Words are the children of reason

After the medication wore away, I was left with a soup of words. It wasn’t a fetid thing, but it was un-refined, incoherent. The ingredients were there, but inexpertly mixed. It wasn’t incomprehensible; it was simply kaleidoscopic. This is something like what I was trying to say the other night. I’m not sure it makes […]

After the medication wore away, I was left with a soup of words. It wasn’t a fetid thing, but it was un-refined, incoherent. The ingredients were there, but inexpertly mixed.

It wasn’t incomprehensible; it was simply kaleidoscopic.

This is something like what I was trying to say the other night. I’m not sure it makes as much sense now as it did then, but what sense it makes is more readily parsed by those outside the writer’s own skull.

“Words are the children of reason and, therefore, can’t explain it. They really can’t translate feeling because they’re not part of it. That’s why it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling”
Bill Evans

I ran across this quote quite by accident the other day and, in the way great quotes sometimes do, it stopped me dead, both making me think and distilling into words something I’ve tried to convey in the past.

Evans was talking about jazz; But it applies far beyond jazz, to language as a tool, and the inherent difficulties in expressing non-concrete, non-rational ideas in a system thing that is, inherently a rational one.

Language is a tool – a particularly elegant, flexible tool. It serves for art and engineering, law and seduction, communication and obfuscation. But language is a thing created; it’s not in our genes or our environment, it’s not something we are born with or draw in through our pores. Words are not the things they describe. Words are symbolic, representative. They are an attempt to represent things, with a common point of reference.

We agree, as a group, a tribe, a people, that certain symbols, auditory or visual, have certain ranges of meaning. We must agree on this meaning, or a symbol becomes abstract, useful in it’s own sonic or objective way but of no functional use. Linguistic communication, then, must be a collaborative process, a certain presumed or negotiated meaning but generally agreed upon for each symbol.

This all seems fairly obvious. And in fact it is. Language is so universal, so ubiquitous, that we take it for granted. It’s everywhere; everything we do uses it and requires it. Our very thoughts are carried out, for the most part, in words.

Yet, in so many ways, words fail.

The difficulty is, we have adequate words only for things upon which there is some level of consensus. We all agree what ‘up’ is, what ‘table’ means, what a ‘hat’ or a ‘car’ or a ‘dildo’ or a ‘hammer’ are. The names for things are largely un-ambiguous. We have no great need for debate or interpretation when one asks for ‘salt’ or ‘beer’ or a ‘ham sandwich’; the meaning is clear, and generally universal.

But it’s not the meaning of ham or sandwich in which the difficulty lies. The difficulty is when we have to communicate things for which there’s no absolute meaning, no object, no point of communal reference.

We can all agree on ‘squid’ or ‘inch’ or ‘green’ or ‘jack-knife’ because there’s a way to draw a picture, or establish an absolute unit. Even with color, for which our perceptions vary wildly, we can measure light and find a number that absolutely, without ambiguity, is british racing green.

But what is love? It hasn’t weight or volume or size. It can’t be described in a chemical formula, nor measured with a caliper. It can’t be detected with magnetic waves or infra-red light. It exists, we generally agree; but not a one of is is really clear what the hell it is.

The problem is that words like ‘love’ are experiential. They describe an experience, a sensation, a state of mind. And we lack common frame of experiential reference. There’s no way to measure values of like/unlike with experience, no matter how similar the experience may seem. We experience love, most of us, but we have no way to say, here is my experience of love, let us measure it’s value against yours.

What we do, then, is guess. We imagine; ‘i have never experienced X, but Y seems similar to X, and i have experienced Y…’

This process is a simulation. We’re making educated guesses. And in many cases, those simulations are accurate, our guesses are as near to spot on as it’s possible to get. Our experiences are close enough that the leap of imagination is a short one, the estimates easily made.

I’ve never been to Molokai, i might say. But I have been to every other Hawaiian island and read descriptions. I can fabricate an experience that’s close enough. I can connect the experience with second-hand information, via a chain of imagination, and come reasonably close, close enough to serve a purpose like planning a trip or guiding others in trip planning.

Such things are simple; because we don’t need a precise alignment of experience when discussing travel. We don’t need to experience flavor in the same way to discuss culinary or gastronomic experience. But this system is less useful the farther we get from common experience or objective points of reference.

I had a conversation not long ago with a friend; we had some variation on ‘I can’t really understand what you went through’. The discussion was in regards to a violent crime.

My point was this – i can imagine the experience; but i have no frame of personal reference. The crimes in my life have been, for the most part, small (and many of them, committed by me). Those perpetrated against me are, to a one, minor larceny or vandalism. I’ve never been assaulted, never been mugged, never been robbed or burgled. The fights in my life have almost all been fights between equals. I’ve walked down dark city streets alone and felt the eyes of would-be assailants on me; I am lucky enough to be vaguely threatening in appearance, and have enough experience to know how to say not your victim in the un-spoken street language. I’ve been lucky; it’s worked.

