Friday, September 28, 2012

The failure of language part 2: transparency

Just before you read Part 2 (if I haven't completely lost you already!), I wanted to share this because it seemed so pertinent to Part 1.  I began watching it, and even before the 'voice' of the snail was heard, it dawned on me that showing the snail up that close, focussing on it as if it was the most important thing to look at, made me a) aware of how beautiful it was, and b) how awful I'd feel if the next bit of footage showed someone casually stepping on it.  I've done that myself, I'm sure we all have, especially when I find them munching on my baby lettuce plants.  But suddenly, just looking really closely made me see the snail properly, as a fellow creature, an individual, worthy of kinship in some way.

The transparent transferal of knowledge...or not!

Colonial history shows us that one of the best ways of destroying a people is to destroy their language, because with it you destroy their culture: their stories, their history, their connection to each other and their connection to the land. In the colonial past, we gave the colonized people our language in return (believing it would have some kind of ‘civilising’ influence), which often did not have the words that they needed to describe their way of living, and so, their way of living, their way of perceiving/experiencing the world, dies. I'm sure we've all heard the cliche of the Inuit people having fifty words for snow. It’s not strictly true, but if a language that has words for concepts familiar and known to the people who speak it dies out, and there are no words that exactly match in any other language, then isn't it inevitable that those concepts will either disappear completely, or be changed and corrupted by using words that can never quite fit? We think that we create culture, that we create language to be a tool of our culture, but the truth is it’s often the other way around. Our culture shapes us, how we think and how we behave. And so does the language we speak. My eight year old said to me the other day, “imagine if there was no word ‘it’, mummy, what would we use instead?” Without really stopping to think I replied that there would probably just be another word that meant the same thing. But then I thought, what if there wasn’t? Imagine a language with no word for ‘it’?! How would that shape a culture, a people? And then I thought, imagine if there was no word for ‘hate.’ Can you hold a concept without a word to name it?  It's a bit of a 'chicken and egg' problem, but I don't believe that it all goes one way.  I do believe that language 'frames' our view of the world.  And I wonder sometimes what's outside the frame.

I remember reading years ago that early missionaries to the pacific islands had some trouble translating the notion of ‘the lamb of god’ to the islanders they were trying to convert, as these people had never seen sheep. So they settled for ‘a small woolly pig’ in the local language. On the surface it might seem close enough, but it cannot possibly hold all the centuries of information, the layer upon layer built up like an archeological site of interpretation, of experiences, of meanings. What on earth would the islander people have made of a 'saviour god' who is described simply as an animal you eat.  Language is not a transparent medium through which ideas can pass unchanged from one person to another. In terms of translating from one language to another, what do you do when you encounter idioms, slang, metaphors, culturally specific jokes or references to things that are well known within the original, but not in the new language? You really have two choices, and both are flawed. You either translate literally, and leave readers bewildered, unable to access the meaning. Or you find a similar(ish) metaphor or idiom your readers will be familiar with and use that instead. And something is lost. Sometimes it’s difficult even within the same language. If I say, “a couple of tinnies short of a six-pack,” or “too many roos loose in the top paddock”, do you understand immediately what I’m saying?

When I was studying literature at Uni, I became fascinated with what I was learning about communication, culture and language. I know there is theory upon theory upon theory, and perhaps sometimes academics are in danger of disappearing up their own arses in search of the ‘truth’, whatever that might be. But so much of it rang true for me. I was taught the ‘postmodern’ idea that each of us is an individual shaped by our unique experiences, and that we therefore bring our past experiences to everything we see/hear/experience now. Remember what I said about the brain interpreting new data depending on context and past experience. So while we might all share lots of the same information about a given thing, and the closer we are in terms of age, upbringing, sex, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, education and so on, the closer that info will be, there will always, always be a layer of experience that is ours alone, that will influence and inform whatever we see/hear/experience, so in a sense, we can never truly share the exact same experience. It will be different and unique for each of us. If I haven’t said that very well (this is a post about the failure of language, after all!), I’ll try and explain. Take the word…

