As a professional writer and English teacher for the past decade, I’ve been prone to think frequently about the role of language in life. One of the recurring themes in my thoughts — occasioned at least in part by some of my grad school studies in philosophy, anthropology, and sociolinguistics, and also by my being confronted at my job every day by extremely rough and problematic uses of the English language that are damned difficult to address — is the question of “correct” language. Is the very idea of correctness in this area just a culturally imperialistic metanarrative? Is it just arbitrary in the grand scheme of things? Or does it really get at a crucial truth?
And beyond mere technical correctness — grammar etc. — what about matters of rhetoric, style, and syntactical choices? How important are they not just to academic matters but to life in general, and not just in a utilitarian sense but a deeply human one?
A recent essay in The New York Review of Books offers some real fodder for reflection on all of these things. In “Words” (July 15), British academic Tony Judt talks about the vast significance of language in both his own personal life and the life of human culture at large. The essay is fascinating and poignant — fascinating because of the insight Judt brings to bear on the relationship between the clear and skillful deployment of language (in both print and speech) and the achievement of a general clarity of life and thought, and poignant because he caps the whole thing off by talking about a progressive neurological disorder from which he suffers, and which will inevitably rob him of speech. “Translating being into thought,” he says, “thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”
He explains that he was brought up in a family where talking and debating were centrally important, and was processed through the British elementary school system of the 1950s, when “‘Good’ English was at its peak” and “We were instructed in the unacceptability of even the most minor syntactical transgression.”
The heart of the essay appears in his comments about the close connection between clarity of language and clarity of thought, and the way this connection has been devalued over the past half century of public life:
Sheer rhetorical facility, whatever its appeal, need not denote originality and depth of content.
All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom. But it is one thing to encourage students to express their opinions freely and to take care not to crush these under the weight of prematurely imposed authority. It is quite another for teachers to retreat from formal criticism in the hope that the freedom thereby accorded will favor independent thought: “Don’t worry how you say it, it’s the ideas that count.”
Forty years on from the 1960s, there are not many instructors left with the self-confidence (or the training) to pounce on infelicitous expression and explain clearly just why it inhibits intelligent reflection. The revolution of my generation played an important role in this unraveling: the priority accorded the autonomous individual in every sphere of life should not be underestimated — “doing your own thing” took protean form.
Today “natural” expression — in language as in art — is preferred to artifice. We unreflectively suppose that truth no less than beauty is conveyed more effectively thereby. Alexander Pope knew better. For many centuries in the Western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but style itself was never a matter of indifference. And “style” was not just a well-turned sentence: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst.
He goes on from this to observe that in the modern social media milieu of Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and texting, “pithy allusion substitutes for exposition,” and people who live under the reign of an overweening consumerism begin to talk like text messages.
The prognosis he offers is unequivocal:
This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.
As I said, this all hits home because of my personal and professional positions as a writer and teacher. And also because of my philosophical and spiritual proclivities. I’m deeply influenced by a loose Zen-Christian nondual school of thinking, seeing, and knowing, and of course this involves the recognition that reality in itself is fundamentally unspeakable, fundamentally a matter of pure being-ness and first-person apprehension. “The menu isn’t the meal.” “The map isn’t the territory.” Don’t get so distracted by the finger pointing to the moon that you miss the moon itself, the “finger” being words and concepts and the “moon” being the living realities they symbolize. And so on.
For years I struggled with the question of whether this semi-existentialist recognition of the abstraction of language and thought from real being, while valid and crucial, might not entail the necessary conclusion that language is unimportant. That’s one of the major reasons, among all the others, that Judt’s insights are so gripping: because he with his neurological disorder is faced with the imminent loss of his ability to communicate in words. And this really and truly does strike him — and me — as a loss.
In point of fact, reality’s transcendence of language means that the real world and life in general should be infinitely expressible in words. No matter that the words and concepts are relative realities instead of absolute ones, and symbolic realities instead of existential ones. This very fact means a person should ideally be able to describe his or her thoughts and experiences in a literally endless variety of linguistic variations, all of them circling around and pointing toward the realities themselves, and recreating in the mind and affect of the equally linguistically astute listener or reader an approximation of those very realities, thus encouraging a “see for yourself” transition to direct looking. Not to be able to do this, to lack the skills and sensibility to state and restate our experience, is to be locked away in a prison of muteness.
