Sunday, September 06, 2009

How Words Free Our Ideas
From General Formlessness

'Words do not label things already there. Words are like the knife of the carver. They free the idea, the thing, from the general formlessness of the outside. As a man speaks, not only is his language in a state of birth, so is the very thing he is talking about.'
--Eskimo saying


At 12:09 AM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Language can also obscure a thing. Perhaps because we recognise their limitations we feel the need to pile words upon words in an attempt to make things clearer. Not every word comes with its own private revelation; most need to be explained and we use other words to do the explaining. 'Snow' does not mean anything to an Australian aborigine. It can be explained to him but meaning is more that defining. An Eskimo though knows about snow. It ceased being simply a word to them generations ago.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think Orwell talked about using language to obscure in a way that made the point unforgettable. And of course piling words on never does it. It's all about selecting the right few words.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

On the other hand, Ansel Adams, who was not at all bad as a writer of his ideas, often said that there was nothing he could verbally articulate about his photographs, because everything he wanted to say he had already said in the images themselves.

I am often struck by how artists within their given medium wear real blinders about other media. The writer's instinctive response is always to describe or explain in words; and there's a real bias towards denying that some things cannot be contained in words. When a writer sees an Ansel Adams photograph, I've noted, often he or she doesn't simply look at the image, but has to talk to themselves about it. (Most writing is talking to ourselves, or to split-off parts of ourselves that we are in dialogue with.)

If writing is about giving form to ideas, that expresses a Platonic ideal about ideas themselves, that they exist formlessly until manifested, or discovered. I think that's a Euro-American reading of Inuit culture that's typically mistaken, and perhaps a dangerous one in this context.

Inuit cultures were (are perhaps still) largely shamanic. In the shamanic worldview, naming is a magical activity: if you can discover a thing's or person's true name, you have power over it, or them. Naming IS identity. This is concrete, not ideological. Word-carving REVEALS the essence of what is already there, and gives the verbalizing conscious mind a handle on how to use it as a tool. Or just how to be with it. The wise shaman acts as little as possible, knowing how even the smallest change in a name can fundamentally change the essence. That's why a wizard had better know his or her own name, and conceal it well.

The deeper level of this aspect of true-naming lies also in this Inuit quote. In other words, language also creative. What we name we bring into being. Language creates our worldview, as much as describing out world creates our languages. Language in fact can limit how we can perceive the world, if we give it too much power over how we are able to conceive or describe.

The shadow side of language's capacity to create is that if one does not live up to one's responsibility to name things truly, one distorts the universe one lives in at its very root. If you get the names wrong, you distort and anti-create the world. So you have to be careful to speak only true things, and name things correctly. The consequences of not doing so are cataclysmic. That Euro-American cultures don't believe that naming something wrong changes it leads directly towards the belief that physical matter is lifeless, and therefore because it's not enspirited it can be exploited, or used, or abused, which leads directly to ecological cataclysms well-known by now, and others not yet imagined, because not yet named.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

A lot of food for thought here, Art. Thanks.


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