tree. It’s a pretty simple word in the English language, only four letters, and we all know what it means. Don’t we? But if someone says ‘tree’ to me, will I see/feel/remember the same tree that you do? Tree to me is, obviously, a tall thing with bark and branches, it grows out of the ground, it has green leaves, it creates shade. Sure, we all know that. But tree is also…the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, the tree Adam and Eve are supposed to have eaten the fruit of. If you come from a Judeo-Christian western culture, you’re probably familiar with all that. It's the trees of the Amazon basin that are being cut down at a terrifying rate. The trees that breathe out the oxygen we all need to live. The family tree. Tree is also the thing that moves some to tears of joy (if you’ve read the poem by William Blake), the thing that breathes largely the luminous breeze (if you’ve read D.H. Lawrence’s poem). Tree is Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology, that Odin hung from in return for knowledge. Tree is the link between upper, middle and underworld in some shamanic traditions. Tree is where the mad king Suibhne of Irish legend spends his days. Tree is the home of Robin Hood, and the Secret Seven (at least in one book!) Tree is the mighty oak of European legend, the Druid tree where the sacred Mistletoe could be found. The evergreen holly tree that promises the return of spring. The weeping willow overhanging the banks of rivers where who knows how many ‘murder ballads’ have set their scene. The Magic Faraway Tree, “all shall find the light at last, silver on the tree”, “tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree”, the old man of the apple tree who must be left the last apple or there’ll be no harvest next year. Ents. The majestic Karri Trees that grow down south, tall and utterly awe inspiring, like being in a green cathedral.  The beautiful jarrah trees, their warm red (and very hard) wood cut down and turned into blocks to pave roads in London (or so I believe) and are still being cut down.  I could go on...and on (!), but I won’t. I’m sure many of you will recognize some, most, even all these trees. These are just a few of the ones I can think of off the top of my head. And there are many, many more that I’ve never come across, from other cultures, places, times. But then, there are my trees. There is the liquid amber tree that grew in my grandmother’s backyard, shedding red gold all over the lawn and the rose garden every autumn, and the Jacaranda I used to climb, though I wasn’t supposed to. There were the red gums I climbed in the bush behind our house when I was a child, the pear tree and the greengage by the washing line. The big willow out the front of a house we rented for a while, with the swing on it.  Do you know these trees? Or the giant pine at the bottom of my friend’s garden, the trees down in Whistlepipe Gully that I gave names and called the Guardians? There is my oak tree too, only a memory now, where I was married and where I said goodbye to my little one. There is the tree in the courtyard here, that my girls climb and sit in to sing. The weeping mulberry that every year promises blue stained fingers and tongues and feet too, the baby oaks in their pots, children of my memory oak, waiting for the day we can find our place in the country and they can be planted out to grow tall. All this and more lies at the heart of the word ‘tree’ for me. All these meanings intersect and weave together in utterly unique ways.  Even mistakes; things misheard, misread or misunderstood, and then reheard, reread or re-understood correctly, add to these intertwining layers.  And each one of us carries this kind of vast store of layered meaning...for almost every word in our language. It’s why I love poetry, it’s what makes poetry happen. All those shared meanings…and yet it’s also what makes the poem I read just a bit different to the one you read, even when it’s the same poem. 

These layers upon layers of meaning, the ambiguity between message sent and message received are some of the things I love about language, that make it such a marvelous medium. The discrepancies, the double/triple/infinite meanings of individual words, the gradual sliding of definition between generations, these are what make poetry and song and story so powerful, so redolent with meanings built up over aeons. It can be a marvelous tool, a beautiful flawed thing. If you understand it is not transparent.

Language is, at best, a translucent medium. It is impossible for an idea, an experience, to be passed from one person to another entirely intact, without any loss or change in meaning. If we are similar people of similar backgrounds and beliefs, it will pass more fully. But there will always, always be a certain amount of ‘energy’ dissipated, or transformed into something else in this exchange. There will always be the core of meaning, the seed, that remains utterly incommunicable, that remains ours alone. A secret that can never be shared.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The failure of language part 1: forgetting

'Babel-On'  an attempt to communicate the failure of communication (how post-modern is that?!)

