Words and particulars

I have just looked again at an article from Saturday’s Guardian, about the importance of preserving words, in particular, of words for elements of the landscape which are being lost as we lose our connections to the natural outside, beyond the urban indoors. As MacFarlane puts it:

Why should this loss matter? […] It matters because language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we deplete our ability to denote and figure particular aspects of our places, so our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. To quote the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry – a man who in my experience speaks the crash-tested truth – “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love we need a particularising language, for we love what we particularly know.”

This struck a chord for me, about the importance of paying attention to the particular, linking faint memories of feminist philosophy and the ethic of care, and thoughts I’ve had about the attentiveness required by figurative art.

When seeking to render a form in clay or charcoal or paint, you have to attend to its particular specificity. I was tempted to think that this attention to the particular is naturally non-verbal. That is, that the labels we have for, say, the features of a face get in the way of seeing, rather than help us observe what is really there. Having identified and applied a word we stop looking, because (we think) we know all we need to know. So we tend to draw a stereotypical eyes/nose/mouth as we assume they must be, rather than looking at how these fullnesses and hollows of unnameable forms meet to create the lines and contours we see as a unique person. Or we paint a world of blue sky and green grass, without looking at how the green is more like brown or purple, depending on light and shade and context. We would be better off, I thought, forgetting those labels, and looking with an innocent eye. It seemed to me that words (other than names) must be general, functioning as they do to refer to many particulars, reusable in many contexts.

But I was misled, I think, by having been immersed once upon a time in a philosophical suburb of writing, where generality, universality dominated, and academic aspirations to approach mathematical precision and abstraction led to a pretty impoverished vocabulary. So it is good to be reminded that language can be used to express attention to the particularity of things, as well as to the general. And the richer the vocabulary available to us, the more creatively attentive we can be.

From the same article:

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there,” observed JA Baker in The Peregrine (1967), a book that brilliantly shows how such seeing might occur in language, written as it is in prose that has “the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree”.

There’s something to aspire to.

paying attention to some drapery
paying attention to some drapery – plaster relief
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