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In Between the Words & the World



Nabokov says, "I don't think in language, I think in images". George Steiner asks, "Is there, as is felt in dreams and the penumbra of uncertain waking, a syntax of shape, colour, motion, spatial relations, that is somehow located in the mind but 'lies further' than words? Do we experience it when we 'grope for' a word?"


This is of course vitally important, because it has to do with the relationship between thought and reality, conceptualization and truth(s), freedom and necessity. To what extent do words help us to think about our world, our behavior, our experience, and to what extent do they delimit and arbitrarily define what would be better left open? It depends, I say, on what sort of words one means.


I think there is some knowing or at least experiencing that is extra- or pre-verbal, but that verbal play considerably deepens and complexifies what we are able to conceive of, consider, question. I see language as a vital but provisional way-station, an extremely powerful partner in the process of knowing and making the world. Without certain words, we would not be able to think certain ideas, harmful and helpful ideas, beautiful and ugly ideas; but the words all arise from out of our experiences, are not arbitrary constructs or crimes against experience. They are collages of our collective historical psyches...the more multi-lingual, the more varied and particular the better.


But it is important to make a distinction between concepts and metaphors, between words that are reductive and words that are reverberating with irreducible meanings. Dead words, Musil would call the former, differentiating them from living ones. I will call the live ones, for the moment, oracular words. Let us try to imagine what a wealth of irreducible possibilities they hold within their letters and sounds, fountains they are, filling and emptying, filling and emptying, overflowing the lip of their forms and replenishing themselves forever and ever. I am thinking of a particular fountain in a poem by Rilke. The Trevi fountain, I think it was, with basin over basin.


This realm in between the dead words and the world makes itself known in formal dynamics, of visual or musical patterns: chiaroscuro, tempo, contrast, expanses of openness and crowded syncopation. Abstraction, with or without representation of recognizable objects or places or people. We recognize feelings, presentiments, even ideas in shapes and formal arrangements.


Visual and musical formal arrangements are themselves conceptualizations of the undifferentiated chaos of reality. They open up and they limit, i.e., direct our seeing, hearing, knowing.

Language conceptualizes, categorizes, names, delimits the world even more precisely than music or abstract visual forms. But oracular language also partakes of the formal freedom of visual and musical expression. Oracular language is made of metaphor, of the image referred to by Nabokov.

All art directs our seeing, chooses and foregrounds and excludes in order to make us see something more closely, in a new way. But metaphor literally takes two pieces of the world one had not previously imagined to be related and shows us their resemblance to each other, miraculously expanding what we know, what we see.


A combination of notes is, in this way, a metaphor. As is a placement of two colors and shapes, objects, memories, maybe even ideas (insofar as ideas can be conceived of as forms), that were previously uncombined. Now, once they are juxtaposed, brought into contact (like the fountain as self-replenishing and overflowing word), they have a life of their own.

This is the most supreme function of art: to make us see new shapes and patterns, hear new notes and musical scales, to expand what we can imagine.


The new imaginings are not, however, themselves new, just newly seen, newly discovered; the artist has given us a magical glass, a sort of magnifying ear trumpet, a distorting or harmonizing mirror, through which we can now see, hear, experience the world in a new way.


But this new seeing cannot be "translated back," it cannot be reduced into concepts, ideologies, categories. If we try to decipher the oracle of metaphoric experience, to take it in our physical hands and transport it back over the border of consciousness into reality, its magic will disappear the way colored stones lose their luster when removed from the water (apologies to Maeterlinck and to Musil, who used Maeterlinck's description of this process in his epigraph for The Confusions of Young Törleß).

Art then, is not something that can be used to fix a particular problem; it cannot be conscripted, cannot be translated directly into life. It must be taken at its (living, oracular) word. Appreciated in its own particular language of form. It is a realm in between dead words and the world, in between definition and chaos, made up of freedom and limitation, a slippery quicksilver realm that expands our seeing and imagining, making us richer, more attuned to the ultimate mysteries of existence, closer to the true texture of life's braided uncertainty, its possibility, and its fatal necessity.



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