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Words, Words, Words -- To a Single Destination

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by Dewey Ganzel

A talk given to the Friends of the Oberlin College Library

24 May 1997


What do you read, my lord? Polonius asks Hamlet.

And Hamlet replies :Word, words, words.

Pol. What is the matter, my lord?

Ham. Between who?

Pol. I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

And Hamlet replies: Slanders, sir. (II, ii, 193-8)

Life sometimes imitates Art, and something like this scene from Hamlet was reenacted when Ray asked me to talk (not lecture, surely!) today to the Friends of the Oberlin College Library. When he asked for my title, (what are you reading my lord) he was (perhaps understandably) puzzled by my reply (words, words, words) and in a voice betraying just the slightest bit of concern &endash; but too nice to admit outright that he was on the verge of realizing he may have been stuck with a bad choice, he probed, ever so gently, to determine what the title meant &endash; what was the matter was &endash; and I said I felt fine &endash; and he, kindly, left it there.

Now, I imagine it is your question to me. What are you reading, my lord, I hear you asking, and my answer is &endash; still &endash; "words, words, words." What better subject for the Friends of the Oberlin College Library, which is to say, going back to root word, Friends of the Book-place, &endash; the vaults where they keep the words. We are all friends of the Word here.

In cross-examining Hamlet, Polonius, you may remember, was looking for evidence that Hamlet was mad. (I hope your motivation for being here is different, but if not, remember what Hamlet does to Polonius only a little later in the play.) In his reply, Hamlet parried Polonius' question by announcing the obvious: what else does one read but words? Obvious.

But actually, when one thinks about it, it is not obvious at all. We read words &endash; and the fact that there are words and that we can, that we do, and that we must read them is among the more recondite facts of existence, and not a comfortable one.

We read words but what does that mean? If you think the answer to that question is easy, you are probably still under the spell cast by Gutenberg and those Chinese wizards who invented movable type &endash; and with it the printed page &endash; hundreds of years ago. They have a lot to answer for.

In the next thirty minutes I will try to suggest why I think the word and our dedication to it is not an unqualified miracle.

I don't pretend to be disinterested. As a teacher of literature, I have an inside view of the subject. I started with &endash; and kept &endash; a thirst for words which goes well beyond the epistemological possibilities. Like many teachers of literature I get drunk &endash; easily &endash; on words.

Take that word Epistemological &endash; forget its meaning &endash; listen to the sound of it &endash; that rush which has nothing to do with the nature of knowledge and everything to do with what is happening in your mouth when you say it &endash; listen to it &endash; e -PIST-- temo-logi - cal. Its like a roller coaster in the last three seconds before the first drop, that moment when the mechanical power pulling you away from gravity gives up and you are caught in a breathless equilibrium seemingly weightless before you are dropped, relentlessly, inevitably, back into the weighted world. (Epistemological!)

To be a drunk with words is at the very least embarrassing. One can make a fool of oneself &endash; even if one is a poet, and I am not nor was meant to be. (The true poet is a verbal inebriate, soaked to the gills with words who can nevertheless keep them in line and never lose his balance.) No, I am not a poet, I am a teacher of literature (or have been), a discussant, a purveyor of words about words about word. It is, surely, one of the strangest of occupations. (Was any great poem written to be taught in a classroom?!) My appetite for the word has had to be chastened, harnessed, reined in

(except, perhaps, at moments like this? No, particularly at moments like this!)

My professional life has been "cabined, cribbed and confined" by words &endash;and I might interject that by stating that fact in such a deriviative way &endash; (with yet another obeisance to Shakespeare as the cognoscenti among you have recognized) &endash; I have shown one of the classic symptoms of the disease &endash; an addiction to quoting other peoples' words.

