regarding the paradox of words

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.

Fuck.

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.

the man with(IN) MY head

It’s a rare occurrence to come across something genuinely transformative. Rarer still to be paying enough attention to fully realize something’s transformative potential when you find it.

As someone with a myriad number of interests, unceasingly ready to move on to the next thing simply because for me, there are so many things, I struggle with what I hear referred to often as “mindfulness.” In other words, living one’s life fully invested in each and every moment.

On a favorite radio show I recently listened to a doctor discuss the subject and what he described as our human propensity to “mind-wander.” Apparently it’s totally normal for your mind to want to wander during various, especially mundane, activities. Driving to work, for example. But that “mind-wandering” is also the source of many thinking people’s, let’s say, lack of satisfaction, because unhappiness seems too strong a word. It’s a source of stress, I’ll put it that way. Makes sense, when you’re thinking about how late you’re going to be for work or all the things you need to do when you get there for example, you’re dissatisfied, you feel a need to hurry.

Totally. Normal.

Or, as perhaps a better example, think of all the times when you’re at work and thinking about all of the things you’d rather be doing, or need to be doing, that aren’t work. You probably find, as I do, it’s quite easy to wish your entire day away that way. Your entire day, every day.

If your mind, like mine, by nature tends toward a slightly morbid train of thought it’s not hard to see how that can easily turn in to the wishing away of your entire life.

De.Press.Ing.

Just because it’s normal to mind-wander doesn’t mean we all do it, or that we all do it to the same degree, or that we would all admit this mind-wandering causes us unhappiness. For me, however, it is the source of a great deal of unhappiness, not least because I’m hyper-aware of its easy to ignore consequences, imagining myself always as the 80-year old woman who tells a friend how she wished she would have been enjoying life all those years instead of wishing them away, waiting for what’s next instead of realizing it was already there.

So the desire to live a more mindful life has been taking the form lately of me trying very hard to focus on enjoying what I’m doing right now, whatever it is, instead of wishing for 5 o’ clock, or Friday night.

It’s also been manifesting itself in more concrete resolutions.

As a voraciously competitive reader, I’m often really guilty of only halfway reading a book, something I attribute in large part to the hurry up and finish attitude that is totally understandable considering how many books are on my reading list at all times (and ever growing I might add).

Again, totally understandable not only thanks to an obsessive personality, but also because of the nature of life in our ADD-addled 21st century.

Point of all of this is to say that my goal, one of many really, for 2015, was to live mindfully, all the time. So far, if you were wondering, it’s greatly improved my work ethic because it’s greatly improved my attitude about being at work in the first place. It’s amazing how much a sense of accomplishment contributes to continued ability to accomplish.

I’ll also give this whole mindfulness stuff credit for what I hope is only the first of many transformative reading experiences to come in 2015.

The book was The Man Within My Head, by, wouldn’t you know it, mindfulness expert himself Pico Iyer.

It’s almost stupid this book. Stupid in how closely Iyer’s interpretation of Greene’s psyche mirrors my own, and, I’m grasping for words here, but for lack of something better, how freakishly astute Iyer’s ability to explain, in the perfect language, in a way I never could, why I have consistently gone back to Graham Greene’s novels over the course of my lifetime (and in the process explain me, better than me.)

Of course the whole premise of the book is how Iyer felt that Greene was ‘in his head’ as it were as he has traversed the world in his own lifetime. It’s a memoir, utterly creative in its telling, as it uses Iyer’s interpretation and second-hand knowledge through biographies, friends etc., of Greene’s life, perhaps the most formative author in his (Iyer’s) life, to shed light on the impulses that drove him, and decisions that he made.

It sounds weird, and boring, and maybe a tad cliché, but I was profoundly moved.

In less deft hands the book and its premise could easily have trailed off into narcissism, but I think the book succeeds here almost exclusively thanks to Iyer’s ridiculously unequivocal sincerity (and I will offer the caveat, some of it is a little bit too sincere).

