The Problem with WORDS
1988 … I have a powerful urge to know the causes of things. Like most of my colleagues and probably all infants, I want to know the chains of causation … to explain them if only to my self, to understand them … and the to share that understanding. (that “need to share” is an interesting problem on its own … maybe by sharing I understand more completely … maybe I seek corroboration … more sources of confidence in the validity of an idea … that would make it “real”) (But Goethe (like the Velveteen Rabbit) said only love provides the insight that makes things real) My favorite professor, seemingly sympathetic about my frustration in the laboratory once said, “if you can’t explain it, describe the shit out of it.” He seems to be right in a way that was unexpected: the attempt to find the right words, to describe … that is, the artist’s problem, the poet’s job … leads to unexpected juxtapositions of the extended meanings of the words I use: wholly new threads of thinking and feeling suddenly twitch like resonating strings… sudden digressions (the ADHD disposition?) become epiphanies.
Laura Wait (Resonance II, encaustic/mized media)
2012 … I’ve got to use words if I want to negotiate along the edge of what can be understood as science –shared understanding– My concern for a few years was bridging the “explanatory gap.” (to abuse the metaphor: the gap between subjective and objective is like a crevice encountered on my hike in the mountains, and no one has shown me a convincing way to safely get across)
Joseph Campbell once wrote, “The best things can’t be told . . .” Yet most of us have found ourselves deeply moved by a combinations of words that seem to evoke deep feelings that could not in any other way be so well expressed.
At a presentation about poetry of spirituality at the Westside UU congregation a few years ago patched together an Opening Prayer from the words of Blaise Pascal, Albert Einstein, and John F Kennedy,
(The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not. For the heart’s intuition is a sacred gift and our rational mind is a faithful servant, but Woe to the society that “honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” / Let us remember that in the end, our choices are aesthetic. / Let us remember that when power leads to arrogance, poetry can restore our limitations. / That when power narrows our concern, poetry reminds us of the richness and diversity of existence. / That when power corrupts, poetry cleanses. / Let us honor the art that undertakes the sharing of the deepest layers of humanity in the light of the truths which are the touchstone of our judgement.)
these words imply that poetry is an art form which is somehow more pure and direct in its communication. (but all language is “fossil poetry” Emerson reminds us)
: This article gives a basis for discussing the adaptive advantage of a larger vocabulary: “emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life.”
John Koenig’s You Tube introduction of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (also website)
In your notebook, relate feelings you have experienced for which no single word or simple phrase will suffice. If a word needs to be invented, so be it! Look to John Koenig’s site for inspiration.
Be an etymologist: Find a couple of romantic stories (narratives that delight) about familiar words. (Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that “The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”
FOSSIL POETRY –romantic idea but still, POETRY is mainly words, once again, Joseph Campbell’s comment is relevant:
The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood. After that comes civilized conversation; after that, mass indoctrination; after that, intercultural exchange. And so, proceeding, we come to the problem of communication: the opening, that is to say, of one’s own truth and depth to the depth and truth of another in such a way as to establish an authentic community of existence. (Joseph Campbell 1968 The Masks of God: Creative Mythology p.84)
There is an old Latin motto (usually applied to lawyers) that might apply here:
Ignotum per ignotius,
(an explanation more obscure than the thing it is meant to explain)
Does this sound cynical? The cynicism about words is far reaching:
“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found” (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, II)
“I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are
the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.”
(Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) Preface to Dictionary of the English Language)
“Words are at least the tombs of ideas”
(George Santayana (1944) Persons and Places Vol I, ch 14)
So, what is poetry? —An art form that communicates with words instead of pen or paint, bronze or marble or wood, or one’s own body, as in dance.
Artists other than poets often defend their work as unencumbered by words –Many great artists, when asked what their work meant, are known to have replied that if they could have put it into words, they would not have had to paint (or sculpt, dance, or play it on the piano).
Picasso, when asked to analyze the symbolism of one of his paintings (Guernica) replied,
“if I had wanted to put it into words (I) would have. . . written a book” (Canaday, 1959)
But even artist who work in words have a similar disposition: I think it was Frost who responded to a well meaning matron that asked about the meaning of a poem, “You mean say it again in worse words?”
