When an artist uses a certain color, is he using the color for the color’s sake, motivated purely by the aesthetic pleasure, or displeasure, the particular color has on the brain? Or is he using a color to represent what it is that that color has come to represent, thanks to a collective definition forged over centuries? A context which, like it or not, is seemingly impossible to eliminate.
As an example.
Is the color blue in a painting, chosen for its beauty, its “blueness,” if you will, or is it chosen as a signifier; intended to evoke, in the mind of the viewer, feelings of depression, or sorrow.
I’m fascinated by language, how words came to be and how they develop meaning far in excess of their dictionary definitions, and have written about the subject before in the context of David Lynch. Lynch is many things, foremost among them, Lynch is a filmmaker. As such, he uses the vocabulary of film to force his viewers to reconsider, visually, the innumerable associations we have with words. Why can’t a scab be beautiful, for instance? And is there any way to shed the vast network of associations we bring with us to language?
William Gass is another intellectual fascinated by language; how it fails us even as it proves our dependence. After all, as I’m sure Gass is well aware, there is a harsh irony implicit in the necessity of words in examining the unreliability of language, as he was forced to do in On Being Blue.
The argument of Gass’ casually philosophical treatment of the subject, hinges, in my summation, on whether writers want to express what their words represent, or the words themselves, and whether or not the two can be disentangled. Spoiler alert, he believes it’s the former, that words are used for their particular properties rather than themselves. But he spends 90, give or take, fascinating (and humorous) pages expanding on that dilemma.
“Words are properties of thoughts and thoughts cannot be thought without them,” he writes at one point, expressing the futility of the entire endeavor.
Its mind-blowingly complex, this issue. Like, make your head hurt complex. A recursive, ontological meditation on the paradox of words indelible and ever-shifting meanings and the staggering fact, that without these unreliable signifiers, we can’t think at all.
It helps to think about the idea in the context of sex, as Gass does.
If we’re going to discuss, or even think, about sex, we have no choice but to use words. It’s a given. But try doing so and you’ll quickly see it become obvious that “anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writings which comprise it are ludicrous.”
Words are everything, it could be argued that we wouldn’t exist without them, and yet they are insufficient, even as they are essential. Unstoppable. Pervasive.
The struggle, for anyone perturbed by the idea, lies in how that fact, the centrality of words, can coexist peacefully in the intellect with the reality that “a random set of meaning has gathered around the word[s] the way lint collects.”
The mind just does that.
The debate concerning language and its “true” meaning easily elicits an association with Plato and his theory of Forms as the true representations of reality, e.g., the Form (capital F) of any thing, is more real than reality’s various manifestations of that thing; the Dog is the only true dog, therefore every particular dog is merely a shadow of the true Dog.
A rather conclusive take on ontology’s search to explain what the features of things are. For Plato, there can be no features.
Gass grapples with that idea in the context of language, challenging the dogmatism inherent in Plato’s line of argument in the context of language, the signifier, as opposed to the sign itself.
Approaching the idea in a different way, Gass instead allows for the particulars, or the features, although he reaches a conclusion of his own.
I read Plato’s arguments as attempts to definitively eliminate those “random sets of meanings” which inevitably cloud a word’s definition; to conclusively state that the ontology of a thing, exists only its universal, or essential.
But, in the words of Gass, if “signs are not the same as the things they designate, they are at least an essential segment.”
In the context of color, which Gass uses frequently as illustration throughout his essay (the book’s title is On Being Blue, after all), he somewhat boldly asserts as “fact” the idea that color is only somewhat subjective. “No one is going to call the sounds of the triangle brown or accuse the timpanist of playing pink.”
Gass will give into the futile consideration of subjectivity, metaphysics, and ontology only to a point, what thinking person can do otherwise, but Gass fights throughout his writing for concession, in a sense, begging for mercy from the obliterating force of the philosophical argument.
As Virginia Woolf’s ever-conflicted Orlando observed:
So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. ‘The sky is blue,’ he said, ‘the grass is green.’ Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. ‘Upon my word,’ he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), ‘I don’t see that one’s more true than another. Both are utterly false.’ And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.
Haven’t we all had those out of body experiences? Who the hell decided what would describe what anyways?
But, as Orlando discovered, one can’t live like that. Not all of the time anyways.
Various qualities, or the “lint” as Gass calls it, words pick up over time, may not be part of the essential word, but, as Aristotle would argue, since our experience of a word, or a color, is by necessity, an experience of the whole; composed of each of our innumerable and unpredictable associations with it, we cannot help but associate the qualities we observe in reality, with its use.
It is the balance, in the opinion of Gass, between all aspects of a thing, that makes it what it is.
Perceptions are always profound, associations deceiving.
But they’re real, and we have no choice but to accept them.
I’m no philosopher but I would describe the two sides of the language debate as the essentialists vs. the pragmatists. In other words, those who believe in the existence, or the possibility of existence, of an essential nature to a word, just as there is for Plato with Forms, are on one side, and on the other are those who, like Gass, acknowledge and refuse to deny the cultural context words have.
Because life is just plain easier that way.