A word is dead when it is said
Some say. I say it just begins to
Live that day. (Emily Dickinson)
We are all indebted to the American poet not only for her monumental contribution to American “letters” but also to the succinct, pithy, cogent and explosive nature of the human imagination. Far from proclaiming a religious dogma in the thought kernel above, Dickinson is pointing to, and inviting her reader to pause, and to reflect on the “universe” of pulsating, shining/mirroring energy of speech. It is speech that originates deep in the soul of every one of us potentially and predictably joining the moment of the utterance to every other moment, from beginning to forever. If as Blake reminds us, there is a universe in a grain of sand, there is an eternity in each and every word spoken, written, drawn and even scrolled on the back on millions of t-shirts.
Far from being constricted to a literal, denotative, scientific, and measureable “definition” or meaning, each word, like every musical note, every ballet pirouette, every brush stroke on canvas, if we would breathe, drink, smell, taste and linger over its impact on our whole person transports us into the universe it opens, the world of the person uttering the word and the depth of that person’s soul. However, the complexity of such a “between I and Thou” (thanks to Martin Buber) seems to have been set aside, or passed over, neglected and ignored in a masculine-dominated, product-driven, profit-pursued, transactional culture.
James Hillman excoriates the trajectory of psychology for its having fallen into the trap of literalism, of symptom, of nominalism, of an epistemology that renders all “unusual” behaviour into one of two “thought/concept” buckets: illness or evil. Endemic to this approach, (a failure to both client and profession, according to Hillman) is a universe, a cultural command that reduces each human being to a function, that old trap of thought, feeling, cognition, and pragmatic “realism”. Driven to demonstrate “value,” whether to a parent, or a teacher, a coach, a spouse or even a deity, men more than women are enchained in the iron ring of insecurity, abandonment, alienation, separation and a profound scarcity.
Such a trap has roots in:
Ø a predominant theology of “sin” and “fallen” (erected on a presumption of hubris),
Ø A mis-apprehended notion of “education” (e ducere, to lead out) that attempts to “paint on” or even dig trenches for seeding by educators, thought and skill nuggets, rather than drawing out of the learner what is already within,
Ø a cultural imbalance veering toward detachment, objectivity and transaction at the expense of subjectivity, relationality, connection, empathy, and a shared inter-dependence
Ø an obsession with the tools, technology and the binary logic of the algorithm
that drives the current revolution
Ø the business model based on the principle of maximizing profits and minimizing costs
Ø the compulsion to equate the value of the human participation in the business model with units produced, time saved, and tension/conflict eliminated
Ø the separation of the “research and design” function into “costs” from the “profit centres” of revenue
Ø the scorched earth policy and practice of eliminating worker support systems like unions
Ø a deliberate process of weaponizing the language of business, politics, religion and ethics
Ø the ubiquity of social media constricting thought and feeling expression to the guttural verbal grunts/tweets/posts/ of the caveman
It is not a stretch to point out the link between the literal reductionisms of language, communication and the economic dynamic of the “bottom line” to the dramatic rise in psychic pain, loss of identity and alienation of large swaths of the North America population, on both side of the 49th parallel. The fact that public discourse, including media vocabulary and perception, focuses on the sordid side of human misdemeanour and the statistics of how the economy is now and is projected to work, as well as strained attempts to draw comparisons of dynamics, personalities and outcomes from history with the objective “data points of now, leaves a gaping hole in the human appetite for new and imaginative ways of experiencing that shared “now”.
“Spin doctors” as a spiking growth industry, is just one of the many signs of a growing dependence on “managing the minds and perceptions” of customers, clients, voters and even sadly, institutes of higher learning. Words, sadly, are being physically, emotionally and psychically abused, just as are the millions of species we have lost in the last three or four decades. Reducing the public vernacular to the “lipstick” and the “mascara” and the “special effects” of the literary/imaginal/theatrical/fantasy artists on whose imaginations we have depended for centuries, for some, may hint at a convergence of the world of art and politics. For others of us, we see both the political and the artistic being shaped and sold for “ratings,” electoral victory, the individual resume, and the preservation of a perfect public image. And at the heart of this theatrical “production” is a dominant, richly funded, co-dependent and narcissistic (and mostly masculine) edifice over which the public masses are losing, or have lost, influence and possibly even control.
