Tuesday, October 23, 2018

On the Impossibility of Communicating Ideas


A few months ago, I fortuitously stumbled across the Weird Studies podcast. It is a brilliant podcast, definitely one of my favorites and the exploration of themes by the hosts (and they really are exploring as they go, by and large) makes for a sort of intellectual jazz with human heart. I’ve been catching up on some earlier episodes and I was absolutely thrilled to listen to their reading of M.R. Jame’s “The Mezzotint,” along with their follow up episode, entitled “Art is a Haunting Spirit”. They do some hard-digging, sometimes clumsy coming-to-grips with what the story has to say about modernity and art. There are too many ideas for me to elaborate on here, so go listen to the reading and the follow-up on your own. You won’t regret it.

But you might end up scratching your head a bit. There are times when Martel and Ford are searching about in the muck for meaning and moments when they outright contradict themselves (c.f. Ford’s direct contradiction of himself when early on he posits that the spectre in “The Mezzotint” is symbolic of the modernity of art, then later posits that the spectre is a refutation of the replicability of modernity – or maybe I just didn’t hear things correctly. This is entirely possible). This is one of the features I enjoy most about this podcast, the real, grinding exploration of some of the most difficult questions.

As an undergrad, I majored in Humanities with a history emphasis and an anthropology minor. Humanities is a broad set of subjects ranging from visual arts to music to dance to architecture to theater to cinema to history to philosophy and in a number of other directions that I am forgetting. I loved studying in that major. One thing I liked about it was the sheer lack of “track” structure. There was little progression or prerequisite qualifications for classes (except for the senior level seminars, which were amazing), so I could take many classes in whatever order I wanted. Because of my desire to take certain classes that were only offered intermittently, I ended up taking Introduction to Philosophy as a senior.

 By this time, I had been accepted into graduate school, and I knew that if I ever got bored in class, I could say something controversial to ensure that I was being entertained and getting my money’s worth (hate to tell you this, kids, but universities are businesses, and you are paying for a product, so you have to do what you can to get what you want). So, I was dead bored in Philosophy 101, having examined most of the material already for several years through different lenses. I was feeling salty and decided I’d spice things up by stating that “The so-called Socratic Method is a farce”. Oh, boy, did that set the freshmen in that class to giggling. “Socrates claims that he and his audience are learning together, exploring thought and meaning, but that’s not true. He’s asking leading questions because he wants to channel his students answers to where he wants them. It’s a trap.”

This just about sent my poor professor into paroxysms. He was not a happy camper. Later, on my midterm, I continued pressing the issue and received a poor grade on that test. On the final and all later papers, I just puked back what the professor fed us and pulled an “A” out of the class. I suppose I didn’t want to jeopardize my grade for the sake of my record, so I played along and pretty much ignored the class. Thankfully, all of my other professors invited such challenges and challenged me back, but based on logic and sound argument, not the authority of tenure or some desire for respect. I mention all of this just to say that I am quite happy to hear Ford contradict himself here, as it means that he has a malleable mind that really is seeking for the “truth” of the matter.

One of the points that Ford and Martel bounce back and forth is the idea presented by music theorist Ferruccio Busoni in his essay “Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music” that no one, not even the composer himself, can fully communicate the “idea” of a piece of music. Because he has to work through notation and representation and because the composer’s music has to be played through instruments, which he has to choose, and because the composer has to choose a certain key to write in, he can never communicate, directly, the music that is in his brain/heart/soul. In fact, the composer can’t even fully know what it is he’s trying to communicate. There simply aren’t tools to capture the feelings of the experience of creativity happening inside the composer at the moment that composition takes place. Therefore, after the moment, well, the moment is gone.