There is something utterly contrary, I'm sure, about writing a blog post about the failure of language. Add to that the fact that I have a degree in Literature and a life-long love affair with language, and it seems positively mad. I'm an artist and a scribbler, a poet-in-training, a closet writer. I'd like to be able to communicate my ideas, my thoughts, to others and see what they make of them. Heck, that's why I write a blog! But therein lies the rub.

Often I find myself wanting to write, to grab hold of those ideas floating around in my mind, to put them out there so that perhaps others can make sense of them. But I find myself stymied over and over again by the inability to find words that can in any way communicate what I'm feeling. Right now, this moment, my fingers have been hovering ineffectually over the keyboard because I cannot begin to sort out the whirling mass of pictures, impressions, feelings, snippets of heard/read/seen/smelt/touched experiences. That the books I've been reading, the blog posts, the music I've listened to (and created), the smell of rain, and the sound of wind, the art I've seen (and created), my daughter telling me this morning that she couldn’t tell the difference between the birds singing in the garden and the birds on the relaxation CD playing in our family room...all this collides and coalesces into something of meaning. But I can't explain what. I feel it, but I can't put it into words, even for myself. Even when I do find some words that seem to work, I inevitably discover that the simple act of fitting to the words somehow limits and diminishes the thought behind them. Rather like trying to capture a rainbow in a quick sketch with a black ballpoint pen. Something is lost. And if we can't pin it down with words...we have a tendency to dismiss it. A lived experience that cannot be turned into words and 'communicated' somehow, in this society, has no validity. In fact we've almost gone beyond that, to the point where an experience has more validity if you watch it on your mobile phone while recording it and then post it on Facebook, than if you actually just watch it.

I mentioned in my previous post that I've just finished reading David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. I cannot give you a quick three sentence summary, all I can do is say, read it. But it's got me thinking about language. About how we use language, what we expect it to do (and what we think it does), and how we elevate it (especially the written word) beyond the wordless, felt experience. How we decide what is language, and what is not, how we assign status accordingly. And how, ultimately, it so often fails us.  Abram's book dares to suggest that maybe humans aren't the only ones with language, and it's our definition of language as being the sole realm of humans that has, at least in part, led to the way we view the world as being inanimate, dumb, silent and devoid of meaning, and therefore, easy to exploit and easy to destroy. We even do it to each other. How often have Colonial overlords dismissed the rich and redolent tongues of native peoples as being "babble", and done everything they could to stamp them out?

We use language to explain the world and what cannot be communicated (or communicated to) in words is dismissed.  We trust it to communicate transparently ideas and experiences from one person to another.  And we believe that language is a tool we are in control of. We created it, it serves us. And yet, I think we are wrong.  I think that human language fails on all counts. I won’t try to explain all three in one blog post…so this is part one. 

As David Abram’s suggests, we have taken written human language (particularly the language/s of the Western World) and put it on a pedestal, and in doing so, we have dismissed the languages of the other citizens of the earth, where once we understood and even ‘spoke’ them. It might seem stupidly romantic or daftly ‘new age’ to talk about the language of trees, or rivers, or conversing with magpies or wallabies. But Abram doesn’t mean it in the sense of carrying on a conversation as we know it…’so how’s your day been? Boss getting on your nerves again?’ He means rather, that allowing ourselves the time and space (and the silence) to listen, really listen, to other animals or rivers or oceans or trees, will allow us to understand them, to bring them back into our lives from which they have been missing for too long.  Time spent patiently listening to the songs of a particular bird will inevitably bestow enormous understanding of that bird’s life. Different songs will become discernible, subtle differences depending on season and lifecycle will become clear. Furthermore, how that bird’s life interacts with the other creatures in the area, with you, will also be understood. You may find yourself thinking, ‘the birds are singing their autumn song’ and even though you yourself haven’t felt the coming of the cooler season, you know, because the birds told you. In a documentary I once saw about the pacific islands, a Samoan elder was featured, a man who could navigate vast distances (like his ancestors before him) across the ocean simply by ‘reading’ the waves and the winds. By understanding the language of wind and water and stars and fish, he always knew exactly where he was and how far from land. It would seem mumbo jumbo to modern westerners to say he could understand the language of the waves, but really, that’s what he was doing. It just depends on your definition of language. Indigenous peoples with an intimate understanding of their surroundings, of their place within the greater community of beings, and a relationship with those beings, have sometimes seemed to westerners to have almost ‘mystical’ abilities to track, or find food, or predict weather, or see things and hear things invisible and inaudible. It’s led to rather patronizing notions like the ‘noble savage’, or the idea that native peoples are closer to nature and therefore more like native fauna than people in their own right. And also to the ‘well, if I can’t see/hear it, it must just be superstitious nonsense,’ attitude.

