Tag Archives: Words

Words and Moths

I’m a bit worried these days by how little I have, or care, to say. Other people’s words don’t hold much interest either. It feels ridiculous that we should be required to have opinions and perspectives, or that we should need to express them. These days I avoid conversation. I switch off the television and radio and wonder why we can’t be content, like Bertie Wooster in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, to “just exist beautifully.” How different – how better –things would be if we could only dial down (by fifty percent, say) the chatty sociability of the species.

Alfred Kazin in A Walker in the City describes the challenge of speaking when he was a child: “The word was my agony. The word that for others was so effortless and so neutral, so unburdened, so simple, so exact, I had first to meditate in advance, to see if I could make it, like a plumber fitting together odd lengths and shapes of pipe.” I don’t stutter like the young Kazin did – but like Kazin, maybe, I’m more fluent on paper than in person. Without a drink in me, I’m am awful talker. Three minutes into most conversations I become so distracted by having nothing to say that I cease listening too.

When I was four or five years old we lived in a small house built during the war with a rose bush out front and a big sycamore (I think it was) in the backyard. One afternoon while playing alone I found an old rusted tea kettle under the leaves and put the spout to my lips, pretending to drink from it. At once I felt a fluttering on my tongue and against the roof of my mouth. I opened up and, to my astonishment, a moth flew out. That’s how it ought to feel when we speak: like some living thing – a moth, a tiger, a whale – has just launched itself from our tongue into the air.

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Marginalia, no.266

Phocine… pavonine… leporine…

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Before its bath in the cauldron, the newt’s eye served a more mundane function: it was a newt’s eye. Extracted from their customary settings and placed in special combinations, words too are magic. Sentences become spells. In the cauldron are no solids, nature is fluid, shapes shift. The most mundane words find themselves in league moment to moment with the seal, the peacock, the hare.

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Marginalia, no.177

There is no exit from the dictionary.

~ Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club

Words beget and are begotten by other words in endless circular succession. There’s certainly no lack of them in our house. My son, for one, never shuts up except when he’s got his face in a book. Even then, I swear, the unspoken syllables float around the living room like ghosts of the unborn. The other day at dinner I convinced everyone to sit perfectly still and say nothing, just for ten seconds. It was the loudest ten seconds of my life: the unnaturally prolonged thunderclap of a twenty-pound dictionary being slammed shut.

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Marginalia, no.144

I chose words for what I called their intensity.  I wanted to be terse and exact.  I wanted each word to burn into the page.  My pen tortured the paper.

~ V.S. Pritchett, A Cab at the Door

Some words are girls next door.  Others are postmen, auto mechanics or elderly librarians.  Each has its customary place and function, and each gains intensity by being discovered in unexpected company.  But thank God for the words that are always and everywhere Merna Kennedy circa 1932 in The Red-haired Alibi.

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Verba Vinumque

The intoxication of Mallarmé’s abolit bibelot d’inanité sonore lies there on the page, not here in my nervous system.

Roger Scruton in this particular essay is mostly concerned with drink.  He wants to praise intoxication as opposed to drunkenness and draws a parallel with poetry to help make his point.  Drunkenness is an effect (“a state of unconsciousness” he says) – the result of too much or bad wine.  Intoxication, however, is a “state of [elevated] consciousness.”  It is the thing itself (the wine, the words), alive in us.  When we consume it “the wine lives in [our] intoxication,” heightening our senses in the way that poetry does when we read it.

That’s the idea, or something like it.  I find the distinction helpful but a little precious.  More interesting to me is the simple fact that Scruton chose words and wine as parallel cases.  Later in the article he discusses wine’s familiar role in sacred traditions through the centuries.  Scruton doesn’t go there, but of course poetry – and the idea of the “word” – has played its own role in religion.  The composition and recitation of poetry may seem to us secular activities (Hopkins thought writing a dangerous distraction from his religious obligations), but this wasn’t always so. 