In thinking about my experience writing, it is much the same. When I write, whether writing fiction or writing roleplaying game materials, I honestly cannot communicate what it is I’m feeling when I’m writing. I can give signifiers and indicators and hope that readers have had similar experiences that will allow them to approximate the experience that happens in my brain: the flashes of insight, the subtle connections of ideas, the emotion, the purity of the imaginative experience of creation. But in the end, it’s all an approximation. Not everyone will feel approximately what I feel and absolutely no one will ever feel exactly what I feel when I write. It’s a personal, almost sacred thing. I want to share it, but the sharing of that feeling is so dependent on circumstances far beyond my control, that the best I can do is provide some outside boundaries, no, not even that, some random signposts of what I was thinking and feeling while creating. This is a blight and a blessing. I want, so badly, to communicate with exactitude the things I think, but I’m fooling myself if I don’t acknowledge that my thoughts are far more complex than words can ever relate. The subconscious background bubblings, the leaps of logic, the distant horizons of thoughts that are forming but have not taken shape yet – all these things I am absolutely incapable of relating with language. If I could draw, illustrations might help. If I could compose, music might help set the mood, as well. Then again, with each layer of media that I add comes a layer of complexity and, soon, I am like an acrobat trying to spin plates on sticks.

Yet, I persist. I can’t seem to help myself. Writing is a drug, the creative process is my heroin, it unlocks the pleasure centers of my brain in a way that other acts and substances simply cannot. I’ve been accused of being self-indulgent in my writing and, I suppose that’s true. I firmly believe that a writer needs to write what pleases them, not what is pleasing to the masses (unless that is what also pleases the writer – which is highly unlikely – c.f. everything I’ve written so far in this post). But I want to find other like-minded people who take pleasure in something similar to what I feel and what I see in my thoughts, as difficult as it is to actually communicate this with any sort of specificity.

In the meantime, I’ll hold a place for you at my side. No, you won’t see things exactly as I see them. You’ll see something different. And it’s likely that my life will be richer because of what you see in my work that I cannot. And if you utterly despise what I create or if I fumble in my attempts at communicating, so be it. I could just write what I write only for myself. In fact, I have notebooks full of things you will likely never see. But give it a chance and let’s see if we can’t cross aesthetic paths, if only for a little while, like hikers on a sparsely-travelled path. I’m tipping my hat to you and wishing you a good hike. If you're looking for a place to stay for the night, there's some space in my head. Though, if you lay down to rest therein, I might never find you. Enjoy your stay.

7 comments:

  1. A fine examination. Most creation is personal, of course, so art (artistic expression) should be enjoyed (when possible) for its individual impressions made but rarely, if ever, understood. As for the professor who did like challenges and wanted everyone to be taught the same way, well Einstein said it best (paraphrase) "I do not teach my students. I provide and environment in which they can learn."

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    1. Thanks, Rob. Yes, he was definitely the worst professor I had. By and large I was very happy with the education I paid for!

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  2. Yes, but I wouldn't fret about it. That disconnect between minds is what allows for personalization. It's what allows five people playing an RPG to enjoy the same game even though in their heads they may be visualizing the events in vastly different ways. It does get awkward at times, especially when a friend recommends a novel that doesn't move you in the slightest, but that's life. Not all head orchestras play the same pieces with the right amount of vivace as others.

    Of course, with all this said, I really enjoyed reading you fret about it :-)

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    1. I think the thing I'm fretting about the most, and I didn't really make this clear, in hindsight, is the inability to express what is in my head. The fact that I even try to express it morphs and distorts the spontaneous idea that pops onto the stage of my mind. It's more than a little frustrating!

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  3. I definitely connect with you on the last paragraph. My writing I call bumbling and mumbling. If it connects with someone, I've been successful.

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    1. Yes, that's successful, and yet I feel a sense of loss between my brain and my words (whether spoken or written). That mental image and the feelings and impressions they cause within me is something I'd like to be able to capture better.

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  4. "This is a blight and a blessing. I want, so badly, to communicate with exactitude the things I think, but I’m fooling myself if I don’t acknowledge that my thoughts are far more complex than words can ever relate. The subconscious background bubblings, the leaps of logic, the distant horizons of thoughts that are forming but have not taken shape yet – all these things I am absolutely incapable of relating with language."
    Truth. I've often thought along these lines myself, wishing I had a short of temporary telepathy where I could download or send a concept/thought to someone else. There's also an irony, in that sometimes the more elaborate but specific I get, the better chance I have of conveying that concept/image, but the greater the chance of losing my audience. ;)

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