Thursday, September 02, 2010

The limitations of words 2

I have a contentious relationships with some writers, who seem to have fixed ideas about what a writer is supposed to do, and how they’re supposed to do it, and how they’re supposed to be, all of which tacit rules I seem to keep breaking. Without apologizing, I might add.

The definition of a writer may be nothing more than someone whose first creative response to life, experience, and everything in it, is to put it into words. By that definition, I’m not a writer. I’m a composer and artist who occasionally writes. My first impulse in response to life is multimedia: sound, soma, images, and, yes, words. Sometimes all at once. I don’t make a distinction between artforms, usually, because all creativity is sourced from the same deep inner rivers and wells. (Or so I believe, and all my beliefs are based on experience.) And as I’ve said before, I don’t experience writer’s block, because I practice crop rotation.

Paradoxically, I’m probably better known for my poems and essays at the moment, even when they’re hated, than my music.

It’s a strange thing to me that those separate art worlds don’t overlap more often. I’ve never done only one thing. I’ve spent my whole being questioned, even attacked, for not doing only one thing. Multimedia seems natural to me; crop rotation between artforms also seems natural; so I am sometimes brought up short when I meet an artist who is inherently limited to one media. I confess I don’t totally understand it. (As a bi friend once said to some mutual friends, “You monosexuals are so limited!”)

It’s one thing to choose to focus on doing only one artform. It’s another thing to be judgmental against those who don’t. Not every artist who works in more than one medium is a dabbler, or otherwise not serious about their art.

I’ve had poets tell me that they can’t say that my poems are anything but good even though they can’t in any way approve of them. That’s because I don’t write like a writer is supposed to write, apparently, I just write. Apparently to be a writer you’re supposed to slave away at it, and suffer for it, and I don’t. Or be workmanlike about it, rather than just doing it when you feel like it.

I find myself getting into arguments again—discussion on my part, since I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything, but arguments on their part, because they are—with writers who believe in the supremacy of words. I point out that not all of life and experience can be put into words. They disagree, even as they fail to enact their belief. They do not convince, as often as they insist.

The principal fallacy that is made by those who believe in the supremacy of words is that all cogitation, all mentation, all thought, is verbal. For them, perhaps it is.

But many dancers I know and have worked with "think" in movement, in gesture, in images of the body in motion and at rest. Some dancers even think three-dimensionally. Many painters and designers I know are visual thinkers. Mentation is a series of images for at least one visual artist I know, non-verbal and usually non-narrative. I know several musicians and composers who think in sounds, not in words. Although of course words are also sounded, in jazz as in classical music the melody that is heard and played most often has no words that go with it. The human voice is one of the most beautiful instruments; yet because words don't always go with singing, we have vocalise in classical music, scat singing in jazz, and so forth.

For none of these artists do words have supremacy. For most of them, words are inadequate tools used to describe to others the processes of thinking and being involved in making their art that are essentially non-verbal. One reason dancers dance is because what they want to express can be better expressed in movement than in words; or may not be at all expressible in words. The argument that poetry is the highest artform founders on the rocks of its own assumptions. Of course, some word-supremacists might simply argue that dancers are just incompetent with words; but that is an elitist judgment that again assumes that words are the best tool with which to express absolutely everything. Yet few arts are more somatically visceral than dance. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” written for the dance, is an experience that can only be inadequately paraphrased in words, but not replaced by them.

The logical fallacy that usually presents itself in discussion with those who believe in the supremacy of words is that, because they cogitate using words, everyone else must also. It’s the usual assumption people make: because this is how I experience life, this must be how everyone else does, too. Manifestly that’s untrue. If even one exception can be found, one person for whom cognition and mentation are not primarily verbal, then the premise is not universal, and its assumption is disproven. Such exceptions abound; I have already given several examples. Yet I find that those who argue most strenuously for the supremacy of words do so almost fundamentally, as though unable or unwilling to accept the existence of evidence that disproves their claim. "Don't confuse us with the facts, this is what we know to be true."

Of course I'm aware of the paradox of discussing this with words. The point is to find that place where words end. Some don't believe that place exists. Others have already found it, and have no need of proofs. For myself, having found the end of words numerous times, under numerous circumstances, I am no true believer in the power of the word, written or otherwise. I recall a wise Medieval bard stating that there were some moments for which even his treasured word-hoard was not full enough to express. The bards knew the provenance and gift of silence, and left some things wisely unsaid.

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