At the very best, a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it; and remains in ignorance of thoughts which involve the combination of a greater number. These thoughts are outside language, they are unformulable, although they are perfectly rigorous and clear and although every one of the relations they involve is capable of precise expression in words. So the mind moves in a closed space of partial truth, which may be larger or smaller, without ever being able so much as to glance at what is outside.
That’s a quote from Simone Weil’s essay Human Personality, written in the last year of her short but extraordinary life.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 7 of my series of episodes on Imagination creativity, based around my book Create.
I used to be in a prison, the prison of Creativity, something I talked about in depth when I explained how Ursula LeGuin made me understand that Creativity has been co-opted by corporations and academia but that Imagination is still available to us as a relatively uncorrupted, or co-opted word. Imagination, which hasn’t been as coopted is one of the ways of breaking out of what I will be talking about today, lexical prisons. So, today I want to talk about lexical prisons, something Weil referred to at the beginning of that quote how “a mind enclosed in language is in prison”.
Last time I spoke about school and education, and how the industrial revolution and a utilitarian, way of educating can be detrimental to the imagination and inspiration of young people, leading them away from creativity instead of potentially opening Doors towards inspiration and enthusiasm.
For example, in this podcast I don’t curse. This is very difficult for me, or at least it was when I first started out, to not curse. Why? Because where I grew up we all curse. Most of my close friends who listen to this podcast are probably thinking, Why isn’t John cursing? That me speaking the way I am, the language I’m using, is not me, that I’m in a kind of prison by not letting myself express myself with curses, which is totally acceptable for Irish males, as that’s our reputation, part of our culture of craic, our maverick, iconoclastic buck the system. And don’t get me wrong. I love listening to the Blindboy podcast, and still curse when I’m having a laugh with friends and family.
So why did I stop? Because when I stepped back to look at my way of communicating I realized I was in a lexical prison. I noticed when I left my country for a long time that I was cursing a lot more than everyone else, but more importantly, the curses were taking up the space where adjectives, nouns, phrases should have been. I’m a writer. I’m all about words, how they’re arranged, which ones are left out, how long the sentence. But when I cursed I didn’t have as much control of what I wanted to express, because words I should have been there were absent. And I saw this as destructive, not creative. It moved me away from creativity, the imagination, using the right word, words, replacing them with expletives. I had placed myself involuntarily into a prison of language, and if we think of words as leading to our destiny, then this lexical awareness becomes even more important. As Gandhi put it:
Our thoughts become our words, our words become our actions, our actions become our character, our character becomes our destiny.
I had been thought to marginalize myself from the more eloquent people in Ireland, the better off, who hardly curse, the kids who were educated at Belvedere College and Trinity, because it wasn’t what they were taught. They didn’t have to curse to feel included with peers because their peers were hardly cursing.
In psychology they have what they call applied psychology, which basically means giving access to marginalized people the tools they need to deal with the anxiety and pain they are in. This access comes with language. For example, how can a person who has anxiety know how to deal with a panic attack if they don’t even have the words to express it? Just those two words, panic and attack, could help so many if they had access to that language. So language is a tool that can help them with the prison of their anxiety, to alleviate the anxiety. First, an individual can accept what happens, or is happening to them, as normal – that we all get panicked at some stage. That’s the first step out of the lexical prison, access to a new language that allows the individual to see they’re not alone. This reduces the suffering. Second, it helps the individual realize that there must be more language out there to help them understand what it is we are going through.
This is why we need to democratize creativity, democratize Imagination, just like we need to democratize psychology, because when we don’t have a language we can’t speak to other people who speak that language in the same way. If we don’t have a language of creation then we can’t speak to people about creating something without thinking we’ve no idea what we’re talking about. As opposed to simply having psychology in the universities and available to people of a certain socio-economic class, it needs to be available to everyone, democratized, applied psychology. We need an applied creativity, applied imagination, just like we need applied psychology. All the people need access, not just the few. The few is not democracy, the few is oligarchy. And oligarchic psychology and oligarchic creativity is simply not healthy for the larger population, only the few.
Which is the whole reason I’m doing this podcast, to democratize creativity and Imagination, even if at times I feel like I’m not using my real voice, by not cursing, because I want to practice what I preach, by using applied creativity, by not allowing the few to have access to expression, just because I came from a different socio-economic class when I was a kid.
I think every one should have access to creative tools, just like everyone should have access to psychological tools. What I am trying to say is that this podcast is my way of creating an applied creativity, just like psychologists create applied psychology, to help everyone, and especially those who don’t have access, to democratize creativity and the Imagination.
Just like with applied psychology, we need adaptive tools to unlearn negative or unhealthy behaviors, what I have called Walls away from creativity and Imagination. We need applied creativity, what I’ve called Doors towards Imagination, to unlearn all our unhealthy artistic behaviors, and lexical prisons are a Wall, just like the many other walls I’ve been talking about.
Again, to further this way of thinking: with awareness, by knowing our creative enemy, our creative enemies, the Walls again, we can reduce a lot of the anxiety about not being a creative person, or for example, feeling like a failure for not creating something perfect on your first attempt. Adaptive tools, adaptive and applied creativity help us recognize when we are falling into a trap, moving towards a Wall.
Another way to look at lexical prisons is to talk about cursing again. Podcasts. They have Parental Advisory labels on them. And this is the beauty of podcasts, people can step outside their lexical prisons and curse as much as they want to, like Blindboy, who I mentioned earlier. He curses a lot, but it doesn’t take away from how eloquent he is. It actually allows him to express himself fully. He lives in Ireland, permanently. It would be inauthentic if he didn’t curse, because of where he comes from. But for me, I’m an immigrant, and because of it I’ve had to look at the way I express myself, because if I say certain words Blindboy says over here in the States, people are disgusted and will judge me. So I’ve used this as away of analyzing my own specific lexical prison and adapted to the culture I’m living in so as not to upset people on the street, because I’m Irish and I’m American. I’m not saying I won’t be cursing in interviews I do later on though. No. Because then I’ll be with people I know, not out in the street, or in a store.
