On Making Phrases

6a00d8341c58f853ef015431f1d498970c-550wiSometime during the chaotic night of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Martha shouts at her husband George, “Phrasemaker!” Like many moments in the play, it’s tense and comic, another hinge in their inscrutably serpentine relationship. Martha aims the word like an insult, but she and George laugh.

The irony is that George, Martha, their author Edward Albee, and his readers are necessarily “phrasemakers.” They can be nothing else. What other means do humans have to communicate, to pass what they know, feel, and understand onto and into one another? Though they make phrases in different languages and can’t rely on being understood even in a shared language, the impulse to codify and describe and classify and… phrase defines humanity. Other animals may speak too, but homo sapiens are the ultimate phrasemakers, driven by belief in the unsaid, in believing something will always remain unsaid.

Sometimes words translate thoughts poorly—the deeper feeling never truly surfaces, or it finds misleading expression when words themselves take command and, despite willful resistance against neatness, arrive at sense without fidelity or sincerity. Some phrases are more orderly and understandable than the emotions and thoughts behind them.

Flannery O’Connor once told an interviewer, “I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say,” and many writers describe the same state. An idea has its own will, characters recoil at instruction, and words align themselves on tracks seemingly laid outside the writer’s mind. Finishing a poem, essay, or story can feel like discovering the object already fabricated, a thing waiting to be realized all along. Writing can be channeling, and sometimes a writer starts composing without direction or purpose at all, simply hoping a filament will catch, throwing words into voids expecting responses to come soon.

And thus they speak to speak. In conversation, this faith seems more pronounced. People meet and begin talking and continue until time says to part or someone says something suggesting an end. Students fill classrooms with answers sculpted from air, and their teachers try to grasp ideas without handles, often without true intent. The teachers add utterances themselves, not only to complete the time but also to fulfill the convention of being there together. They must accomplish learning, and learning, the theory goes, begins in expression, caging elusive reality in words.

What if all phrasemaking is fiction? Albee may think so. Martha and George create as much as they describe. So much of their lives didn’t exist until they said so, and what those lives really are won’t sift out of what they call their lives. If there is a “really” at all, Albee suggests, it could just as easily be formed by what they name each other, how they pigeonhole past events, why they say they can or can’t persist.

Humanity’s pride in language isn’t that different from the rest of human beings’ relentless making. Their creations produce harm as well as help… and harm disguised as help and vice versa. Fitful, sputtering words may arise from a similar impulse not to live in the world, to separate from it and shelter themselves from the unpredictable and uncontrollable weather everything else must face. They create objects to top nature, and—as Albee hinted—make bombs and monsters when boredom strikes.

These aren’t new ideas, and others phrase them better. Humanity’s greatest hubris could be thinking it knows, a faith stemming, inescapably, from labels pasted on everything, labels that hide as well as describe. Of course, it’s impossible to think of homo sapiens any other way, but if language disconnects from reality and leaves it altogether, perhaps it has another power too, to consider every alternative, actual or imagined.

What if humans never spoke or, barring that, what if they truly understood language as a bane and a blessing, a boon and a curse?

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4 Comments

Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Arguments, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Writing

4 responses to “On Making Phrases

  1. My daughter and I talk a lot about “being”, how some people are so good at it. It’s easy to be around them, and words do flow out of their solidness, but somehow you know the words are not the solidness. So often words and phrases are wielded like weapons, used to bind and subdue, rather than to free. Because of their inventive powers, I have become increasingly cautious when I use them. I would like to develop an eye for seeing what is found in relief, in those shadow we cast while making phrases.

    Must watch that movie.

    btw, i have written a long response to one of your posts, the xmas one, but it got away from me, but I wanted to thank you again for inspiring me to think as you do. happy new year.

    • dmarshall58

      My daughter and I have similar conversations about people who seem self-assured and are really desperate to impose a reality they prefer on those around them. They say “normal” and mean “like me.” They say “rude” and mean “dissenting.” I prefer to believe we’re better off for seeing around and through phrases. Part of living an examined life is second-guessing. It isn’t always pleasant to others or to you, but it seems necessary. Thanks for your comments, always. –D

  2. Having a monosyllabic son, I have a special appreciation for phrasemaking. It is amazing how easy it is to misunderstand monosyllabic people. Unfortunately they also lack all impetus to correct these misunderstandings, and plod on regardless, one solitary word at a time. If you’re lucky!

    • dmarshall58

      I’ve had some monosyllabic moments myself, believe it or not. The impetus to make phrases isn’t always a bad thing–especially as it create a lot of beauty too–and, as you suggest, the effort isn’t bad at all. I just wish we meant more of the phrases we devised. –D

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