12/25/2007 8:59

wisdom is not communicable

People are made to communicate, it would seem. We have brains so attuned to language that we hardly believe we are thinking without it. Our respiratory and gustatory equipages are modified (as contrasted to our animal friends) so as to favor speach even at the expense of an increased risk of choking to death.

In actual reality, one finds that such an idea requires, at a minumum, some qualification.

Yesterday I sent a message to a friend. This message seemed to me to be insightful if not quite profound, and probably useful besides. My friend returned a detailed criticism of my remarks which implied (in a quietly thundering way) that I had completely missed the entire truth of the matter, or if not all of the truth then certainly all of the essential part. That was disappointing. I couldn't help noticing that in my friend's point-by-point objection to my message, the concluding paragraph was omitted. The concluding paragraph, which I had thought communicated the essence of my wisdom, had been perceived by my friend as so insignificant as not to be given the attention of a rebuttal. That was almost unnerving.

Hesse's Siddartha says, "Wisdom is not communicable." [Hermann Hesse, Siddartha, translated by Hilda Rosner; New Directions, 1951; page 115.] And why? Because, explains Siddartha, "Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity."

Recently (I mean a few decades back; I am never truly up to date with trends in scholarship) the role of the audience was a major topic of consideration and research: What does the listener or reader bring to the content of a communicated message? How much of what is communicated is from the author and what part arises in the audience? It would appear that the role of the audience is even larger than a reasonably observant person might originally surmise.

That same friend I just mentioned, in that same rebuttal, told me, "For me, the word obviously - as the word mere - is a power word suggesting that anyone who has a different idea, opinion, or feeling is lesser and now one-down in the constant game of 'who is up and will do anything to stay in that position.'" Among my own acquaintances, "obviously" is more likely to be used in self-deprecation, as in the situation where the speaker is embarassed at not having observed a point that a colleague has just noted. (The words "anyone", "everyone", and "nobody" - especially in the phrase "nobody but you" - are the put-down words I have received more often. Though in writing this, I wonder that "nobody but you" was not heard as a compliment to my uniqueness.)

Given the personal histories of myself and my friend, I had expected that our acquaintances would have been more alike in their choice of words to misuse. The result was that my words failed badly to evoke the sense that I sent them off with; the baggage they departed with was not the baggage they carried with them on arrival.

The truth is that no thought is ever transferred entire and intact from author to audience. That can't be what communicate means, if it is to mean anything. What actually happens is that the author (the speaker, writer, composer, artist) manipulates words, silences, tones, colors - and whatever else is available - not to transfer a thought from my mind into yours but to evoke the thought anew.

Sometimes it works.

What is amazing is not that this process will sometimes fail, and sometimes fail miserably, but that in actual reality it sometimes works, and that it works well enough and often enough that we should keep trying.

And so we do.