The Beauty of Words

Words are beautiful. They have meaning. Words have life. They can make one feel. They can make one laugh, or cry. They can incite people to anger, or bring two lonely hearts together. They make something happen inside one’s head by inspiring imagination. When ancient Man first uttered something that was understood, civilization was born. With language, Mankind set itself on the road to becoming the dominant species, became a force with which to be reckoned.

But words are dying, not a slow death, and that means imagination is not far behind.

Texting and Internet shorthand are conspiring to kill communication. My wife gets frustrated with me when I draw a conclusion from something she said she didn’t intend. She claims I take her too literally. “That’s not what I meant,” she tells me. To which I reply, “Then say what you mean.”

I work with a number of Millennials, and none of them read novels, or even crack a book. They’d rather wait for a novel to come to the silver screen because then they don’t have to use their imagination. They, too, despite all the connectivity that texting boasts, fail to understand communication, the beauty of words—the utter loveliness of connecting with another human being by conveying thoughts, ideas and feelings acoustically rather than over the Internet.

If words are dying, that means the novel, too, will soon die, destined to become a curiosity, something only studied in classrooms as an archaic art form.

Nearly 305,000 new books were published in the U.S. in 2013, most self-published. Just about all of them are poorly written, just as poorly edited (if at all), and poorly produced by wannabes who know nothing of craft and have no desire to learn craft let alone the best practices of writing, whether it be fiction or nonfiction.

Toss into the equation the growing number of Americans who admit to not reading novels and you end up with a growing supply of poor product and a decreasing demand.

I find all of this sad, and not only because I make my living from arranging words on a blank monitor.

We live in a society of divisiveness, of left and right, where communication is broken. No one listens; everyone seems to want to be heard.

A society in which no one listens is fated to fall.

Does anyone hear me?

words-have-power

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Beauty of Words

  1. I don’t think words have much power. Words don’t actually ‘do’ anything. They don’t offend; they don’t persuade; they do not it is speech users who the ‘do the doing’ so to speak. True: when the human mammal started to articulate itself through what was presumably a mix of gestures and sounds, referring to agents, actors and things, signifying remoter dangers and goodies, a civilization was born — a long and arduous process, I suppose, not a definite point in time. The civilizing element being precisely that words do NOT simply do things; they help us symbolize, propose, or replace action.

    Instead of fighting, arguing; instead of acting out, expressing; instead of brute reality and harsh habit, possible courses of action.

    Is language dying? As a fellow novelist, I doubt it. After twenty years or less, Youtube contains more verbiage than the Library of Alexandria ever did — some of it fine, more of it atrocious, and all shades in between. Movies and videos are inconceivable without dialogue.

    Need I go on?

    Language won’t die; so if the imagination will, this won’t happen because we’ve run out of language. Even so, I think you refer to a real problem. Several interconnected problems, rather.

    1) Due to social developments, philosophical traditions and ingrained habit, we split the world into useful and beautiful things. Actions into work and leisure. Language into information and poetic utterance. The categories ‘useful’, ‘work’ and ‘info’, seem more in sync with the times than the others — which we perceive as opposites, due to this false dichotomy.

    2) Until recently, leisure amounted to having to do nothing, which soon boiled down to actually doing nothing save watching TV; but this problem is in the process of being solved and will soon belong to a bygone era. People now voluntarily engage in processing loads of info circulating freely on the web. Indeed, I daresay our lives are much better than in the 1970’s, when television numbed most people into inactivity.

    3) So far, this gigantic info-processing has not done much for the novel and poetry. I think this has to do with the speed we’ve learned to process info. The attentive slowness involved in the perusal of imaginative language seems outdated or “outcrowded” (if that’s an English word; let alone a beautiful word…); novel-reading seems to have scant place in this scheme of things, the more so while our imaginations are being absorbed by the craze of information-processing.

    I won’t go into the lack of communication and the divisiveness that J. Conrad Guest mentions, although these subjects certainly merits attention. Let me conclude with a query.

    Is this massive information-processing merely a craze or a permanent feature of our civilization?

    To me, this is an open-ended question. I’d love to see others join the fray, including our host.

    Pim

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Pim, for your thoughtful response.

    No, words alone perhaps have no power; but it’s how they’re used that gives them power. As I wrote in my post, they can incite people to anger, soothe a savage beast, or bring two lonely hearts together. They make something happen inside one’s head by inspiring imagination. Yes, they can persuade and offend. They can also inflict pain.

    They do not, as you wrote, “do things” on their own. They symbolize and propose, and while they replace action, they can also inspire action. At least they have that effect on me.

    YouTube may contain more verbiage than the Library of Alexandria, I think only a miniscule number of words are actually ever used. Writers are encouraged to write to a sixth grade level, keep it simple. No one wants to have to run to a dictionary while reading a book, whether fiction or non-fiction. I always keep a dictionary handy when I read. I love learning new words, and what good is learning a new word it if one can’t use it? Yet, I understand I’m in the minority. Hence, I believe language, and communication, are dying, even if movies are inconceivable without dialogue. The most popular movies are those that focus on active with little dialogue to drive the story.

