The Play of Language

The art of language is as attractive as it is to some because it requires, and reconciles, what seem to be two opposing tendencies of this our human condition: the creative and the analytical. And it is right to say what seem to be opposing tendencies, because water flowing without restraint is called a flood, and the sight of a netted bird will move the hardest heart. The creative yes must rightfully meet some resistance if it is to take on meaningful form, and all the defining and comparing and contrasting that are the analytic must have a day of sun and shore to see that the world and its meaning are much wider than the margins of books.

It is probably better, therefore, to speak of the arts of language, not the art, because when we use language, oral or written, to share our state of mind—its feelings and thoughts and opinions and emotions, we must be able to work ably in very different mental terrain, from the wide-open spaces of ideas to the narrow streets of sentences and paragraphs. We must travel comfortably between the two terrains, and we must come to understand that they complement each other, perfect each other, bring each to completion as they work together in common purpose.

When we look into our minds for ideas to express, that’s one kind of art, the art of speculation—a fascinating word of immense implication when we learn that to speculate meant originally to reflect, to mirror. A speculum is a mirror in Latin and to speculate means to see, and so our creative work begins in finding, in watching, not in producing or manufacturing, ideas. We are on the hunt in the first art of language, and we must not disturb the forest with our clamoring hopes and prejudgments. We are to lower our tense shoulders for a moment, let things arise in their good time, and then welcome, welcome whatever might appear. For it is likely we’ve known them all once before.

But here they are now in our camp, these untamed ideas that have found themselves before our minds. Looking, we want to see what they’re about, and so we give them names to define their ways with nouns and pronouns, describe them with adjectives, and declare their actions with all the complexities of verbs and clauses. Our first art of speculation begins to weave itself with another, the art of grammar; the wildness of ideas starts to settle a bit, to cool and temper, to congeal or crystalize into a shape we can understand and others recognize too. The structures of grammar can catch ideas—not catching to capture, but catching to discern, as when we say of someone that he caught what we meant.

And once we have caught the idea, the subsequent arts of logic and rhetoric can bring their work to bear. Logic, or critical thinking, loves the sharp-edged and well-defined, and without its restraining quality, one idea will blur into another and the precious clarity we are seeking will be confused. Consistency there must be, but logic in its nature can run the risk of turning cold and objective, and transforming its fine consistency into a lifeless rigidity. And so finally the art of persuasion, rhetoric, must have its place to bring some mercy, as it were, to the justice of logic, reminding us that the life of the world is and will always be a reflection merely of those ideas we have caught for a time and have put down in another world, the world of language.

This ongoing movement, then, between speculation and expression, between silence and word, is the very life of language. Those ideas we wish to give form to will not play with those who will not play, whose stern gaze frowns too long. We are much better served, and serve much better, by working with a light touch, realizing we must write clearly and think consistently, but knowing, too, that our sentences and paragraphs are fragile things, and can hold only so much light for only so long. And then they burst and we laugh and we try it all over again, playfully.

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