Tuesday, 2 November 2010

On Language and Eloquence

I've been thinking a lot lately about the nature of language and the value of eloquence.  Anyone who knows me knows that I have a deep, abiding love of language and verbal expression; but I've been wondering if it is possible that language is inherently inadequate to express our truest, deepest thoughts.  For what else is language if not a man made construct, a system of symbols that allows us to communicate the nature of our thoughts to one another?  It is by language that we come to know another person's thoughts, and it is by knowing the thoughts of another person that we most closely approach the possibility of understanding any human intellect other than our own.  Stephen King spoke of this effect in On Writing when he posited that writing was a form of both telepathy and time travel that links the present day reader with a ghostly copy of another person's intellect from the past.  Writing, wrote King, is the surest and most powerful way we have to convey the essence of ourselves - at least our essence at the time of composition - to another person.  But I am now tempted to ask, is this enough?  When our identities are constantly in flux, is it presumptuous to believe that attempting to understand how someone was at any given moment, or even is in the present, is a sufficient effort to yield to the seeker a complete and perfect understanding of the subject's identity?  If knowing someone totally is impossible, is it perhaps then imprudent and unnatural even to try?

What can we ever really know of another person?  Is it not possible that the calm surface and the modest exterior hides an inner world of torment and anguish?  Perhaps they whose hearts are crying out the loudest in great paroxysms of woe, individual tragedies on a microcosmic scale, are they whom we would least expect to harbor such an inner storm.  Perhaps the greatest sorrows and the greatest triumphs of this world are never given voice through language but reside instead, mute and undivulgent, within the silent hearts of their possessors.  Even if John Donne is correct in his assertion that "no man is an island entire of itself," I am more skeptical of his claim that "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."  How connected are we, really?  How well do we know those friends and lovers who surround us and fill our lives with the sweet music of their affections?  Or is our every effort to express ourselves ultimately tantamount to the lonely ejaculations of Thomas Hardy's "darkling thrush"?  Do we thus "fling our souls upon the growing gloom" in some desperate struggle to attain that "blessed Hope"?  Do we dare to hope?

All my life, I have been told that I was eloquent.  I have been placed above my peers in the comparisons of educators who praised my way with words and lauded me for my ability to capture, through my writing, the unique and esoteric essences of thoughts and ideas.  I have always outshone everyone around me with my verbal wit and skill at writing.  In my academic career, I have used this talent to testify to the importance of the actions of men and women who lived many long centuries ago; to analyze the themes of novels grouped together with their musty, aging neighbors within the rigid confines of the literary canon; to tease out meaning from even the most opaque of poems; and to demonstrate my ability to link ideas from source to source in brilliant explorations of ubiquitous theorems.  And what has all this performance attained for me?  Yes, I say peformance; what else can one call these exercises that I never would have undertaken if I had not been forced to?  What has jumping through the hoops of the academic system done for me?  "You attend a good school," you might say.  Quite right; fair enough.  "You'll be sure to get a good job," you might say.  That's right too; a little education never hurt anyone's chances of employment.  But what has eloquence ever given me as a man, as a human being?

What folly it seems that eloquence is any more than an end unto itself!  What use was eloquence to Shakespeare's Brutus, that "honorable man," when Marc Antony subverted all the influence of his speech by the simple virtue of speaking second?  What use was eloquence to Oscar Wilde in his fruitless explication and defence of "the love that dare not speak its name"?  What use was eloquence to Iris Murdoch when the net of language of which she wrote in her first novel closed around her and dragged her screaming to the depths as her mind began to drown in the black and bitter waters of dementia?  What use is eloquence to any of us?

If eloquence is the use of language in such a way as to express a thought or feeling in the most perfect and affecting manner in which it has ever or may ever again be expressed, then what use is eloquence if indeed that language that inspires it - that drives, defines it - is itself devoid of meaning?  What place does language have in our postmodern world?  If language is allowed to be stripped and laid bare on the rack, flayed and beaten down and broken into infinitesimally small, continuously dividing and subdividing shards and fragments, do notions of meaning - or even meaning itself - still exist?  In a world that could produce "The Waste Land" or Naked Lunch or Waiting for Godot (I could go on), can anything we do or say ever matter or make any sort of difference?