What was so interesting about Abram’s writing, is that he describes how he, a westerner brought up in cities and used to the western way of thinking/experiencing, found that his perceptions shifted after he began living among the wise ones of the cultures he was studying. That he began to experience the world in a very different way, seeing and hearing things he’d never noticed before. As if his eyes began to see properly and his ears became unblocked, and a whole unimagined world opened up. It’s not that he started seeing spirits or ghosts, but he started to notice, to see and hear the whole of what was going on around him, not just the human part. More telling though, is his description of how he tried to hold on to this new and heightened perception when he returned to the US, but eventually found it being muffled and drowned out by the noise, the constant onslaught of human created communication. That eventually he found himself becoming blind and deaf to the voices and experiences of the non-human world. That eventually, he went back to the way he had been before, the way the rest of us are. The way we presume is normal. And he experienced an intense sense of grief for this loss, having known there is so much more.

We like to think we experience ‘reality’ objectively. But even science tells us now that what we think is real is actually a perceived construct. Our brain doesn’t tell us what our eyes see. It tells us what it thinks they see. Our ears send data to the brain, and the brain interprets what we are hearing according to what it already knows. It makes decisions depending on context and past experience. It also prioritises information. Which means, anything it doesn’t think is important, gets pushed aside. So if you don’t hear the bird singing it’s not because it isn’t there. You don’t hear it because your brain has learnt that it doesn’t need to pay any attention to it. So you don’t hear the difference between two bird calls, you don’t hear the subtle change in a river’s babble, you don’t hear the swing of direction in the wind blowing the leaves of the tree. You don’t see the change in ripple patterns on the water’s surface that signals the fish below arcing away. Often now, we don’t even notice where the sun is coming up and going down. So, in Abram’s argument, there is in fact a vast wealth of communication, conversation, information that we are utterly cut off from, and we are much, much poorer for it. We only see and hear a tiny fraction of what is actually out there. And if we can’t see or hear it, we won’t value it, we won’t care for it, we don’t notice the impact we’re having on it. And we won’t notice when it’s gone. Somehow, in a terrible irony, we have used language, the medium through which we communicate, to build a wall between ourselves and all the rest of creation. And having built that wall, we’ve forgotten there’s something beyond it. Something we used to be a part of. Our language has made us deaf. 

(And speaking of the failure of language, I wanted this post to be so much more...beautiful, poetic, than it is.  Unfortunately, sometimes the craftsman cannot blame his tools, it is his own lack of skill that is the problem.  Once again the words just don't match the cloud of thoughts in my head!)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Today is International Day of Peace

I do not believe that peace is an airy-fairy notion existing only in some rarefied place where angels sing and float around on clouds. Peace builds schools and hospitals, it makes gardens in wastelands, and rescues beached whales and abandoned children, it has mud on its boots and dirt under its fingernails. It is as real as anything else humans have believed in, and in believing, have created.

I believe the world is beautiful.  If you believe it too...
it will be.

(editing to add this, which I've just discovered and believe is worth sharing!)

(and this because I couldn't decide)

(and this!)

And here's the link to Playing for Change

Being still...

