Why do we spend so much time putting things into words?
Stick with this till the end and you’ll find out what the practical implications of asking such a question are and why non-wording might be useful. The Art of Non-wording may help the words you use and what you hear of the words of others.
You might answer the original question immediately, off the top of your head, “Because words are the stuff of human communication…”—that would be the common or garden response. But, consider, when things are put into words they cease being the things of experience; words become detached from the things we think we know about; we talk and write words rather than things; words create their own self-perpetuating universe of being.
We make a dash to put our thoughts into words, as I’m doing right now. Even before others have finished what they’re saying…
It appears to us to be part of the seamless & unquestionable nature of living that we inevitably convert our dreams, our experience, thoughts, passions and so on into words, words, words by the ton, by the waggonload; the blahblahblah of the infinite ‘conversation of humanunkind’. Otherwise how would we be able to talk about them? It’s almost as though experience, thoughts, passions and so on appear dressed up in words from the very start, before we become, as they say, ‘conscious’ of their existence.
There are millions & millions of miles of writing and speechifying that, when you consider the state of the world, has got us absolutely nowhere. It might be a useful experiment to STOP using words altogether and, until we find a way of learning to be able to… hold the world at arm’s length for ourselves, to carry on being dumb.
As it is, there are ‘Final Reports’, ‘Research Results’, ‘Summings Up’, ‘Minutes’, ‘Statements of Intent’, ‘Agreements’, ‘Mission Statements’ but existentially nothing ever really gets clarified; and, far from defining exactly what we mean, words become brickbats.
Without thinking about it, we convert ‘consciousness’, the one and only focus of life, into something relatively solid in texture—experience transports us all over the place but words, like these words, stay fixed on a page. We imagine that we fix undiffentiated being by caging it in words. We imagine that to invent a word for something we dream up somehow legitimises the use of the word and endows it with ‘meaning’.
The Cool Web of Language
In his lovely horrifying poem, The Cool Web, Robert Graves states the paradox: words seem to be useful handles for things; they enable us to seem to be able to move things around in the mind—where would we be without them? But children do quite well for themselves when they start off wordless; they live quite happily in a world of things & unlabelled events:-
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.
Then they get educated into how to use words properly, to tame emotions, to sift out & tie down impressions of sight & sound & texture and become immune, at the outside, to the crass stupidity of warfare, for example—they learn to imagine that ‘defence of the realm’ is something other than people making a profit out of death, empire and destruction. They learn not to call an apple an apple; they are deprived of the wit to pin the right words—‘cannon fodder’—on those who, so we are told, sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Fatherland. We adults are so clever:-
… we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.
How does this work and who benefits? Far from facilitating ‘communication’, words have the effect of concealing ‘reality’. Language beguiles us into imagining we know what we’re talking about but it’s all just word-spinning. It suits the Power Possessors that we should be so beguiled by words because then they can use words to trap us unwary beings in their little follies.
There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
We lose ourselves in such abstractions. Human beings are sacrificed on abstraction altars— of the ‘Deficit’; ‘present pain’ has to be suffered for the sake of ‘future gain’; huge amounts of money are wasted on fighting ‘terrorism’—abstractions all.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
If we did not have language with ‘its watery clasp’, which serves to distance unpalatable things from our thought processes and reduce them to wishy-washy abstractions like ‘love’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’, we’d have to think of other ways to tame the unruly world. Sleeping people are not up to thinking of any other way and so, without the defences of language, they’d go mad with the effort.
Just a Conversation
In The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind (1960-ish it must have been—I read it when I was being trained as a teacher of English some time between 1964 and 1968), Michael Oakeshott writes:-
It may be supposed that the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort.
The way one might conceive of this ‘manifold’—some composite, integrated entity— is as a rational debate—that is the impression that the Power Possessors like to offer us: everybody, a Big Society, bringing all the various insights together to come to a single unified conclusion; to maintain the pretence of ‘democracy’ (another meaningless abstraction), they talk about offering up selected parts of their hidden agendas to ‘public consultation’.
But Oakshott says that the true ‘…image of this meeting-place is not an inquiry or an argument, as though there were some quest for the truth or essence of an issue, but a conversation’—a ‘Conversation of Mankind’ which after James Kirkup, I like to render sexually neutral and depict more accurately as the ‘conversation of humanunkind’.
In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument…
It is an illusion fostered by our education that the object of ‘communication’ between people is driving towards a Final Solution. All that’s happening is an endless rigmarole—one participant in the conversation followed by another on and on. Occasionally somebody may endeavour to write up the minutes but the minutes in turn become simply a relatively fixed part of the conversation.
