Who is on the plum tree?
We all interpret things differently. A word can conjure a host of different meanings. Perhaps it is not the word in itself that fills us with a certain response but how we appraise meaning based on cultural mores, emotional experience or distant memory. In this week’s poetry corner, Aprilia Zank explores this theme through the works of Henri Bergson. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1927 was awarded to Henri Bergson “in recognition of his rich and vitalizing ideas and the brilliant skill with which they have been presented”.
By Aprilia Zank.
Living in several languages, I have always been confronted with a greater or lesser amount of incongruities among them. No wonder then that the Sapir – Whorf principle of linguistic relativity has been a main concern of my research studies. Language as an imperfect means of expression and communication has been a much dealt with topic, but few authors have managed to provide such a wide-ranging insight into this issue as the French writer and philosopher Henri Bergson.
Much in the Whorfian vein, he was conscious of the far-reaching influence of language on humans’ structuring of reality. According to Bergson, we perceive an object as being constant because we always name it in the same way, thus disregarding its perpetual, even though sometimes minimal, changes. Language is all the more unreliable when talking about sensations, which, through their very nature, are difficult to grasp. As a matter of fact — and poets know it best – we live in a state of continual fluctuation of sensations and feelings. Yet, we have a limited inventory of words at our disposal to express them, which often enough causes us to think/say, “I can’t really find the proper words to convey what I’m feeling.”
As a tool of displaying inner states, language is, according to Bergson, wholly unsatisfactory. We are permanently induced to confuse feelings and sensations which are in a perpetual state of change with the words that express them. The structuring of reality through language misleads us into thinking of states of consciousness as distinct entities which can be put side by side in a fictitious, homogeneous medium which we call time, while, in reality, they pervade each other in a living, concrete time, named duration (la durée) by Bergson. This duration is heterogeneous in character and we can only be aware of it through our own states of consciousness, whereby even the word state is inappropriate, since consciousness is not static, but dynamic. This real time is not susceptible to measurement like conventional time, since it is not quantitative in character, but a sum of qualitative multiplicities.
As a basic element of language, “the rough and ready word”, as Bergson called it, comes to impose its own stability upon the fugitive impressions of individual consciousness and to restrict its potential. Each of us experiences love and hate in a particular way, yet the names for these feelings are constant. Words serve the social self, not the individual one.
While basically fully agreeing to Bergson’s assertions, I am trying not to ignore that it is precisely this shortcoming of language that compels wordsmiths all over the world to forge the language into original, intricate patterns of metaphors and other stylistic devices in order to create unique, unparalleled literary works.
(From Aprilia Zank’s book THE WORD IN THE WORD Literary Text Reception and Linguistic Relativity, LIT Verlag, Berlin, 2013)