Living with history

It’s complicated, history. It engages with things I love, such as art, in complex and often contradictory ways. How did a person with such fascist tendencies write such enduring, challenging work? How could such a misogynist womanizer create paintings of surpassing depth and beauty? Why was a person who was so concerned with the welfare of others so neglectful of his or her family?

Alex Ross, writing about classical music in The New Yorker‘s September 21 issue:

“The poietic* and the esthetic should have equal weight when we pick up the pieces of the past. On the one hand, we can be aware that Handel invested in the business of slavery; on the other, we can see a measure of justice when Morris Robinson sings his music in concert…there is no need to reach a final verdict–to judge each artist innocent or guilty. Living with history means living with history’s complexities, contradictions, and failings…Attempts to cleanse the canon of disreputable figures end up replicating the great-man theory in a negative register….Because all art is the product of our grandiose, predatory species, it reveals the worst in our natures as well as the best.”

People are complicated and contradictory. None is perfect. The worst in our natures can be compelling, even inspirational.

Even in history, where it’s famously said the victors write the verdicts, such verdicts can be overturned, the stories made new, retold from different perspectives, satirized. I love that Ross calls humans “grandiose and predatory” but notes our capacity for creating beauty nonetheless. Rings true in my experience, and sounds a lot like what poets do.

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*The terms were coined by semiotician Jean-Jacques Nattiez, with poietic referring to the productive process of art (its creation) and esthetic with the receptive process (its impact upon the listener-viewer-reader).

If you are curious, you can see and hear Morris Robinson singing the bass in Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony on YouTube. (I couldn’t find him singing Handel online).

Back to metaphor

I recently read James Geary’s entertaining book I Is an Other–The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Geary takes his title from one of Rimbaud‘s letters, calling this phrase metaphor’s “principal equation”:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things–jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike–and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

I like this definition because it feels more complete than the typical definition of metaphor as a comparison without the use of the adverbial comparative (i.e., no “like” or “as”). Indeed, metaphor probably forms the basis of language itself; while that conclusion’s much debated in semiotics, linguistics, and other scholarly disciplines, common sense and common usage strongly suggest that even thought itself–in terms of how we think internally about the world–employs metaphor as an underpinning.

Maybe I believe so because I’m a poet. Geary, as it turns out, has written some poetry, though he’s best known for his books about words, word origins, wordplay, aphorisms, witticisms, and the like. (He’s also got a TED talk…everybody’s got a TED talk…)

As to poetry, and how metaphor behaves in the poem’s context, I like what Geary says here (although in this excerpt it’s not actually poetry he’s discussing, but rhetoric):

Readers actively retrieve a metaphor’s meaning, just as a punch line requires listeners to resolve a joke’s incongruities for themselves…though the speaker may make the metaphor, the hearer makes its meaning. Hearer and speaker are accomplices; the one unpacks what the other presents. In terms of creativity, producing a metaphor and penetrating one are almost the same act.

I think the above lines go far to explaining why I love to read poetry and also provide implications as to why poems can be so damned difficult to compose. The poet endeavors to create a context and container for an often-unknown audience who will nonetheless need to invest, one hopes willingly, in the process of reorganizing the surprising (metaphor) into the recognizable.

And what a fine task that is!

2011A-rainbow

Language & teaching

I’ll be teaching a new crop of freshman writing students tomorrow morning. A thought lingering in my mind as I prepare myself mentally for the first classroom contact with these 17- to 19-year-olds concerns language, and an ongoing argument about its uses and origins. The argument is part semiotics, part linguistics, part sociological, part neurological, part cultural, part philosophical: what is the relationship between language and the human thought process? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, in 1956, characterized the two main theories at that time as “mould theories” in which language is “a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast” and “cloak theories” that hypothesize language is “a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers.”

In other words, does the language make us who we are/how we think (culturally), or does our culture make our languages reflect the cultures in which we live?

The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that we experience the things we do, and speak about them to others in our community, because our language habits incline us towards certain interpretations. It is therefore a mold theory. Whorf wrote, in 1940, that “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Ie, if our culture values, say, coloration, our metaphors and cliches and descriptions would be largely based on color-values. In a more recent essay by David Chandler,* the author points out that this sort of interpretation of what language is can be interpreted in so relative a fashion that every form of linguistic communication, even with in a culture, becomes a kind of translation. Chandler finds this situation “problematic.”

Problematic, perhaps. But incorrect? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that our very individualist U.S. culture offers so many personal and sub-cultural perspectives that even everyday commerce and chit-chat involve constant translation. One of the most challenging things I have to teach to my students is how to understand what their college professors want from them, which is largely demanded in terms of a vocabulary that is not necessarily academic jargon but which is connotative in ways most incoming freshmen cannot know; they have seldom or never been exposed to that perspective. It is not part of their culture.

So does that make language a cloak or a mold?

Probably–as in most things–moderation serves best. The answer is not either-or, but a bit of both, because the human brain–and human culture–is so commodious and adaptable and complex. Chandler promotes “moderate Whorfianism.” That’s another one of those rather irritating academic –isms, but what he means is: “Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts.” This theory affects my role as educator even when I am teaching the introduction to academic writing and rhetoric class rather than some higher-level analysis course. More so, in some ways, because the introductory course is where students learn to question their socio-cultural assumptions as they read and write. I have to learn their slang, their habits, their leisure activities and distractions in order to make compelling analogies that work for them. They have to learn to transition into academic and business-world conventions from their peer-oriented and narcissistic teen environments.

It is a form of translation.

It is also an opportunity for new perspectives, for my students and for me. Wish us luck!

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*David Chandler, “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” UWA 1994 (from The Act of Writing)