Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Forum (BBC World Service)... Washing the Word

... is here, live, ie it's on now, so I'll add more to this post later.

Stéphane Mallarmé


It's still in the same link and it's on Facebook too. Listening through to it was not too painful from my own point of view (I am, like everyone, intensely critical of my own appearance or performance at anything) and it's interesting how the question of choice holds the programme together. Choices are assumed to define you, so what does it mean to make a choice? Is it a burden or a natural right, one that effectively validates or authenticates you? How far would you choose your genetic inheritance? Would you prefer to have your child fully coded up genetically? Do you have a right to your genes, and if so, what are the limits of your rights? Does it make sense of talk of rights at all, even if your genetic make-up circumscribes and limits your choices?

Choice is a moral issue. That is why the novel is a moral form of literature. People in novels are constantly making choices or are having choices made for them. When there is a choice one option is generally regarded, or turns out to be, better than another. People in novels get or don't get their deserts. The more complex the characters, the more complex their choices and, generally, the better the novel. Nevertheless, choice is the fundamental dynamic.

That is less the case in poetry. There, choice is a series of improvisations made by the writer whose presence is constantly assumed, even while it takes a distilled or mask form. The characters in poems don't make choices with consequences. It is not consequences we are after in a poem, it is states. Poetry is not a matter of moral action, though it can be read as a matter of moral character in voice: it is the state of affairs. Mallarmé wanted to purify the language of the tribe and keep language not only honest, but clean. Technique, said Pound, was the test of a poet's sincerity. Neither of them is wrong.

But can you wash language clean? Here is the text of my sixty-second Washing the Words proposal. First the introduction that was not recorded:

We are so familiar with language that we barely notice it. It seems to stream from us without our consciously composing it much of the time, except on occasions such as this where I have composed a minute’s worth and am reading it. It’s just words, we say, nothing important.

But when words are directed at us we become highly sensitive. Darling, someone says the first time and our hearts beat fast. The thousandth time there is no change of heartbeat, though, if it were no longer there, we might register the fact and wonder why. Words decrease in value with frequency of usage. That’s what a cliché is

And here, the actual text:

Words must be saved from over-familiarity, cliché and mendacity. Here is my emergency plan.

Each morning after breakfast you will be texted the word of the day. A common word, nothing fancy. You will repeat this word until its meaning has quite drained away and it is a mere nonsense sound. It will feel like water running through your fingers. A meter will be provided to check the nonsense level.

Once the meter is on zero and all meaning is gone you will be required to construct ten different sentences using the word until it is
refamiliarized and the meter shows 100.

This is called
Washing the Word.

A year’s course will fully re-engage you with not only language but the vital language-life system. You will feel a sense of well-being much as you do when wearing freshly-washed clothes.

Failure to carry out the exercise will result in the word being withdrawn from your permitted vocabulary. Careful! You could end up in the courts naked, verbally bankrupt.

These are desperate times, remember.
No pain, no gain.

Sounds a touch Stalinist, doesn't it, the last bit? There is of course irony there - as if I were in a position to impose any such conditions on anyone, let alone the world! - so the Big Brotherliness is deliberately played up.

Yvonne was concerned about two things. First, my punishment of word-deprivation - the stick versus the carrot argument. I might, I suppose, have answered that by taking the word for granted and draining it of meaning the slow way, the speaker does in fact lose the use of it. It might as well not be there in term of value, except, vitally (and this is what the suggestion is trying to prevent) as a mindless trigger word, all association, no meaning. I want meaning back in.

Her other point was that repeating even minimally associative words like 'and' and 'but' fails to remove all meaning from them. She is right in so far as the individual goes, of course, especially the individual intent on meditation. Meaning continues to linger for us as utterers or speakers. But I am more concerned with us as hearers. Hearing is a social act. I want us to hear ourselves, and beyond that to hear the language as if from outside, as someone else might have spoken it for the first time, as a marvellous phenomenon that has a life outside our normal, usually narrow, terms of reference.


Teuvo Vehkalahti said...

Very intresting bolg
Pleace looking fotoblog Teuvo images
and pleace your comments

Thank you

Teuv Vehklaahti


George S said...

Thank you, Teuvo. I have looked at your site. I think this is the most fascinating photograph:

It's the smoke and the painterly composition that suggests the picture is doing more than recording (though recording has been a vital aspect of photography, of course.)

Anne said...

Great stuff, George. I love the idea of word washing. There are quite a few candidates for that treatment, especially in politics and management-speak.

The Forum is an interesting programme, and I usually catch it only when I'm insomniac. It's a shame World Service doesn't reach a wider audience in the UK - though there many millions listening worldwide.

Ed Wilson said...

Big brotherliness is an excellent coining.

I took the word-washing idea as a policy proposal as extended metaphor as screenplay treatment.

Neologisms are vital, but if the language background is grey, washed out and poorly understood then the neologisms take over and language becomes less useful.