November 27, 2004

A Miscommunication About Communication

Last Wednesday at about 2:30 pm I drove off campus with Ashley, Audra, Rachel, and Uncle Doug, bound for West Texas. I had spent the lion's share of the preceding 72 hours writing two and a half papers. In fact, I finished revisions on my History of the English Language paper in the computer labs, sent a copy to Dr. Watson, printed out a copy for myself, and walked directly outside to climb into the car so we could leave.

I was quite satisfied with my paper, as I had successfully incorporated three of my favorite subjects (myth, literature, and communication) and kept the length down to five pages. Of course, I discussed the entire topic mostly in very general terms as any further detail would have required at least four times the length. I might have the inclination to write such a thing, but I certainly don't have the time.

Ironically, the main title of the paper itself applies equally well to the circumstances surrounding both it and me over the course of the next few days.

Uncle Doug read my paper and we discussed it during the drive. My mother read it the following evening, and . . . Yeah. She read it. And Asa read it in the car the following afternoon as we drove to Plainview and we discussed it. I had plans to post it here upon my return, and all was well.

All was well, that is, until late Saturday evening when, during a calm after-dinner discussion, a few careless remarks about the paper erupted into an abnormally violent tempest in a teacup. To make a long story short, I was provoked into picking a fight with three people who hadn't the foggiest idea what I was trying to say in my paper, but generally disagreed on principle, and in fact were quite offended by the implications of a few of my conclusions.

In an ill-advised move on my part, I didn't even attempt to exercise any restraint, arguing loudly and abrasively . . . I know how these people think, and I know where their blind spots are, and on issues involving religion (and, hey, what doesn't?) they have a blind spot you could hide a train in.

It could have been a discussion. We could have engaged in a mutual sharing of ideas and opinions. But they chose to be deliberately obtuse and take offense instead. And I chose to be annoyed by their narrow-mindedness rather than sympathetic and helpful. The results were disastrous. Perhaps someday soon I will prepare a post that will fully explain my views on the subject we discussed . . . But for now I will just post my paper instead.

Comments and criticisms are welcome. And if you choose to be offended as well, tell me why, and with what . . . I am almost always more reasonable when discussing something in writing than when I am arguing something in person.

And Thereby Hangs a Tale: Character, Communication, and Culture in Literary Allusion

Allusion is an act or instance of referencing an outside source without specifically identifying it. It is almost always expected that the audience will know the source of, or at least be familiar with, the reference and so either achieve a more complete understanding of the speaker’s meaning or share in the camaraderie of mutual knowledge.

In other words, allusions are the inside jokes of the surrounding culture. However, modern Americans show an increasing apathy towards the most lasting and significant allusions their past has to offer, relying almost exclusively on popular culture instead. The slowly dying cause of past-cultural literacy and past-cultural allusion is worth championing in order both to preserve and perpetuate what has come before as part of the growing group consciousness of the story (and stories) of human existence since time immemorial.

The more culturally literate people are, the more common ground they will potentially be able to find with others. Additionally, human beings naturally tend to use allusions in conversation, especially when they are, or wish to seem, familiar with each other. However, too much reliance on allusions only serves to block or dilute effective communication. The use of allusions brings about a sort of catch-22 for the culturally literate communicator.

Say, for instance, that you’re planning a vacation with the help of a travel agent and he is discussing the possibility of visiting various European cities with you. The first option sounds good, and as you continue to listen you realize that none of the other options will work. Returning to the first choice, you say to him, “Well, we’ll always have Paris.” Now, that remark might amuse you personally, but the entire point of making it was to share the joke. However, unless your travel agent is familiar with the 1942 movie Casablanca, he will have no idea that your remark meant anything unusual. In this case, he understands that you wish to travel to Paris, but he has failed to get your joke. This is a mild example, particularly since an allusion is often meaningless and even nonsensical when divorced from its original context.

And yet, an examination of our most common and lasting clichés, myths, and allusions reveals reason behind their perennial value. The use of clichés, for instance, becomes an easy way out of investing enough effort to coin one’s own metaphor, idiom, or analogy; one can simply substitute a phrase that is or was true enough to become overused. Clichés are seen, particularly in creative writing, as being the unoriginal products of a lazy mind, and they’re despised for it; yet everyone knows exactly what the words convey precisely because they have heard them before.

Take, for instance, the commonplace expression “right as rain.” The original context of this cliché is unknown beyond the fact that it originated in Britain, probably in the late nineteenth century. But although we have no real idea why it was phrased that way, we know that it means that whatever it is applied to is in good order.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his chapter on language from Nature, discourses very eloquently (although not always correctly) on a number of interesting points. His principle on the development of language applies to cliché as well:

Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right originally means straight; wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind . . . We say the heart to express emotion, the head to denote thought; and thought and emotion are, in their turn, words borrowed from sensible things and now appropriated to spiritual nature (Emerson 889).

