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Words, Words, Words


According to the Cabbalists the twenty-two letters of the ancient Hebrew alphabet are the building blocks of the universe. God manipulated these letters (into words) to create everything in the physical universe. As a result the Jewish mystic believes that he can imitate God by, first, having the proper intention and, then, by pronouncing specific words from ancient Hebrew. It is even said that each letter is ruled by an angel that represents one of the twenty-two virtues (or qualities) of the Almighty, and that these angels can work wonders for the Cabbalist who knows the secrets to using these letters to form words and prayers.

In the Christian tradition the Gospel of John, generally considered to be the most profound and mystical gospel, begins, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Clearly at one time certain western religious traditions considered language divine.

But then there were the Greek sophists, the manipulators of language for sport and profit, the forerunners of the modern lawyer and politician. Plato describes a few of them haranguing Socrates. Though they never outshine Socrates, they continually try, through the use of elaborate and specious arguments, to convince others of their half truths. Through their help, rhetoric, the art of using language effectively and persuasively, was born, and language became, not a means to understanding the universe, but an art to convince others of any argument, whether true or not, that profited them personally. In their hands words which were once symbolic (poetic) became the prosaic building blocks of argument, logic, and philosophy.

And then there’s Shakespeare: ‘What do you read my lord?’ Words, words, words. ‘What is the matter, my Lord?’ Between who? ‘I mean the matter that you read, my Lord.’ Slanders, sir.

In our age the use of words is often thought of with suspicion because of the devious practices of certain politicians, advertisers, lawyers, scholars, psychiatrists, and journalists, who, like the sophists, use words to try to manipulate people. They want our money, or our vote, or just our attention.

Words are often set in opposition to pictures, and thinking, or intellect, is often set in opposition to emotion. A picture is worth a thousand words. How often have we heard that? But can it be said anymore that a picture or a video is inherently more truthful? Certainly the modern sophists, particularly the advertisers and politicians, now use pictures and video to try to manipulate the public into believing in their half-truths. These days a few garbled facts, a large does of opinion, pictures, and video are all mixed together like a recipe, not to inform people or to make them think, but make them feel something, whether it be patriotism, or anger, or the desire to buy a new car.

In modern culture the word emotional has come to mean not intellectual, and the word intellectual has come to mean unemotional. The subtext of ‘He’s so intellectual,’ is ‘He’s cold and passionless;’ and the subtext of ‘She’s emotional,’ is ‘She’s not very bright.’

It has often seemed to me that this kind of thinking, of opposing one quality (or idea) with another—in this case emotion with intellect—is itself flawed. Why can’t we instead begin to think in terms of cultivating both capacities and using each in its proper sphere?

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

– Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Why not take what intellect and emotion each has to offer? Why not combine them? Why not intelligent emotion or thinking that serves the heart?

It may take a thousand words to describe a picture, but a picture can’t tell you how often to water your plants or explain that, not only the pictures, but the objects that surround you may not be a final reality. Much of our experience, our wisdom, is passed down through language. And the ability to use language is one of the capacities that give humans such an advantage over animals, like dogs or horses, who clearly have feelings.

Emotions, everybody has; intellect is rare; and art is difficult.
– Goethe

We tend to think of emotion as something we don’t control (It’s the way I feel!) and of thinking as something that takes effort, like studying for a test or figuring out a problem. But any actor worth his salt will tell you that emotion can not only be represented, but also stimulated and felt. Sometimes I think that this is why actors tend to be a little crazy in their personal lives; at some level they know, from experience, that they are not their emotions. Instinctively we all know this. Music, for instance, is a great stimulator of emotion. If we want to feel angry, we put on an angry song; if we want to feel sentimental, we put on a love song. But doesn’t this tell us something important about ourselves? Doesn’t it tell us that if we don’t like the way we feel, we can change it?

But how? By the same techniques an actor uses: thinking, imagining, and, if we like, by using art to stimulate what we want to feel. Hamlet again:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!

Could we not, like Hamlet, say to ourselves  “Is it not monstrous that circumstances dictate what I feel? That today I was made to feel anger and fear? And by who? By politicians? But aren’t these the same people who lied to me in the past? And is it not worse that everywhere I turn I am made to feel that my life is inadequate because I don’t drive a new car, or because I don’t own the latest cell phone, or because I am no longer young? And who makes me feel this way? Advertisers? And who pays them? Corporations. And who’s behind these corporations? The one percent who want nothing more than to continue to be rich. But who decided that the amount of money a person is is a measure of his wisdom? Certainly not me. So how can I change the way I feel? Maybe by using my other faculties like thinking.”

Getting people to think is not as powerful and sexy as making people feel. An effective documentary will make you think, and an effective popular movie will make you feel, but a great movie or a great book will certainly make you think and feel. And if thinking is rare, as Goethe suggests, then we’re going to have to exclude having opinions from thinking because everybody has opinions. Opinions are conclusions, and are, in some cases, the result of thought. But more often than not opinions are not considered, but are instead a kind of badge that people wear to identify themselves. Again, this kind of thinking (or a lack of thinking) is often expressed in opposites. Liberal or conservative. Blue collar or white collar. Prolife or prochoice. Emotional or intellectual.

The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion.
– Elizabeth Drew

I’ve hear people say, ‘Words are not it.’ Of course they’re not. Words are tools, symbols that point to something else. I’ve also heard people say that words are not real. I guess what they mean by this is that words and books are a substitute, and a poor one, for living life, and I can agree with that. But then certain books have changed my life because they taught me how to live.

I’m going to end with Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest master of the English language. In this famous speech from The Tempest he makes us feel not that his words are unreal, but that the entire physical universe is an illusion.

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The picture that appears with this week’s article is from an original painting by the Israeli artist Anicca. You can see more of her work at Secret Kabbala Heart. There is a link to her website in my blogroll.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 07/10 9:15 am

    I’m not sure advertisers and politicians are solely to blame. We have our own internal dialogue in any case. You are invited to look at the comments under ‘Talk to the prawn – 2’ on my blog.

  2. 07/10 11:19 pm

    Certainly an interesting topic. I like your wide ranging approach. As far as advertisers manipulating us, I would contend that advertisers only give us what we ask for. Many feel validated by owning things, so things are provided to own. Call me cynical, but I think of most news and entertainment and nearly all politics as advertising. We are, however a participant in advertising, if it doesn’t sell it goes away. So you could say that nothing is being done to us against our will. Comfort trumps a meaningful existence most days of the week. I don’t like it either though.

  3. desplanches michel permalink
    09/11 1:11 am

    when studying the kabbalah deep enough, indeed the greek philisophers sound a bit funny with their dialectic and the emotionnal and intellectual work together, and amazing connections are made

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