22 May, 2020

A Word on Words

There's an apparent paradox in writing. To write effectively, you have to intimately know the limitations of the craft, understand that your words will never, ever equal the experience behind them.

Novelist John Updike summed this up perfectly when he observed, "Language is intrinsically approximate, since words mean different things to different people, and there is no material retaining ground for the imagery that words conjure in one brain or another."

We all have different minds, operating under different perspectives, with different biases, filtering everything through different processes of thought. My "little red wagon" is different from your "little red wagon," and that's okay — provided you understand that writing "little red wagon" isn't going to amount to your reader picturing the same old-school Radio Flyer you had as a kid, with its missing plastic hubcap and rusty scrape across the lip in the rear. That little red wagon is forever trapped in your mind.

Remember Paul Cezanne, the French painter? He did this famous image:

Translated into English, the text says, "This is not a pipe." And of course it isn't; it's an image of a pipe. No big deal, right? But to put this idea out there, right at the turn of the twentieth century, was borderline audacious, like pointing out the emperor's nakedness. It wasn't so much the idea of representations being distinct from reality (which was pretty obvious, once everyone thought about it), as Cezanne's writing it on a canvas and hanging it on a gallery wall.

Today, one and a quarter centuries later, Cezanne's non-pipe is still not a pipe. So too with your memory of a little red wagon. It's just the memory of a little red wagon — not the wagon itself, but a firing of electrical impulses in the brain that conjures up your idea of "little red wagon."

Here's a fun fact: every time you remember something, you're actually only remembering the last time you remembered that thing. The only time you remember a person or event accurately is the very first time. After that, you're building a mirage of a mirage. It's like playing a game of Telephone with yourself — always a little less accurate than the time before.

It's similar with words. Words aren't really things, they're concepts. They point to ideas about things, they don't represent those things. Conjuring representations is the work of yet another mental process, related to language but not part of language.

What I'm talking about here seems very Zen. Again and again, the teachings of Buddhism refer to nonexistence. Things are not things, says the Diamond Sutra. Things are made up, exclusively, of non-things. Vietnameze Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hahn often used the example of a flower, which is "made only of non-flower elements." Water is not a flower, but a flower is made up, in large part, of water. Ditto carbon. And minerals. Even an atom is not an atom. The finger pointing to the moon is not the way.

Zen teachings make frequent references to what's called buddha-nature (i.e., absolute reality). These teachings hold that reality's true nature is indescribable, since to describe it depends on the existence of a perceiver who exists apart from reality, rather than part of it, which, no matter how much we regard ourselves as separate from it, we are. Not to delve too deep into this, but it seemed like a fitting parallel to draw.

So, if any idea we put into words is doomed to fall short, then why bother writing? I ask myself this question a lot, especially since the apparent breakdown of temporal reality under quarantine. Stimulation for the creative mind is difficult to come by, here in this concrete box with the partial view of a parking lot, a narrow rectangle of sky, and some patchy grass. The closest thing to exotic scenery I get is watching Ancient Aliens on mute.

Coming up with material for writing projects is trickier than usual right now. Reporting only my day-to-day activities, the bread and butter of every lazy letter-writer, is out of the question, unless I decide to relay ridiculous conversations my cellmate and I have, or tell you about the giant hairball I found rolling around the floor at work. Trust me, blog posts about that stuff would get old really quickly.

The reason that I write is the same reason that Zen teachers say they practice: because it's what one does. If you're a practitioner of Zen, you practice; if you're a writer, you write. You just do. I don't know if this means that I'm enlightened or just some doofus who's stuck doing the thing he does because he can't be bothered to conceive of worthwhile alternatives. For whatever it's worth, I continue putting my words out there, hoping that one or two of them resonate with you, and that they, for however brief an instant, draw a direct line between my thoughts and yours. Maybe our little red wagons will even turn out to be similar.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.