So when I say to a friend – i can never understand that, I mean, the only way I can experience the intensity of a violent assault is by guessing. I can build a mental simulation; and it might be close. It might even be exactly right, if I’m good enough. But I can’t ever know it’s right, and thus, with no meaningful way to calibrate it, the odds are it won’t be. Not really. This is because, no matter how well we describe a feeling, an experience, a sensation, we cannot convey said experience. We can only form it’s shape, not it’s essence.

People will assume that they can understand another’s experience because they can imagine it; where they go wrong is in assuming their own simulations are so good, so accurate, as to be equivalent. It seems obvious when we say it; imagination can never equal experience.

This problem, the gap between feeling and experience, and language, is the core of so much breakdown between us. Language is capable of incredible, detailed accuracy, of course, but the difficulty is that natural language is inherently not good at this. The issue is best seen by comparing poetry with the language of law or technology.

Try reading a few passage of Coleridge or Byron, Bukowski or Cummings, Whitman or Dickinson. Think about the words, the language, the music. Because in a sense that’s what poetry is. It’s impressionist; it’s as much the sound of the word as it is the meaning. And meaning is in shades; we look at a word or a line or a stanza; we turn it around, take it apart, seeking meaning. We look for subtle reference and implication. Clarity isn’t the goal; feeling is the goal.

Contrast with a legal document, if you can stand it, or a technical manual. The words, for the most part, are the same. If, and, the, but; where, why. But with these documents, the effort is to be as clear, specific, detailed, exact as humanly possible. Every trace of ambiguity is ground away until we are left with razor-sharp documents so blandly specific that no room is left for interpretation. The result is that every trace of art and beauty is sucked from the language, and we’re left with raw building material, un-adorned, un-lovely, drably functional.

We – humans, regular people – do not speak to each other that way. You could build a fine piece of comedy around it, romantic conversation in legal-ese or technical jargon; and what you’d see is how little beauty there is, how the romance itself, the love is vacuumed out of the conversation when we must first define our parties of the first parts.

There’s an old quote from someone about England and the USA being ‘two nations divided by a common language’; and in a sense, that describes the gulf between people when we attempt to discuss feelings or experience. We have only the common words, yet the words are so malleable, the meanings fraught with baggage and interpretation, that we struggle to find commonality for meaningful dialog. The fault for this isn’t the english language, or for the most part, one person or another; the fault isn’t a fault at all, it’s a product of the very nature of language.

Words are the children of reason, says Bill Evans; and the difficulty is that feeling is not. Feeling is in a sense the opposite of reason. Experience is the inter-connection of nerve and brain and sensory receptor. It’s the process of experiencing what happens to you; smelling it, hearing it, tasting it.

We try, as best we can, to record and transmit experience, with the only medium available. But it is as close to capturing the true nature of sensation or feeling as a painting is to capturing a city street. The artist sees, and evaluates, and creates. His painting is a new thing, the product of his mind, feelings, interpretations. He makes something that is his mind’s attempt to describe a reality of infinite color, sound, texture, smell, movement. The recording he makes is limited to two dimensions, and maybe a few hundred colors. He has only a paintbrush, a knife, and his fingers with which to capture the depth and texture of life. He cannot capture movement, sound, or scent. The best he can do is suggest these things and hope whomever looks at his work, a month, year, or century later, will have the imagination and experiential reference to fill in the rest himself.

Language is thus; it cannot capture what it feels like to be in love. It cannot capture an orgasm, or a potato chip, or the first drops of rain on hot, dusty pavement. It cannot capture what it feels like to have your baby smile up at you, what it feels like to have a lover whisper your name in a moment of passion, what it feels like to fear death or destruction. It cannot capture the absolute, heart-breaking loss of death. It can describe these things, but it cannot capture then in an absolute sense, as a painting of a street cannot capture the experience of standing in that street.

We can read about Dachau, or about Mare Tranquillitatis, or about the empty black depths of space. We can see pictures. But these things are so far outside our experience that most of us can only guess at what there feels like.

The trouble, I think, is when we forget all this. We think we are clever; wise. We are educated. We know how to make words obey us, humpty-dumpty like. So we assume we know because we imagine so vividly. We presume our meanings, understandings, interpretations, are the meanings. We assume we understand in an absolute, universal sense.

We assume words, universally, mean exactly what I think they mean; and this is so rarely true.