Words so various in their meaning, so easily misconstrued. Here is an exercise I do in some classes –we each of us place a word in the center of a page, say “ART,” and then rapidly, so rapidly that there is not time to think, write down our free associations. We each create a web of connections to other words that are freely associated with “ART” when we compare our mind maps (as they are called) we find remarkably little overlap. We can more-or-less agree on a definition, but necessarily on a meaning.
So when words are strung together into language they can be seen as landmarks on the map of our consciousness—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” said Wittgenstein. (Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt. Ludwig Wittgenstein 1889/1951; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) p. 148) But then, “The map is not the territory,” said Korzybski. “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. . . . If we reflect upon our languages, we find that at best the must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents . . . the disregard of these complexities is tragically disastrous in daily life and science.” (p 58. Alfred Korzybski 1948. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. (3rd edition) The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Co, Lakeville CT) –reminding us that words stand for things, they are rarely things in themselves. Yet it is how we are understood.
WORDS and THINKING.
“Words, words, words. With the advent of the stream of consciousness in twentieth-century literature, it has come to seem that the self is very much a thing made of words, a verbal construction forever narrating itself and reconstituting itself in language. In line with the dominant, internalist view of consciousness, it is assumed that this all takes place in the brain—specifically, two parts known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the left hemisphere. So, direct perception of sights and sounds in the world outside the body are very quickly ordered and colored by language inside our heads. “Once a thing is conceived in the mind,” wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, “the words to express it soon present themselves.” And we call this thinking. All our experience can be reshuffled, interconnected, dissected, evoked, or willfully altered in language, and these thoughts are then stored in our brains.” (from the introduction to a discussion between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks about words and consciousness (in the New York Review Daily, December 27, 2017)
And here is how Fritjof Capra, celebrate author of the Tao of Physics, put it:
“Since words are always an abstract, approximate map of reality, the verbal interpretations of a scientific experiment or of a mystical insight are necessarily inaccurate and incomplete. . . .the realization that all models and theories are approximate is basic to modern scientific research. Thus the aphorism of Einstein, ‘As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.’ Fritjof Capra 1975, in The Tao of Physics, 41. The same could be said of words!
Words must be related to meaning to be useful. And this is underscored by the experience of meaninglessness as exemplified in the koan riddles of Zen Buddhism.
Koans force us to confront the tyranny of words, particularly the way they can substitute for experience–so sometimes we live the word and not the experience. A bogus existence.
Kathy is fond of saying a value is not a value until it is acted upon, until we stop talking the talk and begin to walk the walk.
How words are organized, how organization affects meaning …
WHAT POETRY CAN DO:
I think that poetry, changing the context and relationships of words, makes us see beyond their conventional definitions to their deeper meaning.
Artists sometimes speak of transparency,referring to the clarity of their communications.
The clearest commune might be Star Trek’s Dr Spock doing the “mind meld” so that he might know another person (or creature’s) thoughts directly. That’s science fiction.
But we cannot know things directly ! Sorry !
STILL, even more than the “deeper meaning” of words … the struggle to put experience into words triggers cascades (if not avalanches) of free associations in unexpected directions … of course maybe that’s only MY wiring. (alternative wiring is getting more attention and respect with the advent of insights into (for example) the autism spectrum.
Mark Johnson introduced his book with the heading, “Meaning is More Than Words and Deeper than Concepts.” What follows is about 300 pages making the case for the aesthetic and emotional aspects of meaning, chiding the philosophers for doing little more than lip-service in rejecting Cartesian dualism and embracing the emerging paradigm of “embodied cognition,” an inevitable outcome of phenomenological thinking. (The Meaning of the Body, 2007 Univ Chi Press)
Biology, gnosis, bodhi, pure light.
There is a barrier of flesh between us and the world, between each of us — and we only know anything outside ourselves by virtue of notoriously inaccurate sensors –sense organs– embedded in that flesh. And then, even that which is within us is constructed of the imperfect sense impressions that have come our way.
