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#Language paints a #mountain


#THE ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE: it’s a huge, scrolling LED sign by artist #Jenny Holzer that combines in its feminist critique a bit of the aphoristic tradition of William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche with the monumental succinctness of a cigarette or Pepsi ad. For good reason it reduces language to its most apprehensible and provocative as a way of catching your eye and evoking an instant reaction. Or take the church signs around Asheville: YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN. Or JESUS IS RETURNING SOON. Of course HIS DISCIPLES BELIEVED AS MUCH 2000 YEARS AGO but to add that would strip the first words of their nagging punch of terror.


I like Holzer’s work a lot and this one was listed in a recent edition of the New York Times as one of the 20 most important artworks of the last 50 years. That was Tuesday: the next day I caught an interview on BBC with #Robert Macfarlane. How different could two texters be? Macfarlane is an anomaly on the current cultural scene: he talks with the grace of a river, he uses impeccable grammar and big #words; he teaches at Cambridge. One hip critic groused: the last thing we need is a wordy white guy from Cambridge coming over the hill with a new book. Well, his books are fantastically good.


Macfarlane believes in the whole #dictionary, not as a patriarchal instrument but as the chief hope we have of achieving a breadth of conception and a subtlety of thought that can actually steer us out of our dark malaise. It is Trump, he points out, who hips, flips, simplifies, slangs and fakes language in his quest to subjugate us all–Make America Great Again. Why do people fall for such brazen baloney? Is it, Macfarlane wonders, our #poverty of language? As Wittgenstein, the philosopher, observed, what we can’t put in words, we can’t even think. So we get bamboozled.


Macfarlane hikes all over the world. Like John Muir, or Henry Thoreau, he writes about his wandering. When he reaches a remote place, he seeks out the locals. He listens to their #dialect, the music of their cadences. Their #stories and warnings. Their twenty words for “mountaintop” (the Gaelic language has forty). Only by doing so can he really begin to see the landscape around him. I like that. I really do. Language paints a mountain.


When the #Oxford Dictionary subtracted 40 or so words having to do with nature, and replaced them with tech terms, Macfarlane raised the alarm. Not that he’s a sentimental traditionalist, but shrinking even the obscure boroughs of language is like asking a pianist to play a Beethoven sonata on a toy piano with a single octave of keys.


But it’s more than that, and here’s where I get excited. There is a pulpy reciprocity between words and #matter. We “give to language aspects of matter, and to matter aspects of language.” The world around us gives words their “pulp” and words in turn make that world more and more imaginable. When the American painter #Cy Twombly included lines of the poet Rilke in his paintings he added back to those splendid words the texture and pigment of matter. When we carve our names in tombstones, we do the same.


In short: our horizons are only as large as our language permits–hardly a new notion. Words #enchant our relations with nature, with others. The more words we have at our easy disposal, the more specific we can be in our thought and the more immune to the slogan-prone categories that a pig-headed world would like us to abide by. “Things generically described are more prone to misuse.” That could be Holzer but in fact it’s Macfarlane. On the flip side, the more words we preserve and enjoy and #invent, the more open we can be to the complex #wonders and changes of life.

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