A Sensible Emptiness

January 15th, 2018

Below is the late Richard Wilbur’s metaphorical exploration of one sentence of Thomas Traherne’s: “”Life without objects is a sensible emptiness, and that is a greater misery than death or nothing.” (Second Century, Meditation 65) The little we know of Traherne’s life reveals a man of fascinating contradictions: a kind and self-effacing mystical poet full of childlike wonder at creation, whose only work published in his lifetime was a prose polemic rife with conspiracy theories and dripping with white-hot rage at everything and everyone Catholic. Largely unknown to or ignored by scholars until the twentieth century, much of Traherne’s work remains unpublished. In this poem, Richard Wilbur captures the felicitous spirit of Traherne’s verse, described by one critic as “bafflingly simple.” Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, XIII: Words Cannot Contain…

January 6th, 2018

Epiphany, Theophany, Three Kings Day. Gifts, carried by the wise, in oddly-fashioned coffers. After twelve days spent pondering the health of words in a sickened language, we end where we began: marveling at the power and fragility of these vessels of meaning. I hope the journey better prepares us to defend them from the cynics, the forgers, the looters.

Care for the words you receive. Honor the words you share. Rejoice at their abilities. Stay mindful of their limits. Attend carefully to those passages in a life when words can do no more than gesture beyond themselves. Rather than mourning what seems like failure, imagine their exhilaration, poised at the edges of signification like climbers on a volcanic rim, dangling their aching legs over the abyss. Return there often. Feel the rising heat, the alpine wind. If words cannot contain our lives, they can show others the way. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, XII: Risk Your Heart

January 5th, 2018

Write and read with your whole heart. Embrace mystery. Shun mystification, which is to mystery what sentimentality is to honest feeling. Treasure words that prove difficult to pin down but impossible to live without. Go out on limbs. Be willing to fall. Get up again. Even in moments of great bitterness, remember your deepest affections, beautiful and broken. Attend to your words as if someone’s life depends on it, because it does. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, XI: The Right Word

January 4th, 2018

Abstraction and imprecision are enemies of good writing. Not at all coincidentally, they are among the preferred weapons of politicians, hucksters, and other con artists. The concrete, specific, and particular prove harder to come by, but almost always repay the writer’s effort.

Achieving verbal precision is often part of the hard and necessary work of revision. It typically results in a tighter, briefer text. I like final drafts rich in short, declarative sentences, but not all precision is in the service of plain sense and straightforward clarity. Sometimes the perfect word is mysterious, ambiguous, or necessarily abstract. Faulkner sweated over every word and comma in his long, twisting ribbons of prose. Wallace Stevens wrote “The poem must resist the intelligence/ Almost successfully.”* Those who find his verse opaque might give him another chance. He, too, labored to place “the best words in the best order.”** Pushing sentences of layered meaning to their limits, the titans of late modernism wrote with exactitude, each line and paragraph as clear as they could make them.

There is no clarity without precision. Clear sentences, like clear windows, are not ends in themselves. We polish windows in order to see better through them. We polish prose for the same reason. In any revision worth doing, the writer learns something along the way, and hopes to lead her reader to a similar discovery. Why else would we write? Why else do we read? Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, X: Tell the Truth

January 3rd, 2018

I once was in a group discussion on social justice (is there a justice that’s not social?) at which one the discussants, whom I’ll call Kevin, chose to lecture the rest of us on the nonexistence of truth. “When someone talks about ‘truth,’” he said, “what they mean is what’s true for them. Your truth isn’t necessarily my truth, but they’re both true. Yours is no better than mine. We should stop talking about the truth because there’s no such thing.”

Kevin continued in that postmodern vein for what seemed to me a very long time. I wriggled in my seat, ready to voice disagreement, but when he finally stopped explaining the way things really are, the group leader quickly steered the conversation in another direction. It was later that night (in what the Germans call a Treppenwitz, the perfect witty retort you only think of while heading upstairs to bed) that I arrived at the appropriate response: “But Kevin, is that true?”

No one this side of the grave can claim certain access to “The Truth” in its entirety. Not even “Science” (with a capital “S”) can pull that off. Yet if my truth has precisely the same validity as Adolf Hitler’s or Charlie Manson’s, what’s the point of discussing anything, social or otherwise, each of us forever stranded on the reef of solipsism? Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, IX: Reading is Not Optional

January 2nd, 2018

James Baldwin, France, 1970

If we want a healthier language, we must read and read well. If we want to resist the clever lies of advertisers and politicians, we must read and read well. If we want to know that others have felt as we have, that we’re connected to people who lived before and elsewhere, we must read and read well. If we want to enlarge our imagination beyond the confines of individual experience, we must read and read well. If, in our increasingly rare “free” hours, we want to do more than “kill time” with cheaply made diversions, we must read and read well. If we want to reclaim our souls from those forever ready to sell us a number and a chain, we must read and read well. Reading is not optional. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, VIII: Witnesses to Hope

January 1st, 2018

On New Year’s Day, with the Twelve Days of Christmas more than half-spent, it’s time to remember that a diseased language may be restored to health. However long it may take to persuade politicians, parties, and other political organizations to change their ways, readers and writers who care for words can cultivate healthy language habits. Some of these are practical matters of reading and writing. Others are more complex and demanding. Great voices from the Western tradition call to us. Long-excluded voices – voices that survived and even flourished under the most dreadful conditions – are ready to share unwelcome but necessary truths.

