What’s That You Say

Crazy Words, Crazy Tune
Jim Kweskin Jug Band

What’s That You Say

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Charles Demuth http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Demuth_Charles_I_Saw_the_Figure_5_in_Gold_1928.jpg

When Polonius asks Hamlet, “Whatcha readin’” (Polonius asks this a bit more eloquently than I quote him here) Hamlet responds, “Words, words, words.” Words are a major form of human communication, who knows, maybe non-human communication as well. According to Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band when Washington was at Valley Forge all he could say (or sing) was bododiyo-bododiyo-do. I am not certain what that means, but it communicates a kind of carefree joyousness. It is not always necessary for words to mean something, at least not something Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster would put in their dictionaries.

Images are another way we communicate. Pictures often tell stories. The painting above tries to do visually what the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure” does with words.

Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

If we read the words and then look at the picture (or look at the picture and then read the words) we can see that there is something similar going on in both. We might interpret the picture differently if we did not know the poem, but the title tells us that the painter is trying to evoke the poem. Does he succeed at communicating everything the poem suggests? Does the poem capture everything that is in the painting? There is a relationship between the poem and the picture, but they each have their own lives as well.

There is a movement in some intellectual circles that would suggest that words do not mean much and perhaps they are right. They would tell us that we do not all mean exactly the same things by the words we use. Some lawyers have crafted a profession out of telling us what words might mean as opposed to what they were clearly intended to mean. As a result torture, which is illegal, becomes something more “benign” that conforms to the letter of the law, as some lawyers would shape that letter. And of course it is clear to most anyone who has more than a passing relationship with language that words are ambiguous and often contain many meanings. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis on the eve of the Civil War might have expressed their intention to cleave the nation and both would have been right by their understanding of the word, for cleave is one of those words that is its own opposite, it can mean to join together (as a man shall cleave unto his wife) or to cut into pieces (as we do to a piece of meat when we use a “cleaver”). Still if we heard each of these men use this word in the manner I suggest it would probably be clear from the context of each man’s words which definition of the word was intended.

In addition, words are often what hold us together as people. The promises we make speak to our integrity, the laws we write shape our society, the treaties we enter into shape our relationships with the rest of the world. These are all expressed using words, often using words chosen very carefully to assure that all parties share a common understanding of those words. Tristram Hunt in a review of Edward Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain (“The People’s History”) discusses the importance of the Magna Charta to the evolution of liberty in western culture, especially British culture. He points out that though this charter has been used since the 13th century to defend liberty and legal due process and though its “language” may be clear it “has never proved very effective at countering the will of princes or parliaments.” This is I suppose another problem with language, those with the power to ignore it or to make it mean something counter to its intent are free to use their power to make it mean what they want it to mean. It can come down to the argument Socrates tries to refute in The Republic that justice is the will of the strong. Can words alone protect a people from tyranny?

Political Graffiti from Pompei http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Graffiti_politique_de_Pompei.jpg

This image, as the title tells us, is a bit of graffiti from Pompei. It is of a politician who, even if he wasn’t as near sighted, seems to resemble a cartoon character from my youth, Mr. Magoo. It is sometimes easier to fight those in power with anonymous satirical drawing than with documents that identify their authors. Ridicule can often do more damage to those that abuse their position than an expose in the newspaper. Ridicule often makes clear how indefensible the indefensible is. Jonathan Swift published a series of letters; The Draper Letters that attacked with ridicule a plan of the British government to flood Ireland with worthless currency. The letters were unsigned but everyone knew their author, though, no one could prove authorship. The British government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that could be used to catch and to convict the Dublin “Draper” but no one would come forward.

Daniel Defoe got himself into a similar bit of trouble and was sentenced to be pilloried. This was often a death sentence because folks would come by and throw objects at the person in the pillory, which the pilloried individual was helpless to defend against. Instead of throwing lethal objects at Defoe, those in attendance threw flowers and drank his health. He was after a few days removed from the pillory and sent to prison because it was feared his popularity would foment a riot. Perhaps words do have power and mean what they mean despite the efforts of those in authority to make them mean something else.

