Category Archives: linguistics

A Texas “Outlaw” Poet Demonstrates Semiotics

In the six years that “literarylew” has existed, I’ve explored poetry at great depth.  A lot of my exploration has been in the area of semiotics, that unconscious domain where instincts and external demands of society encounter each other and an identity amenable to symbolic participation in the world is created.  If this identity is too well-endowed with instinctual energy, psychosis could emerge in the extreme.  If “external demands” rule the day, then at an extreme linear thinking will prevail one will find comfort in the world that W. H. Auden described as that of, “a logical lunatic.”  The goal is for both dimensions of human experience to freely interact with instinctual energy finding expression in socially acceptable terms.

But the poet has that “id”-stinctual energy working with more intensity than those of us who live a more prosaic life.  With the poet, words cavort about in the subterranean regions of the heart, making it challenging to, “buckle his distempered “swollen” heart within the belt of rule….as Shakespeare put it.  The energy of instinctual energy that would threaten dissolution is harnessed by the poet’s capacity to use words to bind that energy and to use words creatively. At the conclusion I will include a poem by Archibald MacLeish who so beautifully describes the meshing of what William James called the, “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” with words.)

However, I first would like to introduce you to my most recent blog subscriber, a Texas “outlaw” poet, Jeff Callaway, whose life story and poetry so beautifully illustrates the struggle of one poet in “binding” the energy of his heart and life.  This poem is a hodgepodge of imagery, often lacking “sense” other than to one who has a heart for poetry and will intuit and feel a whole lot of “sense” by giving it a close, attentive reading.  Here I quote the initial stanza of this raucous and often bawdy poem which clearly reveals this man’s energy bursting at the seams:

the greatest poems
are never written down
but lonely and forgotten
before a pen can be found
the greatest poems never find the ink
in the time it takes you to think
slowly with time they fade
and face the guillotine
of jilted poems and unrequited lovers
or glued to my own vague memory
of what could’ve been
if only i’d had a pen
and the recollection to keep repeating
what it was i was trying to say…

For the whole of this poem, check out this link:  https://texasoutlawpoet.com/2018/02/16/the-greatest-poems-of-all-by-jeff-callaway-texas-outlaw-poet-2/

“Words in Time,” by Archibald MacLeisch:

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!

There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.

That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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Self-Deception, Dishonesty, and Epistemic Closure

In my last post I explored epistemic closure on the group level, using the observations from the former Czechoslovakian  writer, artist, actor, and politician,  Vaclav Havel.  Today I’d like to focus on the personal dimension of this closed-mindedness. Havel used the term “post-totalitarian state” to describe a state which operates under a subtle totalitarian state-of-mind which purports to be completely open and honest, i.e. “free.”  In this “Brave New World” prison, there is the surface belief of freedom but only because the bars which constitute the prison are so subtly imposed that they are not obvious to most.  In this “benign” police state, the gears, wheels, and pulleys that orchestrate the bondage are so well-hidden beneath the surface they are not noticed, consisting in ideological subtleties that can only be seen by those who have the capacity for self-reflection.

The individual dimension of this epistemic closure operates in accordance with the collective version described last time. Individuals imprisoned in this, “empty world of self-relatedness,” are encapsulated in their own premises which are not subject to review because there is no “self” consciousness available to conduct such a review.  The onset of such “self” consciousness would constitute a “splinter in the brain” which would be so catastrophic that internal, unacknowledged (i.e. “unconscious”) defenses would immediately intervene and rely on bromides such as the currently popular, “Fake News.”

But this “imprisonment” I’m describing is not necessarily as sinister as I’m making it appear.  Any identity seeks to maintain itself, to cohere, which means it has a certain core that borders on the sacrosanct.  In fact, “sacred” can describe this core as it is the very essence of our being and if this “essence” is not poisoned it will help us maintain a sense of integrity even in the face of conflict.  But if real “integrity” is present then conflict is welcome as exposure to different view points facilitates the flourishing, or “unfolding,” of an identity, allowing it to contribute meaningfully to the context in which it lives.  When this core is “poisoned,” however, any different viewpoint invokes that fear of “splintering” and leads to the creation of a false world in which any threats are minimized or prohibited.  In the extreme, the result is psychosis in which one’s private prison has become so confining that reference to any feedback from the external world has been cut off and one is left with the aforementioned, “empty world of self-relatedness.”

Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

The Elusiveness of Truth

Truth has always been important to me.  That probably stems from my discovery early in life that truth was a scarce commodity in the world I was born into…which, of course, was and is the only world there is!  What I didn’t realize then was the extent to which duplicity consumed me also even as I began to ponder the duplicity that I saw everywhere around me.  I was well into my adult life before I realized that truth was not something that one “has” but something that “has” us though can get past our blinders only if we come to realize, in the depths of our heart, just how resistant we are to it.  We always prefer the comfort of seeing “through a glass darkly” without much appreciation of the “darkliness.” In fact, those of us who talk most about it are often the ones to whom it is most a stranger. Gwendolyn Brooks, a mid-20th century American poet captured this wisdom with the following poem:

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes. 

Julia Kristeva, Shakespeare, and the Unconscious

Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst is one of the primary influences on my intellectual and spiritual life.  Recently her term, semiotic chora, has been falling into place for me, tying together for me a variety of spiritual/intellectual themes that have drawn my attention for most of my adult life.

She borrowed this term from Plato’s “Timeous”, using it to describe a “space” between being and non-being.  This buffer zone might be thought of as the pre-conscious, a murky realm where our animality conjoins the symbolic realm, the domain from which will spring consciousness.  And between this chaotic, “non-sensical” realm there is discontinuity with consciousness which is related to the Oedipal transition and, in my estimation, the Biblical “fall” from Grace.  This is the domain of experience that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was aware of when he lamented, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”  Here Shakespeare was revealing one of the reasons for his literary brilliance, his “dull brain” was always teeming with effluvia from the semiotic depths of his heart which is why his work speaks so powerfully to the human heart even today.

With this foray into linguistic intricacy, I admit I am a bit over my head.  Let me be safe and put it into laymen’s terms…being a layman myself…there is a region of experience beneath the surface of our life which is unconscious.  All of us know about it though when it surfaces we often dismiss it with a simple lament, “Now why did I do that?” or “Why did I say that?”  And occasionally the playwright of this drama in which we each have a bit part brings along a character like Donald Trump who glaringly demonstrates this unconscious element of our individual and collective psyche.

Awareness of this unconsciousness could be completely stifling.  For example, the words I am spitting forth here are coming spontaneously.  They are flowing from my heart, driven by this unconscious dimension I have put on the table.  I am mentally healthy enough to not be so worried about my unconsciousness that I am fretting about every single thought that I convey here, or every single word I choose.  For, should I do so I would very quickly be so stymied by the resulting hypertrophied self-reflectiveness that I would not be able to do anything but sit here and, and, well…., ahem, alas and alack…probably just burst into tears at some point, a complete meltdown!

Mental health, or actually spiritual health, will allow us to recognize the presence of an unconsciousness in our life but not be so terrified of it that we feel out of control.  Recognition of this dimension of our life is merely acceptance of our human-ness and with that might come a dollop of humility which would allow us to be less strident with our viewpoints and more accepting of those who see things differently.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

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.”

Poetry Captures Subjective Experience

Years ago I heard a poet answer the question, “How does one make a poem?”  with, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  I loved that answer because though a fledgling with poetry I knew that poetry involved a friction, a tension, a tearing of the soul.  Or, in the words of T. S. Eliot,

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
T. S. Eliot – “Burnt Norton” (1935)

This cacophony of sense experience is something that most of us never experience, self included, for though I love poetry I lack the humility required for the poetry gods to speak through me.  But a poet can “wrestle with the gods” in the depths of his/her heart and manage to wrap words around this subjective turmoil, a process captured so beautifully by the following words from Archibald MacLeish.

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!
There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.
That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.

I know several poets who are very talented and one who has the unique ability of being able to, “with a beat of words fling into time” a powerful subjective experience.  Her work is very similar to that of William Wordsworth described in the NYRB article that I posted here in the past couple of days.

But my main point here is to provide a marvelous link to show this linguistic process in action with the comedic brilliance of Trevor Noah in a stand-up routine several years ago.  His point is humor, and the humor is outstanding, but note how he plays with words and demonstrates how fluid they actually are though most of us spend our lives in the rigidly structured banality of everyday language. (You might have to copy and paste into your browser; go to 5:29 mark)

(https://www.google.com/webhp?source=search_app#q=trevor+noah+know+what+i+mean&*)