If you’re familiar at all with Greene’s stories you probably are aware most of all of his character’s complex and deep-seated ability to, for the most part, live their lives constantly acknowledging their flaws and only occasionally be consumed by them.

His characters are beautifully tragic; the lovers in The End of the Affair, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter and Thomas Fowler in The Quiet American being just a few.

I was always aware of what I would describe as Greene’s ability to create a very human empathy in and for his characters for the reader; building characters who were magically so real and yet too good to be real at the same time, I just never would have been able to tell you exactly what it was about Greene, or about his characters that could inspire this in his readers.

I came away from Iyer with a lot of thoughts, but perhaps most importantly I came away with the notion that Greene’s prescience lies in Greene’s lifelong struggle with Greene.

He saw things in himself that he hated, hypocrisy being perhaps tantamount to the worst, and therein lay his ability to create profoundly relatable characters; his writing serving more or less as a way of exorcising his own flaws, although Greene more than anyone would have known he could never truly be rid of them.

Iyer noted Greene’s opinion that “the things we do are more telling than merely the things we claim to believe” and his own very human struggle to be honest, really and truly honest (which is stupid hard if you’ve never tried), with himself, inspired in him a profound sympathy for sinners of all kinds. Side note: It’s probably not a coincidence that so many of Greene’s sinners are adulterers, having struggled his entire life with fidelity.

Iyer also noted Greene’s astute acknowledgement, of “all the ways we can fail to understand one another.”

I have to stop using the word profound but it’s the best word to describe what seems like Greene’s innate and otherworldly ability to acknowledge his failings, as well as those of others, yet retain a love for, and faith in, humanity, as well as the ability to celebrate our small triumphs over sin.

According to Iyer Greene wasn’t a religious man, per se, something it’s easy to see in his characters, but it’s also easy to see he kind of wanted to be. He never rejects religion, that’s certain, he lives in the in-between place so many of us live in; recognizing the ideas of sin and salvation playing out around us all the time, yet never reaching a true “faith;” another way of saying it is that he had the “emotional” but not the “rational” basis for religion.

Iyer’s assertion that Greene maintained the intensity of faith yet “refused to stake out the easy ground of a nonbeliever” is paramount in his work, perhaps no more –so than with Scobie who struggles viscerally with sin and faith.

Greene like so many of us, lived his life hyper-aware of the frustration inherent in never really knowing anything for sure. Always feeling “much of the anguish of religion but little of its joy.”

Iyer also elucidated for me Greene’s role as “the caretaker of that part of us that feels we are larger and much harder to contain than even we can get our heads around.”

His struggle with faith is mirrored in myriad additional philosophical struggles Greene would deal with throughout his life, the “craving of knowledge,” as it were, that only some of us have. Something which is occasionally an asset, but is most of the time better described as a burden, refusing its bearer happiness. The curse of knowledge, in a manner of speaking.

But for me, the most profound element of Greene’s novels, the aspect that moves me the most, is the overwhelming empathy he feels for humankind.

His ability to acknowledge each of us has only a provisional point of view, in tandem with a deep understanding of, if not satisfaction with, the self, and a life-long struggle with knowledge, and a lack thereof, refused Greene the gratification of answers, and thereby, the absolution which goes hand in hand with the knowledge of good and evil.

“In our fallenness lies our salvation.”

I’ve felt acutely for many years all of these things; a struggle with the rationality of faith, the surprising difficulty of being honest with yourself, painful communion with the struggles and pains of others and the irresolution inherent to an overwhelming craving of knowledge.

Reading Iyer’s take on Greene’s novel was like reading a diary of my own, albeit far more beautifully written. I was once removed from Greene here, as if Iyer was the person within my head.

I’m so very grateful for having found the book, although I am now no more at peace than before, perhaps even less so, feeling more than anything else as I finished the book, an acute sense of what I earlier called irresolution. It was a reminder that these things I (and I’m sure many others) struggle with, will never be settled. I’ll never be at peace, which is a hard thing to come to terms with.

But hey, if Greene can do it.