Teachers of literature are singularly burdened by the fact that their "medium" and their "message" are one. The subject of their interest (words) is identical to the means they must employ to explore it. This might seem like an advantage, but it's not. To explain the thing itself (the word) by the thing itself is unlike the task of mathematicians or chemists or sociologists or artists or musicians or even historians (none of whom would be the least sympathetic to the problem). All these estimable savants have a subject discretely removed from its method of examination, a body of knowledge which is physically discrete and demonstrable, data which can be quantified, historical event which can be verified.

The teacher of literature, on the other hand, is a creature of words, words to explain other words which explain still more words and so ad infinitum. As a result, I think we are more vulnerable than most to seduction by the word, its sound, the complexity of its meaning and &endash; here is the point &endash; its characteristic way of breaking away from the idea which it was, presumably, formed to express. The teacher of the word is more likely than others to slip into the teleological traps which the word, by its very nature sets.

If you need an example, I have just given you one &endash; teleological traps &endash; you know the meaning of the words (teleological: to see a cause, design or purpose in (this case) language &endash; a pithy idea here coupled with trap &endash; (teleological trap!) how trippingly the alliteration rolls from the tongue, "the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth" (this passage was stolen from Nabokov's Lolita)-- how pleasurably the sound scours the possibilities of meaning &endash; or, rather, evokes a fresh context to make a new meaning, possibly the wrong one. The idea has been subordinated to the word, sound has usurped sense. The phrase has a certain elegance, it is fun to play with (I left it in, didn't I?) but it is still a trap. The idea has been subordinated however slightly to the word, sound has usurped sense. The more or less unvarnished idea that I am trying to express has been gussied up, and, I suspect, its idea displaced in the process.

The love of words &endash; is as blind as any other.

The foregoing confession was intended to soften you up for my thesis which is:

that the word and the idea, contrary to our workaday assumption, are never identical and are, in fact, in unremitting conflict,

that word and idea by which I mean (to use Wallace Stevens' phrase) the cast of imagination, the self-reflexive, individual and unique thought, cannot be fully reconciled and that

-- here's the point &endash;

literature is the result of this war. At its worst literature is a cry of frustration, at its best a kind of truce, an attempt to make the best of the (now) inevitable conflict between imagination and the word. Whatever the result of this truce &endash; whatever its apparent glories &endash; the plays of Shakespeare, the poems of Yeats, the novels of Henry James &endash; it is always, at least in part, a cry of distress and of qualified failure.

(Is that outrageous enough for you?)

Some of you are thinking that this is merely the crotchet of a teacher of literature playing word games to keep himself or a drowsy class awake. Shakespeare in Distress? Yeats a qualified Failure? Well, they thought so. Remember Shakespeare's plaintive cry for a muse of fire! (Henry V) or Yeats bewailing the desertion of his "circus animals":

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."

Or Marianne Moore condemning and praising the need for poetry:

"I, too, dislike it: there are things that are more important beyond/
all this fiddle. / Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
/ discovers in/ it after all, a place for the genuine."
"Poetry," Collected Poems

Which is, of course, the point of enduring the anguish.

I am no poet and therefore have not felt the angst of invention in a chaotic world of words, but even foot soldiers see battle now and then. I have had more hand-to-hand combat with the word than most of you, and I have the latest news from the front.

I have read over a million words every year for the past thiry-nine years and that's only counting student papers. Such necessity gives new meaning to the idea of the tyranny of the word. One wants to tame it, or release it, or to force it into irregular patterns. I think my fascination with crossword puzzles derives from the way they force language into an arbitrary symmetrical visual pattern which has nothing to do with meaning but merely pretends to have control over words by reducing them to letters, to play with their meaning and to break them down by pun and anagram in a pretense of control.

(However, back to my thesis.)

I would like to suggest how this warfare came about and its implication for literature.

For those of you who may be keeping score, that was the Introduction to my topic. I now move to the body of my argument which starts, more or less, with first causes (which are a little dull) and then to attempted leaps to generalizations about mind and word, illustrated at the close with some qualifying examples.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." There's a first cause for you.