I recall being exhilarated as an undergraduate when I read Robert Anton Wilson’s The Widow’s Son and came to the fantastic philosophical passage in which — as I recall (it’s been a few years) — Wilson presents a hypothetical scene of humanity’s first explosion of self-consciousness, wherein an early human spontaneously develops the first-ever capacity for self-conscious reflection, and is thus able to recognize the beauty of a flower or sunset for the first time, and exclaims to another human with gasping wonder and delight, “Oh, look! Look at this!” Writes Wilson, “And beauty was created in a world that had been flat and dead and meaningless until that moment.”
The entire history of language proceeds from that delightful leap in self-consciousness, from that titanically freeing and empowering ability to step back from life and really see it, and to symbolize it in some form that’s communicable to others, so that they, too, can see for themselves by using the symbol for its proper purpose: as the Taoist’s “finger pointing toward the moon,” which directs attention away from itself and toward reality, serving only as a bridge. (See my “The Evolution of Consciousness and the Alchemy of Language” for more along these lines.)
I finished reading Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone recently, and the entire philosophical thrust of that ecstatically philosophical novel is the value of being able to step back from immediate experience and grasp wider meanings. Wilson writes, “So poets, philosophers, scientists are always having these moments in which they grasp enormous meanings.” He even deliberately presents an instance in which a dull and prosaic-minded character suffers a head wound that accidentally endows him with the ability to induce “value experiences” (the novel’s fictionalized version of Maslow’s “peak experiences”) at will, simply so that he (Wilson) can make this very point about the importance of linguistic expression: “We had found someone who could plunge into ecstasy as a moment’s notice. Here was s Wordsworth without the power of self-expression, a Traherne who could only say ‘Gor, ain’t it pretty.'”
So all of this is just a longish and rambling rumination to get around to saying this: that Judt is right. The power to use language with self-conscious correctness, and not just that, but with rhetorical beauty, is a real power with real value because it really does allow “the translation of being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication” — which means your and my subjectivity becomes sharable. Our walled-off world of interiority becomes something we can communicate to someone else, and they can communicate theirs to us. There may be, in fact there truly are, wordless ways of doing the same thing — but words are one of the finest and most effective means we have of doing this. (See yesterday’s post about fictional entertainments and their power to cultivate empathy.)
Even more: Words, like self-consciousness, can actually enhance primary experience. The capacity for self-consciousness and the capacity for language being inextricably interlinked, it’s simply the case that the better your ability to reflect upon and express your experience consciously and linguistically, the more fully you know that experience. The very act of reflection creates the reflector. It’s bound up with the fact of individual subjecthood itself, as any student of the Western intellectual, philosophical, political, and social tradition, not to mention any student of Buddhism, can tell you. And the achievement and refinement of that ego self, despite the undeniable and enormous problems it has created — everything having to do with the “nightmare” of recorded/civilized history from which Joyce was struggling to awake — is one of the greatest quantum leaps in the history of the universe’s evolution. It’s the universe becoming awake to itself, and our purpose lies not in fleeing from the ego but in fulfilling the purpose for which it arose. See the pre/trans fallacy famously articulated by Ken Wilber. See the biblical Jesus: “I come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.”
Our culture now presents us with an opportunity either to rise to, and even above, the opportunity embodied in words and language, or to sink below it. This is what I and every other writer and/or teacher is charged with addressing. We’re not just trying to enhance students’ communication skills in order to enhance their employment prospects. We’re helping to focus their being, to focus Being itself, for the ultimate fulfillment of its purpose, by helping them to develop their linguistic capacities and conscious interior sensibilities to the greatest possible extent.
Some years ago I started telling the students in my literature and writing classes that language has an alchemical power. I usually do this when we’re studying poetry, although I have applied the idea to prose as well.
This always necessitates a pause to offer a brief explanation of the word “alchemy.” Then, once that’s out of the way, I go on to explain that there’s a positively magical power in language, particularly in the poetic use of it, since language enables each of us to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is particularly true when it comes to lyric poetry, I explain, because this type of poetry is specifically meant to capture and express the author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of “what it’s saying” in terms of the words, concepts, and images, but an actual shared feeling with the author. When a lyric poem “works,” it actually recreates the author’s inner state in the reader (or listener, if the poem is spoken aloud), so that the author and reader are vibrating in sympathy, as it were, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. It’s a veritably alchemical moment, since the poet acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else.
