Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Words falsify and mislead

Language is never totally truthful.  That is because words are abstract; they generalize.  So, singly, they categorize, and categories never fully represent reality. Words are necessary for communicating, and they are useful.  Formulated into phrases and sentences, words are modified for greater precision.  And, yet, any verbal statement, spoken or written, never fully expresses what is in the mind of its author, not to speak of her or his sentiment.  We understand each other approximately, and that suffices by and large.  But there are moments when we say in retort: “You got me wrong; that’s not what I meant at all.”

Words are approximations, and they are incapable of representing perceptions and emotions even remotely with any accuracy; they falsify reality and, therefore, can deceive us and mislead us.   The clearest case in point is color.  We say “red,” and every listener conjures up a different color.  Even more specific names given to red — scarlet, crimson, ruby, garnet, strawberry, tomato, poppy, incarnadine, etc. — signify different colors for different minds.  Even the same tint, under different light conditions, is perceived differently, as is also when the same tint is applied on differently textured surfaces.  All words similarly lack precision.

Take any common noun, say, tree, grass, mountain, street, skyscraper, salad, face, window, etc., or any adjective like warm, sad, clear, solid, sandy, tall, gorgeous, hungry, etc.; they all lack specificity.  They are all adequate in use and yet imprecise in relation to the concrete things or phenomena they purport to describe.  Certainly, words are used in combination with other words which provide their context. When spoken rather written, they are moreover accompanied by other semiotic signs, such as vocal tones, interjections, and facial and bodily gestures.  Still, even the most precise description conceivable of anything whatsoever is always open to interpretations, for it never replaces the experience of the reality it describes.  What we say don’t always say what we really mean.  We can never fathom from what someone says what’s in her or his mind.  More or less, yes, but never totally. 

But the wonders of the imprecision inherent in words are their capacity to suggest and evoke which impels us to write poetry or at least rhapsodize poetically as we all can even if we are not poets.  

Similarly, and even more significantly, imprecision inherent in words is exactly what gives us rein to create figures of speech and exercise rhetoric as orators well know.  A figure of speech, such as metaphor, hyperbole, synecdoche, and irony, characteristically does not say what it says, understood literally. Taken literally, a hyperbole is a blatant lie.  A mother tells her child: “I told you a hundred times; no, you can’t go out in the rain to play,”  To this the child might rightly counter: “But, mom, you said only five times.”  Hyperbole is possible precisely because words in their imprecision allow latitude in their meaning and use.  If we say so-and-so is a fool, we know that he is though not really; it is true and untrue.   A metaphor says at once what is and is not; speaking of a scorching heat wave, we are saying the heat feels like scorching which is saying that it does not scorch.  

Rhetoric is an art of saying the truth by lying, or, conversely, lying to suggest the truth.  Journalism deploys it, and political orations thrive in it.  But in our everyday language, too, metaphors abound. Black and white used in discussing race grossly misrepresent the reality that the skin color is a spectrum rather than categories.  The matter of gender discussed under the rubric of masculine and feminine is similarly misconstrued by these verbal categories.    In our intensely verbalized culture, we easily forget that any utterance expresses only a small part of our  reality.  Truth must sought and found in lived experience. 

Così fan tutte, Così fan tutti

Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte is one of my top favorites.  The title declares that women are fickle.  The women in the opera, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, whose fidelity is tested by their respective sworn fiancés, Guglielmo and Ferrando disguised as Albanians, succumb to seductions of the wrong man and prove their failure in fidelity.  This is, however, a male point of view.  The two men, even in playing a trickery, were exercising infidelity by seducing each other’s beloved.  From the point of view of a flirtatious woman the seducer is no less a culprit than the seduced.  The two men, even after exposing themselves, don’t realize their own folly, not to speak of Alfonso who instigated the game, while Despina, recruited by Alfonso, knows the truth that men are everywhere ready to be seduced.  Having won their proper lovers in the end, Fiordiligi and Dorabella were victorious winners.  Rightly, the whole title of the opera reads Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti, the School for Lovers All, Men and Women, as I understand it.  I would retitle it to read Così fan tutte, Così fan tutti — They All Do It, Men and Women. Mozart’s music, of course, is unsurpassed.