Some earnest scholars seeking evidence of man as God's special creation, think they have found it in the astonishing evolutionary confluence which created the possibility of speech &endash; the development of the larynx (which has no other apparent purpose but to make breath into noise), the tongue, the nose, teeth, lips, the soft palate &endash; each of which apparently evolved independently but ultimately conjoined to create the power to "say", to "speak." And as if this were not fortuitous enough, another series of apparently unrelated features &endash; the ear &endash; the organ without which speech could not have been heard or words created &endash; evolved on its own.

This is not merely hyperbole (hyperbole!). It actually happened. There was an actual moment in past history when the first hominid (or whatever) made sounds that made sense &endash; sounds that another heard and eventually understood. The nature of that sound is apparently beyond our archeological capacity to discover.

Scholars disagree: was it an onomatopoetic (onomatopoetic!) imitation? &endash; or a self-igniting expression of desire for food? fire? sex? or an expression of anguish, awe, or exaltation? We'll never know. But it did happen. And for hundreds of thousands of years word &endash; or what passed for it &endash; was identical to the self-reflexive idea which was its justification and its source. Feeling (or whatever) was one with the expression of it; the mind thinking directed the mouth to speak, the ear to hear.

Now, the point about speech is that it is evanescent &endash; it lives only during those brief moments before the sound waves dissipate into thin air. It leaves no trail, only recollection. It cannot be recalled &endash; only reiterated. That, in large part, is the source of its magic, the perfection of its expression: it exists only in the moment of its creation.

That was the case with the spoken word; for many millennia it was the unique form of expression of the heart and mind. Then something happened.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

Although this, the first line of the Gospel according to John, was written, it is clear that the Word it speaks of refers not to vocabulary but to idea. It harkens back to the pre-literate world of speech I was just describing when the Word (capital letter) and the word (lower case) were indistinguishable and could not be differentiated, when word was the perfect creation of a self-conscious imagination, the union of an expression and its source.

As my analogy suggests we think the word and the capacity to use it to be a great gift from God, or, as it is our wont these days, "an almost unbelievably fortuitous confluence of evolutions" (fortuitous confluence of evolutions!).

But that gift was confounded when the word detached itself from the mind which produced it (the Word), when (there must have been a "first time" an actual event) some prehistoric hominid wrote or drew, or carved, or shaped the first symbolic pattern. &endash; a word. &endash; the first representation of an idea separable from the mind that made it, an object which could evoke "meaning" on its own.

It was the death of total expression and the birth of literature.

With that event, deep in the body of civilization, literature began to grow; with the elaboration of writing and reading it flourished, and with the invention of moveable type it became universal. Now the skirmish that always must have existed between speech (the word) and the ear had a third belligerent &endash; the eye &endash; and a new scene of battle &endash; the image. Now the "meaning" of the word was evoked not only by the way it sounded but how it looked on a stone, on a wall, on a page. And with it the separation of mind (the Word) and word was complete.

It led inevitably to "standards" for how it ought to look, ought to be, ought to "say." The separation of mind and word inevitably led to grammar, syntax, and accurate spelling.

What were the consequences?

It is hard not to see the regulation of word as a good thing which provided a useful disciplining of the mind. (Isn't correction a primary function of teachers of literature and language?) One cannot deny the value of precision and clarity or the virtues of uniform symbols, in social intercourse however arbitrarily determined they may be. Indeed, I have spent most of my professional life ministering to the battered bodies of student essays, applying corrective poultices to the margins, supplying diagnosis and prescriptions for improvement. I admit my irritation when I read writing which uses words without respect or care. I do not renounce the materia medica of English composition.

But one must admit that with the arrival of the written word something valuable was lost and that the ideal union between the word and the Word is gone. "Meaning," the limitation of idea, was now imposed by words. There was to be no freedom without constraint. Communication was now the equal of expression as the function of mind. Idea and feeling were caged by language and the Gospel was rebutted:

This is the loss &endash; the separation of word and Word &endash; that T.S. Eliot descries (with religious implications) in "Ash Wednesday."

