Love of Words
Chloe’ Skye Weiser QC’13 and Jim Stellar
“To read means to satisfy the philological drive, to make a literary impression upon oneself. To read out of an impulse for pure philosophy or poetry, unaided by philology, is probably impossible.” -Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments, #391
Chloe’, an English and Anthropology major, who wrote an earlier post with me about her experiences tutoring in the writing center, sent me the above quote. As she explained, “philology” means love of words and that had a lot to do with shaping her choice of major.
This quotation is from ENGL 636: Literary Theory and Criticism, a grad class I took during the spring 2012 semester. I knew I wanted to be an English major since I was little, mostly because I was drawn to the malleability of language as demonstrated in the countless novels, short stories and poems I methodically devoured. We tend to think of reading as an intellectual pursuit that has the ability to allow us to escape for a while from our lives and from which we derive pleasure, but oftentimes if you are not a writer yourself you ignore that other process to which reading is merely secondary. In ENGL 636 I studied many philosophers and literary theorists, such as Plato, Saussure Derrida, and Butler, and the schools of thought that they have propagated or contributed to—Classical, Structuralism, Deconstruction, Cultural Studies and so on—which allows me to see my love of words in a new light. Literary theory, with all its (largely absent from the spotlight) influence on the works I have always known and loved, is and deserves to continue as a discipline in its own right, a discipline that is continually forged in, out of, from philology.
Where do words come from? I know that sounds simplistic, and you know me in that I like to look for places where we seem to operate with our unconscious limbic brain circuits in higher educational environments…places where I can use my favorite Pascal quote, “The Heart has reasons of which even reason does not know.”. So, maybe tell me where you feel like words come from in your own mind.
Saussure, a seminal Swiss linguist, was the first to assert that language and thought – I’m simplifying a bit – are inextricably linked and inseparable like two sides of a piece of paper. They are created and exist together; one brings the other into being. When we think of initial creation, we think of the Big Bang. But the Big Bang, because no one witnessed it firsthand and we can never know if the universe happened in exactly that way, is a concept that cannot exist outside language, and is therefore nothing if not part of the human mind.
Even having learned, internalized and accepted this theory of language, when I write I still cannot help but feel that there is a muse, there is some sort of inspiration that bestows momentary genius on me from time to time. My favorite author, poet and essayist Margaret Atwood stated that she began to write when she was a teenager, that she was walking across a field on her way home from school and that suddenly – boom – her first poem was impressed upon her with all the gravity of a thumbprint from God! Since I read this I have always kept it in mind. Where words come from is a beautiful mystery, something that I owe to little fireworks constantly going off in my brain; something that if there was a knowable answer, I would probably not want to know. By the way- she said it was a terrible poem. I find that hard to believe of course having read her amazing published works, but I guess it just goes to show that what matters is not always the perfect words but the act of thinking, of putting pen to paper.
I totally agree that so much of what we do comes out of those ancient computational circuits of the brain that evolved before we had words and maybe before we had a prefrontal cortex to allow symbolic rehearsal of potential actions. What I like most about what you said was “that language and thought … are inextricably linked and inseparable like two sides of a piece of paper.” Of course, where I am going is that experiences in and out of the classroom primarily impact the limbic/mammalian brain and the articulation of the relevant facts and theories in the classroom impact the primate/conscious/word-based brain and that you need both “sides of the paper” to function well. This brings me to the issue of reflection which may help join these two sides of the paper and a favorite quote I always wanted to ask an English major about. Wordsworth said about poetry that “…It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Is this what you mean?
It’s interesting that you invoke what is probably a long debate over whether poetry is a passive or active craft. My beliefs cater to both possibilities. I definitely agree with Wordsworth in that quiet moments help a writer to gather her thoughts, but he hints primarily at the passivity that is only one side of the paper. When I feel “the Muse,” it’s as if I am simultaneously on the receiving end of something beautiful but also that it is in my power to channel and mold the inspiration as I will. It often takes me a while to write a complete poem with form, substance and texture because I tend to go through an “incubation period”: I will have a sentiment I feel very strongly about, but my passion or desperation to express it gets in the way of coherence, and if I wait just a little, the ecstatic daily grind of life helps me work it out in my head. And yet I would say that if I put my mind to it, I can actively arrange the haphazardly jotted lines like sunrays around a central concept that reveals itself in the process of writing. So is this active or passive?
A bit of both, a bit of a crossroads. As Yeats wrote in his poem “Adam’s Curse” about the nature of a poet’s work: “a line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” The state of casual finality in which we find poems is just a testament to the poet’s hard labor; even one line can deceptively mask hours of reworking. We can’t know where inspiration comes from in the abstract, but we did generate the word “inspiration,” and also the language that defines what inspiration is and integrates it culturally. It is a give and take, a cycle: we have collectively, continually created a linguistic immensity that influences us just as we are always creating it anew- in speech and in writing.
Returning to the brain and experiential learning in college education… What we want you to take away from this conversation is that these two processes (conscious and unconscious) we are discussing in this post and in the entire blog are natural, part of the everyday execution of our lives, and part of creativity and scholarship of which poetry, and writing well in general, is a key part. So why did higher education settle on the classroom as the dominate way to express education and not build in more experiences with the application of that knowledge?
We do recognize that the classroom can be totally inspiring, a means of shaping positive outlook on learning that is contagious, and which an individual then takes out into the world. Philology: To better express the written word, we must love it. One writes much better essays when one loves the topic. Ostensibly, if a learning environment is cultivated with passion and love, one may love learning all the more.
Just as we do not know and cannot teach from where the next word comes (but one can get better at writing with practice), perhaps we cannot imagine an education without the knowledge-transfer mechanisms of classes and books. Yet to generate knowledge-fluent students who are really ready for the complex world of today, we may need to just that and imagine an education where the classroom is complimented by real-world experience. That form of education would better engage both processes. Maybe then we can return to our question—from where does the next word come—and make the beauty and power of education more like that of great poetry.