Friday, January 18, 2013

The name is not the thing

Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

A time comes in the life of every serious writer when he begins to feel the utter futility of words to bring about the desired changes he would love to see in the world around him. Deep within those who have made a career of writing is the grinding hunger for excellence not only in their own craft but in the actual shape of things they so earnestly attempt to delineate with consummate passion and dedication. This state of perfection remains an illusive ideal that could possibly exist only in the heart but not in the order of ordinary reality.

Here is an exceedingly odd problem. The very medium which the writer uses in the exercise of his calling works against him. Until this matter has come within our ken, who could have suspected this anomaly? This insightful observation is really nothing new. But first, let us be clear on some peripheral issues related to the word question.

Why should the word be a problem at all? Has it come to pass that in our time the currency of words has suffered a devaluation of sorts? If so, what has contributed, if at all, to their waning power? Could it be that we ourselves have our share in their corruption when, for instance, we do not really mean what we say, when our language does not correspond to the hard facts (so-called truth of correspondence), or when we say one thing and do another, which is a violation of the principle of consistency.

For sure you must have heard of what Orwell termed as “doublespeak” indulged in by notorious politicians to deceive the people; and certainly you know “gobbledygook” which the pedantic specialists use to clothe their ideas to create an impression or the nasty trick of “obscurantism” played by wordsmiths upon the reader to hide the poverty of their ideas. Not the least is the threadbare ads peddling items from soap to prime lots on the moon. All these outrageous forms of verbalization carry very little meaning and only serve to undermine the integrity of our language.

Now, inherent in the nature of the word itself is its built-in inadequacy as a means of expression. A character in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying points this out as she thinks aloud about her dead husband: “That was when I learned that words are no good, that words don’t ever fit what they’re trying to say at…. He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others, just a shape to fill a lack….”

Words are thus tenuous. Do you still recall Juliet as she addressed Romeo to doff his name Montague so he may take all of herself? She said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,/By any other word would smell as sweet….” Korzybski, in his work on general semantics, enunciated this dictum: The map is not the territory. The modern sage Krishnamurti in the same vein stressed that the word is not the thing, the description of a thing is not in fact the same as the thing itself being described. So, the menu in a restaurant will not fill an empty tummy. “Fire” won’t set this page ablaze. The teachings of the Buddha are not the teachings of the Buddha. Do not get scandalized but God is not God.

You and I possess a metaphorical consciousness. We metaphorize. We denote one thing in terms of something else. We make a representation of things by using symbols or words which are the skin of thought. In the process of verbal expression the elements involved are a signifier (the word), a signified (the idea or concept denoted by the signifier), and the referent (the actual person or thing represented by the signifier,  that which is pointed at.) Even when there is a literal one-to-one correspondence such that we call a spade a spade, still the term “spade” does not cease to be a mere representation of the real tool. If the referent is nonspecific, say, a metaphysical concept like Reality, various labels are used--the Absolute, the Godhead, Brahman, Tao, Oversoul, Ain Soph, etc.

The crux of the problem with the word is this. We confuse the vehicle with the passenger, the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself. Consequently, what happens is that we wittingly or unwittingly live on words, on pale abstractions far removed from concrete actuality. To many of us the symbol that is but the embodiment of human experience has become all important. The fundamentalists exemplify this matter to a T. They value the letter more than the spirit of scriptures contrary to evidence of the truth of St. Paul’s teaching that it is the spirit that gives life. They are lost because they stick to the letter that kills.

Chuang Tzu said that as long as the fish-trap and the rabbit-snare have served their purpose, one can forget about them and attend to the catch. Similarly, once the meaning conveyed by words is comprehended, one can forget about the words. He then said he would like to have a word with the person who has forgotten about the words. He definitely had in mind not the aphasiac patient but one who is not stuck at words. Times are when we need to get away from words so that the mind can touch base with the truth, the universal source, or what is.

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