Today in better writing than mine: Ralph Waldo Emerson on originality of expression


A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not: a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made.

from “Nature

Sin raíces: a rambling post that doesn’t quite know what it’s about


Keillor on location

Words, words, words

My favorite word in Spanish is enraizado (followed closely by ojalá). I like words; I guess it comes with liking to read and write. Somewhere (I lost it) there is a long (and ever-growing) list of my favorite English words. In Russian, my favorite word is actually a phrase: Я с удовольствием (ya s udovol’stviyem), which means something like, “my pleasure.” In Mandarin I’m still searching for a favorite, but in the meantime I like the way 週末 (zhōumò — weekend) sounds.

Enraizado means rooted. I learned it by reading a commentary on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in Spanish. (I found the commentary in Capitol Books in D.C., in the bathroom, which is their foreign language section).  Looking it up, it appears that arraigado is the more common way to say rooted, and so I already like enraizado for being a less common word. I like also that raíz, the Spanish word for root, shares the same root (see what I did there?) as the English word radicle, which reminds me of organismal biology, one of my favorite classes in college. And, less esoterically, mainly I just like the way it sounds, the way it feels to say it (if only I could describe how it feels to say a word so evocatively as Nabokov does).

But its meaning doesn’t gain much traction in my life. And that’s something I often think about.

Impersonal geographies

Feb. ’14 (the brain article is worthy of a lengthy discussion of its own)

Garrison Keillor wrote an article for last month’s issue of National Geographic that he dubbed, “a personal geography.” If I didn’t have so much I wanted to say regarding the article, I would post it without comment as “Better writing than mine.” It’s very easily one of my favorite pieces of short non-fiction.

More memoir than reportage, the piece tells about a place — Mineappolis-St. Paul — by telling about one person’s experience of that place. Keillor was born in the Twin Cities. He’s lived, loved, and lost there. And, now that he’s growing old there, he honored the place with a wonderful essay. His, and the city’s, is a story with roots.

Geography, according to Apple’s pre-installed dictionary, is:

the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

As an delineation of the province of National Geographic, that definition goes a long way.

National Geographic writers and photographers are reporters essentially. Adventurers, if you want to speak romantically. They go places and give overviews of the goings-on there. Their articles are full of snippets of interviews, summaries of research, brief histories of locations and peoples. They are tourists: in places, in controversies, in conflicts, in lives; so that we can learn something of the “physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of. . .” etc.

Science and philosophy

Dorion Sagan (yeah, his son) writes:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

National Geographic’s typical approach is, by this tongue-in-cheek definition, a scientific one.

You can’t learn all there is to know about a place or a subject from a National Geographic article. That’s not the way it works. You can get the basics. You can learn enough to investigate on your own. But you won’t be an expert. And with such wide-ranging, ambitious subject matter, it’s no wonder that the coverage only just breaks the surface. Even then it only breaks a small area of the surface.*

Keillor’s article hits home closer to the philosophy end of Sagan’s satirical spectrum; we learn a whole lot about not a whole lot. If I hadn’t read the article, I wouldn’t believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an interesting place, a place worthy of National Geographic’s pages. From my perspective, from the outside, I would have thought that it is everything that’s worst in America, especially the Midwest. But I was proven wrong by a writer who has both the ability and the wherewithal to communicate the quintessence and import of an otherwise unexceptional place.

What any of this has to do with me (as you are, of course, dying to know)

I’ve moved a few times in my life, not a lot, but a few, and the trend seems to be that the rate of my peregrinations is increasing — that I can expect to call any new place “home” for less time than I did the last. And every time I leave somewhere that has become home, I am always confronted with the question: why?

When a place is your home, as you spend time there, you integrate yourself into the networks of its reality, its commerce, its society, not unlike Conan Doyle’s image of a man as a spider in the center of a web of which he feels every vibration. You forge an identity relative to the place and its people, as you have come into contact with them. These connections grow stronger with time, and deeper. You put down roots. You gain nourishment from them.

Uprootings are traumatic. Things are lost, irrevocably. Small pieces that may not be vital, but even so formed a part of the whole. A hole is left behind, but it fills. You won’t fit back into it again, not exactly. The deeper the roots, the stronger the organism, but also the more delicate the transplant.

When I leave one home for a new one, I am forced to ask if perhaps I wouldn’t be happier growing deeper into one place, if maybe I couldn’t gain more fulfillment that way. And I am torn. My life goes one way, but sometimes my heart another.

Thoreau, in defending his decidedly sessile stint at Walden pond, calls into question the idea that seeing the world is a good thing in itself. “It is not worth the while,” he says, with characteristic wile, “to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” If you’re incapable of self-improvement at home, I take him to be saying, then you’re going to be incapable of self-improvement abroad.

