Category Archives: linguistics

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/

 

 

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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&*)

Post-modernism and Consciousness

Hamlet lamented in a famous soliloquy, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all.” Shakespeare demonstrated in his plays and sonnets a profound grasp of the human condition and beautifully illustrated our foibles in various characters such as the Prince of Denmark.  Hamlet, as well as many Shakespearean characters, portray for us a soul tortured by consciousness and Hamlet noted in this same soliloquy that such “awareness” can stymie one into inaction.  In clinical lore of recent decades, I have often run across the “Hamlet Syndrome,” the plague of many young men…usually not women…who are so conflicted they have trouble making decisions, thus their many dreams and fancies, “lose the name of action.”

Another theme of Shakespeare was madness and his understanding of this common human malady was not unrelated to his insights about consciousness.  For, there is a “common-sense” consciousness that one is given by his community and one’s lot is to be immersed in it fully; and to step outside of this comfort zone for even a moment and become aware of “consciousness” is not unrelated to madness. Asking one to take this meta-cognitive leap is like asking a fish to see water. For this leap into meta-cognition for someone who has never doubted his way of looking at the world, i.e. his conscious grasp of the world, will find the sudden dawn of a perspective on his perspective frightening.  As philosopher Paul Ricoeur noted, “To have a perspective on one’s perspective is to somehow escape it” and this escape, or even its temptation is terrifying.  The terror of this leap is so threatening that most people live their entire life comfortably ensconced in the narrow view of the world they were given by their tribe, usually deemed as decreed valid by the gods/God.

But, awareness of this issue does not relieve one from the onslaught of unconscious influences. Consciousness flows from the depths of the heart and to be conscious is to realize that the depths of the heart are endless so that one can never bask in the comfort of thinking he has arrived with a wholly “conscious” grasp of the world.  The best one hope of doing is to own a very skewed view of the world and hope that as he continues to age his “skewing” might be more amenable to other viewpoints, leaving one free of the hubris of “objectivity.”

But damn it, it was so much easier in my youth when I mindlessly and dutifully imbibed of what the Apostle Paul described as “the wisdom of this world.”  Yes, in my case doubt was always there nagging at me but I always returned to my script and just doubled-down on unexamined truth, not yet willing to acknowledge that I was merely demonstrating the “bad faith” noted by Jean Paul Sartre. But this post-modern view of the world is, and will continue to be, totally incomprehensible to those who are still comfortably ensconced in a linear view of the world.  I grew up in that linear world and remember viewing askance what was then labeled as “relativism”, often affirming brazenly, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But most of the people who still live in that mind-set are not bad people nor is their view of the world.  I’m sure an equal number of “bad people” see the world as I do.  “Badness” is not a function of our world view but of how much we are under its tyranny.  The more rigidly certain that our way is the “right way” the more liberty will we feel that to impose our will upon other people, even under the name of God!

Semiotics, Language, Meaning, & Politics

Words do have meaning.  They have value.  I do not think it is trivial that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition we have been presented with the notion of Jesus being “the Word made flesh” though this notion is much deeper and more meaningful than I understood as a child.  I have been immersed in linguistics, semiotics and philosophy for the past 20 years or so and now understand that language is much more than meets the “eye.”  Language, i.e. “the Word”, is a gut-level dimension of our experience and its value extends deeply into this “gut”, or heart, what some label the unconscious.  Words not only extend into this subterranean dimension of our lives but they arise from those depths and are essentially what makes us human.  (See Sandburg poem at conclusion)

Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst who was one of the earliest figures in my venture into this heart-realm argued that our very identity, on some level, is basically a verbal structure which I think provides further understanding of the admonishment of Jesus, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.”  Our words reveal who we are, or as someone said, “Our words become us” and as the Bible teaches us, “As a man thinketh, so is he.”

But the value of words is multi-dimensional.  There is the very superficial dimension which allows us to perfunctorily live in our culture and offer a “convincing performance” each day of our life.  Without this level of verbal experience, any culture would collapse because the hidden dimension of language, that of “meaning”, would be too intense for most people.  In the words of T. S. Eliot, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  Yet in this superficial level of experience, “common sense reality”, language even then must be offered respect.  Words do matter including the context in which they are used.  The example the contextual issue is often put on the table with is the observation that though one might have free speech, he does not have the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.  Words do convey “fact” in some respect even though some of us pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals admittedly like to question things like “fact!”  But the “factual” world must be respected if a social body is to cohere in a meaningful fashion.  If our political leaders start to play fast and easy with facts, i.e. with truth, then the very fabric of society is threatened.

And, you might have guessed, this brings me to Trumpism.  I will offer a link to a story in the Washington Post which addresses this verbal disintegration that threatens us.  Trump has ushered in what is being called a “fact free” world in which people can say anything without anything to back it up and will get by with it.  People will not be held accountable for their words, which was so pointedly demonstrated with Mr. Trump during the campaign when he said the most outrageous things and his followers completely overlooked them.  Even now as he is preparing for inauguration he and his transition team and continuing to demonstrate “fast and easy” use of language and now even trying to justify it.  Words do not matter to them.

This is relevant to an earlier point that words emerge from the depths of our heart.  In Trump’s heart there is grave “porosity of boundaries” so that he speaks and lives with disdain for common sensibilities and decorum, paralleling his life-style.  He was right when he declared months ago in the campaign the campaign that “I could shoot someone in the streets of Manhattan” and not suffer at the polls.  He was exactly right.  He early in life discovered that no one would set limits for him and could steam-roll over any obstacle before him.  The American electorate has been steam-rolled and he is still being propped up by his supporters, many of whom continue to claim that God “has raised him up” to Make America Great Again.  And I can’t help but wonder if Trump is the mouth-piece for some heavily repressed dimension of his supporter’s heart

For perspective on this emerging fact-free zone, read the following (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-post-truth-world-of-the-trump-administration-is-scarier-than-you-think/2016/12/02/ebda952a-b897-11e6-b994-f45a208f7a73_story.html?utm_term=.cffac584016f)

A great poem by Carl Sandburg about our words rising out of our hidden depths.  (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/jabberers/ http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/jabberers/)

Be a Voice, not an Echo!

I recently saw a quip on Facebook that grabbed me, “Be a voice, not an echo.” I feel I have spent most of my life merely echoing what I have been taught and what I have been rewarded for thinking and believing. I have dutifully mirrored back what “they” have wanted in the interest of the approbation that is always promised for this behavior.

But, due to my own internal “non-sense,” I realized I wasn’t feeling the approbation in the first place. And I saw that I had been guilty of this spiritual “offense” and am finding that I live less in an echo chamber now.  But notice I said “less.” We can never think with perfect clarity…unless we achieve deity; and if I ever have intimations of having done that I hope someone is nearby with a hypodermic of industrial strength Haldol!  We always live and think in a context and we always have a human tendency to interpret things to fit with our old-brain, ego-template of the world. When this understanding comes to us, we can back off more readily with our “certainties” and allow some doubt to filter in, making room for others. I love that line from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets about the need to “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”