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard.
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world.

Now for the leap to conclusions: Does it matter? Surely for the reader of words, the receiver of the message, the advent of literature was a good thing? Of course. The point is, something was lost &endash; the unopposed mind (a fanciful idea, but, I think a real one) &endash; and the range of imagination was limited. I think this is one of the ideas Wallace Stevens explores in a great poem ("Description Without Place"), the need to imagine &endash; what he calls "the seeming" of the world. It ends:

Thus the theory of description matters most.
It is the theory of the word for those

For whom the word is the making of the world,
The buzzing world and lisping firmament.

It is the world of words to the end of it,
In which nothing solid is its solid self.

As, men make themselves their speech: the hard hidalgo
Lives in the mountainous character of his speech;

And in that mountainous mirror Spain acquires
The knowledge of Spain and of the hidalgo's hat --

A seeming of the Spaniard, a style of life,
The invention of a nation in a phrase,

In a description hollowed out of hollow-bright,
The artificer of subjects still half night.

It matters, because everything we say
Of the past is description without place, a cast

Of the imagination, made in sound;
And because what we say of the future must portend,

Be alive with its own seemings, seeming to be
Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.

from "Description Without Place" (Transport to Summer )

I read this as a paean to an imagination unrestricted by the word &endash; which the advent of written language has made an impossibility, except in the artifice of poetry.

Poetry is the language of revenge against the usurpation of the imagination by word.

I have suggested that the creation of literature is a kind of warfare between the individual mind and the self-perpetuating unattached word, and that its greatest works can be read as cries of distress at the conflict. But not as monuments to failure.

Perhaps an illustration or two by way of conclusion:

The greatest achievements are by authors who take us to the limits of the word and who reveal most vividly what those limits are, who make the impossibility into an opportunity and &endash; for a time at least &endash; make us believe they have battled with the word and won. It is the artifice of art, and in waging this war every great writer develops his own strategy for attacking the word and subjugating it to his imagination.

One thinks of Henry James, who seems to take on language at its most complex, pressing language to its breaking point, thereby gaining a kind of dominance over the word &endash; at least that is the opinion of those who love him.

Hemingway uses another "strategy." In The Sun Also Rises a character announces the rule which Hemingway obeyed in many of his works: "don't talk about it or you'll lose it" &endash; perhaps the clearest statement of the strategy he follows in his best work. Hemingway does not attempt to overwhelm the word in James's fashion but to reduce it to the barest minimum. "Hills Like White Elephants," one of his best short stories, is an ideal example of his strategy: It is a story almost devoid of description, shaped by oblique dialogue, a couple discussing abortion, in which the word is never uttered. The word is subverted by evoking feelings and ideas without description. It is an attack by omission:

"It's really an awfully simple operation, Jig," the man said. "It's not really an operation at all."

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

"I know you wouldn't mind it, Jig. It's really not anything. It's just to let the air in."

The girl did not say anything. "I'll go with you and I'll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural."

"Then what will we do afterward?"

"We'll be fine afterward. Just like we were before."

"What makes you think so?"

"That's the only thing that bothers us. It's the only thing that's made us unhappy."

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

"And you think then we'll be all right and be happy."

"I know we will. You don't have to be afraid. I've known lots of people that have done it."

"So have I," said the girl. "And afterward they were all so happy."

"Well," the man said, "if you don't want to you don't have to. I wouldn't have you do it if you didn't want to. But I know it's perfectly simple."

"And you really want to?"

"I think it's the best thing to do. But I don't want you to do it if you don't really want to."

"And if I do it you'll be happy and things will be like they were and you'll love me?"

"I love you now. You know I love you."

"I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you'll like it?"

"I'll love it. I love it now but I just can't think about it. You know how I get when I worry."

"If I do it you won't ever worry?"

"I won't worry about that because it's perfectly simple."

"Then I'll do it. Because I don't care about me."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't care about me."

"Well, I care about you."

