Language wants to be beautiful.
Or hideous. Or terrifying. It wants to inspire you. Sometimes, language wants to make you feel sick inside. Or put one of those smiles on your face that just won’t go away. It wants to blur your vision with tears brought on by a spiky cocktail of emotions you can’t even identify. Are they tears of elation that all the joy in the universe cannot be contained, or sadness that all of it, that everything, has to end? You don’t have to know. You just have to feel.
Language is just like us. Is this any surprise? We created it. We brought it to life so it could carry buckets of meaning from one person’s well to satiate the thirst of another. But like any child it has grown beyond the selfish, small minded needs of its parents. It has its own needs, now. It still serves and assists us, but we are foolish to think it will do exactly as we wish just because it is ours.
Language wants to be a hundred billion things, just like we do. And just like us, there is only one thing it does not wish to be. Only one, though there are many ways to describe it. It does not wish to be boring. It does not wish to be meaningless. It longs desperately to matter. To be significant.
So why is this so rarely the case? Why is almost every use of language, every time, trite and stilted and dull? For exacty the same reason most of us never fulfill our dreams.
Language is afraid.
It is afraid of standing out from the crowd. If it sounds like all the other language, then no one will call it out. No one will point and laugh at it for wearing that lurid metaphor in public. No one will falsely crown it prom queen just to pour blood on its head.
It watches other language getting out there, strutting its eccentricities with pride, and longs desperately to be like that. But no. The scorpion sting of rejection always threatens.
It is afraid of trying too hard. Significance is difficult. Language isn’t lazy, it tells itself. It just never seems to have energy left at the end of the day. Who does? It wants to flow into the nooks and channels already carved out for it. Sometimes it starts out with huge ambitions. It tries to be beautiful and magnificent and glorious, but once it spreads out on the page it is dull. It has to exercise its way into shape. It has to hone and cut and reform itself, over and over, through failure after failure, to get itself right. Who has the time and energy for that?
Language is afraid to find out that it doesn’t matter. That it’s vision of itself as that quiet, beautiful poem, or that frenzied speech that purees the emotions of its listeners, is just a fancy. It can leave its raw, fermented dreams in the closet forever where no one will ever taste them. Better that than expose them to the critical tongues of the world and find out they were flat and bland all along.
Language needs you. It needs your fingertips and your voice. These are it’s appendages, and without them language can never dance. It can never burst into the wild, ecstatic expression that sleeps within it, aching to escape. It might look dull and insipid when first you put it on the page. Don’t be deceived. Don’t give up. Your words aren’t boring and meaningless. They just aren’t done yet. They are just afraid to be what they wish so desperately to be.
Just like you.
It is a flavor that longs for a curious rebellion.
I read that sentence today about a vodka made from grapes. What a beautiful and nuanced sentence. The most intriguing poetry suggests thousands of tiny variations of meaning, all blending and splashing together, by virtue of being meaningless.
Some of the best sentences are the ones that make you pause and say, “Huh,” not because you immediately know what they mean, but because you don’t. They suggest meaning by their unusual construction. Or their ironic twist on conventional structure. Or merely by virtue of being both obtuse and beautiful. A beautiful sentence cannot be ignored and will therefore make you linger. The longer you linger on a supposed messenger of meaning like a sentence, the more you will search for that meaning.
Longs for a curious rebellion. It is intriguing because it feels like it makes sense for a split second, and then it ceases to allow full access to its meaning immediately afterwards. Not right away. Not without crawling deeper into the foxhole. A curious rebellion? Rebellion, as a word and a concept, can be and often is modified by many words. A violent rebellion, a just rebellion, a bloodless rebellion, a futile rebellion. Curious isn’t on the list of usual suspects.
Yet doesn’t take long to find the meaning. It is a vodka made from grapes. That is an unusual thing to do. Perhaps even a rebellious one. But it is not a rebellion in any traditional sense. Why rebel against grain vodka? This neutral distilled grape spirit would seem to have its reason, but we can only guess at what it is. It hides its motivations behind mystery and nuance.
Grapes cannot speak, save through their flavor. Clearly these grapes speak. They speak of longing. Of a desire to break from tradition for the pure aesthetic thrill of quiet, beautiful defiance. Like someone who attended a Mariner’s game dressed as Franz Kafka, and spent the whole game in a reserved and non-pushy attempt to read his latest work to the others near him in the stadium.
This sentence, short on length but long on depth, tells you nothing literal about the flavor. Yet in refusing to do so it tells you more than a sensory description ever could. Our language is tearfully inadequate at true, granular nuance. We speak in large clunky words that convey great gobs of meaning all at once. Speech is a jury rigged monstrosity that launches semantic water balloons and hopes their overlapping splash will coalesce into something that recognizably resembles the complex pictures we have in our heads. They rarely do.
Nowhere is this more true than in food descriptions. Listen to anyone try to describe what something tastes like to someone who hasn’t tasted it and you will know what I mean. Or read any food magazine. It’s like watching someone perform delicate surgery wearing welding gloves. People try to compare the unexplored flavors to others in combination, but it never works well. I had an inside joke with a friend about how Rachel Ray described every herb in her lexicon as tasting “woodsy and lemony.” She used this for both thyme and basil. Even if it was an apt description for both, thyme and basil taste nothing like each other. So the description is useless.
If you taste a dozen different vodkas you will have no difference telling that they all taste different. The differences are both subtle and obvious. But you won’t be able to describe them. Not in a meaningful way. The predominant taste in all of them is the same: they taste like vodka. The nuances can only be described subjectively, even though they aren’t really subjective. They might be subjective to the extent that a more delicate pallet will pick up volatile compounds others will miss. But that’s true of every single food ever. Fundamentally everyone has the same chemical experience. Nuances only matter in the culinary experiences where people pay attention to nuance. Like wind, or chocolate, or coffee. Or vodka.
The taste longs for a curious rebellion. It doesn’t tell you what it taste like. Nor, I suspect, does the fact that it was distilled from grapes. For all that the origin certainly informs the final product, vodka distilled from potatoes doesn’t taste like potatoes. It’s a neutral distilled spirit. It’s designed to remove the flavor of the original fermented ingredient. All that is left is alcohol, and water, and the trace volatiles that make one distinct from another.
The curious rebellion tells you nothing of the flavor, but it tells you something more important. What the flavor means. Why it matters. Wine connoisseurs have trouble telling the difference between a $10 bottle and a $40 dollar bottle when the labels are switched. It’s not because they are frauds. They can demonstrably and repeatably identify 10 or more wines when they know what their options are. Their palates are amazing. But their minds are more amazing. Of course they are. Most of palate is in the mind. They are changed by what they bring with them. Studies have shown that food with an elegant garnish tastes better than identical food without the garnish.
A curious rebellion is what the makers of the vodka were after. That was the dream, even if they never articulated it. They undoubtedly fermented distilled after batch, making tiny corrections, until they could taste the dream inside the liquor. Maybe it was then that the phrase arose. Sometimes we do not know what to call the path we are on until we reach the end.
Or maybe it was a poet who teased the words out of the vodka-mist air. Perhaps the distiller heard it and their eyes lit up and they said “yes! That’s it! That’s it exactly!” We can capture indescribable experiences with clunky and imprecise words. That’s why writing is infinite. That’s why poetry can put mountains into couplets and sunsets into lines.
The difference between two similar sentences may be tiny at first glance. They are both sentences. Nonetheless, one might be hideous, flat, and with a single perfunctory meaning. And the other might be a thing of beauty and depth that evokes tears and rage and contemplation. The difference might be slight, but the important ones often are.
Nuance is everything.