Last week I started reading a new book and this line caught my eye, “The dictionary is where language goes to die.” The book is Intertextuality (The New Critical Idiom) by Allen Graham. I bought it for a little light reading to relax before bed.
I found the quote interesting because earlier in the day I had gone to my dictionary to look up the meaning of a word. Don’t remember the word, but trying to find the meaning of a word got me thinking about how we know what things mean – how do we find meaning and ultimately, the Truth (note the capital T – the real truth, the truth that sets the world free)?
Normally I just try to watch old WWII movies to keep myself from thinking about such things, but our copy of “Saving Private Ryan” got a large scratch on it and I couldn’t watch it so my mind started to wander. Then I went and started looking up things. Using google, I searched Wikipeda for stuff, then found a word I didn’t know and went to the dictionary on my computer to get a quick definition.
Then it hit me that we define words with other words and the meaning of a word like say, “tree” is dependent on my ability to describe what a tree is with words you know the meaning of. That in turn got me to thinking about the lessons in language that I learned while getting my BA in English and the reason way I was drawn to the noble study of literary criticism.
Literary criticism is an often misunderstood academic study and discipline. It isn’t about witty remarks on how horrible the last novel I read was – rather it is about how we derive mean from a literary work. In this case the criticism part really refers more to “critical thinking” than “criticizing that horrible movie.”
There are a number of ways to do that which are referred to as “literary theories,” that is to say ways of viewing a text. One of my favorite theories is the notion of intertextuality. So once I let my mind start drifting towards literary theories I remembered that I didn’t have a book to read and went to look at my “to-read” list on Good Reads.
What joy to find that top of my list was Graham’s book on Intertextuality. The Kindle version of the book was about the same price as a 12 pack of beer so I figured I could afford to buy it.
Well, if I’d bought the beer, this post would have been a lot shorter.
I could go into great lengths to explain the theory to you, but the three of you who read this far would now be clicking to a different website. So here’s the short version: How do you know what I am talking about in this blog post? How can you understand its meaning? Simple, you’ve read other texts that use the same words – language – and assume that I am using the word or phrase in a similar way and then in your brain you construct a mental picture of what you think I am saying. Then a meaning is formed for you. Each reader of my blog approaches it from a different set of experiences and therefore each reader is likely to understand my words differently.
Makes more sense after the second beer.
But here is my problem as a writer – I don’t want you forming your own meanings to my words. I want you to see what I am trying to say.
Let’s take a simple example. Let’s say I use the word, ‘tree.’ What picture does that bring to your mind. Think about it for a minute. I’ll wait……
Okay, now let’s finish the game. I was thinking of a tall redwood tree – specifically a sequoia semperviren (or coastal redwood) that inhabit the California hills near where I live.
Chances are the tree you thought of and the tree I thought of were very different. Once I tried this exercise with a group of software engineers and when I went around the room, each engineer described a tree from where the grew up. However, one engineer had a puzzled look and said, “I thought you were talking about a file directory tree.”
I am consistently amazed that we humans have any level of mutual understanding. It’s no surprise that people misunderstand each other. After all the only way I have to understand you is to relate the language of you to language that is me – a language stored in the dictionary of my experiences and knowledge.
The only way for you to get the same exact meaning out of this blog post that I intended, is for you to have had all the same experiences as me – that is to be me. But you aren’t me so you’ll discover a different meaning (or none at all).
Makes one want to give up writing altogether – what with readers having their own minds and all.
But despite the challenge we writers persist – either looking for common ground or throwing words to the wind, hoping that someone will find something worthy in our words – whatever it might mean.
Or we could just get a beer and watch a movie.
Till next week,