Friday, June 06, 2008

Splash du Jour: Friday

Words, no matter whether they are vocalized and made into sounds or remain unspoken as thoughts, can cast an almost hypnotic spell upon you. You easily lose yourself in them, become hypnotized into implicitly believing that when you have attached a word to something, you know what it is. The fact is: You don’t know what it is. You have only covered up the mystery with a label. Everything, a bird, a tree, even a simple stone, and certainly a human being, is ultimately unknowable. This is because it has unfathomable depth. All we can perceive, experience, think about, is the surface layer of reality, less than the tip of an iceberg. ….Words reduce reality to something the human mind can grasp, which isn’t very much. Language consists of five basic sounds produced by the vocal cords. They are the vowels a, e, i, o, u. The other sounds are consonants produced by air pressure: s, f, g, and so forth. Do you believe some combination of such basic sounds could ever explain who you are, or the ultimate purpose of the universe, or even what a tree or stone is in its depth?
-- Eckhart Tolle. A New World. p.25 and 27 --

Have a great Friday!


Anonymous said...

Linguists and poets (sometimes one and the same) have been onto this dilemma for some time: the inadequacy of language - whatever "inadequacy" means. Inadequate to do what? See the work of Roland Barthes or Stanley Fish (U of Chicago) or Derrida on similar themes to Tolle's. They all write about challenges of transferring "meaning" through language - if indeed such a thing as "meaning" can even be rationally approached by us mere mortals.

I notice, of course, that these folks are still WRITING about language's inadequacy though, still using the tool that doesn't work, instead of drawing pictures or transmitting some sort of scent in an effort to reach their reading public.

What choices do we humans have beyond words, eh? It's what some call the human condition. . . and one of the things that the existentialists, as I understand them, were primarily interested in exploring.

I think of Archibald MacLeish's poem, "Ars Poetica," where he opens with the line, "A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit..." and ends with the line "A poem should not mean / But be."
A mute poem?
One that does not "mean"?
Maybe because this poet feels that the poem itself be the experience through its images:

“For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea –“

Theodore Roethke does the same sort of thing in his “Waking” in the lines “We think by feeling / What is there to know?”

Poets, I believe, often speak of wanting their readers not to interpret their work so much as to experience it. As you are a poet, cipriano (I have often lurked in the magnificent halls of your wonderful Poetrypuddle), I wonder if you want your reader to experience or to interpret.

Yes, I wonder.
Which do you want?

Maybe the best idea is simply to sit in silence with someone you feel close to, out in a sidewalk cafe, sipping Starbucks coffee (free refills) late at night, while it is softly raining. . .

Transcendent, indeed.

I have also read the Tolle and find it to be an interesting read...(though Wordsworth says it all just as clearly - and more beautifully - to me).

I am especially enjoying seeing which passages of this inadequate language you are selecting to share with your readers.

Finally, may I suggest that you try to read "between the lines" here in this comment...and maybe we will be able to remedy some of the problems of desultory and flawed communication.

Always interesting reading here. And though it’s inadequate: thank you for you.

cipriano said...

Astute, thought-provoking comments... the like of which I have never seen.

It is interesting, as you note, that we must USE words [inadequate or not] even to convey the idea of the inadequacy of them.
When I read that portion of Tolle, I had this image of a group of aliens huddled behind some bushes, listening in on a human conversation. These beings may have had the ingenuity to travel several light years to visit us, yet would not know what our guttural babblings were all about, unless they stuck around and LEARNED it.
And so it is that the message I take from Tolle's own babblings is just to not mistake these descriptions of things [our language]... these surface noises we exchange with each other, for the deeper levels of reality, underneath.

Those pieces from Archibald MacLeish are beautiful.

Regarding my own writings, especially poetry, I guess I would have to say that both things are important to me, experience and interpretation.
But when it comes down to it, probably the former thing is more important to me.
What I dislike in poetry is obfuscation... especially when it is so blatant that it seems deliberately done. I say "seems" because even here, we bring ourselves to the poem, and one that may seem deliberately obscure to me, may reach the next person in an entirely meaningful way.
As with all art, it is quite a subjective field.
What is done with words is also done with paint and other media. I may utterly dismiss a painting because I failed to understand or be moved by it, and then walk ten feet over, look back and see someone nearly faint as they observe the same piece.
And so it is with words, I think.

[Even that last sentence can be seen and interpreted in several ways, especially if lifted out of its context.]

I just posted a poem of mine this very morning, on Bookpuddle.
And so the question you ask is very relevant. This particular poem is quite personally relevant to me, it was even a difficult decision for me to post it there, for all to see. Even that sentence that I just wrote does not say much, in a definitive way. Because what does "difficult" mean, in this instance?
In the realm of words, "difficult" may mean I am wary of the poem being misinterpreted and hence, miss its mark. Ahhh... but it may also be "difficult" in that I am not sure I want it to be interpreted correctly, and hence reveal too much about me, the author. [A third, way out of context interpretation is even available.... the poem being "difficult" to post because of technical problems with the website... how inexact is language!]

Overall though, I think that what you said when discussing MacLeish is something to consider... maybe I want "the poem itself [to] be the experience through its images."
This is very much it.
I think that the two things [interpretation and experience] can be bridged when the reader can IDENTIFY, in some way, with what is being expressed.
In this sense, yes, the final interpretation may be different even than that which was intended, [so that speaking and writing are a less precise art form than we often are aware of] and even the experience [the effect] may be different than the intention of the author [so that the words engender something wonderfully beyond themselves] but all of this actually enhances the beauty of what language is capable of doing [I think]. It does not lessen it.

In conclusion, [and back to Tolle] I think that it is worthy to note the wonderful things that CAN be done with words. All of these inadequacies should not negate our appreciation of the valiant effort of words.
Surely there are colors in some spectrum [perhaps in a world with some entirely different atmosphere than ours] that our human eyes would fail to see. But wow! Look at what we can do with the colors we CAN see!
Similarly, certainly there are words that desperately need to be invented, and perhaps one day will be... but again. what wonders we can achieve with the ones we have.
I love what the author Mordecai Richler [so modestly] said about his use of language... "There are 26 letters in the alphabet. I jumble them up!"

One thing to remember is that Tolle is not really [in the original passage] speaking so much about the finer arts of writing and literature as much as how people TALK with one another. And secondly, how we should not USE words to sort of relegate items according to their intrinsic worth, even if these objects are what we have come to think of as inanimate objects.
For Tolle, nothing is inanimate, really.
It's not that words are just words, but that words can be just words.
This latter thing is what he is warning us about, in a very roundabout way, because a paradoxical thing happens when we elevate and value and grant unmerited power to words. The things they denote, are diminished. Reality is reduced because it is thought to be known.