Thursday, August 9, 2007


So I found myself in the middle of the language debate the other day. I had been studying my GRE vocab list and realizing how fuzzy definintions are. At the same time I'd been thinking a lot about connection in an eternal sense--like how all of our efforts in righteousness are efforts to connect to divinity or to help other people connect to it. Also, how true and deep connection to other people is the same thing as connecting to divinity (whatsoever ye have done to the least of these...). At any rate, the conclusion I was toying with is that connection is the ultimate goal and that the only way we can connect is through language, but how often language actually interferes with true communication/connection.

(The cool tangential implication of this idea is that the idea/word relationship is a lot like the body/spirit relationship--we have to learn how to communicate through words because it's the medium we have here and also it strengthens, refines, and forces us to learn how to use and control words much like our body trains and strengthens our spirit. Also, words become the sweating, fleshy embodiment of ideas. Wicked.)

The ominous implication of this idea is that I've dedicated much of my life (including my plans) to the study (worship?) of words, and how could I feel good about spending my life with lies?

Enter 100 Years of Solitude.

This was going to be a book review, but instead I'm going to say this: it's brillliant. Marquez paints this incredibly vivid world and draws you in inexorably. (The yellow butterflies! The chestnut tree! The massacre like a dragon!)

For now, a couple of tangents: I served my mission in Armenia. I realized there, suddenly, that I am very rational. In my universe, miracles are subtle and easily explained (or happen to someone else), I buy medicine at the store, and getting cold has little to effect on my health or ability to reproduce. I realized early that my world view was not the one and only truth. After a year of interpreting (or deconstructing) dreams and laughing nervously at home remedies my conception of what is possible and what isn't is a little more flexible, but essentially I remain, both feet on the ground, a realist.

Number two: in my Russian lit class we read a translation of Eugene Onegin that sought to keep not only the meaning of the poem, but also its rhymes. Needless to say, it was crap, and after twenty pages of tilted, stretching, awful verse, I was ready to give up on Russian lit altogether.

Three Sundays ago I left ward prayer early to hole up in my room with Soledad. I was completely wrapped up in a story shot through with magic (yellow butterflies follow a forbidden lover, Remedios the beautiful is transfigured, the spirit of the gypsy leads a man to the Sanskrit dictionary in a dusty bookshop), maybe founded on magic. The prose was as beautiful as water--so much so that I didn't even notice it, except for the occasional sparkle. Dude, I finished the thing and I wanted to cry I was so deeply moved.

So language comes through? It pulls us, despite its imperfections, into understanding? Despite cultural and religious and language barriers, I got this buzz of connection. It happens all the time. What do you think?


The Shark said...

I have thought about the medium of words a lot, especially as I took a film theory class during the spring term that discussed post-modernist thoughts on referents (or "signifieds") that are impossible to reach.

There are constantly mediums that provide interpretation of the signified, but do we ever truly grasp what the actual signified is? As you said, communication often requires the use of words, yet those words can often be so horribly inadequate. I like to take it a little deeper and discuss how even seeing the signified is really actually viewing light waves and particles that our eyes interpret and send signals to our brain to attempt to make something of. Even touching is the result of nerve impulses. Do we ever TRULY experience the signified, or are we constantly at the mercy of different middle-men that interpret, and how do we trust that those interpretations are accurate and true?

As far as your last paragraph on the effectiveness of words, I think there are some people who have a talent for using words to evoke meaning and emotion that they wish to communicate. Words are like their paintbrush and they have this natural way of using them that boggles the mind. I feel that the writers of ancient scripture had these talents, which I would even call spiritual gifts, which is why the scriptures do such a good job of helping us come to know and understand Christ and the plan He presented for our benefit. Elder Scott, in the August issue of the Ensign, stated that we should memorize our favorite scriptures, because being able to recite them word-for-word in any sort of forum is often more effective and powerful than attempting to summarize them in our own words. I believe that this is because the words have a spirit about them that is tied into their construction, not to mention the fact that our summary of said words would constitute yet another medium/interpretation, throwing in yet another barrier to the signified...

I hope this long comment makes sense.

JKC said...

Wow, I never thought I'd see the day that the Shark went all Foucault all over the place. Keep shining on, you crazy po-mo.

I like the spirit/body comparison to words and ideas. But I come at it from another angle. To me, the word is the spirit and then that word gets clothed with whatever ideas the listener chooses to clothe it with. Though it's out of context, I'm reminded of John's observation that the Word, which existed a priori (see, I can rock the po-mo jargon), became flesh.

I'm not suggesting that you're wrong, Kjerstin to associate words with the body and ideas with the spirit, I just think it can work from both directions.

As far as Shark's question, which is also Foucault's question (when he's not talking about gender as a social construction, that is) about whether anything we experience is actually real, I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis' imagining that heaven is actually more real than earth, as opposed to the common notion of the spirit being ephemeral and unreal. Lewis' idea appeals to me because it asserts that the spiritual is more real than the physical. My idea is that the Holy Ghost is the most real thing we can experience.