I also point out that the same fundamental idea applies to all types of writing, and this sometimes leads to a brief discussion of basic communication theory, in which I sketch on the chalkboard or dry-erase board the famous diagram showing the basic parts of the communication process: sender, receiver, message, feedback, etc. My undergraduate major was communication, and I studied huge amounts of communication theory during that period, plus I used to teach public speaking, where this model proved extremely useful in helping students to understand what they were trying to accomplish in delivering their speeches (the recreation in their listeners’ minds of the message that they, the speakers, were laboring to present). Sometimes, this foray into communication theory actually helps to clarify and reinforce the point.
Of course, I don’t always get all of that properly said in class. The above description is a kind of idealized version of what I’d like to say. Sometimes it comes out better and sometimes worse, depending on the specific tone of the interaction I’m having with the specific group of students at the time. But the students never fail to find it interesting, and I never fail to find something interesting in their responses. I often use Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening” (which is both a lyric poem and a narrative poem, and is quite dear to me) to illustrate the point, and the alchemical explanation seems to help a lot of students gain a better grasp of what Frost’s poem is getting at with its apotheosis of a wintry longing for silence, solitude, and ultimate rest.
(By way of interjection, I recognize that this explanation of poetry’s and language’s effect extends well beyond the boundaries of literature alone, and has resonances with and implications for art as a whole, and also for lots of other things. In fact, see below.)
I bring all of this up at my blog right now because I just came from reading an interesting review of, or actually a kind of roadmap to, a new book titled What’s Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science, edited by Max Brockman. The review is titled “Top scientists predict the future of science” and was written for New Scientist online by Amanda Gefter. The book itself, as described by Gefter with the help of the book’s jacket copy, is a “captivating collection of essays, written by ‘rising stars in their respective disciplines: those who, in their research, are tackling some of science’s toughest questions and raising new ones.’ The result is a medley of big ideas on topics ranging from cosmology and climate change, to morality and cognitive enhancement.”
What really caught my attention and reminded me of my alchemical explanation of poetry is Gefter’s tracing of the book’s focus on language and social interaction and the way these have probably exerted a decisive influence upon the evolution of the human species and therefore human civilization. The ideas she shares from the book’s assembled authors ping on my fascination with the alchemy of language in manifold ways.
We are a social species, and we have our brains to thank. As Harvard University neuroscientist Jason Mitchell writes: “The most dramatic innovation introduced with the rollout of our species is not the prowess of individual minds, but the ability to harness that power across many individuals.” Language allows us to do this in an unprecedented way — it serves as a vehicle for transferring one’s own mental states into another’s mind.
Or how about this:
We also connect to other minds via mirror neurons — those copycat brain cells that echo other people’s actions and emotions from within the confines of our own skulls. Mirror neurons allow us to learn from one another’s experiences and to see the world through foreign eyes — a neurological feat that seems to lie at the basis of so much of what it is to be human. Through mirror neurons, “our experiences fuse into the joint pool of knowledge that we call culture,” writes neuroscientist Christian Keysers of the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. “With the advent of language, books and television, this sharing becomes global, allowing us to exchange experiences across time and space.”
Color me fascinated. I have my doubts about whether these thoughts would prove interesting to most of my students, but they certainly grab me, and do so strongly enough that I may find it necessary to acquire and read this book, if only to revel in its confirmation of my own Beautiful Mind.
(That last comment is intended as ironic, by the way, a fact which I hasten to point out in case its tonal-alchemical intent went over like an untransmuted lead balloon.)
Image: “The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus” or “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone,” Joseph Wright of Derby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.
The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.
Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:
But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.
This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”
— George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)
And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:
I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style. Read the rest of this entry
Apparently, I talk like Lovecraft. That is to say, I use big words and sound like a walking, talking book. This is according to the longtime reports of my family, friends, coworkers, and the several hundred high school students I have taught since 2001. But it’s the comments to this effect arising out of my recent convention appearance as a guest of Mo*Con III that have really driven the point home for me. (BTW, that’s me in Maurice’s garage with fellow Mo*Conners at left above. At right is HPL himself.)
