Words, words, words by Bill Kirton
After being so pleasantly surprised by the number and nature of comments provoked by my first Authors Electric blog, the pressure is on. And yes, that’s a deliberate example of a hanging participle because it gives me the opportunity to show that I know what a hanging participle is.
Anyway, as I was saying ... the pressure. It seems that by speculating on the ‘literary’ aspects of our trade I was offering some sort of relief from the traditional (and, let’s face it, crucially important), topic of marketing, increasing sales, raising profiles and the rest. I can assure you that, had I been any good at selling, I’d have written about that, but I’m not. So, at least to begin with, I’ll try to fill the role of a specific archetype in this village-like online community.
Villages have vicars, pub landlords, squires and postmistresses, but there’s only one role that includes the word ‘village’ in its title – idiot. However, despite Danny Boyle’s plans for the Olympic opening ceremony, the archetypal rural idyll he references is no longer representative of who and how we are; it’s given way to a middle class urban vision of 4 x 4s and drizzled Balsamic vinegar. Political correctness has also insisted that you can only say ‘idiot’ if it’s followed by ‘savant’. So there’s a need for different archetypes. Which is why (Yes, I know you shouldn’t begin a new sentence with a relative pronoun), I’m proposing myself not necessarily as its idiot (although some of you may disagree) but as its ‘village pretentious git’.
So much for my function. Now to the substance of this blog. (And yes, I also know that neither of those is a true sentence, but I’m a writer – in fact, in the words of my granddaughter, ‘a grate riter’ – so I can do what I like with words.)
Words define us, our own but also other people’s. When asked to put modesty aside and describe ourselves, we may opt for ‘generous’, ‘sensitive’, ‘kind’, ‘understanding’, ‘intelligent’ and many other words which will cause people to want to have our babies. But if someone else decides we’re ‘thick’, ‘obnoxious’, ‘selfish’, ‘vulgar’ or ascribes other, similar qualities to us, the door to obstetrics will remain closed. Be warned, we’re dealing with existentialism here, where ‘Hell is other people’.
You may think it unlikely that there could be such a disparity between opinions but try this: in a corridor, you see a young, sharply-dressed man taking great care combing his hair, teasing it into peaks or whatever people with hair do to it. What’s your snap judgement on him? Probably along the lines of ‘vain’, ‘fancies himself’, ‘wanker’. Then you see the notice on the door outside which he’s standing: ‘Interviews 2.30’. Is he still a wanker? Or is he perhaps desperate to get the job because he has a young family to support? The thing is that actions, such as hair combing, don’t ‘mean’ anything in themselves, but we base our judgements on them and those judgements, once articulated, become ‘truths’.
With that in mind, consider our divine powers as writers. We live, like everyone else, in a precarious reality where meanings can be ascribed on a whim or a misinterpretation of actions. Uncertainty and frustrations are the norms. But in our books, we manipulate the words and the actions to direct readers towards particular, preferred judgements. I know it’s still possible for them to decide that our shining hero is and always will be a wanker, but it’s harder and it’s probably motivated by things in their own psyches over which we can’t have any control. But we do more than that. Most books resolve issues, tie up loose ends, have satisfactory denouements – all of which suggests that, unlike the ‘real’ ‘reality’, the reality of the book does have substance, structure, even meaning. In other words, it’s a much better, or at least more comfortable reality.
So we live in these two worlds. There’s the uncertain, unpredictable, chaotic everyday one where we have no idea why X said so-and-so, Y did this or that or our carefully nurtured retirement annuity becomes available the day after we’ve been run over by a bus. And then there’s the world of our books, where we know exactly who the people are, what they’ll do, why they’ll do it, how they’ll react and, overall, feel a sense of completeness and certainty about the finished article. Life is accidental; books are deliberate.
And it’s all thanks to words. The musician Vangelis said that ‘music should continue emotions where words finish’ and I think that confirms rather than contradicts what I’m about to say because, without wishing to imply that literature has any superiority over the other arts, the definiteness of words does make its images and effects more precise. Musicians, painters, dancers and most other non-verbal artists can move us, create moods, transport us into other ways of feeling and thinking, but I’m not sure that, without access to the word, they could convey exactly what a writer achieves simply by calling someone a coward. They can depict cowardice, flight, fear, and an amalgam of them all, but the blatant ‘Freddie was a coward’ is explicit, non-negotiable.
So, it’s another argument for choosing our words with care and, as a postscript, it’s one I offer to all those who preface FaceBook and Twitter comments with ‘Check this out …’, ‘Check out my …’, ‘Another five star review …’, ‘Hey guys …’, ‘My new novel is now …’
You’re writers, be more imaginative, expand your vocabulary. Words-R-Us. Use them. Respect them.
It's funny folks. Honestly. (I was told earlier this week by 2 sources that I should be a comic writer - but there you have a comic piece and I can't get it arrested!) Sigh. Back to drawing board.
I now have Chasing Waves, Cally, and, for others who'd like it, it's at http://amzn.to/MQnaEc (UK) and http://amzn.to/NcMDXg (USA).
And, in defence of my use of the word 'meaning', I wasn't wanting to suggest that such 'meaning' has any significance. We all want stuff to 'mean' things, otherwise the reality of absurdity can be oppressive (to some). So the completeness of books gives that comforting illusion that there can be reasons for things - despite all the evidence to the contrary.
I think I sort of agree and disagree - the precision of words feels as though it gives a concreteness to a statement whereas other forms of art (and words used differently) produce an emotional conviction (the precision won't convince you that what is precisely described is true - which raises questions which matters more of course). I don't think this is actually true - it is more obviously true because the representational symbolism of words is something we're all familiar with. There is just as accurate a representational symbolism in art (from the semiology of the iconographer through paintings of the vanities) and music (think of the complex codes in ballet or the use of instruments in Peter and the Woolf)
I accept your second point, too, about the precision of words. I still think their specificity anchors our perceptions more soundly than do musical textures, ballet codes or visual semiotics. I’m certainly not suggesting they have greater emotional or aesthetic impact; it’s just that, when it comes to pinpointing and anchoring something into the nearest to a ‘truth’ we can get, the tyranny of the label is supreme.
And that reminded me of that great Ionesco play, The Lesson, in which the professor’s maid warns him that ‘Arithmetic leads to philology and philology leads to crime’. Here’s a quick, loose translation of bit of the professor’s lesson I was thinking of:
'If you let out several sounds very quickly, they’ll automatically hang on to one another, to make syllables, words, even sentences at a pinch – groupings of greater or lesser importance, purely irrational sound assemblies, stripped of all sense but, precisely for that reason, able to rise high and float up into the air. It’s only words that are weighed down by what they signify, made heavier by their meaning which end up falling, succumbing, crumbling down into the ears of deaf people.'
To jump on a bandwagon, maybe meaning is the Higgs Boson of language.
i think you're right that language has a greater specificity *for us* but I not necessarily for other cultures - the medieval churches in both the east and west for example. Of course now we're bordering on those ancient chestnuts that preoccupied the sixteenth century so much (and back to Nominalism) to do with the lexicon versus the imagination.