THEOSOPHY, Vol. 52, No. 4, February, 1964
(Pages 115-117; Size: 8K)


[Article number (16) in this Q&A Department]

There comes a time when one feels surfeited with the vast number of words, some bitter, many oversweet, none satisfying, which compose our social and literary diet. Even the wise words of the ancients are taken by most people with a grain of salt, because the continuing existence of apathy, insanity, and absurdity, is taken as indication that all their wisdom has brought about little practical good for mankind. But more particularly and acutely, as a person looks back and remembers his own words -- his own efforts and failures to help some other person through words of advice and encouragement -- he wonders, Can words really help anyone; or rather, is not the help they sometimes do bring usually outweighed by the sense of unreality, of mental abstraction, of emptiness, which seems so often to accompany them?

Although it is meaningless to speak of "primitive" languages, since linguistic complexity is unrelated to cultural level and some "savage" tribes have as highly developed a language as the European nations, one could make a case for the theory that our own language is on the way to becoming "primitive" -- and this, in spite of the mass of technical jargon. The reason is that words are beginning to lose their meaning for us. This highly dangerous situation may be due in part to the fact that our age has created so many monstrosities that we have become afraid to call them by their true names. When, for example, we recall the Nazis' uses of such innocent words as "purification," we wonder if Orwell was after all not right in predicting that the perversion of social man would be accompanied, if not in part caused, by a perversion of language.

This is not to say that this process is inevitable, nor that a general change in attitude could not reverse it overnight. When William Q. Judge said that "our chains are through thought, our release due to nothing else," he could perhaps just as easily have been speaking about words -- those mysterious entities which we often refer to as the "clothing" of thought, but which are so closely bound up with its very essence that we cannot be even aware of a thought without at the same moment being aware of the words which express it. One might suggest, therefore, that words are more the "flesh" of a thought than merely its "clothing," and that only the pure essence of thought -- that original motion in the darkness -- is beyond the range of human words.

Yet if that mysterious core of the mental process has always eluded the confines of words, it nevertheless seems that the pursuit of this essence is the unconscious goal of all serious speech, for it alone can endow that speech with life, or meaning. And thus we are led to a central paradox, that although words are necessary, they are obstacles; although they allow men to communicate, they restrict that communication; and although we do not really know what we mean until we have forced our feelings into words, the subtlest nuances of what we mean refuse to be so confined. Especially in poetical and philosophical considerations, a single misplaced comma (let alone an inappropriate word) can so distort the image of a truth as to make it seem inapplicable to human life; yet, as already indicated, we must recognize that in a sense all words are inappropriate, for they inevitably call up mental pictures that impress themselves upon the "mental retina" and so obscure the very reality they are trying to evoke. When, for instance, we speak of the human soul as a "ray" from the Spiritual "Sun," we are pointing towards a truth and yet away from it at the same time. The poet, Rilke, who often addresses the central mystery of life as he might a close friend, expresses much this same idea:

Only a thin wall is between us,
by accident; for it could be
that one call from your or my mouth
and it would break down
without any noise or sound.
Of your pictures it is built.
Words, then, being such relative things, cannot help forming a wall between ourselves and the Absolute; yet we are not in an impossible situation; the wall can be made very thin, if the words we choose are the most suggestive, honest and precise -- the most "porous" -- that we can think of. But words are not enough; our aspiration must be so strong that we are willing to force ourselves to keep an ear pressed to that wall every day, every hour, every minute; so that when some slight sign at last is given, we will hear it.

One sure way to sharpen our listening power is to make constant effort to define every vague and wistful feeling that drifts through our souls, to strike out and swim, head above water, refusing to follow easy formulas, the nudgings of sense, and the whisperings of selfish desires. Or perhaps the word "define" is inappropriate, since, before it is possible to judge and classify any of the entrants into our psychic aura, the first step must be the attitude of open recognition; we can neither converse with nor combat that which we do not recognize, and to recognize danger in ourselves often seems beyond us.

Often we do not wake ourselves up to this danger until we see someone else drowning, perhaps someone we love. And then at once we try to help; we use our words as an arm to support that person, to help him to find courage to keep struggling against the undertow of inertia and defeatism. If our words of advice and encouragement are not accepted, what do we do then? Let the matter rest? Turn away lamenting that words never helped anyone? Surely, if we really are able to give up on another human soul, we should at least be honest and admit that the fault lies in the quality of our love and in the depth of our understanding (if these two are not, after all, synonymous); that is to say, the fault lies in the fact that we ourselves are drowning. For if we were completely alive, the force of love would drive us hard against the walls which separate us from the rest of life, walls within ourselves, walls between ourselves and others; would drive us till those walls broke down, letting real communication happen, and finally, communion. And if we spoke, we would find we were not commenting, but acting; our words would become a powerful force, because we would gather them all together, as an offering, and then take the great risk and add our life to the sum.

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(March 1964)
[Article number (17) in this Q&A Department]

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