While this horrific and seemingly uncontrolled steam-roller of the public debasement of words is drowning the public airwaves and filling the ‘cloud,’ at the same time, among another demographic, the sale of books, both of fiction and non-fiction, in hard copy and on line, rises. So it is not that language is dying out completely.
Some reading data might be useful, for our shared consideration here. (From bookriot)
· According to “bookriot,” in 2017, in the U.S. people over 15 spent an average of 16.8 minutes a day reading (not including work or school), down from 22.8 minutes in 2005.
· Women read more than men, 19.8 minutes per day compared to 13.2, with men’s reading time declining more quickly than that of women.
· Those between 20 and 34 read the least (an average of 6.6 minutes per day, while those over 75 read an average of 51 minutes per day.
· The Pew Research Center reports that in 2018, the richest adults are three times more likely to read than those with a household income under $30k.
· College grads are five times more likely to pick up a book than high school grads.
· The NOP World Culture Score Index rates India as the country with the most reading per person, at eleven hours per week, with Thailand a distant second.
· Significant too, a study of K-12 student reading habits showed that six extra minutes of reading per day can turn a struggling reader into one who meets or surpasses their grade’s benchmark.
· Students who read 15 minutes or more per day (about 46%) made accelerated reading gains.
· Also, third grade students who are proficient in reading are almost five times more likely to graduate high school than their peers with below-basic reading skills.
· Compared to primetime TV, children’s books expose kids to 50% more words than primetime TV, according to a paper from University of California, Berkeley.
· A 2016 study showed book readers have a 20% reduction in risk of mortality, over 12 years compared to non-book readers
· Adults who read for 30 minutes a week reported feeling 20% more satisfied with their lives according to a Quick Read study.
· One study showed reading reduces stress by 68%, more so that listening to music, having a cup of tea or taking a walk.
Merely somewhat illustrative of some of the points above, the limited data supports the empirical impact of exposure, digestion, contemplation and sharing of words.
However, having spend a quarter of a century in classrooms dedicated to the “teaching” of English, I have noted a consistent, persistent and regrettable lack of enthusiasm, motivation, participation and engagement with the nuances and the images, the moods and the emotions of the words of novelists, both male and female, among male adolescents. Of course, needing to be factored into this non-scientific and purely anecdotal study, is the adolescent male public show of derision and disdain for anything that their female classmates consider significant, while they are universally drowning in the tidal wave of their own hormone growth and development. The occasional male exception to this pattern often takes the form and voice of young men arguing, debating and disagreeing in the class discussion of whatever specific title is under review. In fact, some of the most invigorating discussions in my experience were led by young men whose intellectual scores soared, while their reading/writing scores remained near the bottom of the scale.
It may seem a stretch to extrapolate any conclusive and definitive observations about the link between the adolescent English classroom of small Ontario towns and the decline in both reading habits and linguistic patterns of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, the Hillman observations about psychology’s detour into empirical, literal, binary evil/illness attributions and diagnoses and their parallel “remediative” therapeutic interventions, including an excessive dependence on pharmaceuticals and a spike in “talk” therapy, based on the tenets and approaches of C/B (Cognitive/Behavioural) in contemporary counselling services, we are witnessing a parallel and discouraging pathway into a kind of reduction of the premises underpinning the experience of millions of people needing psychological, emotional and social support. Band-aids of language, including body language and thinking strategies, as they are applied to an individual in the vortex of a culture which minimizes the fullness of the complexity, the subjectivity, the imagination and the uniqueness of each individual seem to be of limited effectiveness.
