Thursday, July 9, 2009

What does it signify?

I wrote a short story this week. I didn't intend to, but I'm not going to say no if one pops into my head and asks politely to be transcribed. The strange thing is, when I read it back, it didn't seem like the same story that had been in my head. Words are like that. Sometimes I think that's the property I like best about them, then, other times, it really bugs me.

It's back to that slippery chain of signification: you know the one? Sure you do. The theory that goes something like, every time you use a word, you move further away from the true meaning of what the thought of the thing was. But we only have the words we have (except I'm working on that), and are limited to a certain extent by them.

So, to explain more (forgive me if you know this already, I majored in soporifics), say you want to describe a thought, and we have a word for it, so you write 'house', only that's not quite what you had in your thought, so you write 'home', only that's not it either, but now you're two words away from what you thought: you're two links down that signification chain.

There is, as there always is, a more technical and accurate explanation. But, if a word never really does capture the meaning of what we mean, what does it matter?

In a week or two I'll go back to my story and one of two things will occur, possibly: either it will seem like a talented literary alien, from the planet Aliens of Literary Talent, has written it - in which case I shall be perplexed yet thrilled - or I will recognise it as a bracelet of my own clumsy making: words slipping down the slurry covered signification chain, and landing at my own hand.

Hullo! Aliens, are you there?


Jim Murdoch said...

So why do you think I call my blog 'The Truth About Lies'? I feel very much the same. I used to fret and sweat over every word in every poem when I was young convinced there was a right way to say everything – a bit like the character Grand in The Plague who can't get past the first sentence in his novel until it's perfect – but now, and it was hearing the expression 'fuzzy logic' that helped me in this regard, I realise that although it is impossible to express anything accurately via words that should not be the be all and end all of them; it is enough to suggest and allow the momentum of that suggestion to propel your reader to reach conclusions of his own that – hopefully – will no be too far away from what you intended but if they are different then that's fine too – different is not bad.

To take you example, the word 'home', every person on the planet will interpret that word on a personally level. I can think of 'home' as an abstract but that's not how I feel about the word. I'm human and I interpret words both intellectually and also emotionally. I have notes for a poem sitting next to me at the moment and the first line reads: "Do feelings have meanings?" I'm not sure whether they are mutually exclusive terms or whether there is an element of overlap. Maybe if I finish the piece I'll decide or maybe I'll just leave the question open.

Rachel Fenton said...

Welcome Jim,
I chose 'home' as a thought provoking example, hoping it would draw some responses, after being in a long group debate about it was fascinating how many different interpretations there were...mine was that it is an abstract: home is the quality I carry with me - it is inside me, not a building at all... is wonderful how poems especially take on a life of their own, and they are a success (as far as I'm concerned) if they mean anything to anyone you say, people bring their own meanings: writing's often described as a solitary process, but reading's a shared picnic.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, a poem, a story or a novel is a collaborative exercise. If it doesn't work one should not automatically blame the author. I have a poem, in fact, entitled, 'Reader, Please Supply Meaning'. I also have another poem which I now think of as "the Barry poem" because when my boss read it it expressed so perfectly how she felt about this guy Barry that she took complete ownership of the poem; it became hers. She, however, became someone else's and I have no idea what happened to Barry.

The example I usually use to explain how useless words really are is 'love' and I generally start by going through the four Greek words for love: agape, philia, storge and eros – principled love, friendship love (literally brotherly love), familial love and erotic love . . . and yet none of them express my love of my cat or my love of my wife's suet dumplings. And again all of these are coloured by my personal experiences of love.

Rachel Fenton said...

I love your example Jim!

Have you read Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author"? It captures exactly the futility of striving for the perfect piece declaring that the author's intention is irrelevent because it is the reader that brings the a sense, that the text is not a text by virtue that it is written, but by being read...the paradox of his finding is that he wants the reader to disregard the author! So, disregard him telling (us) the reader what to think of his text as well as any other....I explained this so much better several years ago!

Good thought provoking comments Jim!

Jim Murdoch said...

No, I haven't but I've added Image-Music-Text to my Amazon wish list. He sounds fascinating.

The other thing that came to mind was Beckett's last poem 'What is the Word?' where we see the narrator grasping for the perfect word and it's so appropriate that he would opt for 'folly' since Beckett was so dismissive of his own output. What strikes me about this is comparing this last piece to the almost unintelligible Dream of Fair to Middling Women. Words were his enemy. They refused to behave and he trusted them less and less as the years went on.

Rachel Fenton said...

Beckett's fascinating...the fact (can't recall just now where I read this, but assume it's a fact) he crammed his big feet into Joyce's small shoes says a lot about him.

And, words are merely the creations of a mind after all...