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The Microcosm of One Night | 2011 | Controlled Myopia

01.04.11 12:56 p.m.

Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.  

-Gustave Flaubert


Encoding Kairos

At first, it was a thought experiment, whether one could develop a language that lacked or made cumbersome descriptions of violent acts as a means to reduce the acts themselves. I was partly inspired by Toki Pona, a contrived language with under two-hundred words that forces one almost into a Taoist mindset to convey one's thoughts. I rolled this idea around in my head for days, but it did not seem to fit. Language is living and people will create terms to suit their experiences, as Urban Dictionary never fails to prove. Were the words made profane and forbidden, they would grow stronger.

Days later, it hit me that it isn't about omission, but inclusion, that our language does not allow for the true expression of transcendent and beautiful experiences, so we cannot believe they are real and thus dwell in the mundane. The words we have - rapturous, divine - ring false and do not really explain themselves. They carry too much baggage so there is a disinclination to allow them through the doorway to our lives. There are experiences that I have had and will continue to have, but that I cannot encode through the lack of shared vocabulary. The English language indoctrinates us against the delightful.

I occasionally go to concerts given by Kairos at the Holy Cross Monastery. There is something beyond quietude, beyond peace, that can be achieved while singers conjoin into a mellifluous hydra that makes no literal sense to me as I cannot understand Latin. It is a connection with something that has come before, a wordless truth in between the notes (that I cannot remember because I lack fluency in the language of music as well). But if one does not have the context, if one cannot then decode, this sensation is indigestible and is lost to the moment.

Months ago, Jinx and Melanie - both, not coincidentally, polyglots - explained how they thought in pictures. As I think almost exclusively in English words (encoding my finest love in terms like "russet hair", "eyes that fair from forest green to the brown of desert mud to consuming black", "near invisible constellations of freckles", "brilliant absurdity"), I have trouble fully understanding having three-dimensional concepts at the ready instead of infinite boxes full of words. Yet they rarely have trouble conveying their precise thoughts to me, some commonality of souls providing instantaneous translation of nearly inexpressible thoughts.

I recall going to an improvisational jazz show with Kate in college and the "music" was a cacophony. I actively hated anyone who was playing along, pretending that this was listenable, let alone good. I yelled just out of earshot of the musicians that this was pointless pretentiousness, that no one actually enjoyed this but were scared to be the one to point out that the emperor wore no clothes. I am sure the same accusation could be leveled against me now by those who have not had the same experience. Who could really enjoy sitting in a monastery chapel to listen to music in a foreign language? It must just be that I am trying to appear "cultured" by not saying I feel it a waste of time.

I know that I am daily surrounded by students with whom I can barely surmount the language barrier such that I can get them to remain in their seats and prevent them from committing misdemeanors on each other. Trying to convey the broadest essence of who I am, what is important to me, would be harder than trying to translate my thoughts into Japanese with no training. The grammar would be all wrong and the message would be insensible, so I tend to occupy the space of their expectations to make my life less stressful. While my family situation was somewhat unconventional, I always felt loved and cared for. What is a mother's love to a boy whose mom tossed him off at birth to pursue drugs and anonymous sex? To someone who has never surmounted the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, what is self-actualization but rich people words? Surrounded by a world that speaks a language they do not understand, what choice are they given but lashing out, devising a dozen new ways to express their frustrations through violence? I grasp their frustration, though they will never believe that I do. As far as they are concerned, I speak in books and it might as well be Greek to them.

But who can really blame them for relenting to the language barrier? Much of Western culture is based on fallible translation (if not outright mendacity) of religious texts, people claiming to be in touch with the divine and letting themselves be used as mouthpieces. However, there is little to stop these men just throwing in a self-aggrandizing sub-clause or two, carefully omitting bits that might make their prejudices complicated. When people are put in the position to give spoken form to the ineffable, they prefer to use it to screw over their fellow man than to take dictation. In the history of the world, never has a deity cleared His or Her inexpressible throat and said, "That bit with the bat being a bird? Not what I meant. Shall We start over from the beginning then?"

"Kairos" could be translated from the Greek in a variety of way, but my favorite is "the moment in which the gods act". What does it say about the ancient Greeks that they experience was so pressing that they needed to give it so concise a name? What about the Russian "toska", explained by Nabokov as, "At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom."? How delightful that Indonesians have "jayus", a joke so unfunny that you have to laugh? The minutiae of cultural mores revealed by having a word for hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name (tartle, Scottish), the sensation of awe at art (duende, Spanish), or the favors used to grease the wheels of bureaucracy (chai-pani, Hindi) says much more about a people than could even be easily translated. What do we, as English speakers, have?

English is the language most prone to outright theft from other languages, the virulent tongue that other countries have ministries to guard against, the one that contrives words with such frequency that the Oxford English Dictionary will never be a finished work. A new concept is barely in the public eye before it has spawned ten associated terms, abominations of Greek and Latin roots or onomatopoeia that barely makes sense. But, to return to the point, we can't begin to express ourselves when it counts, even by purloining beautiful terms from foreign mouths and we suffer for this insufficiency.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: The Maxx
reading: Blood Sucking Freaks
listening: The Killers

The Microcosm of One Night | 2011 | Controlled Myopia

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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