Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Art of Thought

Rene Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking

"I refuse to accept that a clear thought can ever be inexpressible. Appearances, however, are against me. For just as there is a level of pain at which the body ceases to feel because, because should it become involved in its pain, should it groan but once, it would seemingly crumble and return to dust; and just as there is a peak at which pain takes to the air on its own wings - so there is a level of thought where words have no part to play. Words are made for a certain exactness of thought, as tears are for a certain degree of pain. What is least distinct can not be named: what is clearest is unutterable. And yet things merely appear so. If human discourse is capable of expressing perfectly no more than a level of thought, it is because the mean of humankind thinks with this degree of intensity; it is to this level it assents, it is to this measure of exactness that it agrees. If we fail to make ourselves clear, we should not blame the tool we use.

Clear discourse presupposes three conditions; a speaker who knows what he wishes to say, a listener in a state of wakefulness, and a language common to both. But it is not enough for a language to be clear in the way that an algebraic proposition is clear. It must also have a real, not simply a possible content. Before this happens, the participants must have, as a fourth element, a common experience of the thing which is spoken of. The common experience is the gold reserve which confers an exchange value on the currency which words are; without this reserve of shared experiences, all our pronouncements are checks drawn on insufficient funds; algebra in fact is no more than a vast intellectual credit exercise, a counterfeiting operation which is legitimate because it is acknowledged: each individual knows that it has its object and meaning in something other than itself, namely arithmetic. But it is still not enough for language to have clarity and content, as when I say "that day, it was raining" or "3 + 2 makes 5"; it must also have a goal and an imperative.

Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble, and from babble to confusion. In this confused state of languages, men even though they have a common experience, have no language with which to exchange its fruits. Then, when this confusion grows intolerable, universal languages are invented, clear and hollow, where words are but counterfeit coins no longer backed by the gold of authentic experiences, languages which allow us from childhood to swell our heads with false knowledge. Between the confusion of Babble and the sterile esperantos, no choice is possible. It is these two forms of non-understanding, but more particularly the second, which I shall describe."
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

T. S. Eliot

No comments:

Post a Comment