Not to contradict an apostle, but I don't think there's anything inherent in the construction of the King James translation that carries power. The scriptures ARE powerful, no doubt. But I think the spiritual power that comes from the scriptures is a result of the fact that for centuries, believers have endowed those words with their faith.

If we are only interpreting the scriptures, then yes, we are throwing up another barrier of simulacra. But, if instead of just interpreting the scriptures, we use them to access the spirit and then express that spirit in our own words, then those words are powerful. Otherwise, why would we ever bother with bearing testimonies?

Kjerstin said...

And my take on two things: the reason why the spirit/body idea/word idea works for me I think is just exactly because of the CS Lewis analogy you brought up. The idea is more real than the word, and we use words to try and invite the kind of mutual and true understanding that can happen when two people really are communicating. (This is my other favorite thing to think about--that moment when you're sure that you and another person are on exactly the same page and it transcends learning but is just fire.)

As far as the memorizing of scriptures goes, I think there's something to it. I see Jared's point that it's just a translation or whatever, but i stand by Shark. I've found that quoting scripture has this inexplicable power. It might be as simple a thing as obedience, but I think that scriptural language is inherently superior at expressing the metaphysical, human translators notwithstanding.

This is interesting actually--is it because the authors work so hard to express spiritual truth? Because their words are sanctified, necessarily, by sacrifice? Hmm.

The Shark said...

Mayhap there is more I will respond to more, but I would like to back up my Elder Scott point by stating that I wasn't referring merely to a single translation. You could be memorizing it from the Reina Valera version for all I care, it really depends on how you and the people you are communicating it to will understand it best. But a translation is going to be closer to the original wording than anyone's attempt to paraphrase.

Amanda said...

I'm really interested in the point you made right at the start, Kjerstin, about communication/connection being our ultimate goal. I'm so interested in it, I think, because since childhood I have been fascinated by relationships. As a child I wondered why it seemed the entire world was defined by comparisons (for example, I wondered at the fact that people often are what they are because they have more or less than someone else), while my sophomore year at BYU I obsessed a bit over my then-new familiarity with the concept of binary opposition. In a religious sense, I have understood for a long time that relationships are one of the few things we take with us after we die.

I don't think, though, that the only way we connect is through language. No doubt that we can communicate through means other than language, and I think that the same goes for making connections or forming relationships.

Still, it remains that language is an important (if not the most important) means of communication and connection. I love the idea of being given an imperfect, or even hopelessly flawed, tool to work with here, because that's what we all are anyway. Think about language as humanity--it makes sense that something flawed, like language, can be beautiful and deeply moving. People are that way, aren't we? flawed, but sometimes beautiful? ineffective most of the time, but sometimes the means of bringing people closer to truth? to God? Think about the Visiting Teaching messages this year. They have a lot to do with the idea that the Lord's work will go forward with or without an individual, but individuals can work hard to become useful tools in the Lord's hands and through us the Lord is able to perform miracles. I don't think that we need individual words, really, to communicate, but if we have a command of the language we can do glorious things with it, like write books like "Soledad."

This all sort of falls apart as soon as I remember that words aren't alive and making choices, but it's tucked away on the shelves of my mind until I find a better way to talk about such thoughts and ideas (oh Kjerstin, to think I was lucky enough to spend a month in Italy with you talking about all kinds of ideas).

JKC said...

1. I don't think shark and I disagree, at least not as much as it seems at first glance. We both think that scriptures are powerful, and that quoting them is better than paraphrasing them. The only point I mean to make is that the power that comes from the scriptures is, in my opinion, a function of the fact that they are infused with the Holy Ghost rather than that their syntax is inherently divine. You know, Nephi with the whole "when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost" thing.

2. I think quoting the scriptures in better/more powerful than paraphrasing or summarizing them. But I still stand by my thought that personal testimony (I mean real, spirit-infused testimony, not just a recitation of "I know" statements) is even more powerful.

3. The sacrificial translation thing is interesting. I think there could be something to it. I can also think of a few other reasons why the scriptures bring the Holy Ghost so strongly: a) we infuse the words with the power of our own personal testimonies when we read them, b) the authors of those words wrote them by the spirit, and they still carry it, or c) the Holy Ghost is there to teach the truths that the text tries to teach and makes us the difference when the text fails. I think all three ideas are working.

4. While scriptural language is superior to paraphrasing, it can be detrimental if it becomes an obstacle to understanding. In that case, it's often just a matter of finding a better translation. For example, the idea that "helpmeet" (or even worse, "helpmate," which doesn't even appear in the scriptures) is a noun can be an obstacle to the fact that "meet" carries with it the notion of corresponding to, or being equal and appropriate with. Joseph Smith revised the text of the Book of Mormon to correct the grammatical errors that got in the way of understanding. It was a good call. Maybe I'm really just saying that language is "scriptural" only to the extent that it is "translated correctly."