Posts Tagged ‘concepts’
Words have a definite meaning. That is the first point every writer must address (though of course not every writer answers that question as I just have).
In fact, it’s become fashionable to say that language is arbitrary, and definitions are, at best, approximations. Indeed, many writers accept these tenets without even realizing that they’ve accepted them and without any regard for the fact that it’s not actually possible to write clearly unless you know the meaning of the words you’re using.
If you don’t know the meaning of the words you’re using, your writing will be unclear, and readers will not grasp your intent.
Clarity is the number one priority in all issues of writing style.
It is certainly true that language evolves, and that words develop new nuances and new meanings. This is natural and it is good.
This natural process does not, however, negate objectivity, but just the opposite: the evolutionary process of language is gradual, so that at any given period, the words you’re using do possess a definite meaning.
If a word does not possess a definite meaning, it’s a non-word (and there are examples of these: “postmodernism” being one of them).
What I’ve just described is the place from which every writer must proceed: Words possess a definite meaning. That is the beginning. This point is critical to note, because it’s the foundation upon which the rest of all literary knowledge is built.
But to fully understand the nature of words, we must ask ourselves next: what are words, exactly?
Words are what philosophers call abstractions. Abstractions are the human method of grasping things in nature. Our brains work by means of abstractions — i.e. concepts — which are, in essence, words.
For instance, when as a child you first discovered the meaning of the word “pencil,” you had to at some point be shown what in actuality a pencil is — i.e. this object. Once you learned that that’s what the word “pencil” referred to, the word was absorbed and retained by your brain, so that thereafter when you heard or saw the word “pencil,” you knew automatically what a pencil was. You grasped the actual thing in reality that is a pencil, and that knowledge paved the way for you to differentiate it from, for example, a pen, or a crayon.
That, in a nutshell, is the uniquely human method of learning, which language empowers us with.
Thus you yourself learned to use the word pencil in a meaningful way: The sentence “I write with a pencil” became for your mind not an unintelligible string of words, but denoted an act that you understood.
That very process which I’ve just described is, in abbreviated form, the process we all must go through in learning every single word we know.
The art of writing is this same process in more intensive form.
Why, though, is this important?
Art by definition is communication — communication between the artist and the audience. If it’s not communicable, it’s not art.
If in your literature you reject the notion that language is definite, you will not only confuse and frustrate your readers, but worse: you will confuse and frustrate yourself, because you won’t know the meaning of the things you’re trying to communicate.
And that is why intelligibility is the hallmark of quality art.
Stories are important because human beings are conceptual.
This among other things means that humans survive by use of their reasoning brains.
Humans evolved neither the balls of bulls, nor the trunks of elephants, nor the claws of bears, nor the necks of giraffes, but the brains of Homo sapiens, with a capacity to think.
And we think by means of abstractions.
Thus, stories (as with all other proper forms of art) concretize our abstractions.
“The function of art is to recreate, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous, more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon.”
Said Oscar Wilde.
Art starts with an abstraction, such as jealousy, and, in an artistic work like Othello, shows us how in human life jealousy manifests.
Jealousy is the abstraction. How Shakespeare dramatized it is his play is the concrete.
The degree to which a story (or any other artistic creation) persuades or seems plausible is the degree to which it is good or bad.
Painting and drawing perform the same function as Othello but in a purely visual manner.
Sculpture does so by visual-tactile means.
Music — which is unique among the arts — captures emotional abstractions, via sound, so that when you hear music, you feel yourself perhaps excited, or melancholic, or thoughtful, or sexy.
To qualify as a legitimate art form, the medium must have the power to convey ideas (i.e. abstractions) in a perceptual form — which is to say immediately.
This is why culinary art is not, in the true sense, an actual art but a skill: the best foie gras in the world cannot convey even the simplest human abstraction, let alone something as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And the same thing is true of sewing, gem-cutting, carpentry, and many, many other difficult skills and trades as well. They don’t qualify as actual art, valuable and important as they may be, simply because they don’t have the power to capture or convey a wide range of abstract meaning. They cannot, in other words, objectify reality through their medium.
That is what art does. It objectifies the human experience. That is why art is a necessity.
To truly qualify as art, the medium must be able to reproduce nature and then infuse that data with conceptual content.
Abstractions, as previously stated, are thoughts — or, to put that more precisely, abstractions are the human way of grasping reality. We do this by means of thought. And we think by means of words.
Art assists in this. Which is why, philosophically speaking, esthetics is a sub-branch of epistemology: the science of thought.
Stories recast reality and show us our abstractions made solid. In this way, stories enhance reality, as all art does.
It is, paradoxically, artists themselves who are among the most inarticulate when it comes to explaining the nature and function of their art, and so to get beyond their artsy mumbo-jumbo so that we can see at last what gives rise to art, we needn’t listen to the artists and the critics but instead observe how the artistic drive develops in children.
Observe the stories that children write. Observe what the child with that big stick of sidewalk-chalk draws upon the concrete:
A large yellow crescent with blue stars around it.
A white house in a green field.
A blazing sun over black mountains.
Ask yourself: what drives the child to make those drawings. What drives the child to tell those stories? What is that child thinking about that makes her want to set it down in concrete form? What dictates her subject-matter? Why did she choose this and not that?
What, in short, is the child doing? And what is that process doing for her?
Why did prehistoric humans paint animals and hunting scenes upon cave walls? What drove that urge? Why did they tell stories? Why did these men and women choose the subjects they chose? And what did those stories and paintings fulfill within them?
Why have humans always invented stories?
Why have humans always enjoyed listening to those stories, or seeing them played out?
Why the human invention of musical instruments?
Why did David “dance with all his might before the lord”?
What need is being fulfilled in all this?
The answer to these questions is the same:
Each one of those things, through whichever medium, captures the abstract and makes it real and immediate.
Humans — the rational animal — need this because our rational mind operates in the opposite manner: it is thoughtful, it is inductive, it is long-range. Art brings the entirety of the universe into our immediate perceptual ken.
Art makes the conceptual perceptual.
That is why stories are important.
There is no mood or passion that art cannot give us…. Art is mind expressing itself under the conditions of matter, and thus, even in the lowliest of her manifestations, she speaks to both sense and soul alike…. It is through art, and only through art, that we can realize our perfection; through art, and through art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence…. Like Aristotle, like Goethe after he had read Kant, we desire the concrete, and nothing but the concrete can satisfy us.
– Oscar Wilde