Through the work of writing, I have learned first and foremost that nothing is what it tells us it is, because there is always another level, another way to play at naming, with reality, to bend untruths to be more true, as medicine, as savior, as demon filtered for taste, as a ritual mark of remembrance of tensile perceptual realities, disputed, fought for and reclaimed. There is a line after which language becomes less a tool for understanding and more a mechanism for undermining it, but that line is constantly in motion, and in language, as in physics, we now understand “reversibility generally does not exist”, as per Poincaré.
Writing teaches a person about language, in a very deep and sensory way, but language also teaches a person about existence in the human sense, existing as a human being, as an individual who is capable of not only perceiving and manifesting, but also articulating an identity. That, to some extent, is our most recurring, most insistent, most necessary and yet problematic, reason for engaging in serious explorations of language usage: how to articulate the untestable reality that is the human self.
It is an art of complex, but not always conscious, strategic engagement, to conjure up, locate and arrange the words necessary to any linguistic task. Assembling words is, to some extent, the fundamentally human undertaking that puts us both at odds with our surroundings and in touch with deeply useful means of reaching out to them, understanding them, bringing them into the folds of our awareness.
To breathe a word is to make a claim on the nature of the universe, and our claims are contagious, so getting it right helps us to define the space of our agency, our selfhood. In simpler terms, what the art of assembling words and their meanings teaches, as one learns what it is to forge new territory, to construct a landscape, to admire and to fear the rules that govern such activity, to honor and to evade those rules, what the whole process teaches is that experience happens in much the same way as language happens.
There is a point of contact (a moment in time, a location in space, a ‘situation’ unique in itself) where experience happens, where it is gained, where we participate in its construction and it comes into being, and meaning accrues and something is stated, however quietly. Language is that point of contact in the abstract, that plane where the intellectual life within us is enabled to assert itself as part of the overall experience of living.
Language is that plane where the individual self is allowed repeated attempts at manifestation. What takes place in the process of writing, in the spilling of ink or the posting of digital characters, the slip toward defining a landscape, however brief, is the sanctification of an individual, and by extension of the human condition as such, the dignity of the human intellectual organism, as individual and of value in each case. I could write a barrage of symphonic lunatic musings, trouble the world with my troubles, obsess, come apart at the seams, but instead, I will have breakfast and read a preferred selection with a soothing lilt, wake and exist and put myself to bed at night with an electrical hum, the din of an untroubled world, penetrating where I dwell and possess myself in solitude. From there, from that integral engagement, through choice and sublime expression and endeavor, I reach out, make contact, and we bridge the distance between us.
The choices we make in our experience have in many ways the consistency of the written word: they persist in their meaning insofar as we ask them to, and they fade away from the initial intent as we lose touch with that part of ourselves responsible for bringing them into our biography. Whether the mind engages its own work with a spirit of dissatisfaction or of pleasure, the experience of engaging the mind as such, of taking note of one’s internal existence, is akin to the expressive moment.
Contemplation becomes language as the individual seeks to emerge from the wells of the internal unknown, and to put a shape and a face on what was found. Everything, in the writerly/readerly moments when such tensions become apparent, is like medicine, for better or for worse. The medicine stays with us, changes our line of sight, molds our favorite haunting, guides us to water, dips us clean, refurbishes us in the tattered elegance of our everyday living. The changing and refurbishing of one’s private world, even as it is the public face of that private self that is designed or reconfigured, is an intimate description of the process by which every intellect acquires knowledge.
Accepting that experience and imagination come together on a plane between the two, and that there, in that landscape of intersection and semiotic contagion, of knowledge transfer and moral support, a vision of reality or of an individual’s experience thereof is formulated by the coming together of experience and imagination… that is recognition of what knowledge is, how it works, and why it must evolve if it is to be honest.
The honesty of knowledge, as opposed to its imagined truth, is a topic for another time, but it ties into the medicinal uses of writing and naming. Not every person is a writer, by trade, nor should they be—we need every skill and angle of dreaming to make the world that encompasses and gives place to our pursuits, our claims on the universe, our attempts at selfhood, sovereignty and interconnection—, but there is something about the act of writing that serves the writing individual as if it were a medicine for selfhood, a healing venture into clean waters. And that can benefit any human being. Especially so when its intent is to be expressive of secret regions of the mind or to lay out new experimental vessels for such expression. It is the inherently, unavoidably, persistently semi-distant nature of all individual experience—sensorial, intellectual, emotional, spiritual—which writing not only addresses but reiterates and re-presents, thus serving as a means for understanding more deeply, and reinterpreting the difficulties and the joys of, what occurs in the endless flux of daily… temporal… human… existence.
These thoughts are just a beginning of the example of writing as medicinal naming, so I will offer a few examples.
