One of my favorite philosophers of language is Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a melodious name I do enjoy saying — it’s somehow perverse and exquisitely so): “…language never says anything; it invents a series of gestures which between them present differences clear enough for the conduct of language to the degree that it repeats itself, recovers and affirms itself, and purveys to us the palpable flows and contours of a universe of meaning.”
I love that: “language never says anything.” To think that language is a vehicle that carries our ideas, our facts, our messages is not just to reduce language but to miss it all together. A word does not stand in for something, for a real thing that exists elsewhere. A word is real, too.
Take any word, say, dog. The word dog does not stand in for the idea of dog or even for the asshole dogs who bark incessantly in my backyard. The word dog, the idea of dog, every dog I’ve ever known, the smell of dog, the movie Cujo, chien, mutt, wolf: all these terms, and more, form a network. They exist in various and complex relations with each other (these relationships can be considered tropes — but that’s another topic).
A word is a body — and a strange body at that. It’s visible, in some sense, but its visible components do not convey very much. It is invisible, as well, drenched in affect, memory, and meaning. But its invisible components would be nothing without its visible ones, its marks and sounds.
A word, then, is this incredible assemblage point that is also a condensation point. After all, words are so pithy. Melodious. Cloying. Flabbergast. This. Hi. Foment. Singe. Fecund. So much in so little, each an entire world (pace Lohren Green).
And I love the different shapes they make — they can flow so softly, so gently, then turn on a dime and pounce your face, hard and angular before becoming knotted clumsy stumble. Think of Nabokov, then Bukowski, then Garcia Marquez, then Celine, then Ashbery… all these constellations, all these possible configurations, all these ways of distributing emotion, mood, affect, meaning.
We reach for a word, says Merleau-Ponty, as we reach for an itch. Language is not a tool we use. It’s an element we prehend just as we prehend air and food. A word has a body, a density, a weight, an inclination. A word is a strange fluttering (or not) creature that houses an entire cosmos, suspended (or not) in the ether. When we declare or proclaim or inscribe, we enter its world. And then, in some sense, it speaks us.
But language, while insidiously coercive, is rarely so dictatorial. Words move with us, go with us. In fact, William Burroughs says they’re a virus and humans, their host. There is a creepy aspect to this but there is also something beautiful, a symbiosis, a giving and taking — even if it’s a relation rife with tension. We all know this tension — so-called writers all the more: we wrestle words and they wrestle back.
And then, sometimes, you find a beautiful rhythm with them — you reach, they reach back, they offer themselves to you and you offer yourself back, receptive to their fluttering, a mutual generosity, an intertwining of bodies human and linguistic. Oh, these are glorious moments, profoundly erotic, a making love — yes, love — with words, surfing the undulations of this strange body we call language.