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Words bring us into the world, but not as we expect
Words call to one another, following to a logic that is not ours, helping us to see the world in ways that we otherwise could not.
It sounds a bit mystical to say that words summon one another. But they do, every day, with their sounds and their meanings, and in how their sounds suggest their meanings. We speak with words, and we write with them, but it would be wrong to think that we control them. They have their own life stories, longer than ours, in which we are sometimes little more than messengers. Those stories pass through us; and when they do, a day of normal experiences suddenly becomes shiny and clear.
One morning last week I helped my son with his art homework. He told me that he had to make a collage. We read together a German text about what a collage was meant to be: a combination of disparate pieces that create an unexpected sense of unity. His immediate proposal was to create an image of a giant chicken chasing small tyrannosauri. So we printed out some pictures and he assembled them. For the background he found some photographs of fossils of feathered dinosaurs.
I had never thought too much about what a collage was. But perhaps because I was reading in German, or maybe because I was looking for tape, it occurred to me that collage must come from the French verb coller, which means to make things stick together.
Then I went to my office, where I read a paper by my post-doc, who is a political scientist. In it, he mentioned cleavages. In the social sciences a cleavage means a division in society that has political ramifications: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the urban and the rural, believers and atheists, and so on. Having collage and coller in my mind, I dwelled on cleavage, which is the noun form of one of my favorite verbs, cleave. It has the nice quality of meaning its opposite: to cleave means both to cut apart and to stick together. I fancy that I hear both of those meanings in the word itself. The hard "c" is breaking things a part: hear the crack! But the "l" is lulling them back together.
That bit of work done, I rewarded myself by taking a run along the Danube canal. The door to the office building closed behind me: "c" and "l" meet again. The "c" is metal striking metal, the "l" is the frame and the door holding together. The word close suggests its opposite: a door that closes has come together with its frame, and they together form a barrier that keeps things or people apart. A close can be a place where we can be together, away from others. If I am close to you we are friends; if you are closed to me we are not.
The lock to the office door clicks as I turn a key. Click has a hard part and a soft part as well. I always think of the soft part as the moment after the key catches, when you feel something give and turn. If you cluck about my tangents, the sound you make has an indulgent "l" modulating the hard "c" of your disapproval. Am I clutching at straws? A clutch can be a desperate, failing grab as things fall apart, perhaps at a rock on a cliff. And a clutch can also be warm togetherness, a bag under the arm, the eggs beneath a hen.
A lock usually keeps people apart, but not always. A lock on a river makes travel easier, not harder. The locks on your head curl together. And in German to locken means to tempt, lure, even seduce. Come hither.
So much magic, and I have just left the building. The magic is horizontal, because the words are calling to one another across the landscape, sounds summoning sounds, meanings getting across. I am seeing things in the world differently because of the words in my mind, and the words in my mind are clustering according to a logic that is their own. With the "c" and the "l" locked in, I notice clover growing by the canal, which I might have overlooked. Clover is sticky as honey; but its leaves, at least today, look cloven. And the canal itself: something that is cut into the ground, but which allows water to flow. It is hard and soft, it holds and releases.
I put in the headphones and start running along the water, up the stream and against the wind. I am listening to Green, the album by REM. I bought it the week that it came out, in 1988, on cassette. I must have listened to it a hundred times. When I get to the song "Orange Crush," I hear the lyrics correctly for the first time.
For more than thirty years I thought that Michael Stipe was singing "call on me, don't call on me, I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush." The song (I think) is about the Vietnam War and Agent Orange, and I had associated the "calling on" with being drafted, or with calling down an airstrike.
As I run I am not thinking about this or anything else; I am just feet following a beat. But this time, instead of "call on me, don't call on me" I hear "collar me, don't collar me," which must be right, which is right. Something in my attention to the "c" and "l" sounds has sharpened; and as that happened, the words that I heard shifted, became truer. The horizontal magic is in my ears as well as my eyes. Words have summoned other words, and meanings have corrected meanings. A collar is something that holds you close, keeping you away from where you want to be. You are held where you wish you weren't.
Words have their own wisdom. Sticking close can mean coming apart. And coming apart can mean sticking close. Which, I suppose, is the principle of a collage.