I had one such debate, a few years ago, with a friend who took issue with my use of the word ‘performance art‘. Failing to grasp my use of the phrase, he took great and angry issue with my describing a stupid on-line community as being akin to performance art. We had an elaborately long argument – lasting, I think, a week – before we sussed out that he was applying additional meaning of his own to the word performance. To qualify as such, a thing, he postulated, must be of a certain grandness and quality, and must be in such a place that would qualify as a theater. It became clear that he had his own set of definitions and interpretations of the word performance; and further, that he had never encountered the term performance art with enough context to understand the irony of my usage. I in turn understood the term performance art to imply an inherent sense of pretentious silliness. Performance Art, in my lexicon, is what you call it when someone with no real act gets up on stage.

It was a classic example of a semantic debate based on an interpretation of meaning; rather than looking closely at literal meanings before asserting a word’s true and absolute essence, my friend simply presumed my meaning, and then debated it at length. His argument was not with what I said; it was with his own approximation, his own simulation of meaning. It was a debate born of the gulf between my attempt to describe my experience, and his attempt to understand and internalize that experience.

The interface failed; there was no common ground in meaning, feeling or experience.

We have these debates every day. We use words like soon or a few or long, without agreeing upon numeric values. We use words like hot or cold, spicy, strong, far. For the most part it doesn’t matter, we’re close enough to agreed meaning that things don’t break down.

“How spicy is this?” my daughter asks me. “Spicy to me or spicy to you?” Spicy to me would be a habanero; spicy to her would be black pepper. We have this conversation almost daily.

Again, though, the breakdown isn’t in the small things, for the most part. The small disagreements and misunderstandings are easily reconciled or ignored. my left, or your left we say, when discussing directions. or if we do break down over the small things, it matters little. We resolve it when we detect the issue, or we move past it, because what makes a submarine sandwich or what defines ‘brunch’ are just not very important.

The breakdowns we have, the major ones, are when we try to talk about the big, vague things. Good and evil, moral and immoral, obscene; art; consent. Love, commitment, hate. Hurt. Truth, lie. These are words that in some cases carry with them dire consequences. These are words over which we make laws, or change lives, or in some cases, end lives.

Obscene is a word courts debate, and how can they not? because few words are more subjective, more inherently meaningless. Yet it’s a word that defines careers and over which millions are spent.

The wonder, in a way, is that we can make ourselves understood at all. Because with all this ambiguity, with all this un-common ground, with all the vast gulf in meaning between what I might say and what you might hear, somehow, we achieve consensus of meaning. Not every time, and not with every person; for some of us simply find a better common language. But we find a way, with word and tone, style; with enough exchange, and if we are lucky, context in movement and expression, we understand one another.

And that’s what it’s about. As with Jazz, it’s not about reason. It’s about feeling; it’s about that electrical-arc feeling that says we understand each other. That’s what it’s all for.

3 thoughts on “Words are the children of reason”

  1. This is competent, KE. I say that with all seriousness, since you were hopped up when you wrote it. Certainly, it is more competent that I could have produced.

    Mathmeticians get the same thing when they try to describe their theories and work. You cannot translate higher math into words. You can draw pictures, but you cannot have the words convey it.

    Common language wouldn’t help. It all goes back to the inherent ambiguousness of the human race. We are all capable of higher thought, we are all individuals and we recognize it. That alone sets us up for failure in the scheme of language. My experience is not yours. Some may be similar, but my experiences are my own, my life is my own, my wordy definitions are my own. Common experience becomes the great leveler, but how many people are in the world? Ain’t gonna happen in my lifetime.

    Great post, KE.

  2. I had a conversation with my mother-in-law yesterday morning. It was after I’d read this post, but I didn’t make any connections to it at the time, (really just a minute ago when I came back to read again).

    We were talking because today’s Mother’s Day, but she’s not been my true mother-in-law in a very long time. We lost my first husband and her only child when he was just 28. As great as my pain was at losing my husband, I could never imagine (or want to imagine) what losing your only child was like…and she’d never lost a husband, so we never wasted breath telling each other we *knew* how each other felt.

    Anyway, yesterday she told me the horrible story of a friend at work who had lost his daughter, seven months pregnant, in a terrible accident that week. And how there was nothing she could think to say because even though she’d lost her only child, she had her two grandchildren, and this man had lost everything…including the unborn grandchild whose sonogram pictures he had posted to his cubicle.

    We agreed there were just no words that could be said. (And people say such stupid things in the face of other people’s losses that “no words” is usually a good policy.)

  3. Note that i un-published a few of comments (some from myself). I don’t want what I intended as an entirely positive piece on the pitfalls inherent in our native system of communication to devolve into a debate. I’m not a big believer in blog-as-forum. Anyone who wants to debate the issue with me is more than welcome to do so off line (my email is easy to find).

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