from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 24 January 2011

beyond the gloss of things

'With language as our lens, we perceive the world as a collection of separate things that interact with each other in objective space and time... we separate things from each other by labeling them, giving them names... those words aren't just labels, they are functions... when I know that something is a pen, I know what to do with it.' 
David Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma


I need to confess that, as a new blogger, at the moment I still shamelessly and rather addictively ego-surf my viewing stats. It's a source of continual amazement to me, the whole notion of communication in general and the enormity of the potential of internet communication in particular. Here I am sitting at a small desk in a tiny corner of rural Britain, my only constant and immediate companion (other than my dog, the fire, the wildlife out of the window, and my partner after a day's work) the assemblage of thoughts (etc) that makes up some sense of 'self'. Yet the words that arise from that process connect with others' thoughts all over the world potentially almost as fast as the speed of light (assuming a synchronicity of timing re posting and reading of this blog).

My posting on quanta and qualia last week, before I went away, had a record number of hits from all over the world, from tiny and obscure nation states to Russia – and South Korea. How disappointing for them, perhaps, to find a poet's ramblings instead of the latest particle-theory breakthrough; how disappointing for me to find that no one's offered me a fellowship in a particle accelerator, nor even an opportunity for espionage...! Ho hum, back to the wordsmithery, such as it is; and the almost-equally-unbelievable fact that my publisher's just written to say that yes, he hopes to have Imago, my novel, out by the end of March. This is a Very Big Deal, for reasons which I'll explain in another blog.


For now, I want to think a bit more about language and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. A friend, Susie, has just sent some clear and coherent thoughts in response to that post of mine; I'm encouraging her to post them under 'comments'  – as anyone is welcome to, unless it gets out of hand, at which point I shall do something about it – as the dialogue set up could be very fruitful.

So I'm now going to be true to an aspect of my nature symbolised by my Libran sun (more about the philosophy of all that: 'as above, so below' – another time): 'on the one hand; on the other hand'.

So actually, where I think that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theorists might get it right is by demanding that we question the ways in which we unthinkingly use language, and construct our worldview according to how we use language. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Barthes, all have things to say about this philosophically.

'The word is elegy to what it signifies', says Robert Hass in his wonderful poem 'Meditation at Lagunitas' (not a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact the poem addresses the question of language); and this may be a key. We relate to a word, a name, and in doing so isolate it somehow from the whole of what it signifies AND WHAT LIES BEHIND ITS PARTICULARITY; that is, its relationship to the whole. Put simplistically, we relate to the symbol as an identifier-of-singularity, and break its connection, and ours, with its ground of being. There's so much to say about this, but I want to try and be brief and focused here.

The act of naming is such a symbolically potent act. It's a way of bringing the world into being. (Not for nothing does the Bible say 'In the beginning was the Word'.) It's a way of navigating the world, too. When you first meet someone, there is a charge to the fact that that person uses your name as they address you. It's a compliment – they remember your name; in as much as one identifies the 'self' with one's name it's also a sign that they are actively engaging with you, forming some kind of relationship. It's a wake-up if you drift, or seem not to be paying attention. It's interesting to notice how often you do or don't use the name – to them, I mean – of an intimate. And then there are birth names and 'given' names: studies show that couples who have pet names for each other are more likely stay together than couples who don't. (And the names of course say so much about one's perception of the other: I loved being called 'sweet pea' by my lover of a decade ago; wasn't quite so keen on 'my little nest of vipers' from a previous lover!) And it can give you, as one-who-names, power: there's the fact that in fairy tales, knowing a person's name gives you a hold over them (eg Rapunzel). Naming's important in magic: abracadabra; open sesame (others?); and in a deeper magical sense you use names as intentions: you focus the thought form, put out the call, and it comes.

As I walk the dog, I love knowing that the squabbling voices beyond the hedge belong to a flock of starlings; that the bird just landed on my peanut feeder is a great spotted woodpecker, that those little high voices attached to the thistledown bodies mark out long-tailed tits. It increases my intimacy with them. AND – for we live in an and/and universe, not an either/or – it also objectifies them.

So at what point does the act of intimacy become an act of alienation? One danger is that I will start to relate to the label and assume that because I can label it I know the bird, and will therefore stop looking to perceive its essential nature. It's akin to seeing the pointing finger and not noticing the moon, or confusing the map with the territory.

A bigger and related danger, philosophically speaking, is the objectification: that in naming we underline a sense of otherness. It is other than me, different from me. It is not-me. Then we inhabit a universe of disparate and apparently unconnected objects, neglecting to see the underlying unity, the interconnectedness of being. ('Because of our neglect the world is strewn with unrelated objects' says psychologist James Hillman.) But this, of course, is the true reality of essential nature – unity. The new physics is merely reiterating and 'proving' what mystics have been telling us forever, and what the Buddha's teachings gave us millennia ago. There is nothing that is 'not-self'. According to Buddhist thought, our tight identification with our ego as if it were separate, enduring and changeless is the cause of so much suffering: our own, and others'. It's disastrous, neglecting underlying unity; it seems to me there's a direct and obvious connection between a perception of difference, of otherness, and our desire to do harm to that 'other', from fear of that otherness. Other than greed, isn't it the fear of the other's 'otherness', and our own associated egoic certainty that our truth's the right truth, that take us to war?

'When we do not cling to name and concepts, we can experience things as they are,' says Loy.

So then I think about slipping names in order to wander undifferentiated in the world, unnamed, part of the greater whole. It's rather like the way I take my dog's collar off at night: giving her back to herself, to wild nature, to the night in which separateness is less marked.

John Burnside expresses something of all this so very beautifully in his poem 'Septuagesima' (prefaced by a quote in Spanish from Jorge Guillen, which in my inept stumbling through it seems to say that 'names are simply the gloss on things'):

'I dream of the silence
the day before Adam came
to name the animals,

the gold skins newly dropped
from God's bright fingers, still
implicit with the light...

as we are sometimes
haunted... by the forms

we might have known
before the names,
beyond the gloss of things.'

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