Words are words. It’s important to remember that. Words are representations of things, not the actual things. This is a good thing. This is freedom. Since words are untethered from empirical realities, they may be used to express anything. They can express phenomena with no correlatives to the world of milk and grass. The world of physical laws and abbeys and jodhpurs and jute. Paul Eluard’s surrealist line “The world is blue as an orange” serves an example of the kind of journeys words are capable of creating.
Words like ‘universe,’ ‘soul,’ or ‘thought’ have a profundity and charge that are automatic in expression but in reality are no different than the words ‘pencil,’ ‘bread,’ or ‘worm.’ Their values differ in our imagination but as entities in a system of signs there is no difference in depth, intensity, or heft. This is where thought is liberated from the dry abstractions of ordinary experience and acquire the sorcery of music. Just as there are no factual correlatives to the mood and atmosphere created by melody, harmonic structure and combinations of tone, there are no factual correlatives to lines of poetry such as César Vallejo’s marvelous invocation to time “vigorously dragging its misery” or “the sound of singing testicles” or “flora of style” “cited in swamps of honor by auditory roses.” These are realities of a different nature than those of differential calculus or scientific measurement. Their charge comes from an amperage of human imagination, the flow of electrons from finger to finger in the dance of our writing.
Words are propositions. Each word is a proposition. Not just nouns, but prepositions, adverbs, adjectives and pronouns. “Of” and “above” and “fast” and “slowly” and “them” and “you” are all propositions. Offerings from the treasure hold of language to the wingspread of the mind. Traction, transmission, tone. Matter, time, justice, almond, space, thunder: propositions.
Words reveal a system that appears to be unshakeable and stable but is, in fact, open and volatile. They’re pieces in a game of classification in which the nebulous chaos of sensation assumes the order and identity of horses and headlights. Words vibrate with witness. Ideas flourish in their example. Processions of knife and knuckle flutter through the vapor of generality and take on specificity and purpose. Caught trout sputter in the butter of eternity. Words are amalgams that help mold perception. They create a sense of cohesion and permanence. But in reality the cohesion and permanence are functions of syntax. Products of grammar. Articulations of sequence. The amalgam can fly apart at any moment, explode into confetti, erupt into cockatoos.
I love fireworks. I love anything that explodes and rains down as stars. But there are subtleties that elude our fundamental assumptions about the universe and revel in our perceptions like the teasing gaieties of unguent and wool. Porosities augment our absorption. Coffee sharpens our nerves. Each second we’re inundated with sensation. But the place where conscious awareness and sensation intersect are tangled and derailed by distraction. Receptivity turns to static. The algebra of circumstance diminishes in our attention and reduces to a vulgar denomination, stale categories of class and description.
It’s in the combinatory power of language that these subtleties of sense are best able to be captured. The language of words bears some resemblance to the language of numbers. Differential calculus was designed to describe a universe in flux. The combinatory power of words acts in a similar manner. It brings elements together and mixes them in an ebullition of nerve and word whose infusions sublimate or distill into a new ingredient, or idea.
Remove words from the equation and we’re left with gesture. I touch a knife, then a loaf of bread, and then make a swinging motion with my arm. Hopefully, the idea of slicing a loaf of bread will be communicated, and not the intent to stab anybody. Most experiences are nowhere near this simplistic. There are emotions whose complexities exceed that of convection currents and kinetic energy equations. Were we to limit ourselves to gesture it would take a bizarre form of acrobatics, a kind of Japanese butoh, to express the inner realms of our being.
This is the sorcery of combination. It happens in chemistry all the time. Take two hydrogen atoms and add to them an atom of oxygen and voila! you have water. Compress a mass of hydrogen atoms at great temperature and pressure so that they fuse to form atoms of helium and in the process you will create a big ball of heat and light called a sun.
The instant pen is put to paper or a cursor is set on the screen and the fingers begin to prance on a keyboard and words are formed we’re involved in the sorcery of combination. Of collage. Of comparison and contrast. The products may be nebulous or thin or concrete as a sidewalk, colorful and vibrant as music or loaded with summer like a gleam of sunlight on a blister.
Structural invariants, whether atomic or relational, are essential to linguistics. Language is a shared activity. It is what holds a community together. There are constraints, but they are the kind of constraints that liberate the sorcery of predication. An abstract machine may be built around variables and variations. Language is essentially a heterogeneous reality. If I want to make an appointment with an electrician to come and install an outlet for an electric range I will not need to know how amperage works but I will need to know how to structure a place and time. I will need to describe the circumstances, state of the wiring, size of the range. The wiring of language will be a shared circumstance requiring alternating currents, harmonic distortion. The freedom to create a reality different than the normative one of daily reality will be based on the same structure, but its capacity to create new elements will be as limitless as music. And once I get the stove plugged in, I can make a pot of coffee and sit down to learn what a watt is, and amperage and texture and sine waves and seclusion. I can do equations. I can drag time into space. I can swing like Tarzan from language to language. For the jungle is full of vines, and the world is blue as an orange.