The Diogenes of the Modern Corinthians without his Tub (Thomas Carlyle)
Max Beerbohm http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/vanityfair/4.html

Of course there is another side to ridicule, those ridiculed are not always deserving of the treatment. Sir Walter Scott said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” Language does not lose its power to afflict when those against whom it is directed are undeserving of the affliction, nor does the visual image when it is a fine fellow that is being caricatured in an unflattering fashion. Carlyle may have been an easy fellow to dislike (I am told he was) but he had a point of view and expressed it well. I am not sure if Beerbohm intended to harm or just to have some fun with Carlyle, and for all I know Carlyle may have enjoyed the characterization. I am also not sure if by depicting Carlyle in a pose that clearly evokes that of Whistler’s famous painting of his mother Whistler is flattering Carlyle, regardless of the accuracy of the representation. Perhaps it was viewed differently in its own time than it is today.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2 Thomas Carlye
James Abbot McNeill Whistler http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Whistler_James_Arrangement_in_Gray_and_Black_No2_1873.jpg

Perhaps this is another aspect of language and the visual arts, their interpretations can change with time. What may have appeared harmless or flattering at the time the words were spoken or the image was drawn can assume new unintended meanings as a result of the passage of time. Aristophanes used Socrates as the comic foil of his play The Clouds; a play that ridiculed the “philosophical trades” on the streets of Athens and gave its philosophers a home in a place Aristophanes called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” I read somewhere that Aristophanes and Socrates were friends and that Aristophanes was only having a bit of fun with his friend in part because Socrates was among the best known philosophers in Athens. However, when Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens the play was introduced as evidence against him. We do not always have control over how our words are used.

Henry V “Speech to the Troops”
Renaissance Films/BBC

On the other hand language can be motivating, inspiring, people to do things that are clearly not in their personal best interest after listening to speeches like this one from Shakespeare’s play Henry V. Of course it ought to be considered whether or not fighting the Battle of Agincourt was in the interest of any of those fighting the battle, with the possible exception of King Harry and some of his higher ranking nobles. But the words themselves and their delivery (especially with the sound track in the background) are very inspiring. When I heard it for the first time, and every time I have heard it since, it gives me chills and I feel myself moved to do something significant for king and country. What I do not find myself doing is questioning whether or not this particular service for king and country is the right thing to do. Often language makes the pretense of appealing to our intellect, after all it is the mind that hears and makes sense of the words, but more often than not, when language truly motivates us, it probably has more to do with what we are led to feel than what we are led to think.

David Crystal in an article for The Guardian, “Which Words Make You Merry?”, a few weeks ago points out that the way words make us feel often has little to do with what the words themselves actually mean. He asks us to imagine landing on a planet in a far away galaxy and that we have been told there are two groups of people, one who is friendly and helpful to folks from other planets and one that would like to make a meal of these people. He then suggests “that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks.” Our inclination would be to trust the Lamonians and distrust Grataks, not because we know anything about either group of people but because the name of one is sweet sounding to our ears and the name of the other suggests a threatening growl. Language can be seductive and it is perhaps important to know how the language we hear is being used and why it is being used in that way and what it is the words actually mean before we decide on a course of action.

View on Delft
Johannes Vermeer

I heard once that one of the generals planning the D-Day invasion (it may have been Eisenhower, but I do not remember and I have not been able to confirm the story) would relieve the tension he was feeling as a result of this planning and what he knew the consequences of the plan would be for many of the soldiers by going to a local museum and looking at the collection of paintings by Vermeer. They would calm and relax him, or so the story went. Looking at the painting above has this effect on me. Even though the sky is cloudy and the water is grey and “cold” I find it calming. The words of a lullaby can calm a baby in much the same way. The point to consider, though, is this painting and the lullaby would have the same calming effect if I were planning a criminal act. According to some, the Nazi officers received a similar kind of solace from the artwork they visited in their museums.

I teach students to read and comprehend stories because I think the stories will make them wise or will help them in some way to engage life’s more troubling moments. I think stories help students to come out of themselves and see a bit of the world from another point of view. But this also gives the receptive student a power they might not otherwise have. There is no guarantee this ability to put oneself in the place of another and see the world from that other’s point of view will be used benignly. It might be used to manipulate and to take advantage as easily as it might be used to heal and to console. I remember reading a book on the Theater of the Absurd, I think it was by Martin Esslin, in which he quotes the playwright Samuel Beckett as saying (the quote was in French but I was told this is what it meant), “The words mean nothing but they are all I have to convince you with.”

If words mean nothing, than how do they convince? If they can be used to serve other ends than the ends the words claim to be serving, how do we avoid being deceived? Many of those that read Milton’s Paradise Lost from a Christian perspective see the devil as villainous and seductive. Many of those that read this same poem from a less theological perspective see the devil as heroic. They read the same words, and even understand those words in much the same way. To a large degree how we understand the devil in this poem is shaped by how we understood the devil before we began reading the poem and there is often hell to pay for those that would bring the one interpretation into the other’s camp.