This story illustrates that humans are at the mercy of language. If we cannot communicate, we cannot function as a society. If we cannot function as a society, we are less than animals. Our very lives depend on the meaning of words. What happens, then, if we lose the ability to communicate meaning?
George Orwell, in his book 1984, predicted that the crumbling of individual thought will be precipitated by the destruction of language.
“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end, we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten… Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller…How can you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy means unconsciousness.”
Is Newspeak a thing of the far future? No. It started over a century ago. Or maybe it’s been around, in one form or another, since Babel. Whatever the case, it's here.
During my second year of college, I took Advanced American Literature II, in which I was introduced to the work of such poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D., and others. The experience was a profound one, because it helped to solidify for me what I considered to be important in writing and, specifically, what is the purpose of writing.
I was vaguely uneasy as I progressed through the course, because I could feel the language degrading while I read. Order began to crumble, structure began to disintegrate, and suddenly I found myself overwhelmed with fragments that created a vortex of dizzying words in which meaning was elusive. I had to struggle to swim through the passages that became increasingly vague and meaningless in proportion to their complexity. I felt discouraged as I faced passages that literary critics called “evocative,” “elegant,” “ethereal,” “tremendous,” and “powerful”—passages in which I didn’t understand a word of what I read. Apparently, for all my knowledge of English, I was still missing some vital component to understanding the masters of my age.
The climax came when I read the poetry of Gertrude Stein. The poems in her book “Tender Buttons” (1902) shocked me. Take, for instance, this poem entitled “A Paper”:
A courteous occasion makes a paper show no such occasion and this makes readiness and eyesight and likeness and a stool.
I tried to make sense of the poem, but the words were like bricks instead of like windows. Every time I thought I was just about to understand, I found that the meaning eluded me, the way a star suddenly looks dimmer when you look directly at it, or the way that Mark felt inThat Hideous Strength when he was in the distorted room during his initiation with Dr. Frost.
I learned in my course materials that Stein was attempting to create a style in which the medium was more prominent than the image evoked by the medium. Just as painters in her day were attempting to create art that made the viewer think of the paint itself, rather than of anything that the paint may represent, Stein was trying to create works that make readers think about the words themselves as separate entities in which context or meaning is irrelevant. My professors praised the style, because it communicated…well, they admitted they didn’t know what it communicated, but it was unique and that was enough. I wondered, Can meaninglessness be unique?
Over the next few days, I considered deeply whether or not Stein and her colleagues had created a legitimate style. After some time of meditation, it suddenly struck me that Stein was doing something with language that was not only revolutionary, but downright dangerous and anti-Christ. That sounds like a leap in logic, but let me explain.
Language was created for one thing: to communicate. Writers for millennia have sought to communicate as effectively as possible, some with more imagery than others, but all with the same goal in mind—the goal to pass on some message that they considered important to communicate. Even if the message was that life was meaningless, it was necessary for the reader to clearly understand the message before he could understand the meaninglessness.
The practice of making words into islands is like rhapsodizing over a pile of human body parts. It’s like picking up a heart and delighting over its shape and composition. But that shape is meaningless to us until it is pumping life into a human body, until we see why that particular shape is necessary. It doesn’t matter how beautiful that heart may be; it is a mere mass of meaningless tissue if it has no function. That beauty does not even exist until the heart is sustaining a living body.
Words are like that. We can’t dissect them from one another and think we know what they really are, just like we can’t dissect a cadaver and think we know what a human being is. We have to see the components working together in perfect harmony to recognize the beauty of the human body--or of language. In the separating of words from a meaningful context, we lose the soul of the words.
Language is all about communication. Elevate style above message, and we have a dead style and a dead message. Style must be at the service of the message. Words are the means by which we understand everything in the universe, including ourselves. We ask questions; we receive answers. We communicate our experiences to each other. When words are meaningless, everything else—including our selves—is meaningless, because there is no way to express meaning.
When God created the world, He did not wave His hands like a magician and make things through physical effort. No, He spoke the world into existence. He used words. God’s control of language is His control over human beings, as one can see at the Tower of Babel. The first chapter of John makes it clear that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Because of that, I believe that words are intrinsically powerful. When we devalue words, we devalue God Himself. The corruption and mutilation of language becomes a personal attack on Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Attack the word in written form, and we attack the Word in human form. Take away the meaning of words and we take away the meaning of everything else. When we devalue the Word of God—dilute it, attack it, corrupt it, obscure it, reject it—we devalue our own language and, by implication, our very selves.
The final volume of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, entitled That Hideous Strength, pits ordinary post-WWII people against vast, dark spiritual forces allied with Belbury College. I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you, but at one point this curse is pronounced upon the evil forces:
“They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.”
Our society, as the Bible predicts, is wandering further from the Lord. Each generation is successively more meaningless, lawless, and unhappy. The further we wander, the more our language degrades. Our language shrinks with electronic communication like texting and instant messaging. Our songs, poems, and literature, when they make sense at all, are filled with immorality, despair, self-abuse, anger, hate, and purposelessness (Howl by Allen Ginsberg is a prime example and, no, I don’t recommend reading it). Crime and suicide are rising and our art both stimulates and reflects this dark reality. We are losing our words because we have lost The Word.