It's an enforced stillness...somehow I managed to twist a muscle in my back (doing something as utterly inane as cleaning the bathroom basin), and have been doing not very much at all since Monday, apart from sitting propped up with cushions.  It's temporary I know, nothing seriously damaged, just painful and will take time to heal.  I'm certainly not the most go-getting, active, out there person, but enforced stillness is hard even for me.  It's made me aware of how little we ever allow ourselves to be still.  To listen.  To notice.  I like to think I am a fairly observant person, but there is something about not choosing the time or place to be still that seems to make you more acutely aware of...the squeaking of the tree branches on the roof of the courtyard, the sound of the wind in the tall palm in the backyard a few blocks down from mine, the sound of the wind chimes, a plane going over right now, the pattern of shadow falling across the couch I'm sitting on.  A bird chirping (not a dove this time, though there are plenty of them around now it's Spring).  On Monday I watched and listened, and wrote a short poem, not very good, but a true response.
This morning
I watched.
As the wind chimes turned slowly, silently
evidence of something I cannot see
nor hear. 
The leaves gently bowed and shadows
to a breath of warm air, slow and
And I marvel as if at something 
I have not seen
or heard 
For indeed, I think that I
have not.
The other thing I have done is to finally finish a book I started reading almost two years ago.  "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram.  It's a difficult book to summarise, but it is profound and thought provoking.  It offers an alternate way of seeing and experiencing the world.  Not as some kind of new age spirituality, rather more as an extremely old way of experiencing the world. Simply that, the world around us is not inanimate and silent, but rather that we humans have become deaf to the conversations going on all around us, because we have forgotten how to listen, how to hear, and how to speak to, the rest of creation.  And that this forgetting, this terrible loss, is what has led us to be able to treat not only the natural world and other species with contempt, but even other humans.  We no longer know intimately the changes of the seasons, we don't understand the birdsong we hear (if we hear it at all) so we have no idea what kind of birds might be making it, or why, so we don't know that the songs they are singing would tell us they are nesting and bringing up young so we go ahead and cut down the tree they are living in without a second thought, without understanding of the impact we are having.  And that this knowledge and understanding is something our ancestors took for granted.  It's not that we can speak the same language as a bird, it's that an intimate knowledge of our place, and all the creatures we share it with, teaches us what different birdsong means.  And we've lost this completely.  This is just one small example.  It is everywhere and permeates everything we do.  I've had conversations with people who do not know which direction the moon rises in.  People who are utterly unaware of the fact that the the position of the sun (well, the earth actually!) changes with the seasons.  How can we be so divorced from reality?  And yet, I think so many of us feel a deep, deep sense of yearning, of loss, for this knowledge.  Yet so cut off are we, that we don't even understand what it is we are grieving for.

Just after I started reading the book, I found myself watching "Narnia: Prince Caspian" with my girls one evening, and as often happens, the two collided and created a question, a thought.  I scribbled it on the inside cover so I wouldn't forget.  

"It's the 14 Jan 2011 and I'm on page 95.  But I wanted to write this down while I'm still thinking about it.  We all watched "Narnia: Prince Caspian" last night, and watching it after reading this was fascinating...I must go back and re-read the book to see how much of it is original.  The four Pevensie children come back to Narnia, but hundreds of years have passed.  Cair Paravel is in ruins, and Narnia has been invaded and taken over by a warlike race of humans who attempted to (and believed they had) 'eradicated' all the Narnian 'savages'.  The world of Narnia has changed dramatically.  Where previously all the animals spoke, the trees were inhabited by animate spirits, dryads, and could move and speak, the land itself was in many ways, SENTIENT; now the trees, according to DLF (the dwarf the children rescue), have retreated so far into the earth they no longer CAN move or speak, they are 'just trees', and many (if not most) animals have forgotten how to speak and 'gone wild'.  As DLF says, "get treated like a dumb animal long enough, and that's what you become.". The children are perplexed when a bear attacks Lucy, they don't understand why it wouldn't talk to her.  Lucy is saddened to find the trees silent and unresponsive.  Narnia has become like our world.  When Aslan comes, he reawakens the land, calling the trees up from their sleep, and summoning the river spirit to destroy the invading army.  Watching the movie after reading this, it's like a vision of how our world might once have been (well, slightly less 'Disney'!).  As if we have a memory of how things once were, how they SHOULD BE, and though we might think it's just imagination, the longing for that is there deep within us.  I can't remember how much, how obvious this might have been in C.S. Lewis' original vision, but it doesn't actually matter, that yearning is tangible in this modern re-telling, retold for OUR time.  When we envision Utopia, it is a SENTIENT Utopia, where we live in harmony with plants and animals, rivers and rocks, and can speak to them."

