Category Archives: language

The Dynamic Nature of Language

Words are not static, just like life.  Heraclitus, (535 bc-475 bc) told us that life is an eternal flux and now that wisdom is even born out by modern science and quantum physics.  Life is a “flow” and if we are to be alive, rather than a static, dormant potential for life, we too will experience the flow of life in the depths of our being.

T.S. Eliot emphasized this wisdom in his Four Quartets, with observations such as,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

Poets are very familiar with this dynamic energy, not just intellectually but emotionally, which allows them to “play” with words and images to create new, meaningful images for those of us who live more on the surface of life.  One local poet who is a friend of mine recently demonstrated this verbal finesse with the term “leaking adjacencies”, describing how that two images juxtaposed with no apparent relationship, if deftly chosen, could then “leak” into each other and “meaning” could be evoked by the reader.  One example that comes immediately to mind is Shakespeare’s term, the “pauser reason” in which “pause” and “reason” are juxtaposed in such a way to tell us how that reason does indeed impose a pause on our thoughts and thus our behavior.  Well, it could…and should though we have a President for whom this is obviously not so!

Virginia Woolf also had tremendous insight into the fluidity, the flux, of language.  A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, revealed that she saw her task as to “Tempt words to come together” and I would surmise to become one of the “leaking adjacencies” noted above.  The author of the TLS article quoted Woolf, “…words are not useful at all because they lead the mind capriciously on from one image to another, and will not stay put.  The trouble with the plain reader, when confronted with the stuff of literature, is that words as he knows them are useful, and quite unexciting.  He cannot make them stand on their heads and perform tricks.”  This command of words is the craftsmanship of poets and novelists such as Eliot and Woolf who stand aloof from the verbal field enough that they can utilize words in a meaningful fashion to bring to the table truth that is hidden to most of us who live on the surface of things, those of us who are the “plain reader.”

In the same article, Woolf asked, “How do words live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, by ranging hither and thither, by falling in love and mating together …Royal words mate with commoners.  English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy.”

Woolf saw that language becomes a medley, a medley which becomes commonplace over generations as the meanings are lost in common usage.  But to a thoughtful writer, poets and novelists, words can be brought together in “leaking adjacencies” so that meaning can be evoked in the hearts of the readers.  Furthermore, artists and even comedians can put “leaking adjacencies” on the table and allow us to see into the depths of our heart…if we are open to it.  And these “leaking adjacencies” are not just single words, but concepts; for concepts, juxtaposed against each other, can abrade against each other and “leak” meaning.  For example, “justice” and “mercy” are meaningless unless they are brought together, and are allowed to abrade against one another leading to a judicious decision on the part of the “judge.”  The best example I can think of this is Jesus who was confronted with the “woman at the well” who was a prostitute.  “Justice” demanded she be stoned to death, mercy directed him to tell her accusers, “Let him without guilt cast the first stone.”  The accusers walked away with their tail between their legs and he told her, “Go, and sin no more.”

We live in words.  In some way, our very being expresses itself in a verbal structure, a capricious edifice tittering and swaying on the subterranean unconscious pre-verbal dimensions of that edifice.  Thus, “our thoughts become us” or “we are what we think.”  ‘Tis a scary proposition and is much more comforting to remain ensconced in the delusion that we are only what we think we are and never heed the wisdom of the bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Daimonic Energy, Creativity, & Families

Eugene O’Neill is one of my favorite playwrights. I just read a book review in the New York Review of Books in which his personal foibles were put on the table, letting us see once again that so many men and women of “the arts” are the “toy of some great pain” as Ranier Rilke put it.  O’Neill’s personal life was often tragic and the tragedy was passed on to his children, two of which committed suicide and another drank herself to death.  This review described him as narcissistic and often physically and emotionally abusive of his wives.  It is as if he was living out the script that his father had left him. (The book is, “By Women Possessed: a Life of Eugene O’Neill” by  Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb)

Life is painful.  Most of us hide it well, living out our lives in a pedestrian manner, finding solace in the amusements and distractions that our culture affords us.  We have boundaries that keep the pain beneath the surface, boundaries that I like to describe as the “fig leaves” that God gave us to hide us from our nakedness.  Creative people, those who frolic about in “the arts”, do not have boundaries that are solid and thus daimonic energy flows through them and from that primitive source of all good…and bad…the gods communicate with us.

T.S. Eliot was aware of this daimonic energy in families. In his play, “The Family Reunion” he painted the picture of one very conflicted,  even dysfunctional, upper-class family through whom one particular individual seemed destined to carry the load of these dark forces. And, from his own personal life, he clearly was speaking of himself.  In this selection from the play he describes the “sin bearer” of this family, the scape-goat in a sense, who he described as the families “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

What we have written is not a story of detection,

Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.

It is possible you have not known what sin

You shall expiate, or whose, or why.  It is certain

That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle

In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness

And so find expurgation.  It is possible

You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,

Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.

