34. The Language of Depth in a World of Noise Part II
by Culture and Anti Culture
(For context see Post 1)
Words are not the ideas and images they refer to–they draw attention to them, but are not the meanings themselves. The common meaning of words is a portrayal of the history of their use–the dictionary “definitions” are a distillation of this history. For a word to be a suitable tool for human expression and reception, it must have been used a great deal–for it is in using words together that we actually create their meaning and come to understand them.
Words are born when, in the individual mind, a concept or experience arises for which there is no adequate language, and that mind is stimulated to create a new vocalization to express it. When such a new word or phrase stimulates and creates a similar state of mind in others, it can acquire a common meaning and usage. The appearance of new words (and the fading use and understanding of older ones) is associated, for good or ill, with new states of mind. This forms part of the great chain of being—new concepts create words and words allow the formation of yet more concepts – and so on. Neglected usage leads to a dying out of words and to the death throes of the meaning they express. When usage of the telegraph disappeared, so also did the word fade from conversation. Eventually people no longer could picture or experience a telegram.
This has been an essentially unplanned, spontaneous process throughout human history, with contributions from unknown men and women, and geniuses of the rank of Shakespeare. The capacity of words to invoke new modes of consciousness lies at the heart of Shelley’s assertion that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of humanity.
If certain realities are to be expressed or experienced at all, language must employ properties that are being lost through disuse. Depth of meaning requires intensity, nuance, subtlety, intimation. It does not require a special vocabulary, but a way of using words to point to a higher or more fundamental reality
Let us use the word depth itself to portray this. To have depth is to have thickness, substance, hidden inwardness, as in the depths of the sea or depth of soul. Yet it can be used to suggest a rich, open expansiveness, as in the depths of the night sky. Depth refers to that which is unapparent to the superficial glance – the opposite of mere surface. There is something about depth which resists expression in prosaic language, something that is elusive and demands at least a hint of the poetic.
The word ‘vulgar’ – equally rich and suggestive, but in a different fashion – almost speaks itself. “What a vulgar man” can almost not be said without distaste and a touch of contempt.
‘Sublime’, aside from conveying the experience of delight beyond imagining, imparts a hint of loftiness, of being lifted out of oneself. As in the word ‘depth’, ‘sublime’ cannot be quite touched and captured with the perceptions of sense.
The chief priest of ancient Rome was the Pontifex Maximus – literally ‘the greatest bridge builder’ – binding his culture to the realm of the gods. The true role of the poet, the language and meaning maker, is to fashion a bridge between the everyday world and the realm of the spirit – a task largely abandoned in our time.
More than two centuries ago, Goethe achieved this task in invoking, in a few words, the archetype of his own time, and helped change the self-awareness of European humanity.
‘Two souls reside, alas, within my breast,
And each one from the other would be parted.
The one holds fast, in sturdy lust for love,
With clutching organs clinging to the world;
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage.’