Sunday, August 14, 2011

say what you mean

Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O sea! And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.   (Lord Alfred Tennyson)

Thoughts arise and flow through the mind like ticker tape: coursing smoothly and quickly, creating abbreviations and personal shorthand, moving seamlessly and logically... until they reach our mouths. The articulation of those lucid thoughts is hard, if not sometimes impossible. What seems to gather in our heads in words actually form through firing synapses and traveling neurons. It probably looks more like a Civil War battle or a fireworks display in our heads when we think than an MIT physics chalkboard.

Why is it so hard to say what we mean to say? What we want to say? I can explain things fairly well when I write them down... but when I try and speak them, it's a lot more difficult unless I prepare. I especially have trouble recreating someone else's argument, even those which I have understood in the first place. But for some people, this process seems a lot easier than for others. I remember being in my high school Economics and History classes with a bunch of precocious boys who always seemed to understand every micro- and macroeconomic theory and be able to relate all historical events to current events I didn't even know were taking place. It was incredibly intimidating. In hindsight, though, I am not so sure their ability to articulate was so much better than mine. First, I think they just talked and talked until they basically drove over a body of knowledge or an understanding that was valuable. Second, I think that by talking their articulation moved towards lucidity. Some people work this way. Some people need to talk things out in order to think about them. Others, like me, need to process silently, internally, and perhaps write things down before articulating them well.

But it is still hard to say what we mean. Language often seems such a poor communication tool. This is most evidently the case when we try to express emotions. Again, this is something that seems to come more naturally to some and to be excruciatingly difficult for others. Why is this? Does it have to do with one's upbringing? Is it a quirk of the brain -- that those who are less skilled in logical articulation are more 'emotionally endowed'? Is it gender-related? Is it cultural?

In his article titled, "Romantic Love and Loving Commitment: Articulating a Modern Ideal" (American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, Oct. 1996), Neil Delaney explains how we want our partners to love us for particular properties that we consider essential to who we are:
This is the most plausible construal of the commonplace expression, "I want my lover to love me for the right reasons." Similarly, when someone issues a complaint like "he only loves me for my body," this is best interpreted as that person's observation that her lover's love is focused on properties that she herself regards as peripheral.
What strikes me is that there is a lot of wishing and wanting and hoping going on in this article, but not very much expression of those desires. Delaney says as much later in the article:
Consider the following case: A identifies profoundly with his career as a painter, taking painting to be an intrinsically valuable activity. His partner, while loving A in good part because he is a painter, takes the painting to provide a basis for loving A not because it is an intrinsically valuable activity, but rather because it assures entrance to lots of flashy cocktail parties. In this case it appears that, while A may properly take himself to be loved "for the right sort of reason," nevertheless this perceived basis for the love may leave him unsatisfied. If this is right, we need to more precisely articulate the desire to be loved for properties you take to be central to your self-conception. A better approximation would be to speak of a desire to be loved for such properties where these properties are appreciated in a way not too different from the way you appreciate them.
Part of the problem seems to be that, within the context of the creation of a 'we', we desire much to 'just be understood' as if our partner is so close to us that we have established ESP. We ask too much of each other just as we often ask too much of love per se. Delaney again:
Here's an apparent inconsistency among people's wants with regard to romantic love: while on the one hand you seem to want to be loved unconditionally, at the same time you want your loved to be discerning. This is to say that the value you attach to the love received in romantic relationships relies upon your taking your lover to have some taste, which is just to take your lover to be the sort of person who wouldn't love a schmuck... Let me make the tension more explicit: while you seem to want it to be true that, were you to become a schmuck, your lover would continue to love you, as would be the case if the love really was unconditional, you also want it to be the case that your lover would never love a schmuck.
It's funny because this is exactly the point my boyfriend was making to me the other day when he asked if I would love him if he went bald. Of course, I replied enthusiastically, thinking that this was the 'right' answer. But you just said I wouldn't look as good if I shaved my head, he responded puzzled. While not quite the same as 'becoming a schmuck,' his point was that I was being inconsistent... and that he didn't truly want me to love him whatever he became because that made me a sort of 'love floozy'. We want to be loved unconditionally and yet we want to be worthy of our lover's love. Does this dilemma add to the difficulty of articulating what we mean to say and what we feel? Who wants to articulate a self-contradiction?

I think there is more to the difficulty of expressing emotions. Sometimes people are not raised to be in touch with their emotions. Unfortunately, this happens a lot to boys in our culture. A book such as Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys addresses the 'tyranny of toughness' that boys face and how masculinity has been so narrowly defined as to be suffocating. But there is still a greater problem. The problem of language itself.
For the inarticulate can find its forms of articulation only within the already articulated, within, in other words, a language which is itself a sociohistorical construct, or, as Dale Spender puts it, a "language trap". "For we are language Lost / in language"... (Ming-Qian Ma, "Articulating the Inarticulate," Contemporary Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1995)
Ma recounts Don Byrd's position that we, as Westerners, put too much stock in language as "an independent subjective structure that describes all ontological possibilities." Perhaps this is why I love writing poetry. Poetry tiptoes around the tropes of language and rejoices in the unexpected combinations of words, syntax, vocabulary, and phrasing that actually enable us to understand anew... and perhaps articulate more clearly.

Despite the difficulties in saying what you mean, it is always worth trying. Trying without frustration when the other party struggles to understand. Trying because trying is like watering the plant of love. Without trying to articulate what we mean, the love will wither... and maybe even die. Sometimes it's about letting go... letting go of anger, the presumption of honor, pride... letting go of all those 'properties of you' that you want the other person to appreciate. They might just appreciate them more... appreciate you more... if you can say what you mean... or as John Mayer puts it 'what you need to say.'
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It's always necessary.
I love you,

- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, p. 314

1 comment:

  1. Tori Amos once said in an interview, "Men need to have a really good cry."