…we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves…. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian. Indeed, it seems not improbable that it was the engagement in this conversation (where talk is without a conclusion) that gave us our present appearance, man being descended from a race of apes who sat in talk so long and so late that they wore out their tails. Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation…
Living in Imagination
Rather consisting of anything of real substance as we are educated into thinking that they are, words are just habits, part of a habitual endless conversation, fleeting, insubstantial, ‘talk without conclusion’. There is no ‘manifold’, though temporary, artificial halts in the conversation, described as ‘theories’, ‘philosophies’, ‘points of view’ or ‘opinions’, lead us to imagine that there might be. Such things are just a few watering holes in the desert; traps for the unwary, the easily diverted, or they are designed for those who don’t or won’t have much truck with the Toleration of Ambiguity. They are the product of Imagination. Dreamed up. Invented. They are maggots, mirages, thought viruses, perennially disputed claims on colonised portions of cloud cuckoo-land that can easily be elevated into ‘religion’ or ‘politics’ to justify warfare.
The really nice paradox is that we certainly do have words and theories that seem to accurately describe the process whereby we hive off bits of the endless Chuntering of Humanunkind. We are eager to fix them to further our own agendas. Some people make a living out of word-spinning, by writing, speechifying, acting or teaching.
We can talk really eloquently about the way words con us into imagining the reality of what they seem to be referring to. What a lark!
We build palaces out of words but the foundation stone is pretty remote from the lightning conductor. We mistake our way in the dark winding passageways and lose our footing on the decaying spiral staircases; we choose to get diverted by the pictures on the walls and we open doors marked ‘private’ or ‘do not enter’; we hear the singing of the sirens in the woods, pause and miss the main point.
What If We Could Do Without Words Altogether?
How could we do that? As with most simple things, it proves to be rather more difficult to express than to take action over. But, for a simple-dimple start, we could learn to look at things around us with the clear intention of losing the common labels.
For instance, this thing I sometimes call a ‘computer’, for instance: I hold the intention to deprive it of its label; I look at it without naming it and so it becomes an oblong shiny something-or-other with postits stuck to its frame reminding me to do this & that. Not good enough—I’m still naming things while avoiding the word ‘computer’. I look again—it becomes a pattern of shapes & colours, focussed at the centre, fuzzy in peripheral vision. Still not good enough—I’m naming the shapes & colours to describe the… what was it? Withdraw into your self, let the beingness of things just be; stop the words inside—NOW! You can fade away from the world and just let it BE just where you are HERE. Notice that you have for a moment held the world at arm’s length. It liberates you into your self. Or into whatever you find there…
With the intention of realising both the beauty and the uselessness of words, you could spend a day in non-wording. Having succeeded in loosening the bonds of words with simple things like…—what was it? my intention has worked!’—you could practise losing the words & names of all the common objects around you and then people—the person that most used to get up your nose no longer has a label attached to them; they are just who they are and your inner voice has ceased rabbiting on about them, wasting time & energy; you might even find yourself talking to them in a friendly kind of way. Then you could dis-word what you call your ‘ideas’ and ‘opinions’, noticing that all your pet theories were just a bunch of words that you have learned to apply mechanically by association to certain habitual brain-maggoting.
Enter for a time into the huge space of just being; feel it expanding around you now… Receive the beneficence of Pure Impressions.
Gurdjieff says that there are three forms of food: fish & chips and fresh air (ah, Cromer!) but the highest form of food is that of Pure Impressions, the sights, sounds and sensations that come to us when we suspend all thinking and enter into just Being.
With the curse of wording we live bathed in impressions of the world that are impure, categorised, rendered down; ratiocination gives us words to sully sights, sounds and sensations, loads them with irrelevant associations.
As you read a book, just let the words flow through you.
Listening to music, just sink into it and let the nameless sounds flow through you.
Watching a film, just let the sights & sounds flow through you.
The biggest test of all, perhaps, is to read about what Gurdjieff calls ‘The Issue of the Day’ in the newspaper and remain unmoved by it, see/hear/feel it as just words, remote from any kind of meaning or significance to anything at all.
Be like TELawrence who wanted to escape his ‘thought-riddled nature’. The more we take refuge in words the more things become unreal and remote. The Palace of words sucks us into its self-contained logic & rules.
The Indulgence of Words leads to a variety of scripts for different parts of the self, different plays butting in on each other: now you play one part, now another—‘the regiment of thoughts & acts & feelings ranked around him as separate creatures eyeing, like vultures, the passing in their midst of the common thing that gave them life… (Colin Wilson: The Outsider) The ‘common thing’ that gives all things life is the Food of Pure Impressions.
Colin Wilson points out that words can kill: ‘a felt emotion is a conquered emotion, an experience gone dead which we bury by expressing it…’
Having tried the experiment of doing without words you can always, like me now, go back to them.
So What Are the Practical Implications?
Practising the Art of Non-wording tunes you in to the way words are in fact used, helps you to listen objectively to the conversation you are part of. Next time you engage with others you will hear more clearly because you know that you can hold their words at arm’s length.
In the Gurdjieff canon this is called External Considering. The result of practising the Art of Non-wording is a stilling of the Inner Voice which is responsible for Internal Considering.