At Mo*Con I moderated and participated in a panel discussion about spirituality and horror fiction. The other panelists were Nick Mamatas, Bob Freeman, Maurice Broaddus, Mark Rainey, Kim Paffenroth, and — as an impromptu but wholly desirable addition — Gary Braunbeck. When it came my turn to describe my personal lifelong spiritual journey and the way it has played into my career as a horror writer and scholar, I described my beginnings in the Christian Church denomination and then subsequent odyssey through a plethora of writers, mentors, and attachments to various religious and spiritual traditions, including Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, Vedantic Hinduism, classical Western-style skepticism and agnosticism, Robert Anton Wilson-inspired reality tunnel switching, and more. Apparently, I used a lot of big words. Just ask Maurice, who hosted the convention at his church, Indianapolis’s The Dwelling Place, and who in his con report and his description of the spirituality panel referred to me as somebody “who uses a lot of big words first thing in the morning.” (Of course, this impression may have been enhanced by the fact that many panelists and attendees were still recovering from the previous night’s late-ranging party party and vigorous Celtic music performance by the band Mother Grove.)
(Incidentally, you can listen to the spirituality panel yourself, if you want, since the first part of it has apparently been made available by P.I.D. Radio as a podcast that I haven’t yet had time to listen to. I don’t know if my portion appears there.)
The impression of my big-wordedness arising from that morning spirituality panel gained in scope and gravity as the day progressed into night. We all went to Maurice’s house for food, drink, and conviviality. I ended up spending most of the evening seated in lawn chairs in Maurice’s front yard with a half-dozen fellow writers and convention goers, engaged in a free-wheeling conversation that progressed from horror and SF movies (especially the classic Japanese monster movies) to horror and SF television to horror and SF fiction to religion and spirituality (especially issues of fundamentalist-literalist Christianity as contrasted with more expansive and tolerant approaches) to personal literary inspirations. During the religion phase of the conversation, I was twice told that I expressed my thoughts, impressions, and positions with especial eloquence.
Then came Sunday, when as we were all saying our goodbyes in preparation for departing for home I was approached by two people who told me in specific reference to the way I spoke on both the spirituality panel and the editor’s panel that I am amazingly smart and super-intellectual.
Then came the debacle of the canceled Sunday flight that left Nick Mamatas and me stranded in Indianapolis and crashing at Maurice’s house for what turned into Mo*Con III.2. In a blog post from two days ago titled, amusingly (or disturbingly), “Mo*Con III.2: God Hates Matt, but Jesus Loves Kelli,” Maurice wrote, “Let me tell you, nothing will make you feel dumber than being between Nick Mamatas and Matt Cardin while they are going at it about the subjectivity of how we experience reality. Those were probably the last words I understood.”
Okay, I give. My wife and son have told me for years, “You like to hear yourself talk,” by which they mean I wax excessively wordy whenever I tell stories or talk about ideas. My high school students have said that I sometimes talk over their heads, even as they have expressed amazement and fascination at the way I sound more intellectual than anybody else they’ve ever heard. Now my fellow writers and surfers of ideas are saying the same thing. The jig is up. I am a hopelessly big-worded, hyper-intellectual geek who uses two dollar terms when 10-cent ones would work just as well.
Or actually, I think I use exactly the words I mean. Without an ounce of pomposity or pretentiousness or egotism, just as a statement of innocent fact, I can say that speaking the way that I do is entirely natural to me. My native idiom in daily conversation is apparently something that sounds hyper-intellectual to a lot of people. As a writer who is innately passionate about philosophies, worldviews, and ideas, I have absorbed this pattern not only of thinking, but of speaking. I crave exact accuracy of verbal expression. Fortunately or not, this means I use words that are big and/or heavy-sounding by conventional conversational standards. I guess I’m somewhat like the 18th century Americans described by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman recounts how European visitors reported that the majority of these Americans, not just the overt intellectuals but the everyday people, were astonishingly bookish and inclined to speak in conversational patterns shaped by this fact. In short, these observers said, Americans at that time didn’t hold conversations, they gave speeches.
Ah, well, I guess I’m in good company. After all, I’m a lifelong devotee of H.P. Lovecraft, and who can forget Lovecraft’s famous intellectual mode of speech? Friends and biographers have said that he spoke like a book. Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea illustrated this quality in their unforgettable and hugely amusing portrayal of Lovecraft in the Illuminatus! trilogy, where HPL appears as a character and speaks like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Ray Bradbury had the protagonist of his classic short story “Pillar of Fire” visit a library in an imagination-deprived, futuristic anti-utopia and ask about, among other things, the literary fate of “fine, big-worded Lovecraft.”
So forthwith, beginning immediately, I shall eschew all unnecessary agonizings over my undeniably verbose mode of discourse and shall freely employ such elephantine terminologies as arise naturally to suit the given conversational contingencies.
Or something like that.