Monday, August 19, 2013

How to Kill a Language

              Over the weekend I helped move my brother to Philadelphia. On the way there, we got into a philosophical/theological discussion which, at first, centered on the question of what is and is not art. My contention was that some things simply are not art, while his, as I understood it, was that whether something counts as art or not depends on whether anyone decides to call it art.
                I won’t discuss the question of art here; that’s not my point. What I do want to discuss is this tendency – which I believe is fairly widespread – to chafe at clear definitions; art is whatever someone happens to like. Marriage is whatever the partners decide it is. Right and wrong are what I say they are. This is supposed to be ‘freeing;’ a defense against dogmatism, stagnation, and hide-bound unoriginality. In a sense it is, but at a terrible cost.
                The trouble with saying “art is something I happen to like” is that we already have a perfectly serviceable term for “something I happen to like.” I’d be better and less misleading, therefore, to simply say “I like this work” rather than to say “this is a piece of art.”
                You see what’s happened? By expanding the definition of art to the point that anything and everything could be considered art, we’ve destroyed the concept of art entirely. There’s no point in using the term. We’ve killed it.
                This isn’t a new phenomenon; Lewis described it in the introduction to Mere Christianity with regards the word ‘gentleman.’ A gentleman, he reminds us, once meant simply a man with landed property, before being expanded to the point that it simply means ‘a good man.’ But we already had a number of words and terms for ‘a good man,’ meaning that there was no call for one more, and now the word has been rendered almost useless in its original meaning, leaving a vacuum in the language that can only be patched with tedious and pedantic clarifications.
                The whole point of a language is that words mean something specific, and correlatively that they don’t mean other things. The word ‘gentleman,’ in its original form, meant what it meant and, consequently, could never apply to an honest shopkeeper, however virtuous and courteous he may be. It was only when the shopkeepers (or, more likely, the journalists and novelists who purported to speak for the shopkeepers) became jealous of the word and its connotations that the meaning changed so that it could be truly said that the shopkeeper was a gentleman. The trouble was, by then there was no point in saying it at all, since you only mean the same thing as you meant when you said he was a good man.
                We’re all familiar with the story of the hypnotist who fell in love with a woman and, out of desire, hypnotized her so that he could make her love him. But once he did, he realized that what he had left was nothing but an empty shell, and everything he had loved or which could love him in return was gone. That’s the same dynamic at work in language: when we jealously look on at high concepts and phrases which, by definition, don’t apply to us, when we furiously try to make them apply to us, to change the terms to suit ourselves, rather than ourselves to suit the terms, we may succeed and claim the title ‘gentleman’ or ‘artist.’ But in the process we’ve robbed those terms of any meaning and are left with nothing but empty connotations; jargon and double-speak and platitudes, in other words. The reality that the words attempted to describe remains unchanged; there are still such things as landed gentry and art. Only now we have no words to describe them.
                It’s entirely reasonable to discuss definitions, or to discuss whether a particular object fits the agreed definition. It’s not reasonable to throw up our hands and say “it means whatever you think it means.” That deadens the intellect and darkens reality. It murders language in the name of inclusiveness. For my part, I think occasionally hearing “sorry, this just doesn’t count” is a small price to pay to have my words actually mean something. 

Vive Christus Rex!

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