If we think a little further along these lines, we have the Ents in Lord of the Rings, we have Avatar.  We have Harry Potter showing us there is magic all around us, but we are too blind to see the mermaids in the lake.  There is much more I could write, but this is awfully long already.  I'll leave you with a couple of links to other blogs that have informed and influenced my thinking on this.

Terri Windling, of course.  So many of her posts are utterly inspiring.  She has lately written several posts that have made me stop and think more and more about this.  And over at the Earthlines blog, Sharon Blackie has written eloquently herself, and included the writings of others, about belonging to a place, learning it's language and coming to an understanding of it that can only come from being a PART of it, not APART from it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Busy...but had to share this!

I've been working full-time the last few weeks, and though I have enjoyed it thoroughly, I'm looking forward to doing something creative in the next few, now I'm back to two days work a week.  I'm itching to write, actually, inspired by a post by Tom Hirons on his Coyopa blog.  It's so wonderful I had to write this post just to tell you about it!  If only I could write like this:

And this one by Tom, too.  Utterly magical.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

If music be the food of is certainly soulfood!

Last weekend I spent time at one of those rare events that somehow takes you away from the mundane boring ordinary world, and drops you into a beautiful place that nurtures and inspires, and leaves you wishing you never had to leave.  It's called RhythmSong, and it only happens once a year.  I've been a few times in the past, but haven't managed to make the last three or so years, and how I have missed it!  The venue is nothing special, old chalets at a 'holiday camp' that has seen far better days.  But it doesn't matter.  It's what happens there that's important.  Four marvelous days of music, singing, songwriting, clowning, drumming, where if you've never sung in front of an audience before, you may suddenly find you have the courage because everyone is so supportive, where just finding that courage will get you a standing ovation, and you may even find yourself with a 'backing band' of professional musicians if you just ask for a hand.  Four days of workshops, classes, sharing, great food, and a community camaraderie that is as beautiful to experience as it is rare.  The calibre of artists invited to run workshops is wonderful, they come from all over the country, and they become part of this wonderful community, sharing, laughing, eating meals with all the participants like old mates.  There is a youth scholarship as well, so there was a bunch of marvelously talented teenagers in the mix, with no discernible age barrier at all.  Everyone loves music, and that's all that matters.  I sang, and played Cordelia for the first time in front of anyone other than my immediate family, and it does a shy ego marvelous good to receive applause and whistles at the end of a song.  More than that, though I was so nervous I couldn't hear, I was told afterwards that the entire group of young 'uns joined and sang with me, in harmony, as I attempted an Adele song (not my usual thing, but fun to have a shot, and as I said when I came up to the mic, it's about as 'pop diva' as I get!).  That's the other marvelous thing about this weekend, though all the participants are amateurs, everyone sings, and any excuse to break into song is acted upon, and the harmonies! Oh the harmonies.  People who sing in community choirs and just naturally break into harmony, who sing for the pure joy of it.  Oh how I wish I could bottle that feeling and hand it out on a street corner in the city to everyone who walked by.  It's how we SHOULD be, I'm sure of it, just singing because we feel like it.  I saw my mum shyly share a song she had written with the song sharing circle, and stand up at the mic with one of the young lads and sing in front of everyone, I saw my dad get up and sing a song he thought no-one would know or like because it was too old fashioned, only to have everyone join in and then applaud and whistle and hoot when he finished.  It's that kind of place, a magic place, maybe a bit like Avalon, (or actually, more like Brigadoon!).  It appears magically once a year, out of the mists, lasts a few short hours, then disappears again, leaving no trace but a warm happy feeling.

I didn't take my camera, I didn't want to be distracted by taking pictures, but here is some YouTube video of past RhythmSongs, that will give you an idea of what it's like.

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