Thanks a lot, Saussure. There was a time when, to me, a cat was just a cat. Furry thing with claws and whiskers = cat. Simple. How naïve I was. It is so clear now that the word—those 3 letters C-A-T—has nothing at all to do with the animal that bears the name. Neither does “animal” for that matter. So here we are, as human beings (having nothing at all to do with the bipedal primate that bears the name), living outside of our own existence in this world of language. Try to imagine a purely visual world devoid of language. No, really—try it. It is nearly impossible. You may imagine yourself as a jaguar lurking in the dense rainforests at night, ready to spring on your hapless prey. Or, you may be the ever alert tapir, sensing the jaguar amongst the trees, every nerve telling you to run. Run, tapir, run! But right there are the T-R-E-E-S. Fucking trees.
Unless we were raised by wolves, we don’t have a choice but to live our lives through language. Lyn Hejinian knows this, Charles Bernstein knows it too... We may as well get used to it—and make the best of it. In The Rejection of Closure, Hejinian says, “Because we have language we find ourselves in a special and peculiar relationship to the objects, events, and situations which constitute what we imagine of the world. Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual conditions.” Yep. She quotes Francis Ponge who says, “Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.” I pondered this for about three seconds and realized that it is undoubtedly true. I am in my own head almost every waking minute of every day (and every sleeping minute too, come to think of it). Thinking, planning, organizing (or disorganizing), working, worrying, reading, and even sometimes writing. It’s no wonder that so many of the pleasures in life are those things that take us outside of language—those things that connect us to our more primal selves. I can’t name them all but they include sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
So back to getting used to it, making the best of it, and sometimes writing. In the “real” world (that prehistoric, purely visual world before language and gunpowder) I am the tapir. As a mostly hairless mammal with substandard hearing and a lousy sense of smell all I can do is cower in a cave and wait to become lunch for the saber-toothed predecessor of the jaguar. I’ve got nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. I do have this enormous brain (relatively speaking). This brain, however, is both the proverbial blessing and curse. In order to survive I had to invent language (okay, I didn’t really invent language—it was some guy named Og) so that I could scream to my family, “Look out! Mastodon! Run up that tree!” pick up a stick and tell my buddy, “Hey, I bet we could kill something with this,” or relay to my mate that, “I could really use a beer right now.” But this invention of language changed everything. We now define our world by the names we give things. But they’re only names. Everything both is and isn’t what it seems. Since we don’t get to go back to that time before language, we might as well try to grasp it. Through my writing I’m in control of my world—I’m the hero of my stories and the protagonist of my poems. Through language, I get to be the jaguar. As I said, “Thanks Saussure!”