OF COURSE we are changed by our experiences … but what about the “spiritual experience?” Is attaining such a transformative experience something that meets a biological need? does it contribute to biological fitness?
“We may dance toward it and away, achieve glimpses, and even dwell in its beauty for a time; yet few are those that have been confirmed in that knowledge of its ubiquity which antiquity called gnosis and the Orient calls bodhi: full awakening to the crystalline purity of the bed or ground of one’s own and yet the world’s true being. Like perfectly transparent crystal, it is there, yet as though not there; and all things, when seen through it, become luminous in its light” (Joseph Campbell 1968 — speaking of “aesthetic arrest”). Joseph Campbell. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. The Viking Press. 1968 p. 66)
But ordinary folks do the best they can. And it can be one of humanities most rare but affecting moments to fully understand, and to be fully understood. In fact, it’s often regarded as profoundly spiritual.
Some folks can barely live without it.
The mindmaps I mentioned dramatically highlight the extent to how different the meanings of words we think we understand can be. Reflecting on how the same word can mean such different things to each of us are a vivid reminder of how words can encumber us.
BUT it is “By words that the mind is winged” said the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes (“The Birds,” 400 BC)
And yet we have poetry!
Words are socially constructed — products of our cumulative experience.
Sometimes it seems that the more we learn, the less we know. Here are two poems contributed by one of my students studying kids:
I would like to go inside myself.
I would like my brain to be a table.
My heart could be my kid.
Inside my hand could be my husband,
and then I could have my bones as pets.
(Honey Jackson, 1st grade)
Once I had a feeling I was so short,
I felt like a short socket.
Once I had a feeling because I had a fight,
I felt like a burning rope.
Once I had a feeling about these flowers that loved each other,
So they went and kissed and felt like a ball of fire.
(Lorraine Fedison, 6th grade)
(contributed by Maria Case 1999)
But we grow and change, and WORDS ARE THE FIRST PART OF US TO BECOME STIFF AND INFLEXIBLE.
My old friend Howard Bloom puts it this way,
“The brain is the funnel in a vortex of other people, the eye in a whirlwind of society. Our fellow humans are as much a part of the process we call self as are the cells within our skin. So what we are and how we think are the eye of a larger hurricane–the shifting storm we call a group of friends, a family, employers, folks who see us on the street, strangers that we meet, subcultures we belong to and others we would like to join. In short the self is organized by tidal spirals of humanity.”
POETRY is often seen to be one of the supreme accomplishments of culture –cultured people are said to know or appreciate poetry. Yet Oscar Wilde, notoriously perceptive about art and culture Wilde wrote in De Profundis that,
“most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation…. One realizes one’s soul [only] by getting rid of all culture.”
And yet this same critic could state
“It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” (Oscar Wilde, Intentions, 1891, ‘The Critic as Artist’ pt. 2)
Putting words to work.
Whatever words have come to mean to us as individuals, they are socially constructed –and by a relatively superficial part of our brains at that!. And sometimes only words can crash through the barrier of socially constructed meanings to something more primal beneath.
The great French artist, Delacroix, once wrote,
“The human mind is strangely made . . . there is a thick crust which must be broken before I can take heart in any thing; a rebellious piece of ground that resists the ploughshare and the hoe. But with a little tenacity, its unfriendliness suddenly vanishes. It is prodigal with fruit and flowers. One simply cannot gather them all.” Delacroix, 7 May 1824 (quoted by Schneider, Daniel E. 1950, p.139. The Psychoanalyst and the Artist. New American Library, N.Y.)
The philosopher, Wittgenstein: “words are like a skin on a deep water” that we must then penetrate. “We must, in the art critic Arnheim’s view, “see to it that in every field of study . . . the student proceeds from the mere husks of communication to the play of the real forces to which communication points.” Arnheim (1966) cites the philosopher Wittgenstein: die Worte sind wie die Haut auf einem tiefen Wasser (Notebooks, 1914-1916, p. 52)
Here is a theory.
