Words are stupid. “Words,” “are,” and “stupid” — singly dumb and dumb in combination. Dumb as in a waste of time. A waist of thyme. Away stuff tie ’em. Aweigh stove dime. A whey’s toughed I’m.
Not to put too fine a point on it, words are mostly pointless. Without a point. Unpointed. Missing the point. Beside the point. I mean, what’s the point?
Person 1: Blah blah blah.
Person 2: Yadda yadda.
Scrawling and screeching. Bleating and tweeting.
A fellow named Marcus Terentius Varro, long dead and writing in a language also now dead, spent the precious years of his earthly existence writing 74 works comprising roughly 620 books — we would call them parts or sections — of which only one work is fully extant (which is a stupid word for “still in existence”). Evidently, Varro liked to write about language. Here are some of the titles: De antiquitate litterarum, De origine linguae Latinae, De sermo Latino, De similitudine verborum, De utilitate sermonis, Epitoma linguae Latinae. Just think: all those hundreds of thousands of words, and what’s left is not much more than these three or four words in the titles.
What a waste.
Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu totals 1,267,069 words. It took him 14 years to choose the ones he wanted and put them in the desired order. Almost all of that time he spent in bed, sleeping and writing, writing and sleeping. In fact, he had the walls of his bedroom covered in cork so that he could concentrate. On what, pray tell? On the childhood and adolescence of a character named — wait for it — “Marcel.” Here’s a typical paragraph from Swann’s Way, in which I’ve highlighted the French word for “I”:
Suppose instead he’d written a novel titled Moi. One chapter, one page, one sentence, one word: “Moi.” That would have left him plenty of time to get out of bed and, say, take a walk. Talk to someone.
Yet even Proust’s doorstop is humbled before the massive, 1,954,300-word Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, a novel from the mid-17th century and a work which I feel confident in saying no one has read, no single person out of the 7,530,000,000 people alive today. I’ll go further: the number of fictional characters (about 400) in Artamène is undoubtedly much larger than the number of people who have even heard of it.
So, what is a word? There’s this cat, see. Then at one remove from this actual cat, there’s your perception of it (sight, smell, etc.). Then at another remove there’s the idea of what your senses perceive of this actual cat. Then at yet another remove there’s a symbol for the idea of what your senses perceive of this actual cat.
That’s what a word is.
An actual cat can sharpen its claws on your bare leg, pee on the rug in your bedroom, and terrorize the songbirds in your yard. Can a word do all that?
Carol Shields wrote ten novels, five collections of short stories, three books of poetry, eight plays, and two books of nonfiction. Shortly before she died of breast cancer at 68, an interviewer asked Shields whether, having written all those books, she found it somewhat easier to accept her imminent death. Her answer was, more or less, “Are you out of your freaking mind?”
John Koethe admits that even poems — which fellow poet Billy Collins describes as “interruptions of silence,” where prose works are a “continuation of noise” — succeed in being only “small, disappointing things.” It’s the poet’s “way of life” that is worth something, but even it manages to leave “only the lovely story / Of a bright presence hanging in the air.” It’s no true respite from disquietude and care.
So a poem ≠ a life. And if a poem is not a life, what can be said for a memo? An email? An Instagram post?
We’re frittering our lives away.
On the other hand, the hand I’ve had behind my back from the word go, there’s this:
THE MEANING OF SIMPLICITY
I hide myself behind simple objects so you may find me,
if you do not find me, you will find the objects,
you will touch those objects my hand has touched
the traces of our hands will mingle.
The August moon gleams like a tin kitchen kettle
(what I am telling you becomes like that),
it lights the empty table and silence kneeling in the house
silence is always kneeling.
Every single word is an exodus
for a meeting, cancelled many times,
it is a true word when it insists on the meeting.
~ Yannis Ritsos (1970, Rae Dalvin, tr.)
So here’s our advice, mine and the poet’s:
If you ever have to use a word (and of course you do), make it true.