Learn to Swym

David Cowles

Sep 1, 2022

“Language Endures. We Don’t” – now that is a bumper sticker!

If we’re lucky, we learn to swym at an early age. What’s that? No, you don’t have to live near water. I’m not talking about aquatics. I’m talking about swymming (Saying What You Mean)!


Working this morning on a future post for Thoughts While Shaving (TWS), I noticed I had typed the words (it doesn’t matter the context), ‘can be added to the pattern.’ OMG, I was horrified! How far that was from what I’d meant to communicate!


Philosophers (Freud, Derrida, even Pontius Pilate) hold that people say what they say, say what they mean, mean what they say, mean what they mean, - not quite a bumper sticker…maybe a billboard?


Accordingly, people who insist on a distinction between speech and meaning are said to be living in bad faith. What you say is what you mean. Unless you’re deliberately lying, there’s no other way it could be. Accept it!


If I say something other than what I think I mean to say, we call that a Freudian Slip. What you said is what you meant, even if you don’t think you intended to say it.


Are the philosophers right? Do I always say exactly what I mean and mean exactly what I say, even if I don’t realize it at the time? I think I meant to say, “add to the pattern,” rather than “can be added to the pattern”. But did I?


Wait, hold up, you’re asking me to read through this entire essay knowing that it is devoted to the difference between “add to the pattern” and “can be added to the pattern”. That’s 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.


I understand, but yes, that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do. Stick with it! I think it will be worth your while.


So, what is the difference between can be added to the pattern and add to the pattern? Only everything! By writing “can be added to the pattern” instead of “add to the pattern,” I did three momentous things:


  • I created an entirely new entity out of thin air, The Pattern Maker, an imaginary entity as it turns out. (I imagine him with Chaucer’s gang on the famous pilgrimage to Canterbury! I wonder how the Pattern Marker’s Tale would have read…but I digress.)


  • I transformed an organic Pattern (subject) into an inert product (object) of the Pattern Maker’s praxis.


  • I sacrificed something organic and potentially alive, consigning it forever to Hades, the Realm of the Inert (Shades), Dante’s Land without Hope.


Using language, I can literally play God. The 20th Century American poet, Ezra Pound, wrote at the very end of his Cantos, “I have tried to write Paradise.”


I wasn’t necessarily shooting for ‘Paradise in a TWS post,’ but I had not intended to re-write the Inferno either. Short of divinity itself, language is perhaps the most powerful tool in our environment.


I had wanted to say that the Pattern is real, preeminently so; that it is a process, that is in process, that spatial pattern is a temporal process; that it’s growing and may even be alive. But I didn’t get there, did I? How come?


Even Pontius Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written!” Can’t I be at least as truthful as Pilate? He didn’t set a very high bar after all, but it’s a bar I can’t reach! On the cosmic stage, I must take a seat behind Pilate – not what my parents hoped for when they brought me home from the hospital, I’m sure.


“I can’t,” yup, you read right: “can’t.” Can’t what? Can’t ‘Swim’ – Can’t ‘Say What I Mean.’ At least I can’t do so regularly and reliably. Why not? Because when I write (or speak) I am not only expressing what is on my mind in that instant, but whether I like it or not, I am also expressing everything that’s ever been on anyone’s mind since the dawn of consciousness.


I certainly carry a heavy burden, don’t I? But why? And how so? Because I use language when I speak and language (any language) is the permanent record of humanity’s intellectual history - not just English, not just Indo-European, but all human history.


Disgraced politicians can be air-brushed out of photos, offensive language can be excised from a book…and we wonder why God laughs, “It’s not what you say, Stupid, it’s the language you use to say it.” And as often is the case, God is right.


Tongue-tied in front of a live audience? Don’t be! All you’re doing (with your words) is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic (language). The faster you finish up, the sooner we can get some umbrella drinks over here.


I’m reminded of Agatha Christie, an expert on poisons: the poison is not in the tea, silly, it’s in the cup; it’s not on the tip of the arrow, it’s on the bow string. With language, to the extent that it’s like a poison, the poison is not in the message but in the medium, not in the words but in the language that contains those words. The medium is indeed the message.


When I use language, I tap into the collective mind of the human race, and that mind is very, very conservative (ontologically conservative, not necessarily politically conservative). By using language, I am effectively punctuating the end of every natural sentence with these words: “As it was, as it is, as it shall ever be.”


Language is like the ‘selfish gene’ in evolutionary biology. It perpetuates itself and colonizes its environment with the voracious appetite of a European explorer. It is a self-replicating code turned loose into the subways and sewers of New York City.


I didn’t create it, and I’m not aware that I have symptoms, but boy am I ever contagious! Keep your distance, please. (I’ll wear a mask if you’ll wear ear plugs!)


In biology, phenotypical forms (like you and me) are just along for the ride. The genotype is where the action is! Phenotypes do play a role, however. We function as catalysts. We energize and shape chemical reactions, but we are never conserved in the final product. “Language Endures; We Don’t” – now that is a bumper sticker!


Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far about the world I risked inadvertently creating:

  • Entities come and go, driven in and out of existence by whim, by chance or by accident.


  • The real is imaginary (the Pattern), and the imaginary is real (the Pattern-Maker).


  • We suck the breath out of whatever’s alive and futilely breath it into what is not.


This is a true ‘Upside Down’ world, far surpassing Oz, Wonderland, Looking-glass World, even Stranger Things (Netflix). Language alone has turned the world we thought we know into something like the Oscar winning pre-teen movie, Moloch meets Frankenstein’s Monster (I can’t see that movie often enough!)


What would it be like to live in such a world? Not pretty:


  • Instead of worshiping the living and true God (YHWH), we might fashion and worship lifeless idols.


  • We would find ourselves susceptible to all sorts of self-destructive impulses such as pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.


  • We might find hedonism, injustice, violence and even war running rampant.


Thank God we’re not there! When I inadvertently typed, ‘can be added to the pattern’ instead of ‘add to the pattern,’ I almost conjured up this upside-down world. (Fortunately, I think I caught myself in time…at least I hope I did.)


Can you imagine the trouble we’d be in if ever we lived in a world like that?



 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.


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