However, such policies and practices must comply with government’s budget constrictions on public expenditures for “medical services” in another of the multiple short-term, numbers-based (clients and dollars) approaches of a culture making short-sighted, minimal and public-relations-based decisions on behalf of the political class. At least in Ontario, all counselling covered by the health care system operates under the umbrella of a medical office, employing a corps of social workers, with the occasional psychiatrist for reference and for more profound and complex needs. Taking for granted the assumption of a transactional, cost-profit-driven model of reducing the human being to a medical case, a counselling case, a customer, the decision-makers rely on the silent compliance of the mass of people with their “thinking” and their assumptions. And the results, as James Hillman is determined to remind us, we have more therapy and are more ill at ease than ever.
I once asked a graduate of a school of finance to consider reading Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, a short, pungent, poetic and masculine piece of fiction depicting an old man’s catch of a marlin off the Florida Keys, only to have its flesh removed by other fish, leaving only a mere carcass for him to beach, as his trophy to be witnessed and shared by the young boy in his life. Its masculinity jumps from both the plot, a highly challenging and even life-threatening adventure of the kind that fascinated Hemingway and the economic and even sparse language of both the descriptions of the scenes and the actions. My request came after a protracted deep and unwavering experience of the resolute, tightly-locked, repressed and denied volcano of emotions that were roiling in the soul of the young man. After three or four years of waiting, I have given up on waiting for and expecting any word that the Hemingway book had found or will find its way before that man’s eyes and soul.
Again, anecdotal, personal recounting of a single narrative of personal experience does not a “research study” comprise. However, it might be a glimmer of light into what appears to be a deep-seated cultural pattern (today we apparently call them memes) of the reliance by many males especially on the numerical details of the black and white of the balance sheet and the pursuit of its remaining in “black” as opposed to sliding into the “red.” Corroborating narratives of the examination of literal pieces of evidence, stripped of the complexities of context, (to reduce the argument to its bare essentials), in so many varied and seemingly disparate fields (medicine, law, accounting, ecclesial leadership, engineering, environmental diagnosis and preservation) seem to offer additional support for the thesis.
Another male acquaintance sends weekly gifts of poetry through the digital universe, in his life-giving, and life-sharing pursuit of a community of minds, hearts imaginations and otherwise silent partners in his life-long love of poetry. A retired pediatrician, this man, whom I know only by name and gift, has an obvious and deeply-held conviction that through the exposure to, and receptivity of, and sharing of the complex and living “word” of our shared imaginations, is one pathway to the kind of “between” that Buber was imagining as the resting place of the deity, however it might be perceived or conceived.
Joseph Campbell writes these words in his Primitive Mythology, The Masks of God:
Animals area without speech, and one reason, surely, is their inability to play with sounds. They are without art—and the reason, again, is their inability to play with forms. Man’s capacity for play animates his urge to fashion images and organize forms in such a way as to create new stimuli for himself: sign stimuli, to which his nervous system may then react much in the way of an isomorph* to its releaser.
Campbell then quotes the British poet, A.E. Housman, on his triggering principle that is effective in the poetic impact:
Poetry seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in common with other, I received from America a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us. One of these symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite**: “A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.” Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keat’s last letters, where he says, speaking o f Fanny Brawne, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.” The seat of this sensation is the pit of my stomach. (A.E.Housman, The name and Nature of Poetry, (London Cambridge Press, and New York, The MacMillan Company, 1933, p. 144, as quoted by Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, the Masks of God, New York, Penguin Putnam, 1959, p.40-41
For additional exploration of poetry, for men, please refer to the worked edited by Robery Bly, James Hillman, and Mchael Meade, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.
*In the central nervous system of all animals there exist innate structures that are somehow counterparts of the proper environment of the species. The Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler has termed these structures in the central nervous system “isomorphs.” The animal, directed by innate endowment, comes to terms with its natural environment not as a consequence of any long, slow learning through experience, through trial and error, but immediately and with the certainty of recognition. (Joseph Campbell, op. cit. p 35)
**Eliophaz is called a Temanite. He appears in the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Epiphaz appears mild and modest. In his first reply to Job’s complaints, he argues that those who are truly good are never entirely forsaken by Providence but that punishment may justly be inflicted for secret sins. (Wikipedia)