14 September 2006

No Love of Words

You might think that because I'm an English major that I have a love of words. If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I probably would have paused a bit and tentatively agreed with you. But the other day I was asked to write down my vision. Not for anything in particular, just in general, and what came out of my head was not at all what I had expected. I'll spare you the details, but the general idea was this: I want to spend my life helping people realize their potential, to use my talents to help them become more fully themselves.

This is a particularly odd mission for several reasons. First, as I've lamented several times, I'm not generally a people person--that is, people hold no innate attraction for me. So why I have this idea stuck in my head of doing something for other people for the rest of my life is beyond me. Also, English seems like a silly thing to be going into if you want to make an impact in the lives of people. Like Las Vegas, what goes on in the English department, tends to stay in the English department. As Katherine and I have discussed, not many people care about what English majors care about. Not that Chemistry is any better. Granted, science has a slightly more direct impact on your life than lit crit, but it's less suited to help with philosophical things like reaching your potential.

It started me thinking about what kind of impact I wanted to have on people's lives and how that relates to a love of writing and of words. What I've realized is that the words don't matter. Or, more precisely, that words matter tremendously, but not because of themselves. Let me explain by an example. Rhetoric, as I understand it, is the study of how you can put words together--how the practical relationships between words and ideas can be best exploited to convince someone to do something. But I have to agree with Plato's Phaedrus when he says that there's no point in teaching rhetoric unless we can also answer questions about what we should do with this power of words. Tools are useless unless we also teach "what," and "to whom," and "when," and "how much." If rhetoric, or words in general, aren't studied in conjunction with the truths they should convey, then who cares?

I also realized that many of the subjects I dislike lack this ability to convey truth. Music and dance have always seemed a little strange to me because there's no way to get any specific message across. A general message, yes, but overall it's difficult to have a melody change your perspective on life. Also, grammar and usage of English seem a little pointless to study. Yes, they can help convey meaning more precisely, but can studying the details of how paint is made get the Sistine Chapel painted? Granted, some knowledge of these things is necessary, but spending too much time on them and you miss the point entirely. Same thing with studying a foreign language. Too much time spent on the medium rather than the message.

For me there is no love of words, except in the power that words have to link two minds together. A well written novel or essay takes you through another person's logic and emotions. For one instant, you can be wholely understood by another person, to completely share their thoughts and feelings. Words are very much the power of God in that way--the ability to know and understand something independently animate and outside yourself. Maybe that's why I don't like debaters or purple prose or long-winded descriptions. There's no particular glory in an eloquent arrangement of letters; only the idea behind them matters to me. Words are simply words, but when they convey powerful ideas, they gain the power to change people.

Gorgias, in his Encomium of Helen, compares words to love because these two alone have the tools necessary to change the soul, to lift it up or bring it down.

I like that. No love of words, but words=love.

1 comment:

Marisa VanSkiver said...

But yet, music is one of the most powerful mediums in this world. A simple symphony can display an emotion so well, so vastly, that no words are ever enough to express. And the great thing about music is that you do not have to speak the same language as the composer. When I was in my prime as an oboeist and a singer, I have never felt myself better able to express my feelings of gratitude, grace, grief, whatever the feeling then I was through song. We don't have words for everything in the English language, and music is our path to those emotions.

Plus, I think that the study of foreign language is highly important if you want to write in any capacity. Through studying Spanish, I have not only learned better how to express myself in English, but learning a language, consciously, broadens your mind to other cultures and a whole new way to writing. You understand your own language better by learning another that is close to your own.