Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, scene II


Part of what makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest character is his dizzying word play.  But Hamlet’s linguistic felicity is not simply a matter of jest – he uses language to poke and to prod, to deceive, to coax, to insult, and to seduce.  What’s more he is painfully aware of the slipperiness of words.  On the one hand they grant us the ability to communicate and to express ourselves – without them there could be no sharing of truth.  On the other hand, they can be counterfeit and one can never be sure when they are spoken truly.  Finally, Hamlet recognizes that words have a power all their own to control us, to free us, to mesmerize us and to seduce us.  Words reveal things that we wish to hide, they tell us things that we don’t know, or don’t wish to know.  But what precisely are words and what do they tell us about ourselves?


Strangely, we tend to trivialize words, to think of them as poor substitutes for actions and things.  Actions speak louder than words, we claim.  A picture is worth a thousand words, we say. And yet, would actions speak at all without the assistance of words?  To suggest that actions speak is to assimilate them to words even as we try to elevate them above words.  And pictures?  Generally they come with words attached (titles or captions) and usually their significance is lost without the right words available to explain them.  Nevertheless, we want the real thing, not mere words.  But can we get the real thing without words? 


We often act as if we could somehow break free of words, as if they were a temporary inconvenience that we might somehow overcome.  For example we like to think that our own thoughts and emotions at least, our inner lives, are clear to us.  But for some reason we struggle to find the right words to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others.  Perhaps, we think, it is because the uniqueness of an experience, a feeling, or a thought is lost when it is packaged and communicated in the generality and impersonality of a word.  For example, it is a cliché to point out how overused and devalued words such as “love” are – I can love ice cream, a car, my pet, God, my wife, a TV show, etc.  How can a word used a thousand times a second to refer to countless objects, emotions, and relationships possibly express the particular and personal reality of my experience?  If only we could communicate and relate to each other and the world without having to rely on the inconvenience of words. 


We crave direct connection to ourselves, to nature and especially to other people; we long to connect without the intermediary of words and signs.  But we always are related to others through the mediation of symbols and signs, of words, broadly speaking.  Think of love for example — what closer and more complete relation can we have to someone?  And yet, even in love, our relation to the other person is mediated by symbols and signs, by words.  We do things as signs of love, we say “I love you”, we exchange rings and vows and give each other cards on special occasions, etc.  All of these are ‘words’ of one sort or another, trying to compensate for the fact that my love is only known to you through these words and gestures and never directly. 


Why do we need words?  Why are they so elusive?  What is the source of their power?


Rather than seeing words and signs as a limitation, as a stumbling block to true relationship, direct connection, and pure experience I think we should recognize them as signs of something fundamental: human experience is essentially symbolic, composed of signs, words.  Without words we would have no relation to things or people or God.  To dream of a relation without words, to dream of immediate connection is to fail to understand the nature of relation and connection.  To dream of an experience that would not call for words and signs is to fail to understand the nature of experience.  Words are the symbols of our nature – namely, that our nature is always pointing beyond itself, beyond the here and now, beyond the immediate.  We transcend ourselves.  If we didn’t we couldn’t relate to anything, not even to ourselves.  But to always be pointing beyond oneself is the basic structure of what a sign, or a word, is.


To understand this we need only to think about the objects of our experience and our relationships to other people.  Do things exist without words?  Do emotions, feelings, relationships exist outside of language?  For us there is never simply an object or a relationship in a pure experience that would be prior to any and all words or signs – everything we experience is already a kind of sign, pointing beyond itself, back to us or somewhere else.  Every emotion or thought is by its nature related as a sign to something else: my elevated pulse and flushed cheeks are signs of my anger; my anger points to an offence and hence to my ideals; pleasure and pain, Aristotle tells us, are signs of our character; a thought points to some problem or question; my computer points out to me all the work I have to do that requires writing and words; the door signifies passage and movement as well as enclosure and withdrawal (I can close the door to keep others out, to hide my possessions); the window signifies dreaming, the beyond, the outside.  The barren tree limbs signify to me that winter is not over and the stones signify the solidity of foundations.  Things are already words, signs pointing in all directions and teaching me where I came from, who I am, and where I am going (to paraphrase the title from Gauguin’s famous painting).  From these things I learn what words are.  Emotions are signs too.  My actions are signs; my body is a system of signs that communicate and express, they signify to me and to others in ways that I am never fully controlling.  Hölderlin writes, “We are a sign that is not read.”  To be in love with someone is to be a sign pointing to another sign; and if we are to love the other person we need to learn how to read, how to listen. 


If this is true, then facility with words, with signs, with language means letting the world speak to us.  To speak well begins with listening well.  But this requires recognizing that words are not tools, instruments, they are not merely a means of communication that we create and control.  Rather they are more like messengers or spirits inhabiting things, thoughts and feelings.  We need to be able to hear the other person who is speaking, whose being is speaking, whose being is to hear and be heard, to signify and be significant.