I’m addicted to reinventing myself, I think — to learning to live in a new place, as a slightly new person. I cherish the freedoms these errantries provide me. But I also sometimes lament the costs I pay, especially in relationships with friends and family.

Is a life made fuller by growing deeper, or more broad? Is the scientist or the philosopher the better person? Would I rather have the life of a typical NatGeo writer, or that of a Keillor or a Thoreau? Is it pretentious for me to title this post in Spanish? Whenever questions like these keep me up at night, count on me to write about them until I end up more unsure than when I started.

Words, though amusing to curate and hear and speak and write, can sometimes seem insignificant — full, as it were, of sound and fury; here’s to hoping this tale’s teller isn’t quite a complete idiot.**


* Richard Feynman once said that there is “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” I can’t for the life of me remember where I read or heard it, but I’m aware of someone explaining the acquisition of knowledge in terms that go something like this: think of the knowledge you have as a circle. The circumference of the circle is where your knowledge meets all the knowledge that exists, everything you don’t know; the circumference is the “frontier of ignorance.” As you learn more, the radius of your knowledge circle grows, but as the radius increases, so too, proportionally, does the circumference. The circle is bigger, but it also comes into contact with more of the unknown — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know (read it again; it makes sense). Your awareness of your own ignorance grows as your knowledge grows. Sagan’s scientist then, would have a lopsided “circle” that spikes out extremely far in one direction, but wanes in other areas; the philosopher would have an even circle, but one that doesn’t reach as far in any particular direction. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything, but I’ve always found that illustration wonderfully instructive. I wish I could remember where I first came across it.

** Yes, I’m well aware that if foreign language titles are pretentious, then unattributed Shakespeare references are the absolute height of arrogance.

Structuring time


In English, when we create a timeline, it tends to move along the horizontal axis, the past to the left, the future to the right. The left/right orientation is easily explained by the fact that the language is read from left to right, so we naturally want to follow that progression in an image. But why the horizontal orientation? As long as we’re envisioning time as a linear progression, why can’t we imagine it vertically, or diagonally, or spirally (linear doesn’t have to equal a straight line, right?).

History of English

With my admittedly limited understanding of Mandarin Chinese, I think that the structure of time’s idioms in the language would cause a native Mandarin speaker to envision time in a different way. I think that Mandarin facilitates a vertical conception of time, where the past is at the top and the future at the bottom. This is just conjecture, but if I’m right I think it’s interesting to consider the implications of these differing orientations.


reality is always more complex than you want it to be

Before we get into that, though, let me just say that I know I’m oversimplifying here. English can be written and read in a vertical orientation (think neon motel signs). There are also plenty of vertically oriented timelines in English. And while Chinese is traditionally written in vertical columns from top to bottom, it is still legible when arranged horizontally. I’m going to ignore these subtleties for now because I can and it’s convenient to my thesis.

see what I mean?

What I’m talking about

In English, if I want to talk about the month after this one, I can say “next month,” or “the following month.” Likewise, for the month before this one, I can say “last month,” or “the previous month.” The language is the language of the queue; one month after another after another, all lined up waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

In Mandarin, by contrast, “next month” becomes xiàgèyuè (下個月/下个月); basically “the month underneath,” or “the month below.” In the same way, “last month” becomes shànggèyuè (上個月/上个月), or “the month on top”/”the month above.”


What I want to do is play these colloquial metaphors out further and examine their corollaries.

Arranging time horizontally effectively levels the playing field. The past, the present, and the future all share the same “geographical” elevation and, by extension, the same hierarchic elevation; one is not more important than the other.

In addition, things on a horizontal surface tend to sit still until some force acts on them to get them moving (thanks, Newton). This means (1) that to get from the past to now, our ancestors had to do some work, and to get to the future, we have to do some work; and (2) the rate of progression through time is not constant (Einstein, anyone?).

And what about time along the vertical axis? (When I first mentioned this idea to Chloe, I had a few things in mind, but she pointed out that there were other possibilities I hadn’t thought of, so these ideas aren’t all mine.)

Situating the present between the past above and the future below lends a certain feeling of inevitability to events. You can’t fall upwards. It also means that there is both a constant acceleration and a terminal velocity at which we objects fall through time.

The past being above, you have to crane your neck upwards to see it, and when you do you probably see the tread of its boots. The future, you look down and see the top of its silly, futuristic hat. What I mean is that vertical time could possibly lend itself to a degree reverence for the past and disdain for the future, due to the hierarchic arrangement.

Having the future beneath you also means that you don’t have to do any work to get there. Life becomes a little easier in this light, and nostalgia becomes a little more futile.

So what?

Assuming that most other “Western” languages conceptualize time as English does (I don’t know if they do), and given that China is the largest nation in “the East,” I wonder if any of the larger cultural divides between East and West are the result of simple linguistic differences like these? I think it’s not impossible.

For the skeptics, here are some TED resources that talk about language’s capacity to affect the way we think:

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