Think of the most beautiful word you know
but do not speak it. Not yet. Only, hold it
in your mind a little while longer, hold it
until it becomes redolent, until it becomes
profuse with idolatries.
What kind of a word is it? A pretty word?
One that is sweet to say aloud, like perfume?
Is it a word that means something to you,
that has weight, extension, luminosity?
Something golden, like truth?
Is it someone’s name you cherish?
Is it the incantation of your daily ritual?
The mantra reifying a sore heart that
if you spoke aloud the word the world
would crack? Yet do not speak it yet.
At this moment it is the storehouse
of a world in which it is the very image
of that world. One that is faithful to it.
Such a word promises you many things.
You do not utter it lightly.
But if now you know what it is,
by all means, speak, bring it forth.
Summon it from the whirlwind.
Proclaim from the top of every mountain
that word you love most of all.
This is part of a series I’ve been working on that uses the metaphor of the different stages of civilization to explore characteristics of language. The other two I’ve published so far are Stone Age and Atomic Age.
Ever since reading Paul Ricoeur’s The Rule of Metaphor a couple of years ago, I’ve been thinking very hard about the ways language produces meaning. I suppose I’ve always been interested in this subject, since I’ve always been interested in poetry, which Ricoeur says is the primary way in which language evolves and creates new meaning.
It’s strange that sounds, uttered in a particular order, can produce physical, physiological, and psychological responses in us. They can make us blush, sweat, freeze. They can make our stomachs sink, our blood boil, our hairs stand on end. What’s more, it’s not even necessary for us to speak in order for this to happen. You’re not reading these words aloud, yet they act upon you all the same. We are even beholden to some words or phrases which, if spoken, have a sort of magical quality over us. For example, imagine meeting someone new, and having a chat with them. They’ve told you who they are, what they like, etc., but you’re still trying to decide whether or not you like them. You could analyze their dress, their tone of voice, their body language. But at some point in the conversation they utter a phrase you recognize, a saying or an idiom that means something to you. All of a sudden you connect with them. You start to sympathize. Perhaps you even think they know you, simply because they use the same language as you. The opposite is also true. When someone uses language differently from us, they can suddenly become opaque. We no longer understand their meaning, hence their intentions, desires, etc. It’s easy to be fooled by words. That’s why it’s important that we try to understand them. How do they work? Where do they come from? What’s their function? Their essence? It might be easy to say, “Words are for communicating things,” but ask yourself what “things” you mean. And what does is mean to “communicate” those things?
If there is anything like a metaphysical space, it seems that language is its sole occupant. I would even go so far to say that language is the representation of metaphysical space, but that would require a much longer post, and it’s Sunday, so that’s not going to happen. 🙂
Art work: Claude Lorrain – Landscape with the Adoration of the Golden Calf (1653)