The magic and the trap of language


How often are we aware of the language we’re using, of what our words signify, of the energies that we are calling into presence? Recognizing, for instance, the way that words entangle pain, pleasure, emotion, and the longings of our senses, helps reawaken us to their magic. I might say I’m feeling “lighthearted,” or observe that someone is “tactless,” without fully appreciating the source and significance of those choices. “Tactless” means lacking a tactile sense, literally feeling or touch. Within a simple adjective hides a physical connection to the body.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, about their abstraction, the way in which they distance us from the very things we are trying to communicate. Logos keeps me immersed in a world of symbols, removed from the dimensions of reality that mythos has an easier time conveying. For this confusion, I have to thank Aldous Huxley’s short memoir, “The Doors of Perception,” about taking mescaline in the mid-1950s. The transcendent experience reveals to him that we are so steeped in our abstracted world of symbols — i.e., language — that we’re convinced this is all the reality there is.

“Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born—the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim insofar as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things.”

It was in this frame of mind that I came across a fascinating article, ““An Honest Conversation With Earth,” by Lucy Purdy, in which she makes a very convincing case for the important role that language plays in keeping us curious about, appreciative of, and in relationship with the earth. The article speculates that, as words fall into disuse, our language becomes bland and broad, perhaps to help distance us from the ruination of the land, from its loss. She turns to nature writer Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Place, The Old Ways, and the forthcoming, Landmarks, who noticed that a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary that had culled many words concerning nature.

“This shocked and disturbed him deeply. Words including acorn, catkin, kingfisher, pasture and willow had been removed, being deemed no longer relevant to a modern-day childhood, while bullet-point, celebrity and MP3 player had been introduced. Where blackberry was omitted, Blackberry was added.

‘And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word-magic,’ writes Macfarlane, ‘the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. Landmarks is a celebration and defence of such language.’”

Paradoxically, through encounters in the wild, I’ve been mentored to set aside words and names and just notice, expand on, and tend the relationships that are all around me. As Huxley discovered in his mescaline-induced state of transcendent awareness, we depend too much on our world of symbols to mediate our experience of the world. Language can dilute or even shove aside the magic of that connection. Wordlessness deepens the experience, but we still need words if we want to share it with other people, to tell stories, which is itself a way of tending connection.

Perhaps this act of recovering the old words is one step back into relationship, into reverence, using words as the vehicle. Ultimately, we do well to move past them altogether into a wordless realm of sensory knowing, of felt experience. Huxley brings in Goethe as a wise counselor:

“‘We talk,’ he wrote in middle life, ‘far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I, personally, should like to renounce speech altogether, and like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my windowsill quietly awaiting its future — all these are momentous signatures. A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or the spoken word altogether. The more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even, I am tempted to say, foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of nature and her silence startle you when you stand face to face with her, undistracted, before a barren ridge or in the desolation of the ancient hills.’”

Not only don’t we need words to meet the natural world, they can get in the way. We have such history with them, they keep us separate from what we are experiencing and seduce us into a false impression of reality. Logos whispers in my ear, I know what this is, and let me tell you all about it. Mythos, on the other hand, creates a container within which the whole grand show can seethe and contradict and co-exist, just waiting to amaze me and touch me with wonder.


8 thoughts on “The magic and the trap of language

  1. I know, right? I never thought so, either. It is hard to have any other interpretation than the one people came to, which is — we are so separated from the natural world, and so enmeshed in our technological one, that we actually think it’s okay to retire “old” words and bring in the new ones. Creepy.

  2. Lovely blog. I like the idea that we have both – profound natural experiences and words to express it. I like the concentric model here by Steve Bearman, about the trap of somatic learning
    Your blog also reminded me of a game by Keith Johnstone – about looking at things without labelling them – so you can really SEE them. Once we label something, we stop really looking and our brain fills in details that we imagine are there. Thank you Julie!

  3. So cool, Belina! We just played that game last week! I almost forgot about it – really had a profound effect on me, especially as I was reading Huxley’s book at the time. In the last stage, he had us call out names for things that they were NOT, which was also pretty wild. Thanks for the link; will definitely check it out. Also – just read this about language, thinking and culture:
    Fascinating stuff.

  4. When I first began the practice of shamanic journeying, I was encouraged to write an account of it soon after the experience. I found myself very carefully choosing words in an often futile attempt to convey the experiences in a way others might be able to understand. After one journey (maybe during) it occurred to me that I should draw them as the ancestors did on cave walls and rocks. Now I paint and draw them which serves as a record to which I can refer when I want to revisit them or share their stories with others.

    • What a great insight. A good reminder to me, who started life as a visual artist. For some reason I resist drawing. Why is that, I wonder?

  5. “It is only when I am in complete communion with a fact that there is no fear. If I am not in communion with the fact, then there is fear, and there is no communion with the fact so long as I have an idea, an opinion, a theory, about the fact…It is one’s opinion, idea, experience, knowledge about a fact, that creates fear. So long as there is verbalization of the fact, giving the fact a name and therefore identifying or condemning it, so long as thought is judging the fact as an observer, there must be fear. Thought is the product of the past, it can only exist through verbalization, through symbols, through images; so long as thought is regarding or translating the fact, there must be fear.”

    Jiddu Krishnamurti, from “The Book of Life”.

  6. Pingback: Aldous Huxley’s “Island” invites us to imagine the best of all worlds | Thriving on the Threshold

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