Of course, on TV and syndicated radio it’s the complete opposite. They have to rely on advertisers and foundations to support the salaries of their broadcasters. So people like Blindboy would be muzzled, which would be awful for us, and his creativity. Which is unfortunate because most people aren’t able to talk the way they would with friends and family which means there’s a lack of honesty, a lack of authenticity to their voices because they’re hampered by the language of whatever broadcaster their working for, and then they’re hampered by the political perspective of whoever owns the TV show. So, the words they use are brought under censorship, which is another form of lexical emprisonment. For example, I used to think the people in America were super puritanical, conservative, overly polite, but I was wrong. When you get to know Americans when you’re here, when you listen to them on podcasts, you realize they can be as harsh and forward thinking as anywhere else, but it’s just those voices are not what are seen on the lexically hampered mainstream media.
Our language contributes to our culture. The way we speak, the words we use, and don’t use, condition how we relate to others, how we feel, how we think.
For example, why are words like passion, enthusiasm, madness and inspiration not used more often in a positive way? Because we’ve been taught, consciously or not, to use words like “like” or “interesting”, or phrases such as “I’m on a deadline,” or “I don’t know.” Sentences such as: “Like, I don’t know, like if I like, it’s interesting, like.” What is that sentence actually about, what’s it actually saying? Nothing. That’s what.
Instead of a deadline, can’t we have a due date? Can’t we give birth to a creation, as opposed to dying if we don’t get over some imaginary dead-line? Instead of “I don’t know” can’t we just say how we feel about what we’re responding to? “I don’t understand what you’re saying”, as opposed to the non committal nonsense phrase “I don’t know”. Instead of saying something is “interesting”, can’t we say “That really inspires me.” “That makes me so enthusiastic.” “I’m passionate about…” When people use phrases like these we need to be aware, because they are creating Doors towards creativity and the world of the Imagination, stepping away from the walls of lexical prisons into the world of creation.
Every country has these lexical prisons. In America, they use the word “interesting”, all the time. It’s a language prison because most of the time people are basically saying what you’re saying is not interesting. They’re actually saying, please shut up now. This does not mean something cannot be interesting. It can. But it all depends on the person’s delivery. Are they saying it with enthusiasm, with a positive intention?
In Ireland, we curse a lot. I think it’s because of our servile psyche, but that’s another whole thing. As I said before I had to teach myself not to curse in public. Again, the cursing was a lexical prison, for me. It made me say things in a crude way, without actually saying anything. There were a lot of expletives in my responses but not a lot of substance. As a writer I should be able to express myself with words that show how I feel, the right words.
And a lot of the time we need to get out of our country to experience our lexical prisons, like I did with cursing. Or when I noticed Americans using “interesting” in France, for everything, compared with English English, or Australian, Canadian and New Zealander English, where they hardly used it at all unless something was actually really interesting. Changing our geography, changing where we are can change our perception of the reality we grew up in, where we come from. We get away from the Walls of our lexical ecosystem, out of our lexical habitat, and walk through the Door towards new creative opportunities.
Joyce once wrote “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.” Not the most positive thing to say about your country. But Joyce was honest, and created beauty away from the lexical prison he was born into. He did so by escaping, and looking in at the world he came from, from the outside.
So, phrases, ways of speaking, stop us from having opinions. “Oh, that’s interesting,” is not an opinion. Cursing is not an opinion. Sometimes, they’re both giving up, because you put lock yourself inside the walls of your own lexical prison. Words such as “like” do the same thing. It’s filler. “That’s like, the way it is, like.” “You know yourself, like.” It’s noise. It has no substance.
We use to run art expos for a few years at our retreat. People would come from all over the mountains to see the art. They’d drink and have a laugh. But there was one old man, the mayor, who wouldn’t come in. He being a good friend of mine I asked him why he wasn’t coming in. He kind of just looked at me because he didn’t know what to say, this from a fella who is never lost for words. I kept prodding him until he explained that he went into the mine when he was around 14 and that, quote “doesn’t have the right language to be able to express what I’d be looking at. I so not have the right education.” There were tears in his eyes. So obviously, his family, or friends or just some villain had made him think that because he didn’t have the language of creation, that he was not allowed to look at it. He was put in a lexical prison. As he put it, he didn’t have the “intelligence” for it, one of the smartest people I met in those mountains. No matter how I tried I couldn’t get him to come in. No matter how many times I told him “It doesn’t matter what kind of an education you had.
Everyone sees art differently, through their own personal lens. You might hate a painting, I might love it, but you don’t need a degree from a university to say how you feel about something.” He smiled, but refused to go in, stuck inside the Walls of his lexical prison.
Ocean Voung has a bit in his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous about this reality of lexical imprisonment where he writes about toxic patriarchal capitalism. He sees American males caught in a lexical prison based on capitalistic violence and war. Expressions such as “You’re killing it.” Or “You’re making a killing.” Or “You blew them up.” Or “I went in there all guns blazing.” And men don’t even realize they’re using this violent language, because it’s so common. Capitalistic success is equated with killing people. Death and destruction of others, capitalizing on them, monetizing them, commodifying them, especially commodifying women’s bodies, is seen as a positive way of using language. It isn’t. It’s a very negative lexical prison.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a wonderful French philosopher, mystic and political activist, but like last time, I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
An eye evades a thing it does not see.
Seachnaíonn súil ní nach bhfeiceann.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.