Indeed it is possible.  You may learn hereafter,

Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen

To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer

 

Someone noted, “Always remember when you encounter someone, he is carrying pain.”  The point is to be willing to allow some slack to this individual for you don’t know what is going on with him.  Auden put this eloquently when he noted that all of us, “Wage the war we are.”  Each of us have our ways of handling this duress and most of the times these adaptations are within the pale of social acceptability and everyone is happy.  But people like O’Neill, Eliot, and “the artists” in general, are more open to this pain, this “daimonic” energy, and that is why our culture usually grants them a little more slack.  They bring great beauty and wisdom to us, without which we’d be condemned to live only on the surface of life, missing the breath of fresh air that the gods offer us.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

the surface of life without these breaths of fresh air from the gods.

We’re Just a Bunch of Drunken Cells!!!

A Drunkard – by Ko Un”

I’ve never been an individual entity.
Sixty trillion cells!
I’m a living collectivity.
I’m staggering zigzag along,
sixty trillion cells, all drunk.

This simple little poem so beautifully illustrates the principle of coherence that permeates life and might even be described as life itself.  Disparate phenomena somehow miraculously “cohere” and an identity is formed, or born.  Without taking pause and contemplating we will spend our lives thinking we are an “individual entity” when actually we are a small part of a broad fabric, so “broad” that actually it is infinite.  At this very moment you are witnessing the result of the drunken “sixty trillion cells” that I call myself, an entity or identity whose “drunkenness” is somehow contained enough that I am writing coherently.  I hope!!!!  Grasping and understanding the wisdom offered in this poem makes us aware of our profound finitude which is given meaning only when we contemplate that we are part of a larger whole.  But the ego does not want us to understand this, demanding that we remain submitted to its tyranny and bask in the comfort of assuming and therefore thinking that “my view of the world is the only valid one.” W. H. Auden captured this wisdom in his poem, “In Sickness and in Health,” an excerpt of which I offer here:

Rejoice. What talent for the makeshift thought
A living corpus out of odds and ends?
What pedagogic patience taught
Preoccupied and savage elements
To dance into a segregated charm?
Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,
And gardened from the wilderness of space
The sensual properties of one dear face? 

Rejoice, dear love, in Love's peremptory word;
All chance, all love, all logic, you and I,
Exist by grace of the Absurd,
And without conscious artifice we die:
O, lest we manufacture in our flesh
The lie of our divinity afresh,
Describe round our chaotic malice now,
The arbitrary circle of a vow.  

That reason may not force us to commit
That sin of the high-minded, sublimation,
Which damns the soul by praising it,
Force our desire, O Essence of creation,
To seek Thee always in Thy substances,
Till the performance of those offices
Our bodies, Thine opaque enigmas, do,
Configure Thy transparent justice too. 

 

For complete poem, see this link:  https://thepoetrycollection.wordpress.com/w-h-auden-1907-1973-in-sickness-and-in-health/

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I have two other blogs.  Hope you check ’em out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

A Mother Teaches Her Daughter About God

The Washington Post yesterday offered a fascinating report of a young mother’s attempt to introduce her four-year old daughter to the notion of god, even though she herself had given it up.  She knew that the “notion” of god was part of the culture her daughter was being raised in and wanted to help her to understand the idea with a broader based viewpoint than she had experienced during her youth in a mainline Protestant denomination.  (See link at conclusion.)

One dimension of this issue was the use of gender in reference to god.  She explained the use of “he” as a traditional choice but would occasionally use “she” to show her daughter that gender when describing our Source was “neither male nor female.” At one point in the exchange the young girl has gotten the hang of the free-play which is possible with word selection and, instead of concluding a prayer with “amen,” she playfully…being gender sensitive…concluded with “ah…carrot.”

This was beautiful parenting.  This mother, have done her time in religion, including evangelicalism and even fundamentalism, had learned the nuance of language and was gently teaching her child of the beautifully fluid world that she lived in.  But what she was also doing was teaching her child that all words, i.e. labels, are useful but only refer to “things” and are not the “thing-in-itself.”  The beauty of this gracious mothering is that this young lady, just beginning to formulate an identity, would learn that her very identity itself, the core of her being, could not be confined to words and her spirit would not be endungeoned within a conceptual prison.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/03/22/an-atheist-moms-challenge-teaching-my-daughter-that-god-might-be-a-girl/?utm_term=.9e0d6e9fd64a

Poetry is a Dive into the Heart

“O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” T. S. Eliot brought to our attention the harm that is often brought into the world by people who think they are doing something noble.  In the Four Quartets, Eliot noted, “Oh the shame of motives late revealed, and the awareness of things ill done, and done to others harm, which once we took for exercise of virtue.”

Poets are so skilled at bringing our attention to matters of the heart.  This is because a poet speaks and writes from the heart, a murky realm that most of us escape by subscribing to “common sense reality.”  That is why so often poetry falls on deaf ears and is the reason that for the first thirty years of my life I had no ear for poetry at all, even having a disdain for it!  My ears were “deaf” to poetry and I now realize that it could have been said, I “had ears to hear but heard not” as well as “eyes to see but saw not.”