I pick up a newspaper, and side by side am able to witness Europe naming its first full-time president, and the president of the United States engaged in an important and never easy diplomatic dance in Asia. Asia, Europe, United States: each of these names gives us a world to mull over and to be filled with. In Africa, we read of malaria, and ambitious efforts at prevention. The “bad air”, old prejudices, confusion, and the new world of possibility. We read that life finds a way, without reading the words “life finds a way”. A windmill, no longer a quixotic phantasm, can help prevent the Maldives from being washed under by out-of-place glacial tides.
To say “no, we cannot”, is a kind of obstruction, an effort at contributing to the chaos; the world is coming together, or it isn’t, we are responible, or we are not. Each of these complex realities, indulged or anointed, or fostered or projected, through language, is a way of approaching the problem of selfhood, the problem of the in-here versus the out-there, of how can we know what lies beyond the all-too-near far edge of our perception? How can we understand the other, if the other is always on the other side of a divide?
We fashion channels to relay meaning; we build civilizations of discourse; we cut back the rampant vegetation of incoherence and use language to say that one self might have something to do with another. Medicine. There is “good medicine”, in the Native American sense, a healing spirit, in the work of language, if we understand that it can be that.
We cannot really test our knowledge, or challenge it, or open it up and expand it, without language. Instruments of all kinds, from telescopes to laptops to mirrors to particle accelerators, cannot give us the metrics for judging our surroundings, if we don’t base what they are and what they do on an implied linguistic terra firma. We name the universe, not so we can classify and forget it, but so we can move out into it with some confidence, so we can test our apprehensions and forge new terrain for experience, not only the conceptual terrain we need to understand ourselves and our role in the world, but the actual terrain which we will feel less comfortable venturing into if we have no way to talk about it, to make guesses about it, to advance our hopes and test our aspirations.
While science and literature are rarely considered parallel pursuits in the way of the same problem, science understands this problem of naming and its connection to knowledge. What, for instance, is a disease? It is a lack of ease, something contrary to discomfort… but what makes it different than discomfort? In Spanish, malestar has both a clinical and an emotional meaning: it can be a state of physical discomfort, severe illness or an emotional malaise. A syndrome is widely considered to be different from a disease in that it is not a specific entity with a proven cause-effect dynamic: it is more an array of symptoms, or a recurring constellation of particulars, not always the same, which seem to fit a pattern.
If we take apart the language, syndrome is a more clinical, more scientifically specific term than disease, but in practice, the reverse is true. We could say the same of astronomy: asteroids are supposed to be “like stars”, and different from planets, but like planets, they orbit stars, and in fact, gaseous planets such as Jupiter, Saturn or Neptune, can be more like stars in a mechanical, structural sense, than are asteroids. But we use the word in the way that works, and we assign meaning based on experience.
The writer must grapple with these digressions and underminings of purpose in language; the writer must, whether knowing or not, engage in a constant hermeneutic struggle—interpretive interpretation, in relation to meaning intended or accrued—in order to make language what it aspires to be, what we need it to be. The writer is not so much a priest as a pioneer, not so much an entrepreneur as a watchdog.
To make life into something with life of its own—Life is hard … Life is opportunity … Life is too short … Life finds a way—requires an approach to meaning that is both rigorous and adventurous, and the good writer, whether an amateur writing a memo to a friend or colleague, a single ephemeral composition, or a professional who spends many hours a day wrestling with the merciless bulk of the whole language and its attendant (unspoken) implications, the good writer must manifest that intertwining of rigor and adventure in a way that is credible, sublime and impressive. Because we all understand the demand, even where it is unconscious, that writing be an advanced example of the process of naming our experience, in the interests of securing and conveying knowledge, in a way that is medicinal, a help to the human being generally and specifically.
Every word is an expression of the case-by-case process by which writing makes language—the stuff of our attempts to turn the world into decipherable sounds—into something new, a new terrain, a new chance at seeing, a healing experiment. That experiment is universally demanded, implicitly or explicitly, by human interaction, because we all need to map out the spaces and parameters of the self, the sometimes complex distinctions between aspiration and action, known and unknown, viable and perilously fragile. We write in order to play out the shape and spirit of the language, to give it human specificity, to make it relevant to not just our past but our future experience.
Writing and naming are intertwined; every use of every word is a new naming of a new iteration of something either very much like or very much unlike what came before. It is by this process that we can speak about what is known or unknown, knowable or unknowable, and that we can find a way to make the amorphous, ever-evolving life of the universe of experience, into something our own, something malleable, something that reinforces our dignity as human beings. The medicine of language is the medicine of acquiring knowledge, a trick of consciousness, but a trick that points us to the truth, to ways of approximating, testing and relaying, the truth that gives us meaning and humanity.
– – –
A version of this essay was first published in 2002, at Casavaria.com
This essay is from the collection Cave Painting