    Language will, as you write, will never die; but communication continue to fail us. My wife tells me I take her words far too literally, drawing conclusions she doesn’t always intend. Communication rests with the communicator, not the listener, or reader. If I misunderstand my wife, does she not bear the brunt of failing to communicate effectively?

    Contrary to what you wrote, I believe we take in information faster than we can process it. We jump to certain conclusions lacking the patience to process it.

    Are our lives much better today than in the 1970s? I’m not so sure they are. There are times I long for those years when talking on the phone meant being tied to a wall by a ten-foot curly cord. Driving across the University of Michigan campus I’m more likely to see a group of students crossing the diag engrossed in texting than talkin amongst themselves. An I think television continues to numb people into inactivity, filling heads with sometimes useless information, at other times misinformation.
    2) Until recently, leisure amounted to having to do nothing, which soon boiled down to actually doing nothing save watching TV; but this problem is in the process of being solved and will soon belong to a bygone era. People now voluntarily engage in processing loads of info circulating freely on the web. Indeed, I daresay our lives are much better than in the 1970’s, when television numbed most people into inactivity.

    Indeed, “outcrowded” is a beautiful word. And you hit a nerve: reading a novel forces one into “slowness.” Reading is a solitary endeavor. One can watch a movie or listen to a CD sequentially in short spans of time, and share the experience with family. Many Americans, I’ve observed, are afraid to be alone. They jump in the car and immediately call their spouse or child or someone else and call it “multi-tasking”. Even as studies show that multi-tasking is ineffective; while other studies show the importance of “disconnecting” from technology.

    “Is this massive information-processing merely a craze or a permanent feature of our civilization?” I’m not sure I know the answer to that question, but I suspect (and fear) that is.

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  3. J.Conrad Guest, I certainly found inspiration in your response to mine — I loved the detail of being tied to a wall by a ten-foot curly cord — and this alone in a sense refutes my verbiage over ‘words not doing things’. While I maintain that giving offense by uttering words is at a remove from infringing on people’s integrity or giving them pain, it would be semantics to insist on a full-fledged difference of opinion between us, would it not? I submit that we agree on a difference in degree, if not in kind (I stand corrected in that regard), between real and symbolic action. That said, both modes have an impact on our fellow beings; are hence suspeptible to ethical evaluation.

    While I will grant that words can administer pain, I am shocked to learn that students in the US (in California more than in Michigan, perhaps, and in the US more than in Europe, although we may follow suit; andd texting is a favourite pastime with us too) should be offended by tough books in the curriculum, or by pronouns deemed gender-bound, or by professors who teach evolution… Need I go on? Under the guise of ‘hurting sensibilities’, language is pressed into the service of ideological bubbles — of whatever hue and description — that people have sworn allegiance to, and language is bereaved of its potential to support and enhance the quest for that elusive, if powerful thing called truth; which is not a holy grail so much as a determination to unmask falsehoods that numb our critical faculties. This would include, I think, debate and at times the weaponry of ridicule; even a readiness to ‘offend’ unfounded beliefs.

    Of course believers of unfounded beliefs are another matter, and this is where things get messy. Should foreign students be prohibited to pray to Allah on campus grounds — as has happened in London, UK? I think they should: unversity grounds serve no religious purpose, and this holds true for any religion. It is preposterous to say that curbing foreign students’ prayers amounts to discrimination: they can go to the mosque if they like… and while the (perhaps dormant) reasonableness of those students’ spokesmen needs to be addressed, which might even result in some sort of provision for those students (even at the risk of provoking irate White Supremacists, for instance), the university management should be adament about banning prayer in public…I invoked an outlandish — if factual — example to emphasize that discursive logic, debate, etc are no panacea for human problems. Nothing is, really, and nothing ever was. Yet deal with human messiness we must…

    While writing this up, J. Conrad, I kept one eye on our literary endeavours. And I wonder: isn’t it this ‘ideological bubblification’, including all underlying fears and degradations, that bereaves us of an audience? If this is true, and if it is true that literary prose, for all its fictional distortions and byways, serves a quest for truth, freedom, nobleness of spirit even…albeit in a non-discursive manner…there is hope.

    Is there really? you might well ask.

    Well, it is not a foregone conclusion. Hope is no holy grail either, if it incites us to open windows onto hard-won truths. Perhaps a lot that goes under the name of fiction is drivel, as you have often stated. Not so much because the writing is bad, but because its windows went blind.

    But that need not detain us, nor our fellow Mohicans.

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    • Truth is elusive, Pim. We tend to view it as such only when it coincides with our own belief system, our views, our opinions, when in fact truth can only truthfully be what it is.

      Of course students, or anyone, should be allowed the freedom to pray to whichever god they recognize. Whether anyone, Muslim or Christian, should be prohibited from praying in public is another matter. Christ taught: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”

      My beliefs are personal; I pray at home or at the homes of family or friends who I know will not be offended, even if I feel they should not be offended. What harm is there, really, in allowing me to say Grace before a Thanksgiving Day meal?