Poetry introduces one to the maelstrom of the unconscious and often brings uncomfortable insights to us, such as the one in the Eliot quote above.  It is much simpler to live on the surface of life. Poet Adrienne Rich entitled one of her books, “Diving into the Wreck” and I sometimes use that image to describe my headfirst plunge into poetry in the mid 1980’s.  When one spends three and half decades obsessively living in a linear world, sudden exposure to the subterranean depths of the human heart certainly felt like a “wreck” at times…and often does even now!

Here is another Eliot selection addressing the issue of disillusionment that life deals us if we dare to “Dive into the Wreck”:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
-T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets”

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/literarylew.wordpress.com

I am a Writer

I’m a writer.  It has taken me 65 years to make this bold assertion though this blogging experience of the past five years has been a very tentative, left-handed way of making this announcement.  And “endeavor” was a deliberately chosen term as it has been and always will be a struggle as writing of any substance must come from the heart; and anything that flows from that bastion of “beastly little treasures” will be a struggle.  The heart is the innermost recess of our being, so “inner most” that, if you will let me slip into Zen for a moment, it is a “No Thing” and can best be described as emptiness.  Therefore, if you “know” what your heart is…that is if you cognitively grasp your heart, or think that you do…I would beg to differ with you.  For the “heart” always lies beyond our conscious grasp.  And this “emptiness” is very much related to the Christian teaching of “losing your self to find your self” and finding our “self” in the sense that Jesus had in mind is much more than a cognitive, rational, linear-thinking enterprise.  You could even say it is a “work of the cross” but not in an intellectual way but in the constellation of archetypal energies which will often feel like a crucifixion.

Acknowledgement that anything is beyond the grasp of our conscious mind is frightening to most people, especially those of us in the West.  Since the Descartes dictum, “I think, therefore I am” the West has been worshipping thinking or reason and we have slowly come to be convinced that the whole of life can be reduced to linear thinking, i.e. reason.  And this has made us technologically and scientifically great but left us with a spiritual emptiness that will soon leave my country, the United States, with a man who is egregiously mentally ill as its President.  “They call it Reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” (Goethe)

But writing and all artistic enterprises can only spring from a heart that novelist Toni Morrison described as “petal open.”  That is where spirituality flows from, other than the “letter of the law” variety which is only what the Apostle Paul called a “work of the flesh.”  My favorite description of this vulnerable heart was written by Shakespeare whose character Hamlet, with great intensity lamented to his mother that he could never unburden his heart to her because it was, “bronzed o’er with the damned cast of thought so that it” is a barrier against “sense” (or feeling) and thus not “made of penetrable stuff.”  Shakespeare knew that an open heart can be “penetrated” while a closed heart, one shrouded by an enculturated verbal patina will be reduced to mindless palaver, “the well worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken)

But words do have the capacity to furrow into the depths of our heart and there we can use them to “unpack our heart.”(see footnote below).  But the unopen heart will only reflect from its patina a slough of jargon and packaged, formulaic speech in accordance with what the speaker perceives will gain him the greatest approbation.  Here is the opening stanza of a poem by Irish poet W. R. Rodgers who in 1942 recognized the “post-truth” dimension of language that is currently plaguing our world.

WORDS (an excerpt)

By W. R. Rodgers

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

(FOOTNOTE:  For you Shakespearean scholars, I am misapplying this line of “unpacking my heart with words” to describe something useful, when in the play “Hamlet” it described prostitutes deliberately plying their trade knowing that they could then go and perfunctorily confess their sins.  Hmm!)

The Tyranny of Labels in Video

This video brilliantly illustrates everything I have been obsessing about with my emphasis on “distinction-drawing” and actually everything I’ve been trying to say for the past five years on this blog.  If we live our life in the tyranny of the narrowly defined world our ego has carved out for us, individually and collectively, we will always have conflict for there is no end to the need to draw distinctions between “us” and “them.”  Here again we see here the curse of religion…all religions…the ego always tends to take the spiritual wisdom provided there and turn it into a weapon under the name of whatever god we worship.  And, of course, there is the temptation to make this point accusatorily, “You do this but I do not” but the luxury of this self-deception is no longer mine. Losing that “luxury” is relevant to something said this morning in The Guardian about Donald Trump’s narcissism, “Trump does not have an interior life.  He ‘had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury…an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.’”  This “rumbling” is what my spiritual tradition calls “the Spirit of God” and if there is no “rumbling” there is only ego-ridden certainty which is devoid of any Spirit.

And when the ego’s tyranny metastasizes to a certain point, there will always be violence.  For the ego’s need to know that we are “right” can reach the point where we will to express with action the repressed experience of being “wrong,” a feeling that cannot help but arise when we are introduced to a world which is based on the tyranny of labels.  I do think that religion often offers the opportunity to dive into the depths of our heart and acknowledge this feeling of “wrongness” but it entails the willingness to face the pain of disillusionment, in Christian doctrine described as “being lost.”  This is why Aeschylus described the grace of god as “awful” centuries ago for he knew the agony of being disillusioned of the unquestioned certainties of our ego-constructed world.

“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”  Aeschylus