Ingmar Bergman addressed this very issue in his film Persona.  Susan Sontag discussed the film in Sight and Sound:

"What Persona demonstrates is the lack of an appropriate language, a language that's genuinely full. All that is left is a language of lacunae, befitting a narrative strung along a set of lacunae or gaps in the 'explanation'. It is these absences of sense or lacunae of speech which become, in Persona, more potent than words while the person who places faith in words is brought down from relative composure and confidence to hysterical anguish."

 Is this "language of lacunae" all that's left for the denizens of the postmodern world to inherit from the wealth and ignorance of their ancestors?  And is it even worth existing at all if these meager scraps are the only food to be provided at the great table of man?

Recently, I have been filled with such thoughts as lead me to question the sufficiency of language.  No matter with how many words we stock our arsenal, will we ever be fully equipped to synthesize the full scope of our emotions into a linguistic putty to be spread across the page in blotches of ink?  Can I ever say what I mean - fully?  Can the most sweetly turned phrase or poetic device ever express the power and passion of that flame that burns with raging abandon within the heart of a man in love with a woman?  Can even the most eloquent apology fully atone for the sin that's committed or fully express the anguish that wracks the heart of the penitent wretch?  Can words ever express the scope and magnitude of that pain, rightly called undescribable, that rakes its malicious fingers through the fabric of the lives of those who cry alone at night, stricken with that grief for someone whom they love whom they will never see again?  Death looks upon our silly, petty lives and contrivances; and with one swing of his mighty scythe, he brings everything we've ever made for ourselves crashing down as if the universe were a flimsy house of cards and the language with which we drape it a weak and crumbling mortar utterly insufficient for the foundation of that fleeting sentiment we call beauty.

But if through language we attempt to construct meaning - an all too precious commodity in our postmodern times - then what is language but a weapon that we wield in our eternal battle against Death, our great enemy, the ultimate destroyer of meaning?  Perhaps language is a weak and insufficient weapon in this struggle, a conflict the end result of which has ever been and will ever be the same bleak destiny for all of us.  But just because we are all fated to lose the battle with death and to pass into nonbeing, is that then an adequate reason to turn our back on language?  As we exist, here and now, on Earth, should we discard that great tool that we have fashioned for ourselves and surrender to the darkness?

If language is at best imperfect in its attempt to communicate our feelings, does that imperfection then render the whole mechanism completely useless?  I would say no.  For even though it may be impossible to ever truly connect with someone, it is in our nature to make the attempt over and over again; for what is the attempt but a declaration of our own humanity, a spit in the face of Death and a wild, raucous celebration of all that we ever have been and of all that we have the potential to be.  Kate Bush captures the feeling well in the lyrics of her song "Reaching Out": "See how the heart reaches out instinctively for no reason but to touch."  For no reason but to touch - the act is an end in and of itself.

Even in my own life, I can see the beneficial effects that my use of language has wrought.  I have used words to comfort the pain and the grief of the bereaved; to express the strength and unshakibility of my friendship and fraternal affection; to lift the abject out of their black despair; to eulogize and pay homage to the dead; and on one occasion, to ease the passing of a dying young man from this our world of the living to the great mystery that lies beyond the veil of all our understanding.  If I have used language to accomplish these things and if I have brought genuine peace or grace to the life of others as I believe I have, is not then our pitiful battle against the darkness worth something after all?  If I have touched another's life, am I then vindicated in my struggle?

The great minds of the human race have wrestled with queries such as these throughout the annals of the existence of our species, and I don't pretend to add anything new or substantial to the discussion.  But if I have reached one conclusion in the course of these musings it is this: Even if language is flawed and imperfect and even if we are never able to truly connect with those around us, we must never stop trying to do just that.  By fighting the battle in the spaces between us, we assert the worth of our existence and regain, however briefly, those codes of meaning that the postmodern intellectual landscape has banished from our scope and sphere.  To do any less would be to yield to the hopelessness of Death.  We must always fight and struggle and bite and claw and exercise our force of will so that beauty and love and kindness and all those things that offer redemption to the tedium of life may continue to eke out a tenuous existence, the brief, flickering flame of a candle that we feed with the strength of our lives to prevent its extinguishment by the vacant, howling wind of darkness.

I will end with two lines from Dylan Thomas that I feel sum up my argument fairly well:
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

1 comment:

  1. You are quite a writer, and i now see why you are an English major. Thanks for the insight, i much enjoyed reading this.