George Carlin, G.K. Chesterton, and Jorge Luis Borges

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From Larry Getlen, "Conversations with Carlin", 2013:

Larry Getlen: Why are you so fascinated with words?

George Carlin: Because they’re all we have. Nature gave us this magnificent brain, which is so different from any that came before it. And the only way the wonders of this brain are shared and developed is through language – the exchange of ideas and communications and feelings. Words are the conveyors of all that. They’re magic. They’re mysterious and wonderful and magic.

A less optimistic spin from G.K. Chesterton, "Watt's Allegorical Paintings", 1904:

Every time one man says to another, "Tell us plainly what you mean?" he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. [...] He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest [...] Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.

Jorge Luis Borges used this quotation from Chesterton, in Spanish translation, to end his essay "El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins":

La imposibilidad de penetrar el esquema divino del universo no puede, sin embargo, disuadirnos de planear esquemas humanos, aunque nos conste que éstos son provisorios. El idioma analítico de Wilkins no es el menoos admirable de esos esquemas. Los géneros y especies que lo componen son contradictorios y vagos; el artificio de que las letras de las palabras indiquen subdivisiones y divisiones es, sin duda, ingenioso. La palabra salmón no nos dice nada; zana, la voz correspondiente, define (para el hombre versado en las cuarenta categorías y en los géneros de esas categorías) un pez escamoso, fluvial, de carne rojiza. (Teóricamente, no es inconcebible un idioma donde el nombre de cada ser indicara todos los pormenores de su destino, pasado y venidero.)

Esperanzas y utopías aparte, acaso lo más lúcido que sobre el lenguaje se ha escrito son estas palabras de Chesterton: "El hombre sabe que hay en el alma tintes más desconcertantes, más innumerables y más anónimos que los colores de una selva otoñal… cree, sin embargo, que esos tintes, en todas sus fusiones y conversiones, son representables con precisión por un mecanismo arbitrario de gruñidos y de chillidos. Cree que del interior de un bolsista salen realmente ruidos que significan todos los misterios de la memoria y todas las agonias del anhelo" (G. F. Watts, pág. 88, 1904).

 

The impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe cannot stop us from planning human patterns, even though we are concious they are not definitive. The analytic language of Wilkins is not the least admirable of such patterns. The classes and species that compose it are contradictory and vague; the nimbleness of letters in the words meaning subdivisions and divisions is, no doubt, gifted. The word salmon does not tell us anything; zana, the corresponding word, defines (for the man knowing the forty categories and the species of these categories) a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat. (Theoretically, it is not impossible to think of a language where the name of each thing says all the details of its destiny, past and future).

Leaving hopes and utopias apart, probably the most lucid ever written about language are the following words by Chesterton: "He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire" (G. F. Watts, page 88, 1904).

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7 Comments »

  1. Fernando Colina said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 12:10 am

    It's interesting that Carlin would say that words is all we have for communication. Watch one of his "dirty words" routines and see how much of it is not words.

  2. Karl Weber said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 6:20 am

    Of course, all three men are quite correct. It's obvious that, as Chesterton and Borges said, language is a flawed and often inadequate tool for communicating the ineffability of life. But it's also obvious that, as Carlin said, it's all we have. The result is a tragicomic dilemma that is endlessly fascinating and a major element in the poignancy of human existence.

  3. Mar Rojo said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 8:35 am

    Erm, a picture paints….

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 11, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    @Karl W. — Isn't the existence of the word ineffable proof of this?

  5. Lauren said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 12:35 am

    I don't know if it _is_ all we have. I'd argue that the point of art and literature is to express things that we are incapable of expressing plainly through language alone.

  6. J. K. Gayle said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    Thanks for the quotations. Here's a brief review of some of them, noting a much different way to understand Borges and Chesterton:

    http://bltnotjustasandwich.com/2013/12/12/borges-on-chesterton-forests-trees/

  7. Sili said,

    December 12, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

    To misquote Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must swear.

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