The core and the surface
are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names them both:
from wonder to wonder, existence opens.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
It begins with the nouns, their reification, which in the Latin means “thing-making.” We make a thing by naming, by nouning it, pulling it out of the soup of the undifferentiated, setting it apart. With nouns, we confer distinction. Nouns ensure that the apple is discrete from the bowl in which it rests.
But what if this separateness is illusory? Where is the word that can render the essential sameness of apple and bowl?
We grant ourselves the power to name. In naming myself I declare that I am not-you. We huddle alone inside our names, as in dark houses on a moonless night. Or seek out others who dwell in containers that look like ours, as if this signified connection.
Language was invented as a tool of discernment, evolving in increasing sophistication as discrimination becomes ever more refined. Adjectives further enhance the specificity of nouns—a red apple is nothing like a green one, a Fuji is completely different than a Macintosh. Adjectives particularize: My bowl holds an apple but your bowl is empty.
As a writer, my stock in trade is such discernment, sifting the lexicon with ever-greater precision, seeking the one word that could describe this and nothing else. Perhaps this is why Harijiwan, my Kundalini Yoga teacher, prefers music to literature. Notes do not cleave the ear; each sound opens one to the possibility of all sounds, carries us back to the origin of all sound, the cosmic tone. The formless sound. Music can evoke the state of wonder. Whereas language is exclusionary—this and not that. One could say the writer is in the business of separation.
The verbs are the aggressors, always doing, doing, doing. There are so many words for doing. I can wake or walk or work. I can swim or swarm or simmer. I can count, or crouch, or couple. I can flutter or float, flounder or fishtail. I can do something all the time.
But there is no smorgasbord of words for being. I can only be or not be; without variety or precision. Thus, language defines reality. Where there is no vocabulary, we do not apprehend the possibilities. What are the possibilities for being?
Verbs, in Indo-European languages, attempt to define our relationship to time. Their tenses slice present from past, past from future, try to convince us there is such a thing as a linear pattern of events. Causal, trackable, as if there were a logic to it. If I tell you: tomorrow I simmered you will think I am confused, but I am not. It is only that language is caught in the construct of time, and can’t imagine its way out of that paradigm.
Objects are nouns that are verbed upon by subjects. The power imbalance is clear. All over the world, people and things are made into objects so they can be verbed upon by others, predicated on the belief that some of us are born to be subjects, others objects. One can be done to or acted upon. One cannot be be’d upon. We are all the subjects of our own sentences, but not everyone is given a voice. And what is our role in the larger text?
Adverbs are said to answer questions: how, where, when? How much, how often? Was the object acted upon slowly or quickly? Everywhere, or somewhere in particular? Frequently, or only once in a while? What do we know when these questions are finally answered?
It’s not only the structure of language. There is the problem of different languages. For example, the word chair in English refers to furniture, but in French it means “flesh”; mist is “water vapor” in English, but “manure” in German; sobre means “sober” in French, “above” in Portuguese and Spanish, but in Spanish it also means “envelope.” And there are words that seem to encode an entire cultural understanding: the Hawaiian ho’oponopono (a social gathering and healing process that combines the functions of a religious ceremony, group therapy, family counseling session, town hall meeting, and small-claims court.) Or the Thai sabsung (to slake an emotional or spiritual thirst, to be revitalized.) Or the Turkish sehirlilestiremediklerimizdensiniz (“You are one of those whom we couldn’t turn into a town-dweller.”) How can their contexts ever be translated? How can we hope to communicate?
But we don’t have to travel to encounter lapses of comprehension. There are plenty of misunderstandings closer to home. One person says, “I love you,” and means, “I am here for you no matter what, throughout time and space; your well being is as important as my own.” But another utters these same words, it might mean, “I am experiencing chemical sensations that make me want to touch you for a while, but I cannot say for how long.”
Even before birth, babies are prepared to communicate, to send and receive messages through movement and sensory response without the benefit of words. Observation of twins in utero has uncovered body language including holding hands, kissing, playing, kicking and hitting each other.
Animals have a range of communication tools open to them, including vocalization and scent, along with body movement and gesture. Honeybees, for example, have a dance language. It is theorized that certain body parts evolved in animals to enhance their ability to convey messages. Moreover, such gestures are now understood to convey not a singular meaning, but a complex and subtle range of meanings depending on context. A dog wagging its tail can mean playfulness or anxiety, relaxation or submissive placation.
Humans take great pride in the sophistication of our linguistic communication, but, increasingly, words are used not to build a bridge to meaning but to brew a storm of confusion. The U.S. military in Vietnam had to “destroy the village in order to save it.” Interrogators may use “physical persuasion” with terror suspects. “Family values” are meant to enforce the morality of some families onto others. Such obfuscation becomes so noxious one longs for a vast stretch of silence, an unending blankness to detoxify the ears and eyes. Or to covet the ability of the bees to perform a tremble dance and thus signal that we’ve had enough.
Yet, the writer cannot be silent, cannot turn her back on these corrupted runes, their guttural soundings. She must tool these broken signs, hone the twisted marks, tongue the blighted syllables, discern and particularize and separate for a lifetime of pages in the faint hope that if she cuts deep enough, she may make an opening, and through that opening something like wholeness may be perceived.