I know a person who can turn a perfect phrase. It’s an art really. One that so many of us have lost in this day and age of anticipatory texting, smileys, weird shorthand (e.g. “lol”), and “you know”’s.
Taylor Mali in “Totally like whatever, you know?” laments that “actually our disarticulation... ness/ is just a clever sort of... thing/ to disguise the fact that we've become/ the most aggressively inarticulate generation/ to come along since.../ you know, a long, long time ago!”
And while Mali focuses more on our lack of conviction in our speech, his poem (and poems) so nicely outline that we are continuing to raise generations of people who will never learn to truly express themselves. It’s sad really. Millions of people who are trapped inside themselves, frustrated they do not have the words to relate to others and unable to figure out how to change this sad state of affairs. Unable to communicate and unable to understand one another. For even though this or that smiley might adequately express a surface emotion (much like that pain chart at the doctor’s office where a 1 for pain is a happy face whose smile gets more and more linear until level 5 where it begins the downward slope to a full frown at 10), there really isn’t a yellow visage that can truly represent the soul.
Someone might argue with me that language is just as inadequate as a smiley. Language is just a continued and always delayed representation of the real thing—the real I. But I argue, try having a thought without language. Try to gauge how you feel, react, or interact in the world without some sort of symbolic representation. Impossible? Exactly.
Jacques Lacan calls this pursuit of language as a method of defining ourselves and the world around us the manifestation of the absence of the petit a. The little a (which is “autre” in French and “other” in English—so I guess it would translate the “little o”) is the center of ourselves we can never express or define. This inability to access our other makes us split souls (or subjects in Lacan’s speech). We are incomplete. We know this fact. We strive to pursue that which will make us complete—our petit a—and in that striving, create language. We can never actually access our other center-self, yet we can have terrifyingly beautiful moments when we come ever so close.
Why terrifyingly beautiful? Because to come so close to accessing our other leaves us terribly exposed, yet, at the same time, beautifully whole. We become intimate.
In Sex/God, Rob Bell writes about the human condition of lost intimacy with each other and the world itself. He discusses physical intimacy as an important component becoming whole. However, this intimacy is also couched in language. He distinguishes between animal sex, human sex, and angel non-sex. What is important to note is that humans, according to Bell, occupy a realm that is neither solely physical (animal) nor solely intellectual (angel). We occupy the middle realm. A space between pure physicality and transcendent ethereality. A space of spirituality that is mediated by language.
Because our entire perception of reality is based on our language system, to not have a grasp on said system is tantamount to putting oneself into solitary confinement and throwing away the key. Isolating. Destructive.
Someone else might argue that because language and meaning is so subjective, we can never truly have a grasp on it. Never truly master it. Never truly master ourselves. However, think of the time you’ve been struck by a poem or a story or a spoken phrase. One that slices through the meat of you to the core and leaves you exposed and gasping. In that moment, language was mastered.
For a person, like the one I know, who makes a point to master language—who more often than not refuses to just blather away as many of us do to fill that void of silence in our souls—there are amazing “aha” moments. But there is a darker side to these moments as well. With the ability to expose the soul with True words, comes the ability to wound as well as reveal the beauty within. With a mastery of language, one can build the soul up or break it down.
I have words that will reverberate forever through my being. Some leave me joy-full. Others continue to rend and tear through my heart until it weeps tears of blood. Both types, because they are True, establish intimacy even if painfully so.
This person I know knows that language is an art: the art of expressing exactly the way our souls feel at that moment. This person knows the importance and power of the-perfectly-right-grouping-of-sounds. The “aha” moment of “that’s just what I was feeling.” This person also knows seemingly smaller language details like the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.” Yet in these details is also power.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty understood this power. He articulates that the real question in life is who is to be the master: the words or the speaker. Dumpty elaborates, “They’ve a temper some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!” I love how nicely (if a bit pompously and circumambagiously) Dumpty explains the problems with mastering language. Sure we can all come up with filler. But when we have to get concrete—depict actions, motivations, Truth—word-use gets tricky.
But we still have to try. We need to speak confidently but also Truly. We need to stop filling silence with talk. Rather, we need to construct intimacy with language. We must be brave enough like the person I know to be exposed and to expose. We must take the time to turn a perfect phrase. As Dumpty puts it, “When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History
--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History