Today’s Where We Live comes from Jason Blanchard. Jason is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying learning, media and technology. He looks forward to completing his master’s thesis in May so he can read more fiction and start writing on his blog again.
“Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time, English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.”
You know how in the The Matrix Morpheus and Trinity strap down Neo into that chair on The Nebuchadnezzar and hook that thing up to the hole in his neck and email him into the computer program designed to simulate 21st century society in sleeping humans’ minds while the sentient machines consume their bodies for energy? Well, books are kind of like that. (Bear with me.) All 2012 robot apocalypse connotations aside, what I’m getting at is that meaningful fiction allows us to enter a kind of opposite matrix: instead of leaving a “real” world and entering a virtual simulacrum to facilitate enslavement, literature allows us to leave an experience of the physical world dominated by language to access a more viscerally “real” one constructed between our minds and the writer’s. Inside our heads, literature (and probably other creative artifacts) liberates us from the desensitized contentment of the linguistic world by warping us to psychic simulations that we feel rather than articulate.
This is difficult to describe. Paradoxically, the problem with describing is the whole point.
We humans are linguistic creatures. At least in the tedium of work and school, there is little we know that exists outside of language. The words we have available to us are the arbiters of meaning, coloring our rituals in more and less reflective ways but always partial in their reification of the human condition. This isn’t to say everyday speech is useless. I feel honored to have the brain capacity for vapid discussions about snow storms and taco salad. Yet under certain circumstances, language constrains our ability to describe. In these instances, words are like pixels on a screen: stand back and, collectively, they look like cable TV or Web browsers. But zoom in close enough and the pixels turn into constellations in a night sky, each point illuminated, mysterious dark matter filling the empty space between. It’s this unknowable dark matter that we can’t cover with the impossible precision of everyday language. The resolution of our words is just not high enough.
We all feel, on a certain level, in certain moments, indescribable things in this continuum. Love, mourning, uncertainty, sadness: all these words refer to states of being that they can’t possibly describe because our experience of them is so infinitely complicated. Often, colloquial attempts to do so come off as embarrassingly banal. Yet when we find the right story, literature uses language as a medium through which writers can actually generate experiences in the continuum of feeling. Rather than diluting what we really feel with the inadequacies of quotidian language, literature brings us to a place where the full range of humanity can be sensed. As such, literature guides our mind to a location that is perhaps only accessible through these physical manifestations of human cognition.
So, “living inside my head” is kind of a misnomer because what I really mean to say is that literature allows us to experience something outside us in a way that feels like it’s inside us. Furthermore, creative artifacts allow readers to share this experience with others in a much fuller way than we can by merely talking about it, because, in modern American society, just talking about it often feels cheesy and weird and somehow dishonest. We can’t just talk. We need to express from way deep down, as cliché as this may sound. And books are little containers of expression, accessible and shareable from inside our skulls.
For more on the connection between art and language, read (Re)Thinking “Art”: A Guide for Beginners by Dr. Steve Shipps or pretty much anything by David Foster Wallace.
Quote from “Good Old Neon” in David Foster Wallace’s 2004 short story collection, Oblivion (p. 151).
The Where We Live series is chance to travel to all the different places that writers and readers live, in a deeper sense than simply geography, but the mental and emotional space they inhabit during their creative lives. Interested in contributing your own Where We Live? Check out previous entries and send us what you got.