Mistaking the priest for the deity

“What do you read, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”

words words words

For 25 years, I made my living by writing words. In all, some two and a half million of them, writing an average of three stories a week. Yet, in all that time, I had an underlying mistrust of language, a sense that, even if I could still diagram a compound-complex sentence on a blackboard, the structure I saw in chalk did not necessarily mirror the structure of things I saw around me in the world before it is named. The one was neat and tidy, the other was wooly and wiggly.

A good deal of misery and misunderstanding derives from a failure to recognize that the logic of language and that of the real world are not the same.

tomatoWe find this in simple form whenever someone tells you that, for instance, “a tomato is not a vegetable, it is a fruit.” This is a sorry assertion. A tomato is neither animal nor mineral, therefore, it is a vegetable. But, of course, that is not what is meant. In common usage, we use the word, “fruit,” to name a sweet edible and “vegetable” to name a savory. But “vegetable” is also an umbrella word, describing all things vegetative. To aver that a tomato is not a vegetable is to confuse these two usages, and therefore to make an assertion both pedantic and ignorant.

More importantly, this doesn’t really say anything about the Solanum lycopersicum, but about the categories we use language to establish. It is an argument not about the berry (and that is the technical term for the red globe you slice onto your salad), but about the English language.

Whales GoldsmithOr consider this: “A whale is not a fish.” When such a statement is made, it does not discuss whales or fish, but rather, makes a claim about language. The whale is unaffected by the words and fish swim happily past it. But it is a discussion about the categories of nouns: We choose to make the definition of the two classes mutually exclusive. A whale is a mammal.

But it needn’t be so. Through the 18th century, a whale was a fish. Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Anything torpedo-shaped that swims in the sea by the action of its fins was considered a fish. A whale was a very large fish, who just happened to be one that gave birth to live young and suckled them. It was an idiosyncrasy of the whale, just as it is an idiosyncrasy of the salmon that it swims upriver to spawn.

spinous and testaceous fish goldsmithgoldsmith crustaceous fishIn fact, if you read Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of the Earth and Animated Nature,” the best-selling nature book of its century, the category “fish,” also included many other things that live in the watery parts of the world. Whales were “cetaceous fishes,” flounder were “spinous fishes,” sharks were “cartilaginous fishes,” crabs and lobsters were “crustaceous fishes,” and clams and oysters were “testaceous fishes.” It was a perfectly natural way to divide up the various denizens of the undersea. It wasn’t till Carl Linne decided to slice up the world in a new way, based on a combination of skeletal morphology and reproduction, that the whale was surgically removed from the universe of fishes and told to line up on the other side of the room with lemurs, llamas and raccoons. Did the whales even notice?

The basic problem is that language is an intercessor. It sits between experience and understanding. When we approach language, we see only the intercessor — we mistake the priest for the deity.

Words always distort, they always lie. Yet, at bottom, we trust words more than we trust our own eyes. We judge politicians by the labels they are tagged with, not by paying attention to what they actually say or do: Conservative or liberal — when applied to reality, the labels are close to meaningless.

The case may be a little easier to understand in terms of Greek. The ancient Greeks were the first logarchs, they valued verbal meaning over experiential meaning; they actually thought language was a one-to-one descriptor of reality. Their faith is naive to us now. For instance, Zeno’s paradox is only possible in words. Set a tortoise and Achilles out on a race and see if Achilles can’t catch it. No problem. Set it in words, and suddenly, it can’t be done: The problem is entirely in the words, words, words.

sunspotsIt is the logic of language that frustrates Achilles, not the tortoise. It guided how the Greek thought about the world. Polarity, opposites, hidden ironies and surprising conjunctions,  it’s how the language is organized,  even before you even consult reality. So, when the Greek saw language as a mirror of the reality and language posits polarity, it must be because the world is polar. But is it? Opposites are only a linguistic trick. Hot and cold are just relative points on a single thermometer: Sunspots are “cold” places on the sun, even though they are thousands of degrees Farenheit; liquid nitrogen is “warmer” than absolute zero. Linguistic legerdemain.

Even liberals and conservatives are just guys in the same blue suits. They don’t look like a dime’s worth of difference to the Fiji Islander.

By the logic of language, the world is divided into nouns and verbs; look out the window, however, and what you see is the conflation of noun and verb: something very much closer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a constant velocity of things ever growing and changing. No noun is static; no verb without its referent.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher PlatoThe issue I have with Plato — aside from his totalitarian fascism — is his faith in an “ideal” of things. The ideal bed, unlike any real bed, is a stultified noun, not a bed. To Plato, the world is cataloged with nouns, only nouns. The perfect human is a form of arrested development. For Plato, the perfect human form is a male figure, age of about 25, all muscle and lithe, with little fat. But a real person is born tiny, grows, ages, marries, has his own bairns, gains experience, grows feeble and dies. Just as a rose isn’t the pretty flower, but a shoot, a bud, a flower, a rose-hip bursting to seed and once more from the top. Over and over. All the world is at every moment changing, growing, shrinking, spreading, running, molting, squawking, collapsing, weeping and rising. It is a churn, not a noun. “Panta horein,” as Heraclitus says: “Everything changes.”

Language is this thin veneer, the shiny surface, the packaging we are cajoled by. Break open the box, and the reality is something else.

It is much like the belief that geometry transcends embodiment. In other words, a triangle is a universal possibility, no matter if one was ever built. It is one of Plato’s ideals. God himself cannot create a four-sided triangle. But to change this “truth,” all we have to do is change our definition of the word. We don’t need a deity to do that, all we need is a lexicographer.

Or better, we can look at the problem a different way: I have written elsewhere (https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/24/artists-math) that a triangle is a five-sided figure — the three usual sides, plus the top, looking down on it, and the bottom, resting on the desk. You can turn any triangle over from its back and lay it on its belly. triangleIf triangles exist in the world of things, they must have five sides. Language, like the axioms in geometry, pales in comparison to the real world of mud and bricks. There are 300,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but that is an infinitesimal number compared with the number of things, acts, colors and sizes in the phenomenological world. There are an infinitely large number of things in the universe for which there are no words.

Take this, for instance. Here, where two walls meet is a corner. But where the wall and the ceiling meet? What is its name? In English, it has none.

Or this place on the wall — it is named the “center.” But this point, just as real, only a few inches from the center, is nameless and so is the one a few inches beyond that.

starsNames are like the stars in the sky, only points, between which is an infinity of space, just as real as the stars.

Language is feeble. It is up to us to see the space between the words, to recognize the feelings between the signpost emotions of hate, joy, anger, sadness — this million slight inflections that are nameless.

Up to us to explore the confusing rush of sense data, the confusing signals of society and nature, the overwhelming input that we censor with our language, allowing only those portions that sport nametags, as if they were Shriners at a convention.

It is up to us to recognize and celebrate all the things, times, places, acts, flavors, feelings, breath and abysses that don’t have names, to enjoy the cold floor and sunlight coming through the window in the morning when the birds haven’t yet begun chattering.

1 comment
  1. Excellent. I have become somewhat obcessed with the whole concept of reality and how it can change or be totally unknown to us. It is learned, a cultural phenomenon. If you have not read the research out of Johns Hopkins on the renewed experiments being done with LSD you must as it pertains to much you have written. I hope you are planning a book someday.

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