“Language is the dress of thought” ~ Samuel Johnson
Just as our physical bodies house our intangible selves, so our words lend structure to our ideas. Until such time as we speak, put pen to paper, or apply our digits to the keyboard, our thoughts remain nothing more than restless potential confined to the closet of our mind.
To liberate them, we have to take them out and put them on. And this we do … in patterns of articulation as intricate as we are, tailored and woven with the threads of ages, in dazzling testimony to that faculty of self-consciousness that distinguishes us as human beings. It’s our singular capacity to recognize in ourselves the dual nature of existence that allows us to evolve grammars in equal homage to the subjective and objective experience.
For what are we but protagonists faced with the conundrum of physicality, cast into the potential for plot and cloaked in language with which to fashion a script? And what part can we play but that of the ‘other’ projected by our secret self, even as we stand to watch it bluff and blunder its way across the terrestrial stage? Every line we utter, like every pose we strike, is bound, by instinct and affiliation, to be both an expression and a reflection of our dynamic, plot-resolving essence. Likewise, all aspects of our language are mere restatements of the challenge of corporeality that defines us, right down to that fundamental factor we call ‘sentence’: the expression of an action or state of being, and an entity in performance thereof. Dogs bark…clouds part…children play…time flies…love heals. What are these but variations on the pivotal theme, I am? And what are the ’content’ words that comprise them but echoes of the substance of life itself?
Indeed, we see these content roles reenacted in all our more sophisticated forms of rhetoric, from explication to exhortation. Any truly successful communique proceeds naturally and inevitably from that same subject/object dynamic: the essayist supports her thesis, the philosopher explores his premise, the scientist proves her theory, and the lawyer makes his case. Yet, isn’t it in those tales we tell in imitation of ourselves that it’s most arguably overt? In fiction, the protagonist responds to the challenge of conflict just as the subject of the sentence responds to the object by means of the verb, so that any statement of plot reduced to bare bones (Poirot solves the mystery) will always correspond, syntactically, if not semantically, to the sentence at its simplest (the cow eats the grass). As such, the elements of each must, for the purposes of intelligibility, collaborate as an integral whole towards their common objective. In the sentence, the subject noun (cow) must AGREE with the verb (eats) in pursuit of the object (the grass); in the novel, the protagonist (Poirot) must stay on task (solves) in his response to the established conflict (the mystery).
Thus, in constructing clauses that remain true to the template of our experience, we render our communications fundamentally viable, and free ourselves, in the process, to embellish much as we see fit. Subjects and verbs, like protagonists and plots, only tend to blossom in the beam of a little creative modification. With the application of adjectives, adverbs and synonyms, “cow/eats/grass” becomes “hefty heifer/greedily munches/proceeds (of the) pasture”. Yet, as delicious as such content words may be when digested alone or in clusters, they can be rather harder to swallow when served up in savage succession, like a battery of mud pies. The critical task of civilizing the sentence, in that case, falls to ‘grammatical’ words such as articles, conjunctions, pronouns and prepositions, whose selfless servility urges them to run tireless interference on their more contentious cousins. Without them, mayhem is the order of the day. For all the good sense that can prevail in their absence, we might as well be told that the revolver rests at the bottom of the deep blue sea, only to see it pop up three pages later under a flower pot in the greenhouse.
Another obstacle to easy discourse may surface the moment the simple sentence, as so far defined, ventures into the realm of complexity. Without deft handling of syntax, a main clause mingled recklessly with sundry subordinates can prove something of a challenge to reform. Any competent mystery writer knows that to sequence her details of means, motive, and circumstance without attending to issues of clarity and accessibility is to forfeit her authorial integrity. Likewise, the author of the complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence should take pains to assemble his words, phrases, and clauses in such a way as to facilitate the free flow of logic between speaker and listener. For instance, if he decides to combine the main clause, “the cow ate grass”, with the subordinate clause “that made her sick”, and the prepositional phrase “in the moonlight”, he would do well, first, to visualize the potential consequences of his options. For if he says, “the cow ate grass that made her sick in the moonlight”, he might leave us with the impression that a trip to the stable is bound to cure what ails her; if, on the other hand, he says, “the cow ate grass in the moonlight that made her sick”, we might be prompted, instead, to marvel at the noxious properties of the moon. In order to avoid any such ambiguity, his best approach is to place one of the secondary elements at the beginning of the sentence for “in the moonlight, the cow ate grass that made her sick.”
But no matter how sophisticated these rhetorical ploys, they still constitute nothing more than the trappings of the sentence … those verbal accessories we don in the hope of rendering our part in the daily drama that much more convincing. And even if we flaunt them in layers of pomp and circumstance or try to hide within their specious folds, they can never give us refuge from the niggling quandary of ourselves. For at the end of the day, we are, each of us, stripped naked of the words we wear, only to succumb to that intangible called ‘sleep’. Thus, it’s dreams that have the final say. Advising us in tongues that mock our worldly notions of reason, they thresh our reality out of recognition, shuffle the chaff from the wheat, then serve it back to us in the morning in morsels of cryptic wisdom to do with what we will.
Carl Jung once said that “man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.” His words are fitting, indeed, in light of that ultimate conundrum: the mystery of “I am”. For perhaps, after all, the answer is not to be clamoured after, through fitful sounds and symbols, amid the branches of our being, but rather reconciled, in contemplative silence, somewhere deep within its root.