Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reflections: The Tongue as Blunt Instrument

Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about politics, sports, or religion on blogs, around the proverbial water cooler, or over beers in some evil-smelling grogshop. And we spend much of our remaining time reading op-eds and topical books and magazines, or sitting at the pixilated feet of the talking heads on cable TV, in order to stockpile ammo for our next face-to-face or cyber-argument.

It often seems, after all this expended energy, that we’ve just been spinning our wheels, unable to gain any rhetorical traction. The following excerpts from The Aquarian Conspiracy may provide some insight as to why this is so often the case:

Life is not constructed like a sentence, subject acting on object. In reality many events affect each other simultaneously. Take, for example, the impossibility of sorting out who-did-what-first or who-caused-what-behavior in a family. We construct all of our explanations on a linear model that exists only as an ideal.

Hmm. Apply that thought in a post-mortem on your last argument about who’s to blame for the financial melt-down.

Semanticists like Alfred Korzybski and Benjamin Whorf warned that Indo-European languages trap us in a fragmented model of life. They disregard relationship. By their subject-predicate structure, they mold our thought, forcing us to think of everything in terms of simple cause and effect. For this reason it is hard for us to talk about--or even think about--quantum physics, a fourth dimension, or any other notion without clear-cut beginnings and endings, up and down, then and now.

Gosh. Maybe the failure of AIG was not primarily due to Barney Frank’s unnatural lust to put every shiftless, nappy-headed Negro and his web-toed hillbilly cousin into his own six-bedroom mansion on a wooded cul-de-sac, after all? Maybe it’s just that the nature of language requires us to designate a simple cause-and-effect explanation for the event, if we insist on discussing it at all?

Events in nature have simultaneous multiple causes. Some languages, notably Hopi and Chinese, are structured differently and can express nonlinear ideas with less strain. They can, in effect, "speak physics." Like the ancient Greeks, whose philosophy strongly influenced the left-brained West, we say, "The light flashed." But the light and the flash were one. A Hopi would more accurately say, "Reh-pi!"--"Flash!"

[bridge and chorus]

I recently e-mailed my good buddy, John Derbyshire, with regard to my new-found enthusiasm for the poetry of Jane Kenyon. In reading various biographical pieces on Kenyon, I had learned that her earliest poetic influence was most likely Witter Bynner’s translations of poetry from the Chinese (which I previously mentioned here.) Knowing Derb to be a knowledgeable poetry guy, as well as a world-class sinologist, I wondered if these twin competencies might have led him to read Kenyon? Although it turns out that he wasn’t familiar with Kenyon (a deficiency that I hope I’ve now prompted him to remediate), his return e-mail did include this link to his excellent article on the vicissitudes of translation. It also provides some concrete examples of the differences between Indo-European language structure and that of “Chinese,” as referred to in the last excerpt from The Aquarian Conspiracy above.


Korzybski warned that we will not grasp the nature of reality until we realize the limitation of words. Language frames our thought, thereby setting up barriers.

So you see, I wasn’t going off-topic when I abruptly brought up Kenyon and Bynner and Derb (Oh, my!). I wasn’t even “connecting the dots”—I was transcending the linguistic barriers that compartmentalize our thinking and verbal intercourse. Lie back and enjoy it.