Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Plant Whisperer

In high school, I enjoyed reading William Faulkner's meandering sentences. I often contrasted Faulkner's verbosity with Ernest Hemingway's short, punctuated descriptions. Despite their dramatic stylistic differences, both writers excel as story tellers, but it was the writing itself, the technique, that made or broke a piece.

These days, though I'm more inclined to read non-fiction, I struggle through poorly crafted work, no matter how excellent the narrative or the conceit. I'm a pretentious reader, I suppose. Fortunately, there are many contemporary essayists who excel at their craft. The prose of Edward Hoagland and William Gass, to offer two notable examples, is often so compelling that I am moved to read it aloud.

Superior writing should not remain on the page; it must be released, through annunciation. This is most often true of poetry. Designed for the ear as much as the mind, the best verse floats somewhere between abstract instrumentation and lucid communication.

I was therefore delighted to stumble upon William Gass's essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form: What Can We Do To Find Out How Writing Is Written?" in the most recent issue of BookForum. Gass's best passages make me purr with satisfaction or, less happily, make me aware of my relative failings as a writer. Consider the following selection.
"When we breathe, we take in the oxygen we need to live, but we also acquire at the same time the air necessary to form words, and these are sent forth, when we exhale, in the same way that the lion growls or the hyena chortles. Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life and was once identified with the soul. Don't fall for phrases like 'gut feeling' or 'coming from the heart.' Language is born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth, and tongue out of spent breath - that is, from carbon dioxide. That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written."
A friend once told me that he sometimes became sexually aroused when reading good literature. At the time, I laughed off this idea; I was convinced that he was exaggerating. Years later, I'm not so sure. Though my literary pleasures are never sexual, they remain a form of intense arousal, a brief euphoria that can be cultivated and revisited. As Gass puts it, "That is why plants like being spoken to. Language is speech before it is anything."

Photo credit: ripped from the Access Excellence Health website


Devo said...

Language is truly a wonderful thing in the right hands... er, mouths? Word processors? Minds? I guess that rather slippery question/observation kind of brings to light one of my favorite properties of language. Where does it exist? In the mind of the writer? In the mind of the reader? On a page? All of the above? A bit post-modern and "death of the author" perhaps, but still an interesting thought experiment. Does "language" exist a priori in and of itself, out there in the universe, as an entity for us to channel individually? Does it exist in the mind of the composer? If so, when a reader apprehends that language, what sort of transformation takes place if the reader doesn't properly understand the motive of the writer? Is it simply a matter of the reader being unable to faithfully reproduce the thought pattern that the writer initially built, or is there some sort of process that is more complicated taking place? This all gets into almost mystical properties of language, which I believe none have explored with more passion and magnesium-fire-bright illumination than the likes of Nietzsche, Heidegger and George Steiner. Man, those guys knew more about language than god!

I'm particularly smitten with the literary density of Heidegger's collection of lectures entitled "Poetry, Language, Thought", after the evolution he believed that language followed. Most interesting, if you can decipher it!!!

Devo said...

Addendum: upon re-reading my comment, I notice the somewhat humorous ambiguity of the phrase "those guys knew more about language than god"... is that to say that they knew more about language than god does, or that they knew more about language than they knew about god? Looking back, I can't honestly say... they sure had some deep thoughts about both phenomena though (or noumena, more specifically, as neither language NOR god can be accurately described as phenomena!!)

hemlock said...

Interesting. Good literature = sexual arousal. OK.

Someone I spent the summer with contantly read philosophy books and other 'heady' stuff.

I just shook my head and took my Harry Potter elsewhere.

Perhaps I'm only a simpleton, but I like books to provide escapism...and take me away to a fun (or scary!) place...not to test me.

I guess that's just me.

Hungry Hyaena said...


You do know how to open up a philosophical can of worms. I tend to think of language as I do music, as something that is channeled individually. However, I've read some fascinating interpretations that frame the relationship of language - that is, the sounds we make - to symbol and, then, to communicated content very differently. It's one of those things we can lose a lot of sleep over....or use as a sleep aid, depending on the mood.

I've been meaning to read some Heidegger and, one day soon, I'll get to him.


As for the link between sexual arousal and literature, you'll have to find my friend and take it up with him. I've never been aroused by literature or a good essay - at least not in that department - but he claims it happened frequently.

I don't believe you are necessarily a simpleton because you seek escapism when you pick up a book. When I go to the video store I don't always look for "heady" films. Sometimes I like a little action. Sometimes I'm in the mood for a good laugh. It just happens that when I look for a book I gravitate toward theory, philosophy or biology/conservation. I don't think my "heady" preference - or that of your summer friend - should make you shake your head any more than I should shake my head at your reading Harry Potter. (In fact, I've been told J.K. Rowling has improved her writing dramtically. I look forward to reading the series one day. I tried to read the second book a couple of years back but only made it a few chapters. It was poorly written and undigestable, but I've been assured by other self-confessed pretentious fops that Rowling soars - or at least levitates - in the later books!)

Just a girl said...

I think I am in love.

Devo said...

First, I've only read Potter books Three and beyond. And I've enjoyed them. I think they're fun, and while not necessarily heady or challenging, they certainly outline a discernible maturation. And that's fun to watch.

As for Heidegger, I can't suggest George Steiner's "Heidegger" enough. It recaps and tries (as best as one can) to summarize Heidegger's thought process and intellectual growth. This has probably been done hundreds of times by hacks and geniuses alike, but I find Steiner to be an intellectual in the mold of ol' H himself, and therefore, I see his attempt as the one done in best faith, and with most talent. Reading it is just as fascinating and way more compelling than reading Heidegger's own (translated) words. Steiner is certainly one of language's more gifted magicians, and when he's channelling a behemoth mind such as Heidegger's, fireworks ensue.

Bradford said...

Like music, or the lyrical qualities of visual art, language in spoken or written form has meter and flow; brusque, soothing or anything in between. This is why translations are problematic as they are in many ways a different opinion.

The citation of William Gass is apt as he has provided much insight and much to ponder for yourself about the nature of literature in all its forms. One of the most compelling readings I ever attended was at the International Writer's Center of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The guest was Steven Millhauser who read his novella, The Barnum Museum.

The introduction, by William Gass, was really more than that. It was one of the most delightful and captivating essays I've ever heard or read. Before Steven Millhauser even took the lectern, I wanted a copy of that "introduction". It was a great way to prepare for the speaker whose prose weaves its own magic. Not every author can read their work and impart even more meaning in the words spoken, but that evening was an example of virtuoso literature of the highest order.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I look forward to an opportunity to hear Gass talk.