How are we to use language?
And yes, I’m aware of the absurdity of the question. Here I am having to use language to consider how we use it; which is like asking a wasp to explore how wasps should behave.
How far can it take us?
But keep faith, for as long as we keep language at arms length, and understand its limitations, we may just be all right.
Language, we might imagine, it pretty important; crucial to so many aspects of life.
It can help us communicate with each other, in so many ways, and move us towards relationship; though strangely, language can also destroy communication and annihilate relationship, if untrue or unkind.
Lies don’t progress anything except isolation.
Language can also help us think, ordering our thoughts; though it can also be against thought – or at least, fresh thought – offering us familiar tram lines words, when in fact those tram lines need a bomb put under them if we are to be free.
Borrowed language can be a prison; a life-sentence.
The strength, and weakness, of language is that it makes the implicit, explicit; that is, it gives shape to something that ultimately cannot be given shape.
It might be compared to the London underground map. The map is not present to what is; it’s not true to the complex, dark, smelly, historic, human, dangerous and amazing reality of London’s tube system.
But it’s a useful fiction, if we simply want to get from Turnpike Lane to Leicester Square.
Truth is implicit; it exists and is understood beyond and beneath language. I do not need words to understand the truth of a situation or the truth of how I feel.
So language, being explicit, cannot be fully present to the moment, because every moment is fresh, unique and unfolding; everything is always in motion.
And in unenlightened hands, language can reduce endless wonders to the same worn-out coinage; and as bland as the music in a lift.
Language, as Nietzsche said, makes ‘the uncommon common’.
This is why, at the end of retreats, I often say that people do not need to talk about their experiences when they get home. As soon as the implicit becomes explicit, something is lost.
It becomes an anecdote, the beginning of the end.
The best language is always trying to free itself from schematisation; keeping things open, inclusive, contextual, unfolding, living.
But more often, in these days of culture wars, language is used as a tool for closure and separation.
The explicit is worshipped; the implicit is gagged.
The explicit becomes all there is, as language, like some brutalised creature, is cut loose from its implicit moorings. And when the explicit is all there is, truly, we are lost.
Language can serve the truth; we all know that. At its best, it is a merry entertainer, an opener of grand doors of perception.
But it will need to remember its place.
All is well, as long as the explicit remains a humble servant of the implicit; for the truth, impossibly deep and wide, is quite beyond words.
Bad language forgets that.
(I’m indebted to Iain McGilchrist for nurturing me in this territory, with his brilliant work on the divided brain – a story for another time.)