"Oh, yes. But I don't care about me. And I'll do it and then everything will be fine."

"I don't want you to do it if you feel that way."

The girl stood up and walked to the end of the station. Across, on the other side, were fields of grain and trees along the banks of the Ebro. Far away, beyond the river, were mountains. The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

"And we could have all this," she said. "And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible."

"What did you say?"

"I said we could have everything."

"We can have everything."

"No, we can't."

"We can have the whole world."

"No, we can't."

"We can go everywhere."

"No, we can't. It isn't ours any more."

"It's ours."

"No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back."

"But they haven't taken it away."

"We'll wait and see."

"Come on back in the shade," he said. "You mustn't feel that way."

"I don't feel any way," the girl said. "I just know things."

"I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to do&endash;&endash;"

"Nor that isn't good for me," she said. "I know. Could we have another beer?"

"All right. But you've got to realize &endash;"

"I realize," the girl said. "Can't we maybe stop talking?"

They sat down at the table and the girl looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley and the man looked at her and at the table.

"You've got to realize," he said, "that I don't want you to do it if you don't want to. I'm perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you."

"Doesn't it mean anything to you? We could get along."

"Of course it does. But I don't want anybody but you. I don't want any one else. And I know it's perfectly simple."

"Yes, you know it's perfectly simple."

"It's all right for you to say that, but I do know it."

"Would you do something for me now?"

"I'd do anything for you."

"Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?"

He did not say anything but looked at the bags against the wall of the station. There were labels on them from all the hotels where they had spent nights.

"But I don't want you to`" he said, "I don't care anything about it."

"I'll scream," the girl said.

You may have noticed that speech is the medium of narration in this passage, and that when it is read aloud, as I have just done, the text is significantly qualified, "released" from the page by pausing and the pitch and pattern of the human voice. The minimalist effects (the limited diction, the elided syntax, the absence of adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive detail) are qualified by the mind and feeling of the reader and projected in voice. Thus word becomes Word.

William Faulkner has the reverse strategy for making word into Word: his is an attack by excess. It is an act of defiance: he knows the rules well and defiantly breaks them. Among his weapons of attack are visual effects &endash; breaks in the printed line, fused words, seemingly arbitrary shifts in type font and others &endash; which are intended to break the rules of composition (word) to evoke otherwise ineffable meaning (Word). (Faulkner's attack on words may seem less powerful when it is heard rather than seen on the page. There are effects which cannot be conveyed by voice alone but are disruptive of the visual expectations of word.)

To illustrate my point, I want to read a passage from As I Lay Dying. It is not, perhaps, the best illustration of Faulkner's strategy of excess (although some of you might think I am excessive in reading so much of it) but it addresses directly the issue of the war of the word which I have been discussing this afternoon. The novel is the story of the death of Addie Bundren (the "I" of the title) and the aftermath of that death as it is realized by her husband, her children, her friends, and her lover expressed in a series of monologues which constitute the book. At the center of the novel (figuratively and actually) is Addie's own monologue in which she describes her marriage to Anse, the birth of her sons Cash and Darl, and her discovery, in the terms I have been discussing, of the conflict between word and Word.

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. . . . I knew that it had been, not that my aloneness had to be violated over and over each day, but that it had never been violated until Cash came. Nor even by Anse in the nights.
He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that any more than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn't matter.
. . . Then I found that I had Darl. At first I would not believe it. Then I believed that I would kill Anse. It was as though he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen and struck me in the back through it. But then I realized that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge.
. . . and I would think: Anse, Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; . . . and I couldn't think Anse , couldn't remember Anse. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, All right. It doesn't matter. I doesn't matter what they call them.
And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.

Which takes us back to where we started, more or less &endash; to the special conflict which word has with Word and the way the voice reveals it.

"Words, words, words!" Polonius concluded that Hamlet was mad but that there was some method in what he said. I hope my remarks have fared at least as well with you.


Last updated:
August 25, 2012