(a) As words apply to us and the world they in part construct us and our world by creating expectations –and thus perceptions– of the world
(b) But words are also uniquely suited to penetrate the barrier they themselves can create between an individual (perceived in words) and the authentic, individual self beneath that crust of language – the part of one’s self that cannot be put into words
Each form of art speaks to its respective sense – visual, auditory – but the connection between artist and his audience –you– involves another way that he or she gets inside your head to forge a bond: When we see a dancer fly –we fly similarly in a very real sense , or a sculpture poised with straining muscles to hurl a javelin, our muscles tense.
What’s so special about poetry?
The poet Howard Nemerof said
“There is no reality of which we can speak with the precision of experience, and there are many experiences we cannot have directly, yet words cannot even approximate such indirect referring.”
He quoted the great physicist Neils Bohr lamenting of the difficulty of expressing one’s self in words
“We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.”
And Matthew Arnold –you remember him, (“ignorant armies clashing by night. . . .”)
“Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete,” he said, “and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” (Essays in Criticism Second Series (1888) ‘The Study of Poetry’)
This resonates with a feeling I have and have often expressed to you: At its depths, SCIENCE is a SPIRITUAL enterprise
Science seeks to approximate the truth, but as the Chinese sage Yuan Wu said, “Searching for the Truth through words and speech is like sticking your head in a bowl of glue”
But it can point you in the right direction!
LIMITATIONS OF WORDS
Remember Wittgenstein? ”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
“I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.”
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memorium, v)
Walt Whitman wrote that
“A perfect writer would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, bleed, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with cavalry or infantry, or do anything, that man or woman or the natural powers can do.
“Latent, in a great user of words, must actually be all passions, crimes, trades, animals, stars, God, sex, the past, might, space, metals, and the like — because these are the words, and he who is not these, plays with a foreign tongue, turning helplessly to dictionaries and authorities. –How can I tell you? — I put many things on record that you will not understand at first — perhaps not in a year — but they must be (are to be) understood. — The earth, I see, writes with prodigal clear hands all summer, forever, and all winter also, content, and certain to be understood in time — as, doubtless, only the greatest user of words himself full enjoys and understands himself” Walt Whitman, from his critical writings cited in The New Walt Whitman Handbook, NYU, by Gay Wilson Allen; quoted in NYTBR, NWP, lost date, p47.
Unlike other means of expression, words are peculiar –a sigh or yawn might be understood fairly directly, but language involves more-or-less arbitrary meanings given to puffs of air –they have no inward meaning: “The innocent belief that words have an essential or inward meaning can lead to appalling confusion and waste of time. Let us take it that our business is to attach words to ideas and definitions, not to attach definitions to words.” By P. B. Medawar, cited in NYRB. By Chemistry Nobel laureate (1962), M. F. Perutz [NYRB ,900816,15]
Words, as Aldous Huxley put it,”are the instruments of thought; they form the channel along which thought flows; they are the moulds in which thought is shaped.
Words are a more-or-less ephemeral extension of the psyche corporealized. A means by which the inner world is externalized. A sense of the spiritual dimension of words emerges unbidden every time I string a bunch together for a sermon.
I think first of the bridges and barriers we build with words: their endless regress and their finality. The richness and poverty of languages, including those of the heart, those “begat in the ventricles of mind,” and those that flow freely from our bodies–our dance, our music, our art.
Words may be humanities most amazing invention. They are magical!
In fact, here is what Freud wrote:
In the beginning, “words and magic were. . . one and the same thing, and even today words contain much of their magical power. By words one can give to another the greatest happiness or bring about utter despair. . . Words call forth emotion and are universally the means by which we influence our fellow creatures.” (Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis)
Lord Byron observed that
The mind can make substance,
and people planets of its own with beings
brighter than we have been,
and give A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I think the richness and potential, the mystery and magic of words is manifest anytime we hear them expressed by those who have been touched by them
To conclude and to explore this, I have asked some family and friends and students to share words that have affected — what are yours?
- Emerson: “Language is fossil poetry,” (1844) . Essays. Second Series: ‘The Poet’)
tweaked 5-20-2009 & 11-02-2012 & Jan 3, 2018