Language and the University Professor

An open letter to the teacher of the humanities.

Dear Ms. or Mr. Professor,

I am writing this letter because, during my time at the University, I came to understand something of your labors. You are a tired, bitter pilgrim. Having created the gorgon that will turn us all to stone, you strive bravely to look everywhere but in the direction of its eyes.

You have discovered the limitations of language. You understand how words defer meaning, how it is impossible for the symbol, the word, to escape its own system and directly represent the world outside itself. We have learned that words carry meaning not because they can replicate “the other which they name, but because of their relation to other words. Thus, no set of words will have a contained or certain meaning.

You have discovered that it is the same with beauty; we glimpse, we long, but we cannot lay our finger on what it is we see and desire. In your youth, a lovely poem or those stars shivering in the void might have pierced your heart, and you would have kept the memory of them. But now you are bitter that beauty eludes your grasp, and you take revenge on it by pulling it all to pieces with your army of literary critics and their arsenal of theories.

And so rather than endure the ache, you have denied the beauty of the world and denied the world’s existence as the Greek philosophers thought it existed—as something solid outside our heads with which our hands and our words may connect.

Like Narcissus staring into the pool, you refuse to admit the presence of anything—pondweed, water snakes–below the surface, inaccessible. You see only your own image. For you the world exists only insofar as we construct it through the symbols our community has invested with meaning. Reality, you tell your students, has no objective qualities and is just raw material for the rhetorician, the historian, the artist.

Now you are no longer Narcissus; you are the magician standing before the pool, by your powers of language and vision moving the waters, blending light and shadow to create new forms, shifting the center to the edges and embracing the margins into the center.

As Andrea Lunsford says, we write, create, and speak with a view of “knowledge as always contextually bound, as always socially constructed.” We create truth through symbols used in community. Situation is the name for something we rope off and shape by tongue and emotion. These are the things you daily tell your students.

But you are giving your students ashes, only the dust of gems. What you are saying is that there is nothing to see. You have changed the word “reality” so that it means “nonreality,” chaos; the unknowable outer darkness. This is because nonreality frightens you less than a reality that looms over your head like an unshapeable mountain.

But I know that you still find joy, Ms. or Mr. Professor, in your work: you love the thrill of figuring out how to dance around Medusa without getting caught by her gaze. With your symbols and your discourse communities, you have built magnificent castles and playgrounds all around her and earned laurels for it in obscure journals. There is little money in it, but it is not the money that matters; it is the thrill of skirting the abyss and the pleasure of building those imaginary castles, the work of your hands.

But there is an ache in your heart, because something about them is imaginary.

I have heard you ask one another how the rhetorician Aristotle could write such brilliant methods for manipulating language and emotion and yet naively assume that something—truth, ethics, a stable reality—exists behind language. I do not know why, but maybe it is because he saw what you do not see—that your theories and your dance are suicidal. You skirt the abyss of nihilism, although you have not all fallen in, and you still believe you have things to teach. You believe this because you still love language and creation.

Mr. or Ms. Professor, there is a model that would allow you still to love and get your hands messy in language, and yet draw you away from the abyss. You would have to try out new assumptions, which may have no more, but certainly have no less, proof than yours.

It is possible still to see the symbol as a thing signifying a reality behind the symbols. As you argue, words draw traces of meaning from other words in the language, and from all the situations in which they have been used by language speakers. These connections and associations, along with the veil between the word and reality, are what make writing so difficult; but they also give words their power of expression. They make poetry possible.

If you begin by assuming that an order outside our senses does exist, and that it is knowable, then symbols become the means of pursuing that reality. I believe with Aristotle that language, symbol, and art can be used to misinterpret, as well as to interpret; to misconstrue as well as to translate; to evoke resonant images or trite and harmful ones; to evaluate more falsely or more truly.

Maybe, Mr. or Ms. Professor, you are happy constructing your castles and earning your laurels. But I suspect that, as a stone is worn by dripping water, your heart has been worn flat by the disappointment of having language, beauty, and pleasure flee from you.

As for me, I am not disturbed that sometimes beauty and knowledge come only in glimpses and traces, or that it is hard to know the truth. I wonder if the reason we need symbols is that the reality is too great or too infinite for us to grasp with our bare hands; language and symbol are our humble, or our noble, means of knowing. But how after all do we know what is good or bad interpretation, what is true or not true? That is a question for another time; but it does seem an interesting mystery that the closest we have ever come to laying eyes upon “the other” is in the story of the Gospel, when God comes in a man’s body, and he is introduced as the Word.

Liz Horst

Liz Horst studied music and English literature at Grove City College and now lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. While working from home, Liz has found a precarious balance for her many loves. Besides writing and editing for the Play channel at Humane Pursuits, she runs a Suzuki violin studio and serves as executive director for the Eliot Society, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

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