There’s a striking scene in Birdman (2014) in which Riggan Thomson tells the theatrical critic Tabitha that she does a lousy job when she merely label things, that she could not see the beauty of a flower so that she calls upon a set of labels to get the world fit her frame of mind.
This reminds me of Cioran’s remark on definitions in A short history of decay (1949):
“What surrounds us we endure better for giving it a name – and moving on. But to embrace a thing by a definition, however arbitrary – and all the more serious the more arbitrary it is, since the soul then overtakes knowledge – is to reject that thing, to render it insipid and superfluous, to annihilate it. The idle, empty mind- which joins the world only by the grace of sleep – can practice only by extending the name of things, by emptying them and substituting formulas for them. Then it maneuvers over their debris; no more sensations; nothing but memories.
Under each formula lies a corpse: being and object alike die under the pretext they have occasioned. This is the mind’s frivolous, funereal debauch. And this mind has squandered itself in what it has named and circumscribed. Infatuated by syllables, it loathed the mystery of heavy silences and turned them light and pure; and it too has become light and pure, indeed lightened and purified of everything. The vice of defining has made it a gracious assassin, and a discreet victim.This is how the stain the soul spread over the mind has been removed – the only thing which reminded it that it was alive.”
(translated from French by Richard Howard, 1975)
Lately, I read Vũ Khắc Khoan’s essay Đọc Kinh (or Reading a Sutra, 1986) where he mentioned the imponderability, or acinteyya, of the Buddhist words because, in a sense, the referents intrigued from the text are so lively that they could not be captured by language, a stable structure of fossilized symbols. Whereas life itself is so complicated and, at the same time, so simple that words seem to be helpless. The true contemplation of nature’s beauty, for instance, requires no words, and conversely, no words are able to grasp such a wholesome and intricate experience.
Kim Cương đọc đến ngàn lần
Mà trong mờ ảo như gần như xa
Thạch Đài tìm đến hiểu ra
Chân kinh thật nghĩa chẳng qua không lời.
In logic, we all know that there’s a distinction between intensional definition and extensional definition. Whereas the intensional definition refers to all things that fall under a category, the extensional definition tends to cut off the context-related features and the differences between the referents in order to sort them out. So, by clinging on to the denotation, without paying enough attention to the connotation, we are likely to eradicate the sophisticated aspects of everything we name.
Language has its limitations. Starting from Saussure, the linguists are well aware that the language structure is sort of a mimesis of the world structure. And a sign, with its two halves signified and signifier are nothing but what have been left after removing all the differences between the objects. When we say “a cat”, for example, we are actually not referring to any specific cat; it’s just a linguistic entity that assembles all the common features of all cats, regardless of the differences between them. The definite article “the” must rely on linguistic or contextual referencing to be valid. Language, as a means of communication, has in itself the norm to which each speaker must conform. Thus, there are subtleties that we can’t help but ignore when giving an object a name, and there are some parts missing or some possibilities ceased when we commit ourselves to an identity label, such as any from the LGBTQ glossary.
This concern over the limitation of language is shared by a lot of writers. Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, in his short story Thương nhớ đồng quê (1992), has considered a sense of impotence in using language to express the diverse and ever-changing essence of life. Bùi Giáng, on the other hand, had written quite a deal of poems revolving around the symbols “grasshopper” and “dragonfly”, yet he implies that they are nothing but labels (“Năm xưa châu chấu mang tên chuồn chuồn”, Sầu riêng châu chấu).
The last words of Khoan’s Đọc Kinh conjure up the image of an old Vietnamese grandma singing a lullaby to her grandson, and unconsciously falling asleep. That very image to some extent refers to notion of wholeness that is closely related to the concept “wuji” (無極) in Taoism, or the interchangeability of “form” and “emptiness” in Buddhism, or mereology. That projection when the world becomes one again might be far from attainable. What I’d rather do now, in the face of such helplessness, is to allow myself indulge in the pleasure of littlest things and stay away from fanaticism.