Read the second part at The Gift of Language- II
In the hands of a master, the words can be made to convey a lot more than they mean. They can create a mood of poignancy or nostalgia. They can create the exquisite anticipation of the moment before the sun breaks over the horizon and makes good his promise.
To demonstrate what words can do, here is a passage from my favorite writer Ayn Rand, quoted from her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged:
“Dagny . . . the man who invented that motor . . . he did exist, didn’t he?”
“Why . . . of course. What do you mean?”
“I mean only that . . . that it’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it? Even if he’s dead now, he was alive once … so alive that he designed that motor. . . “
“What’s the matter, Hank?”
“Nothing. Tell me about the motor.”
She told him about her meeting with Dr. Stadler. She got up and paced the room, while speaking; she could not lie still, she always felt a surge of hope and of eagerness for action when she dealt with the subject of the motor.
The first thing he noticed were the lights of the city beyond the window: he felt as if they were being turned on, one by one, forming the great skyline he loved; he felt it, even though he knew that the lights had been there all the time. Then he understood that the thing which was returning was within him: the shape coming back drop by drop was his love for the city.
Then he knew that it had come back because he was looking at the city past the taut, slender figure of a woman whose head was lifted eagerly as at a sight of distance, whose steps were a restless substitute for flight. He was looking at her as at a stranger, he was barely aware that she was a woman, but the sight was flowing into a feeling the words for which were: This is the world and the core of it, this is what made the city—they go together, the angular shapes of the buildings and the angular lines of a face stripped of everything but purpose—the rising steps of steel and the steps of a being intent upon his goal—this is what they had been, all the men who had lived to invent the lights, the steel, the furnaces, the motors— they were the world, they, not the men who crouched in dark corners, half-begging, half-threatening, boastfully displaying their open sores as their only claim on life and virtue—so long as he knew that there existed one man with the bright courage of a new thought, could he give up the world to those others?—so long as he could find a single sight to give him a life-restoring shot of admiration, could he believe that the world belonged to the sores, the moans and the guns?—the men who invented motors did exist, he would never doubt their reality, it was his vision of them that had made the contrast-unbearable, so that even the loathing was the tribute of his loyalty to them and to that world which was theirs- and his.
I experience a range of emotions when I read this passage. I become the proverbial fly on the wall as the drama unfolds. I see the slumped shoulders of a man who is disillusioned and dejected and is on the verge of ‘giving up’ as he speaks the first line.
I see the quick concern of the woman as she leans forward to ask the man why he is despondent. The man, loath to worry her, pretends a normalcy he is far from feeling and asks about the motor, knowing she would be distracted. I reach the place where I feel faint warmth of hope under a blanket of despondency. Gradually, as the passage/ conversation proceeds, you see the man raising his head, then sitting up straight, then squaring his shoulders. Finally, he matches the woman… as restlessly joyous as she is… as full of eager hope as she is.
This range of emotions could also have been communicated flatly. Ms Rand could have written thus:
Hank was absolutely dejected. He had no idea how he was to cope with the world. He didn’t even want to cope with it. There was no point.
For her sake, he forced himself to show an interest he did not feel. He asked her about the motor.
She told him about Dr Stradler. She began walking up and down because she couldn’t sit still when she spoke of the motor. As she spoke, he caught her excitement. Slowly, hope returned to him. He decided that he could not give up on the world as long as there remained a single man or woman of purpose in it.
Hardly the same, is it? While conveying almost the same essentials and being factually accurate, the two passages are as different as the ocean and a bucket of water. Mind you, it has nothing to do with the length of the second passage. It could have been expanded with some more inane words rambling all over the place. They would still have missed the opportunity to add color and depth to the reading experience.
Without language our life experience would lack the richness brought to it by imagination. Our world view would be limited to the range of our direct perception.
You would have felt as if your voice had been silenced forever… as if you were sealed in a container and thrown to the bottom of a still, limpid lake… never to be heard from again. Even if you manage to delve deeper than the superficial level of direct perception,how would that experience be shared without language ? Being the social creatures we are, how are such experiences to be validated if they couldn’t be shared? Without validation, how real would the experience be?
They say your words become your thoughts. The reverse is equally true.
We take language for granted. We have steeped it in acrimony and conflict when we could have made it a tool for harmony. Our words can make music instead of emitting a screech of discord. Language wields a palette which has the ability to alter intensity and add vibrancy making the dullest moment into a glowing, magical wonder.
What pictures does your language paint?
Hmm! Not one of my favorite thinkers – Ayn Rand. I felt too much like she says, “Agree with me and you are a good guy. Otherwise you are evil” 🙂 Every philosophical school of thought has its pros and cons and anyone who neglects to be open to the possibility of the good in the other and the bad in one’s own indulges in rhetoric – and rhetoric is the enemy of rationality. (Ayn Rand is, in part, responsible for the strong belief in unfettered capitalism that recently nearly brought the world to its knees)
That digression apart – there is no denying the power of her words. Indeed, powerful rhetoric requires far more command over words than powerful logic does 🙂
I remember your reservations about Ayn Rand. You have expressed them before.
Rhetoric can hardly be powerful without picturesque vocabulary, and she was good at painting powerful word pictures…
Thank you for coming by. 🙂
I liked Ayn Rand’s philosophy but it is an extreme opposite of being selfless. There has to be a balance.
As for using the language, I think your thoughts should be portrayed clearly and precisely. What is the use of eloquence if you are not able to get your point through someone’s skull?
Someday we will talk about Ayn Rand. Maybe. 🙂
Incidentally, what do you think of the biblical declaration which says- The meek shall inherit the earth? No, it isn’t a trick question. Sachhi! 🙂
Hi, I’ve read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead once. Though I don’t agree much with her philosophy, I love the way she wrote. Your post has inspired me to go through her writing again.
A large part of people’s disagreement with Ms Rand’s work is due to misinterpretation. We have attributed certain meanings to specific words. Yet those words were never meant to mean what they have now ended up meaning. Ms Rand merely refers to those words in their original context while clarifying her context.
I am pleased you are inspired to read her again. Do let me know how that progresses. I’d love to hear from you on this. 😀