Monday, April 17, 2006

Second-Hand Prose

Language betrays us. It is the menu to the meal that is reality. But its betrayal is contingent on our insistence that it be other than it is. When we insist that the map be the territory, that the word be the thing, then we are fooled and foolish.

But language betrays us another way as well. It conditions our thinking and leads us to see things that aren’t there.

For example, “It is raining.” We say this often enough, but what does it mean? What is the “it” that is raining? There is no “it,” there is only raining. Or when we say, “It is nice out.” Again, what is this “it?”

The “it” is what Alan Watts calls a linguistic ghost. Its function is to maintain the illusion that there is something constant in the universe, something other than what is happening. “It” is raining, “it” is snowing, “it” is breezy. The it is what matters, and it is permanent, constant. But there is no “it,” there is nothing constant. There are no nouns in nature, only gerunds; only raining, snowing, clearing, shining, etc.

Or take the phrase, “You’ve got to straighten yourself out.” What a horrible idea! Go out into nature and see if you can find anything that is really straight. You can’t. There isn’t anything straight at all. Everything is crooked. To straighten yourself out is to be completely unnatural.

And then there is “Pull yourself together.” Even if you could be asunder, who is the “you” that could pull you together? The implication is that you are other than the you that is asunder, but if that is so, then why bother with the sundered you at all?

Religion falls for this trap all the time. We are urged to empty ourselves, to surrender ourselves, to humble ourselves, etc. Yet who is the self that is to do these things? Can the self empty itself? The logic is lacking. The self can pretend to be empty, but a truly empty self would be selfless and, even if the self could suicide itself, once gone, it would be incapable of knowing it was selfless.

Our reality is so tied up with words that they easily manipulate us. Blasphemies of any sort are simply crimes against words. You are convicted of saying some words that other words say should not be said. And you can die for this. How odd!

Is there a way out of this trap? I think so. Practice silence. Learn to be at home in wordlessness. Then when you speak or when you listen you will see the game for what it is: the endless echo of second-hand chatter.


Rachel said...

This is beautiful.

AaronHerschel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AaronHerschel said...

I think this poem speaks directly to your blog. But I wonder if Haas' conclusions are the same. I haven't got time to do more than post the poem at the moment, but if I can I'll comment again later. Oh, ignore those one or two word line breaks, that's blogger not giving the line enough room and breaking it automatically.

Meditation at Lagunitas
--Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.