Miller: Playing with our words

Timely and Timeless

The logic of language is exasperating beyond words. My patience for cliché is worn as thin as the ice of a mixed metaphor. I don’t give a whit for puns. Irony and sarcasm are exactly the same. The only believable statements are paradoxes.

Word games are fun, but if it’s true that the limit of our language is the limit of our world, then how fitting that language permits such self-contradiction. The inconsistency of syntax is matched only by the brutal irrationality of daily events. We so often receive what we do not deserve. Tragedy strikes even the most righteous (even if Jerry Falwell has trouble admitting it). Expert predictions are at best marginally more reliable than the Farmers’ Almanac, and the most significant events often take us by surprise. Turbulence is inexorable, and learning to be happy means learning to live in a world we hardly understand.

Language is our most powerful tool for making sense of twisted experience. Words, as symbols of concepts, represent all the peculiarity and paradoxes of the world, while simultaneously providing us with a precise framework, constrained by principles, to better comprehend what order and structure does exist in our lives.

It’s tempting to suppose that language representing the irrational is fundamentally poetic, while language addressing the rational is fundamentally philosophic. This dichotomy underlies the recent tête-à-tête on this page between Matthew Shaffer ‘10 and Jacob Abolafia ‘10 (while Justin Petrillo ‘11 suggests, rather vacuously, that all language is philosophic).

But, as with most convenient theoretical distinctions, this one is less useful in the real world. Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” is melodious poetry, yet it is rarely pondered by literary critics; T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is a refined soteriological meditation, but how often is it cited in philosophical essays?

The rational and irrational functions of language — the language we use for both poems and discourses — are interpenetrative. This interpenetration is fortunate for us, because it is the only way for us to approach tragedy, ecstasy and tumult with anything resembling poise.

The thought of falling in love without a poetic flair is just as troubling as the thought of loving without principled commitment. Either extreme constitutes a grave misunderstanding of the promise of romance.

Or take the example of the school year’s end, so nearly upon us. In times of transition like this one, I sometimes think of this “western haiku” by Jack Kerouac:

Fiddlydee! —

Another day,

Another something-or-other!

This haiku is a terrific example of simultaneously rational and irrational language. On one hand, Kerouac seems to present the brute, inevitable fact of banality. Life is dry and dull! Every transformation amounts to nothing! There is a sense in which this sentiment, as a disillusioned expression of ontology, is incontrovertible. But in another sense, there is glee in this expression of dullness: a poetic exuberance which challenges the rational — even philosophical — construal of reality.

It would be sacrilege to insinuate that these days of ours — days of final lectures, papers and tests, as we depart Yale for a new life — are casual, throwaway something-or-others or that the changes that lie in our respective futures are anything short of revolutionary.

But that isn’t Kerouac’s point. To read his exclamation marks as merely sarcastic aspersions against humdrum of the routine would shortchange the sentimentality of these syllables and their exultation in the simple fact of being.

We can only exult in the changes of the coming days if we both invite skeptical reflection on the magnitude of the changes to come and also embrace their unfettered emotional content.

In other words, we have to play a little word game.

The greatest poets and philosophers are the ones who are best at word games. We can learn something from their success. We may never be comfortable with contradiction, but the lesson of word games is that the consistent should always make us uncomfortable.

Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.