      I’m not sure where I stand on the “appropriateness” of praying on a campus or anywhere in public. I only know I don’t find it offensive.

      Here in America, it seems Muslims alone are given the freedom to pray in public. A Christian student was told he could not read his bible during his free hour; while another student was told she couldn’t say a brief prayer of thanks in the cafeteria before lunch. Yet Muslims on an assembly line are granted the right to stop the assembly line several times throughout their shift to pray. How can one be a right and the other not be?

      Rather than take another route home, a motorist was able to get a homeowner to take down his religious themed Christmas display because he found it offensive.

      As you so eloquently stated, “literary prose, for all its fictional distortions and byways” should serve as “a quest for truth, freedom, and nobleness of spirit,” even as consumers seem to settle for mere entertainment in their escapism. Hence, my frustration.

      But hope? Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

      Still, my hope dwindles as my days on this earth count down.

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  4. “Rather than take another route home, a motorist was able to get a homeowner to take down his religious themed Christmas display because he found it offensive.”

    Now this is an apt example of the sort of offense-taking I find so mindless. I regard ‘being offended’ by utterances in public, including the messages of advertising, as a method or at least an opportunity of sharpening one’s sense of the world — which is bound to infringe on the senses; and the sensibilities of any well-bred lady or gentleman, if you’ll pardon my British…

    On a slightly more serious note: the truth is elusive indeed. I think we can only hope to approach it by allowing set beliefs to be rectified by an influx of data and experiences; I would regard life, art, and science (not necessarily in that order) as possible paths to follow, and take their forks, bends and byways in one’s stride. As you may deduce from this, I set no store by revealed truth. But if I can’t quite see how, I can’t rule out the possibility that someone aspiring to dignity and right choices in life may find refuge in religion, at least temporarily. At the same time, I deplore religion to be a divisive force in the world. Ever since the sixties, it has — unlike a taste for reading secular books — returned with a vengeance, or so it seems to me.

    I am sorry to hear your hope is dwindling, but I salute your sincerity. And I wish to acknowledge your trust in me as a conversation partner.

    Which hasn’t, I imagine, been greatly enhanced by my take on religion…

    Actually, it’s my take on truth. We know some facts at best; and we discover partial truths by chancing upon experiences, novel facts, mind-boggling or soul-scorching set-backs. You need not be an artist or scientist to make such discoveries. In any life, outcomes rarely correspond with expectations. The sad thing is not that: The sad thing is that the unexpected hurls people into anger, fear, and sadness; or worse, into indifference, cynicism, and abysmal despair. I can’t blame anyone — save perhaps those who exploit the human condition for greed and for gain. It’s a mean thing to do.

    But then, even the exploiters are fragile beings.

    And this is the juncture where the art of the novel steps in. Great fiction mirrors life; at the same time it goes against the grain of life’s lackluster moments, if only by adding a sprinkling of beauty and grace where there was none. Indeed, I’ll even stoop to amusing the mob if it be conducive to that noble purpose.

    But, unlike great literature, I have once again wallowed in verbiage, so I will shut up for now 🙂 May your moving house be the auspicious beginnings of a new phase in life!

    Pim

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Pim, for carrying on our discussion.

      Freedom in this country has gotten so twisted it makes my head spin. I take my wife to a ballgame and by the fourth inning the guy seated in front of us has imbibed enough beer to loosen his lips to the point all manner of profanity pours out. I feel for the young couple seated in front of him and to his left who’ve brought their two young children to the game, both under the age of ten. That they must be subjected to that language I find unconscionable. But he’s free to express himself, protected by the First Amendment—freedom of expression. But we’re no longer free to celebrate Christmas with a manger on our front lawn. Apparently that sort of expression is no longer protected by the First Amendment.

      I was born and raised Catholic but no longer practice. Like you, I feel religion does as much harm as good, as evidenced by the Muslim jihad being waged against Christianity and the West. I consider myself spiritual. Whether God is an existential being or an anthropomorphic deity I can’t say. I suspect the universe didn’t just will itself into existence. Maybe the universe is the product of an experiment, in a basement or refrigerator somewhere, gone awry. Someone, or something, had to make available all the elements that resulted in the Big Bang.

      I enjoy our conversations, Pim. You’re thought-provoking responses and opinions and views are enlightening.

      Indeed, good fiction, great fiction, in its way should mirror life. It’s with that I endeavor to infuse my work. Sadly, and I’ve said it before and you know my view on the publishing industry in America: they seek larger than life stories that can be sold to Hollywood to turn into next summer’s blockbuster movie. And it seems that’s what the consumer seeks. They want to escape from the reality of their own mundane existence.

      The late Elmore Leonard, who was from Detroit, believed that writers should refrain from infusing themselves into their characters. I just can’t fathom that any writer can write believable characters by remaining apart from them. But then, so much contemporary fiction I read today seems bereft of that believablility.

      Thanks for the good wishes surrounding my wife’s and my impending move. You’re welcome to come for the housewarming, if you find yourself in the neighborhood!

      Best regards to you,

      J.

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