“‘We don’t have to have everything worked out,’ I told him. But you know how people say things to convince themselves, how every word is part lie because it crosses out and denies one quadrant of truth.”
-Emily Fridlund, “Lake Arcturus Lodge,” Catapult
From one perspective, I suppose I’ve never said anything true. “I’m frightened;” well, yes, but I’m not only frightened. “We don’t have to have everything worked out;” I wouldn’t say that unless part of me wanted everything worked out, unless part of me felt that we needed everything in place and solved. “The sky’s blue;” no it’s not. Go look at it. There’s so much more to it than that.
Fridlund points out how English words can push us towards exclusions: this, not that. Since reading her story, I’ve been imagining a people who communicate through layered sounds, not individual words. That way they can sing anger and sadness and hope all at once, if that’s what they’re feeling. They can hum blue while adding in the trill for shining, the beat for changing, and sing to you about the sky. Sometimes I imagine these people as needing many vocal cords, many mouths; sometimes I imagine them playing interlocking rhythms with their breath and their feet and their hands.
My words don’t usually work that way, but there are still different ways to interact with language. I remember hearing about an argument between two college professors. One of them, a math professor, wrote that the five-person Faculty Steering Committee (I imagine them in robes, with torches; they were in charge of Everything) “must have two women.” The other, an English professor, sent an email asking why there couldn’t be three or four or even five women on the Committee.
“There could be,” answered Math.
“You wrote that it must have two,” replied English.
“Yes,” said Math.
Perhaps the long email chain that followed, back and forth, grew from some professional peevishness, but it’s hard to understand when someone is using language differently than you do. The math professor thought “must have two” specified that two of the five were women; it didn’t say anything about the other three. The English professor thought “must have two” dictated and only two.
There are moments when language needs to deny “one quadrant of truth.” If I say “stop,” I’m not allowing “go.” But there are other moments when language can add puzzle pieces without denying that there are other puzzle pieces: worry is here, but that doesn’t mean that excitement is or isn’t here, too. What happens when we treat our words as translucent paints that layer on top of each other, instead of covering each other up? We probably lose our primary colors pretty quickly. We might get a little closer to the people who hum their thoughts. I wonder if we’d find the bars of Fridlund’s trap a little easier to escape from. I wonder if we could say words that didn’t cross out “one quadrant of truth,” and so were not part lies.