how much language fails me when I need it most. I have thoughts and feelings that I wish to express about deep and pervasive issues of import to me, and despite all the possible ways to construct meaningful sentences, stumble upon my own diction. Whether it is in expressing my complex views of social politics, or trying to manage my personal relationships, I keep crashing into places where I feel like language fails me. I have been thinking about this more in recent months and realize it is not the fault in language nor in me, so much as it lies in the complexities of our varying perceptions of the world around us and our difficulties in weighting our conflicting values/feelings/thoughts/etc. The most complex things are not easily defined, and the perceptions we bring to our understanding change so much how we try to communicate about them.
Concrete and elusive: The more abstract a thing is, the more we look to metaphors and examples, allusions and illustrations, circumscribed definitions. These attempts to triangulate on meaning sometimes fail or worse backfire. Talking about concrete things is obviously more simple. For instance, talking about the weather is easy. We all experience the same external elements. How we experience them may differ; what value we attribute to those elements can lead to a discussion of feeling and preference. But we are still talking about something relatively un-complex.
Wonder and joy: But when we share a moment of wonder and awe with someone else and wish to communicate how we feel with that other person, it is often in a squeeze of a hand, a look in the eye, and relies on all the previously experienced moments with that someone else. These familiar moments that rely so little on language are like a shared code, how amazing and cool! And words that might have failed anyway are not needed for these shared moments. There is no need to explore the differences of the feeling, the positiveness of it strengthens the relationship.
The difficult things... solitary perception of shared experience: But what happens when the things being experienced are entirely new to both, resist language, are being perceived differently, and that there are no previous moments to rely on for explanation? What happens when the experience is negative and forces those experiencing it further into a solitary perception of the complexity? It's like two encrypted codes traveling back and forth with only partial decryption keys on either end, therefore only partial understanding and perhaps mis-understanding. What becomes shared is only the solitariness of it, and the focus rests on the mis-understandings. How terrible and sad!
The Way: It is here—in these moments where all the explaining, double tracking, and stumbling fails—that pure and positive emotion may be the only meaningful moment. Language fails, and the pureness of heart prevails. Perhaps the words themselves don't serve their proper purpose, only the intent behind them. It is in the renewed moment of a tentative squeeze, or that certain look in the eye, that does not communicate the thing, but is able to capture the heart...