Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Teaches You What You Mean?

I am a poet and therefore obsess about language. How language is constructed and what those constructs mean and imply occupy a lot of my thinking. Because of this obsession, the novel 1984 strikes me as the greatest book written about the abuse of language. True, it is a novel about political power and oppression and is a warning of a kind to those of us who take a free society for granted. But the way that political power asserts itself is primarily through the power of language. The abuse of language in the novel comments inevitably on the right use of language and ultimately has something to say to the role of the poet in our world.

1984 shows through a claustrophobic world of political oppression how the ability to articulate is controlled by the scope of our language, how we are always subject to the limitations of the language at our disposal. The whole point of Newspeak, the official language of the Party, is to reduce the available range of meaning and comprehension, to make it impossible for people to think something that is not approved by the doctrine of the Party. This language coupled with an endless rewriting of public records means both that it is impossible to know the truth about the past and that the individual is incapable of articulating the meaning of his individuality. Inevitably, the Party defines who and even what an individual is. In only the most limited sense does any individual exist in 1984 . To contradict the impulsive thought that this is merely science fiction, something futuristic and beyond reality, one only has to look at a poem by George Oppen in which he shows us that it is something we battle every day. In “Of Being Numerous,” a figure

. . . wants to say
His life is real,

No one can say why
It is not easy to speak

A ferocious mumbling, in public
Of rootless speech

Oppen here distills the competition between language used as a means of the most profound existential realization and language used as a means for commercial manipulation. When we acquire our language, our expressions, our definitions from corporations and the commercials they make, then the language we have for expressing our deepest feelings or insights, our ideas about who we are or want to be, is shaped by them, at least to the extent that they – excuse the word – repurpose language to manipulate us for quite specific ends and in so doing, distance us from other associations. One of the primary ways the Party in 1984 controlled language was to diminish the number of associations related to any given word. This was attained by various methods. But this same diminishment is, in Oppen’s poem, what causes the man to be unable to find the words to express his inner being, the reality of his life. As I said in a previous essay about Oppen’s poem, “The man trying to speak the meaning of his life has no language to speak it. It is unreal because politics and public life have appropriated it for ends other than an existential dialogue.” This is precisely what the Party in 1984 does.

Another of the methods for controlling thought through language is to reduce the number of words. The Party eliminated the word “bad.” They used, instead, “ungood.” This sounds farfetched but even today it isn’t uncommon to find an attitude of relying on a limited vocabulary for expression or assuming the superfluity of the abundant synonyms in English. However, in reality subtle denotative shades and deep connotations make words like “evil,” “miscreant” and “villainous,” though synonyms, all different from each other. Additionally, meaning is not merely semantic or intellectual, but is also emotional. The many associations and feelings a word or series of words evokes make even the closest synonyms still different from each other. Then consider there are many words in foreign languages that signify feelings and thoughts for which there are no English equivalents. What do we do with those thoughts and feelings? To assume they will be expressed in some way in the existing language is to make a dangerous assumption. In fact, I would guess that most of those feelings and thoughts go unarticulated, because it takes more than an act of will to find the right words to give them shape, it takes knowledge and the willingness to take risks, to sound foolish or even crazy. But if, as Jefferson said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” this holds true also for safeguarding language and ensuring that its growth and change is for the expansion of articulation, thought and meaning.

Newspeak also attempts to reduce ambiguity. Here especially I see the playground of the poet because it is precisely at the edge of linguistic clarity that poets live and breathe. We have all had feelings we couldn’t put into words or thoughts that we just couldn't express. That’s because the range of human imagination and experience is greater than the range of our existing language and this is likely always to be so. That’s why there will always be poets and other artists trying to give shape and articulation to those very feelings and thoughts, those human experiences that haven’t come into the range of our history because we haven’t been able to document them in any way. That’s why poets are always toying with the obscure, not to be evasive or sound smart, but to get at something that’s just out of reach, to extend the light of articulation just a little farther into the darkness. This is the worthiest use of language and one that opposes other uses such as TV and magazine ads, billboards, the news media, and all other forms of mass production or corporate manipulation. It is not a self-righteous call to arms; it is simply the natural consequence of two opposing uses of language vying for control of a singular consciousness.

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