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Wednesday, 10 March 2010

‘Colourless green ideas...’

Some fifty years or so ago the linguist Noam Chomsky famously conjured up a way of illustrating how language can be constructed into grammatically correct sentences – and yet be quite meaningless. ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ was the example he dreamed up. This is both funny and clever – and once you get the hang of it you could probably come up with your own examples.

I think often of this sentence. I think of it particularly when I listen to people speaking in public: politicians, economists, psychologists, religious leaders – anyone who puts themselves forward claiming to be able to tell us a truth, the truth, about how the world works, how human beings work, how God works, how high finance works...note how often someone is introduced as an ‘expert’ when real expertise may consist in knowing how little we know, how little we understand, how little sense there is in the unfolding and uncontrollable outpouring of life within which we are swept along like fallen leaves within a flooding stream.

There will be three 90-minute live televised debates in the next few months in the UK, featuring the three main political leaders who will be contesting the forthcoming General Election. I don’t know if I will be giving my attention to all - or any - of that torrent of words that will cascade over us. But I can tell you now that the one sentence you are most unlikely to hear within those debates is the simple and honest sentence ‘I don’t know’. Although most of us know that they don’t know – and they know we know they don’t know - they are not allowed to admit this. It would be (so we are told) political suicide.

Of course we can recognise in ourselves the deep wish for our self-styled ‘experts’ to ‘know’: it can make us feel secure that someone, somewhere , is in charge, that decisions taken in the political and economic realms will produce well-being and a sense of order, a sense that life is controllable, that randomness and chaos are not the forces that rule our unruly lives. This same regressed wish is part of what attracts people to certain dogmatic forms of religious belief – it can be comforting to believe that Someone is In Charge of the cosmos, and cares about us within it. Often no evidence to the contrary will shift this belief, so deeply embedded within us is the need to feel part of an ordered universe, one that does make ultimate sense – even if that sense is hidden from view.

I know from my own experience how easy it is – how seductive, and self-seducing it is – to construct sentences that seem to offer a glimpse of what is abidingly true. One can fall in love with one’s own rhetoric. And maybe there is no harm in such a love affair – as long as one holds in mind that it is but an arbitrary and subjective arrangement of words, spoken or written. A speech, a sermon, an article, a review – whatever the genre that my words take – I try to bear in mind that one’s artfully constructed philosophy or theology or psychology, however elegant, however becoming (and maybe particularly when it is elegant and becoming) is, in essence, a fiction, an artifice. Remembering this about myself helps me remember it when I listen to, or read, others. Call it benign distrust.

There is something quintessentially odd about language. It is our glory as a species – think of all the 5,000 and more languages we have concocted for ourselves over time. And at the same time – in a world in which if you could squeeze all the space out of atoms, the whole of the human race would fit into a sugar cube (see Marcus Chown’s Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You) – there is, alongside the glory of it all, the absurdity and indecipherability of it all.

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction’ (Twelfth Night).

Our experts – be they political, economic or religious – make it up as they go along. Filled with passionate intensity they offer us their fictions as true beliefs, true descriptions of how the world operates. It may though be better for us – better for our well-being, our mental health – to turn to those who at least acknowledge that they are crafting fictions and who aren’t fooled into thinking (or fool us into thinking) that they are offering their audience anything but subjective narratives born out of the human imagination. As the Nobel prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk put it in a recent essay:

It is by reading novels, stories, myths that we come to understand the ideas that govern the world in which we live; it is fiction that gives us access to truths kept veiled by our families, our schools, and our society; it is the art of the novel that allows us to ask who we really are’ (from ‘Other Colors: Essays and a Story’, 2007).

Note that key verb ‘ask’. For Pamuk, asking ‘who we really are’ - not answering the question - is what the artist does. Because answers have a deadening tendency – so often they shut things down – what we need (pace our political leaders) are stories that help us ask questions. Good questions can open us up to, maybe take us closer to, the heart of the mystery of being human. And that mystery may, in the end, defy language itself. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it: ‘Things aren’t so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered.

Or as Samuel Beckett expresses it, with the poignancy of a secular mystic struggling towards the construction of what he called a ‘literature of the non-word’: ‘More and more my language appears to me like a veil which one has to tear apart in order to get to those things (or the nothingness) lying behind it...’

Of course in that great mythic narrative we call the Kabbalah, ‘nothingness’ (Ayin) is the innermost ‘name’ of the divine. The rabbis of old knew both the power of language – and its limitations.


  1. Interesting that at Limmud a common theme of many of the sessions I went to was the danger of certainty - even some very Orthodox teachers warmed to this theme. Above all, in one of her sessions on "In Pursuit of Passion: Pride, Truths and Uncertainty in the Jewish search," the amazing Arno Poupko Fisher talked of the stress that the Ishbitzer Rebbe (of all people) placed on the dangers of thinking you know. He actually said, "Certainty is idolatry." Would that some of Jewish fundamentalists (who actually admire the Ishbitser Rebbe) rad and absorbed what he and Nacjman of Bratzlav had to say on the subject!