Restoring a language to health cannot mean reconstructing an idealized past. There is much from our tongue’s history we should conserve, including some treasures discarded in the name of a ill-defined but zealously imposed “progress.” Yet the past is strewn with linguistic corpses best left entombed, remembered as cautionary tales, mistakes along the way: alienating names, hateful descriptions, abstractions we kill for. Leavening the best of the Western tradition with words and voices that will no longer be marginalized – that’s a challenge full of promise and peril. I have too much confidence in human imperfection to believe we will set things aright, once and for all. Pessimist that I am, I have reason to hope.

With due respect to Orwell (see below), language is an organism as well as an instrument, or say it’s an ecosystem with a particular genius. It bears cultivation but not exploitation. The latter only worsens the malady we wish to heal. There are voices aplenty who show us ways to cultivate a healthier language, who “consult the genius of the place,”* as they go about their business. From their witness, I draw radical hope. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, VII: Free Speech?

December 31st, 2017

Among the actions the First Amendment to the US Constitution prevents Congress from doing is the making of any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” Nevertheless, the US Supreme Court recognizes constitutionally acceptable limits to this freedom, including incitement to “imminent lawless action,” possessing or producing child pornography, and violation of copyright. Free speech, of necessity, comes with restrictions in the interest of some other compelling good. This leaves to be decided, of course, what goods are sufficiently compelling, as well as where to draw a line between troubling, offensive, or discourteous speech and speech constituting a “clear and present danger.”

Not all protected speech content is prudent or helpful. There are words or opinions a considerate person is constitutionally entitled to express but chooses not to. Communities often observe prudential speech conventions, though these change over time as sensibilities and demographics evolve – sometimes by choice, sometimes by command, sometimes as the result of concerted social action.

For John Milton (yes, that John Milton), who addressed his defense of free speech and publication to the Presbyterian-controlled Parliament in 1644, near the height of the English Civil War, the line of tolerance excluded Catholics from any claim to protected speech. Free-speech advocates for whom Milton is a hero tend to skip over that detail now. Who and what is proscribed, whether by law or convention, depends on who has a voice in the discussion. Most non-black Americans stopped using the “N-word” as social relationships and sensibilities changed during and after the Civil Rights Era. It’s an embarrassingly tiny but welcome development in a long, unfinished struggle.

Names – and who gets to choose them – are particularly contentious. Alaska’s request to restore the Koyukon Athabascan name, Denali, to the mountain named in 1896 by a white gold prospector as Mount McKinley was delayed forty years (1975-2015). The primary opponent to the change was an Ohio congressman representing the district where William McKinley spent much of his life. To the Koyukon people, it has always been Denali. It took the US government a century to agree. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, VI: The Internet

December 30th, 2017

I’m hardly the first to write an internet post to warn about the downside of the internet. For the record, the irony is duly noted. The internet is not intrinsically bad. Developers of any newly available technology understandably emphasize its benefits. “This,” we are told, “is a tool to do something desirable,” even if we hadn’t previously noticed that particular desire. When, with use, downsides are discovered, we are often reminded that tools are morally neutral – it all depends on how and to what end they are used. Such reassurances, however, obscure the moral complexity of any technology that makes some actions easier – and more likely – than others. When obstetricians started using ultrasound technology in the 1960s, no one predicted the effect it would have on male:female birth ratios in Asia.

With all the benefits digital connectivity brings, I know from experience what a time drain the internet can be, with some attractive new diversion always a click away. The parallels to other addictions are manifest. I know the ways my use of search engines and social media makes me an unpaid worker for Facebook and Google. I know that otherwise courteous people post or text personal attacks they wouldn’t dream of saying face-to-face. I know internet comment boxes are where reason and civility go to die. I know how text abbreviations and emojis make it easier to write unimaginative or just plain bad sentences. I know frequent internet use makes me a poorer reader. I know all of this, but I have yet to learn how to use this technology without falling into its traps. I have reason to believe I’m not alone. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, V: Orwell or Huxley?

December 29th, 2017

The term “Orwellian” is used often enough, usually with some sense of dictatorial or centralized social control maintained through propaganda, misinformation, and language restriction, augmented by ubiquitous surveillance and brutal punishment of nonconformers. “Orwellian,” like “Nazi,” is commonly employed to indicate social conditions not only indisputably bad, but as bad as they can get. Americans, in particular, are forever wary of limits on expression, though often with some reservations about expression of content they disagree with. “Don’t tell me what to say or do,” we say in unison, and assure ourselves in the same words – but with no hint of irony: “I think for myself.”

Yet what if social control is more readily achieved – indeed, has to some degree already been achieved – not by telling people what to say or do, but by giving the masses what they want? What happens to the practices of attention required for careful reading in a world of infinite distraction? Is a common narrative possible when there are two hundred cable channels, a news source for every wavelength in the political spectrum, and an unlimited array of websites to choose from? What sense of history remains when all our electronically mediated stories are refracted through the lens of current prejudices? What if George Orwell wrote a more influential novel, but Aldous Huxley was more prescient? Read the rest of this entry »