Saturday, May 8, 2010

Words as Organs

One of my walks around here, the one to the south and to the east, invariably produces more interesting thoughts—and many more rabbits. Sometimes I wonder if planetary alignments have something to do with that? In any case, the other day, it struck me that words might be seen as organs—limited instrumentalities that enable greater wholes to function. And while my emphasis here is on limited, the context is meanings; limited, therefore, does not exclude other notions such as concentration or resonance. Take a word like diaspora. Now there’s a pregnant word with vast meanings highly concentrated and with all manner of resonance. But the word is restricted. Its resonance does not readily produce, say, a word like turnip or concerto.

Thinking of words as organs, thus as alive with meanings, suggests that, like us, they also have a body and a soul. The body is a unique sound or sequence of letters; the soul is attached to this underlying structure as its meaning. Now the interesting thing about this particular body-soul duality is that in this case the body survives and may support a succession of souls, whereas (especially in systems that hold with metempsychosis) the human body perishes whereas the soul just keeps on going. Thus words can change their meanings, and in doing so make language extraordinarily fluid. Brandon on Siris addressed this subject yesterday regarding the meaning of “event.” I keep examining words in this manner too, most recently tackling “complexity.” To extend the body-soul image further, word-bodies easily support more than one soul. A race for instance may be a competition or a subspecies.

My walk the other day, however, meandered in the direction of life. I thought about the life of language, and the greater wholes that the endlessly many organs of language engender—from simple thoughts that, to become concrete, need to be embodied in words on up to grand structures of meaning in which vast numbers of hardworking organs together produce a symphony. But it is odd, when you put it like this, to think of a word like liposuction as serving a purpose functionally equivalent to that of some organ in the body—like our liver. And it also makes you realize how much grander the vistas of thought are than the bodies in which they take place and which support them.

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