Better Living Through Linguistics
What if you came across a word that you couldn't explain? Would you hold it up to the light and let the rays of the sun pass through it? Would you get in touch with a linguist to see if he could tease out its secrets?
Or would you try to represent the word in a photographic image or by the methods of abstract painting?
Let's say the painting you made to represent the word was black and white with some gray smudges. Let's say you wanted to reproduce the painting a million times over so that you could show the image to anyone who was interested in seeing what this word looked like now that it had been made into a painted facsimile.
Then let's say the newsprint from these cheap replications got all over your fingers and without thinking about it you inadvertently rubbed your fingers into your eye. Maybe you did this because something had gotten stuck in there, or maybe it was just a habit, a tic you returned to when you got nervous. So now you have all these painted copies of the words, but because you have rubbed the cheap newsprint in your eyes, they begin to water and people around you mistakenly form a picture of you; sitting alone in the corner of a room, crying.
The linguist comes up and puts his arm around you. He tells you not to feel bad. He’s having difficulty teasing out the meaning of the word himself. He promises to pass it along to some colleagues for another opinion. “These guys are good, the best. They’re experts. I'm sure we'll have the answers soon.”
While you wait for the linguist to get back to you with a second opinion, you continue to make visual representations of it with paint, ink, and found objects. Since the meaning is so difficult to pin down, even for so-called experts, you let the images meant to represent it drift out in new directions. Each time you create a new representation of the word, the word becomes more distant and mysterious. Some folks might even have a hard time reconciling the two, if pressed.
But, even as you lose the breadcrumbs from your original spark of inspiration, your painting, it has improved markedly. So much so that you begin to sell all of your paintings for ridiculous sums of money. It doesn’t take long for the wheels of commerce to dislodge you from your world of obscurity. Soon, you begin to make your way onto the pages of art magazines and, gather, in an insider art-scene sort of way, a layer of notoriety and mystique. By this time, you’ve become so engrossed in the world of your own images that you have totally forgotten about the original word that created all the internal racket in the first place.
You feel happy, if not generally a little unsettled for some unknown reason. But then again, when you look at the people in the world around you, it seems like that’s how everyone else feels too.
Things continue along like this until one day, you run into the linguist at one of your art openings. Years have passed. His hair is shorter and the skin on his face has loosened somewhat.
The opening is set in a large warehouse-type gallery with mostly concrete walls and echoey acoustics so it's just about impossible to hear anything that anyone is saying, but the linguist muscles his way in through your circle of friends and colleagues and says, “I finally figured out a few things about your word.” Then he taps your arm and takes you aside. “Would you like me to tell you?"
The linguist motions for you to come back through the corridors of the gallery into one of the side rooms where it's a bit quieter.
You've never really looked at the linguist before, but now that you stand next to him, you think he's quite familiar looking. He looks like someone that appeared to you in a dream or someone who might have starred in a popular film. You picture him with a gun holstered underneath his pressed jacket. You picture him shaving in a cracked mirror, the sound of the razor whisking over the smooth skin of his face. You picture him lying face down soaking up the rays of the sun on some idyllic looking beach. You picture his face basked in the pale blue light from a computer monitor as he checks his emails late at night.
He seems at ease in all of your fabrications.
His face is thin, yet soft. He wears a corduroy jacket with elbow patches. His eyes are bright and mischievous but sleepy, an effect highlighted by the dark frames of his thick glasses.
Somehow, in the space of a few minutes, you find that you’ve become a little smitten.
This linguist, he's explaining the etymology of the word to you, but because you are a creative person, he tells you it might make more sense if he explains it to you using the tricks of his profession. Namely, metaphor and allegory.
He tells you to pretend that the word is an apple and that the meaning of that word is the sweetness contained in the flesh of the fruit.
“Are you with me?”
"The reason that you can't figure out what the word means is that you are distracted by the overwhelming sweetness contained within the flesh of this apple. When you bite into it, you think, this is the most delicious apple I’ve ever tasted. This apple is so delicious I don’t ever want to eat anything else ever again. You think, It has the flavor of an apple but there are a multitude of other flavors present as well, all of which remind you of other things, many of which are not related to an apple in any way whatsoever.”
“Don’t worry about the specific details of the taste, simply realize that everyone who tears their teeth into it, feels the same.”
The more the linguist talks, the more you can feel yourself getting elated. Almost dizzy.
The linguist sets his Styrofoam cup onto the grimy ledge of a window next to you.
“Well, it turns out that the flesh of this apple is so delicious it causes people to lose their inhibition. Once the inhibition goes, it takes innocence with it. This allows you to gain the power of reason and insight, but not without cost. And, I mean, it doesn’t happen instantaneously, right? Like everyone else, you have to you go through a pretty convoluted period of intellectual awakening and experimentation with events, actions, and so on. In other words, you know, you are living your life much in the same way as you did before you came across the word in the first place. A way much less abstracted than the way things are now.”
The linguist distractedly brushes a strand of hair that had wandered into one of his eyes.
"Anyway, even after you’ve had your fill, you can't stop tasting the fruit of this apple. You take a bite. You repeat the word. You take a bite. You repeat the word again. You can't help it. After awhile you’ve repeated the word so many times that it’s lost its meaning. It’s like a coin that has been in circulation too long and has had all its edges rubbed away from years of rough handling. The coin has become a rounded and smooth disc. It is so smooth it can pass through air and water without disturbing them. If it can slip through these surfaces undetected, then it can certainly travel, unnoticed, between the cracks of our normal, everyday conversation. It’s as if, through excesses of speech and writing, it has ceased to be visible. As for the apple, by now, you've ingested so much glucose that you've become a diabetic. How are you supposed to find the meaning of the word now? You've actually become dependent on the meaning of this word to simply exist. You carry a syringe around with you and give yourself injections at regular intervals. Your body, well, it requires cheap representations of this word merely to survive. By now, the flesh of the apple or a sugar pill, it’s all the same. At this point, you need an entire regimen of medicines and routines just to continue living. In this way the meaning of the word becomes secondary, superfluous. An impression. An inkling. An intuition. A prediction. A shiver. A physical sensation. Although the word may have seemed real and tangible at one point, now obviously everything has changed. The apple has undergone a transformation and, likewise, you have undergone a transformation along with it. Even the word has mutated somewhat. There might have been something to decipher at one stage, but now obviously, there is nothing. Basically, you shouldn’t care less.”
The linguist beams at you from over the edge of his eyeglass frames. His eyes are like the rays of the sun, passing right through you. You feel a weight has been lifted off of your shoulders, but also disengaged from this particular place in time. You move your arms and feel them capture the currents of air running through the gallery.
Your body, is a sieve, just like you remember it.
You say, “Do you think we should go back in?”
The linguist nods. He takes your hand like it is an extension of his body and leads you around the room pointing at the various paintings you've made, asking, “Please, tell me a little more about this one. It's so beautiful. What were you thinking of here?”
Craig Foltz has been published in numerous journals and has two books out on Ugly Duckling Presse. For many years he has believed that individual agency is only possible from within a collective unit. In the meantime, he lives on the slopes of a dormant volcano in Auckland, New Zealand. More info at: www.craigfoltz.com