Over time, clichés, like words themselves, come to mean something more broad than what they formerly meant. The semantic ranges of the phrases can widen to include the commonplace definition. In some cases, the number of words needed to express a potentially complex idea also shrinks. “In like manner, the memorable words of history, and the proverbs of nations, consist usually of a natural fact, selected as a picture or parable of a moral truth . . . In their primary sense these are trivial facts, but we repeat them for the value of their analogical import. What is true of proverbs, is true of all fables, parables, and allegories” (Emerson 892).

Myth reveals a different aspect of the same principle. The myths of the human race are composed of those elusive, yet deeply resonant truths that run through the rich themes and ideas common to all great literature from the dawn of civilized thought until the present day. The label “myth” does not necessarily imply that the content to which it is applied is fictional. In a way, it means precisely the opposite. While the story told by a myth may or may not be literally true, the concepts it expresses are truer than anything in the physical world could ever be.

The Bible serves as the perfect example of a myth that conveys truth, from Genesis to Revelation, whether every story is taken literally or not. Much of the Bible is literally true, and can be taken to mean precisely what it says. However, the Bible also makes heavy use of metaphor and simile, as in the parables of Jesus. For instance, to use a simple and hopefully uncontroversial example, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a literal mustard seed. However, it can be likened to one in order to achieve a resonance of familiarity with the human audience which will successfully transmit meaning to the reader or listener.

These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there, but man is an analogist, and studies relations in all objects . . . And neither can man be understood without these objects, nor these objects without man. All the facts in natural history taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life . . . The motion of the earth round its axis, and round the sun, makes the day, and the year. These are certain amounts of brute light and heat. But is there no intent of analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy? (Emerson 890)

We can apply this theory to the poetry and prose of myth in addition to the facts in natural history, and to the human soul in addition to human history.

For instance, taken by themselves, the Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling are charming and entertaining children’s books about the magical education of a young boy. But to anyone even basically familiar with British and Classical literature, history, and culture, the books are steeped in archetypal images and symbolic meaning. Was this accidental? Certainly not. A significant reason for the wild popularity of the series stems from the fact that these eternal themes echo within the most profound reaches of our hearts, souls, and minds.

Cliché, then, communicates by means of a universal phrase, understood by everyone. Myth communicates by means of a universal meaning, felt by everyone. And it is in allusion that these two modes of communication are united. Allusion can be viewed as a means of communicating a complete meaning through the use of a widely-known phrase. Allusions emerge into writing or conversation fully formed, with a host of connotations behind them.

If, in conversation, someone were to say mournfully “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” you would probably understand what they mean (Shakespeare 72). But how much more would you understand if you knew that those words are spoken by King Lear, an old man who has been turned out into a storm by his daughters after dividing everything he owned between them. There is a great deal more to the story than can be summed up rapidly, but to anyone familiar with it the entirety is called immediately into the mind at the use of the allusion. Certainly one could simply say “I’ve been wronged,” and if one’s audience would not know the other reference, then certainly, in a sense, this would be better. However, if the connections can be made, the sense of one who has been wronged is carried much more fervently by linking one’s situation to the plight of King Lear.

It is perhaps an oversimplification, but still somewhat accurate, to say that allusion can be used to connect with someone at the level of deeper meaning in myth with the rapidity and simplicity of the clichéd phrase. Emerson believed that words and clichés were borrowed from the natural world, which is in turn a reflection of the spiritual world.

Myths, too, are linked to the spiritual world, reflecting truth and meaning through symbols. The mythologist believes that myths are “dynamic factor[s] everywhere in human society; [they] transcend time, uniting the past (traditional modes of belief) with the present (current values) and reaching toward the future (spiritual and cultural aspirations)” (Guerin et al. 156-157).

Allusions seem to operate on the same principles. In the same way that myths unite us through commonalities in the human character and clichés through commonalities in the human language, allusions unite us culturally, not only with our contemporaries, but with our ancestral roots as well.

If the resources are available, educating oneself as thoroughly as possible in both past and current culture through the study of literature and history is an important responsibility. Educating others in allusion, sharing the richness of human culture, and bringing them into “the joke”, are duties of the culturally literate, and should be taken seriously for this reason. Equally important is that the cultural and intellectual gaps between created by unshared knowledge should not be allowed to widen if they can be narrowed.

Learn as much as you can about your own cultural history and literature, and those of others. Use your knowledge to gain understanding of and to foster communication and connection with others. But do not make the mistake of building walls with incomprehensible words, for that flies in the face of everything that makes language, myth, and allusion what they are.

Works Consulted

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Nature." The American Tradition in Literature, Vol. 1. Ed. George Perkins, and Barbara Perkins. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 881-908.

Guerin, Wilfred L., Earle G. Labor, Lee Morgan, and John R. Willingham. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

International Bible Society. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Nashville: Cornerstone Bible Publishers, 1984.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1998.

Wheeler, Jared. "The Case for the Defense: Harry Potter as Wholesome, Valuable Christian Fantasy." 24 June 2004. Todo Tiene Su Como-Se-Llama. The Shadow Council. 23 Nov. 2004

Posted by Jared at November 27, 2004 11:59 PM | TrackBack