I think it’s fair to suggest that poetry has for most of its history been understood as a sacred endeavor, a transaction with the supernatural.  Most of what falls under the heading of prophecy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is, in fact, poetry.  And prior to, say, the Renaissance, much of western poetry was at least tangentially religious in nature.  To a degree this was true for the Greeks too, though there is clearly a secular poetry in the Roman era (Horace, Catullus, etc.), and there are other exceptions.  But for a great many of our ancestors, poetry was in its lowest forms magical (binding spells, curses) and in its highest forms synonymous with prophecy.  It was either a tool to harness the spirits, or the inspired product of divine possession.  Survivals of poetry’s magical and sibylline heritage are found, of course, in Blake, but also, I think, in Whitman and Dickinson and others.  And even when the subject matter is explicitly secular many of the poetic forms still common today resemble nothing so much as prayers, charms or incantations.

Prior to poetry is the Word itself.  In the Pentateuch God literally speaks the universe into being; all things are the offspring of his words.  In Talmudic tradition the names which Adam gave the animals in Eden contained and defined their essences in a way no confused post-Babel tongue could recapture.  Early Christians wed these Jewish elements to the Greek notion of a divine Logos, the God-Word that is the originating, unifying and animating principle of the cosmos – identifying that Logos with Jesus Christ.  (“In the beginning was the Logos,” etc.)  Later, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysus and Maximus the Confessor expounded a Christian Neoplatonism asserting that the inward animating principles of created things, their individual lower-case “words” (logoi), could be known again in their original clarity when the soul is illumined by the Logos that originally spoke them into being.  Furthermore, these logoi serve as pledge of an eschatological reconciliation of all things with the divine Logos.  The cosmos, then, is text within text: a universe composed of words spoken by the Word, an opened codex in which all the words had been shuffled but are in process of being recomposed into proper poetry by the God-Word.

Which is all very fascinating, but somewhere along the line (no more than five hundred years ago)  everything changed.  To be sure, there’s still enough innate power in the word today – enough intoxication, to use Scruton’s term – to enchant and influence us.  And the secularization of the word has opened unexpected and seemingly inexhaustible channels for literature and poetry.  But at the same time the metaphysical scope of the word’s operation has been restricted.  Whether it was the rediscovery of classical learning, the invention of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason, or something else, the way in which we understand and handle words is different.  When Mircea Eliade’s “de-sacralization of the cosmos” began, the word was the first of its victims.

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Marginalia, no.35

He would like to have words eat out of his hands.

~ Jules Renard

Due to the heavy editing of my copy of Renard’s Journal, I don’t have the context, but it’s a terrific image.  The trouble with words is that they aren’t at all tame, but dangerous, and a bite may lead to infection.

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Star-like Isolation

[E]very individual man has an inner life, and is aware of the practical impossibility of understanding others or being understood – in general, of the star-like isolation in which human beings live.  Nearly all literature is an attempt to escape from this isolation by roundabout means, the direct means (words in their primary meaning) being almost useless… “Imaginative” writing is as it were a flank-attack upon positions that are impregnable from the front… The art of writing is in fact largely the perversion of language.

That from a 1940 essay by George Orwell titled ‘New Words.’

Only art, according to Orwell, manages to bridge the chasms between persons and effectively deliver the inner reality of one to another.  Music is an obvious example, and Orwell has some nice things to say about film.  But the art of writing – poetry, the novel, etc. – is paradoxical: it can only achieve its goal by stretching and calculatedly misusing language in such a way as to force upon words a labor for which they are basically unfit. 

I once stumbled on the helpful suggestion (it might have been in Barfield’s Poetic Diction) that a poem, any poem, is best understood when read as if it were a word unto itself, a single word made up of specific component words in a specific order – unutterable any other way.  The same might be said of a novel or a story.  Successful literature makes new words out of the bones of old words.  It manages by calculated accumulation and oblique methods (cadence, music, association and dissociation), to communicate something of the inner reality of a particular human subjectivity which would otherwise be incommunicable.  I suppose this gets at what Orwell had in mind.

But what, then, is the act of reading according to Orwell?  Is it just the consumption of the subjective realities of others?  A cheap ticket to self-transcendence?  Maybe not so cheap: books can be costly and leisure time sparse, and we all need a sense of assurance that we’re not utterly alone in this life.

And what is the act of writing?  The assertion and exploration of the self, yes; but also a terrible devouring thirst to be known, a method of speculative astronomy that strives by means of guessed-at wormholes and gravitational vortices to bridge the gaps between distant suns.


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