February 27, 2016
(Dedicated to the friends with whom I had lunch today.)
On this lovely day the last thing you want to do is read a lecture on semiology. OK, I won’t lecture. Just this. The human utterance “camera” if you say it long enough sounds odd. Over time and the influence of culture, people use that utterance as a sign to refer to the object here beside me. If you want to make the sign more complete, you might say “a Nikon D 300.” But strange, some people in the world don’t sign by saying “camera.” Instead they say “fotoapparat.” As if that’s too simple, there are other people who know to say “.מַצלֵמָה .”
So the cat is out of the bag. Humans make signs in a variety of ways to represent the world around them. They will even make a couple of signs to identify the object.
These human used signs are not the same thing as the object signified. Hold on. Let me say that again. What is beside me and the word “camera” are not one and the same. The latter is a human way of labelling the former.
I hope you aren’t yet yawning because I am going to go on a bit further. The way humans sign can be downright confounding. That is, a sign or signs they use which clearly refer to an object might, for strange reasons, be used for some other purpose. For example, a couple of sentences ago I was not referring to a cat nor a bag. I used an “image” to describe the fact that contrary to our manner of communicating, not everyone signs in the same way.
Here in this blog I will not further explicate the confoundedness of signing. Rather, I want to talk about our, or rather my, limits in signing. That is, “though I speak with the tongues of men and angels,” there are occasions when I don’t have words to express a particular object or phenomenon or moment that is important to me. As they say, “I am at a loss for words.”
I’ll tell you some territories where my word-making skills are benumbed. I can’t find words to convey ecstasy, deep sorrow, reverence, bliss, awe and there are quite a few additional territories. I can’t find words to denote God. I can’t find words to let you know what eternity is. And my tongue is stilled when I try to say “universe,” knowing there are millions of galaxies.
In fact, I’m of the humble opinion that I as a typical wordsmith haven’t gone beyond the anteroom of lexicography. But two kinds of people help me quite a bit.
The first grouping are scientists. One day on campus a co-ed came rushing up to me. “Please come along. I want to show you something.” She took me to the biology lab, directed my eye into a microscope which she had pointed to a culture. It was an “awe” sight, something like a huge forest, a world of a million pieces per square inch, color and texture I’d never seen. She knew it and wanted to share her — well perhaps it was ecstasy. I saw it and the only thing that came to my mind was “Crap, I know so little of the world around me.” We said nothing to each other yet I knew that we, without signing, reached together into wordless territories that scientists express in formulas and codes well beyond me. I’m pleased that scientists can go quite beyond my words.
The second grouping are poets. Todd Davis wrote this one:
I love the church
of the osprey, simple
adoration, no haggling
over the body, the blood,
whether water sprinkled
from talons or immersed
in the river saves us,
is metaphor or literal,
because, of course,
it’s both: wings crooked,
all the angels crying out,
rising up from nests
made of sticks
The poet approaches big stuff, mysteries let’s say. They too can’t find the exact word to sign what they want to signify. So they move to metaphor and image, to sounds and rhythms. Somehow, and here is another mystery, their indirections help me to move into the gaps where language fails me.
Of course there are other resources for my wordlessness. Music, for example. Sometimes a painting. And may I suggest that even a good story can jump up and out of its original setting to become a universal signifier of something a paragraph of my words can never touch.
The bell has rung. Class time is over. You can expect this material to be on the final exam.