The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
IN MODERN CULTURE, “form” has acquired a bad reputation for the most part, connoting that which is rigid, rote, inflexible, and boring. There is no greater instance of a word’s negative variant having better press than the positive: “informal” stands for all that is free and easy, open to expression and perspective—finger-painting and interpretive dance and “just being yourself.” Informal is popular, while formal is considered stodgy and soul-killing.
In its noun form (it strikes me how common the word is—here I am, writing about the form of “form”), the word denotes not only essence, but also shape and outline—that which makes things recognizable. It also can mean a procedure, as determined by custom; proper behavior; proven ability; a pattern or method of arrangement; and even a level or grade (in which its members are acclimated to a particular set of skills and abilities).
But against these definitions stands an attitude that is much more attractive to the common eye: opposed to propriety is indulgence; opposed to pattern, abstraction; opposed to procedure, expression. Form is stuck being the hidebound school mistress, insisting on protocol while the rest of the world is at recess, walking on the wild side.
The more I’ve considered it, the more I’ve decided this view is a reflection of modern culture, which values individualism over conformity (note the root). It’s also why the eccentric has the upper hand over the ceremonial, and the casual is preferred over the classical. I wonder if that’s not due to arguments that have been going on for centuries, ones whose roots can be traced back to philosophical distinctions that to the modern mind would seem trifling and unrealistic—criticisms that are themselves indicative of the dominant attitude today’s society has about such concerns.
One of the earliest and most important uses of the term is Plato’s. The philosopher used two words to express his thoughts on the forms: eidos, from the Greek, derived from the Indo-European weid (“to see”) and used to express the concept of a transcendent idea; and morphe (from which “form” derives), used to express the concept of those things derived through the senses. For Plato, the form is that without which the thing would not be what it is: a thing is recognizable—we see it—to the degree we understand the form. The form is both the shape of the thing and that which unites the particular to the universal, an unchanging and eternal concept that exists in its own realm.
But for Plato, material instantiations of the form were inferior copies of the ideal. He thought that the table at which he sat—changeable, imperfect—was necessarily an inferior participation in “tableness,” the eternal form to which it related. This privileges the ideal over the material. Aristotle later revalued nature by famously relocating and unifying the form with matter: tableness is actually in the table; Aquinas adopted this integrated view.
Perhaps the modern impatience with such metaphysical inquiries can be traced to nominalism. That school of thought stood in argument against realism, to which Plato’s idea of the forms belongs. The nominalists believed their view to be more practical, ridding the world of an unnecessary complication—universals—in favor of a focus on particulars (that is, there is no such thing as “whiteness” or “rockness,” universals that exist outside the white rocks I see, but only a bunch of particular white rocks). For the nominalists, the attributes we give things, such as “white” and “rock,” are mere conveniences. It’s a short step to say that these names, which are only words, are arbitrarily given. That is, there is no real relationship between the rock we see and the word “rock.”
While that seems a truism, and one that shouldn’t cause too much trouble, the nominalists’ point can be extended further. Although the original proponents of nominalism could not have conceived it, the approach opens up another path prevalent in modern philosophy: a detachment from meaning. This pulling back from universals, or from what can be said with any degree of certainty about them, resulted in their eventual devaluation. Their compromised status from an epistemological standpoint lost them ground from the ontological standpoint. If meaning is contextualized, it is relative, and if relative, unworthy of respect. Deviations gain ascendancy in this state of affairs, becoming challengers to the pretender “form,” whose mask is triumphantly ripped away. The deviations are lauded—the informal is prioritized—and the world celebrates as it yanks off its necktie and kicks off its shoes.
All that aside, the main thing is that form is a serious business, and the great philosophers knew it to be. For even the relativist would concede that without a proper appreciation of form, all other discussions go awry. Indeed, the world’s practical and ethical dimensions hang in the balance. How can we know what something should do or what value it has unless we know what it is? How can we even distinguish one thing from the other, make choices and prioritize them, unless we know what each consists of?
But I’ve been speaking of the noun, and the word is also a verb—meaning not only “to make,” but also to make in a certain way—to mold or shape into that which is recognizable, or “to gather into an impression or idea.” God is said to have formed creation out of chaos, so the usage is of primordial lineage.
It also occurs to me that the verb is not as unpopular as the noun. The verb connotes a creative, productive process—the actor forms something—brings it into being. There is altogether more romance surrounding the verb than the noun. We love forming opinions and forming concepts, but shake our heads at that process ever leading us to an immutable form. Rather, the formational mode is said to be forever receptive and ongoing. While it is true that any opinion should be open to correction, for the classical mind, the objective of formation was to whittle away confusion in favor of immutable truth; for the modern, the process of forming is a perpetual one, since the only goal is to remain changeable (not “closed-minded,” you often hear people say). The practice of forming takes pride of place, since it’s contended there is no form qua form to be known.
The supreme irony of it all is that without a proper understanding of form, any deviation lacks all meaning. While this is true of all concepts, it is most fundamentally true in this instance. For without a proper appreciation of the form, that which diverges from it wanders free of intelligibility, like a planet broken clear of its orbit, straying further and further into chaos.
The form is the lingua franca that allows us to transcend that which is subjective and relative. We cannot even understand each other’s opinions and tastes, neither to discount them as absurd nor to adopt them as wise, unless we can judge them against some baseline. There must be some starting point of agreement regardless of the subject, whatever the concept, virtue, or vice: “art at its core, at its minimum, must be or achieve X”; “charity must consist of Y to have any real meaning”; “one can only recognize true cowardice by Z.” Some agreement about the form, or shape, that these things take must be agreed upon before we can rightly judge exceptions or subtleties.
Further, things carry within them the marked shape that connects us to each other by way of communication. This mark makes not only society, but also morality, possible. By way of the concept, I can see that you are my brother, my sister, in that you are basically me all over again. The accidents of race, gender, ethnicity, even of the past, can get in the way and make us unrecognizable to each other. It is the commonality underneath, the bones and sinew of the form, that call out like a beacon, waving a banner as to what we truly are. To the human, forms are mirrors by which he judges himself and recognizes both that which is unique about him and that which is common.
Again, the form must be the referent, the backdrop. Without it, any new mode runs the risk of subjectivity, solipsism, and conceit. The accusation is often leveled that some innovation in art or argument has not found an understanding because people are holding on to formal requirements. The implication is that the innovator’s mystical vision should be trusted, without need for explanation of its terms. The truth is that we understand to the degree we have the shared referent, and can appreciate the extension only to the degree we see where it stands vis-à-vis that referent. An advancement can only come by way of context; the poseur’s position is exposed when it cannot justify itself in relation to that context.
And with that idea—the essence, the essential—we return to the form of the form: that which cannot be done without, that which must exist for something to be what it is. It is a serious word, “form”; the most serious in fact, for it is the very blueprint of existence. God formed us from the dust of the ground, gave us what we need—not an iota more or less—to be what we are. We cannot be in any real sense unless we are formed. We came out of the dark, out of the pool of the void, because we were given shape.
It is liberating, in fact—to know what we are, to know both our capabilities and our incapabilities. Freedom is understanding what one can do so that one can go about doing it. It is not being trapped within the cage of anxiety that tells us that we can do everything. Lucky is the man, said Walker Percy in The Last Gentleman, who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him.
This can seem somewhat hard and defeating news to the young soul who wants to believe that the world is his oyster, and that he can be anything that he wants to be, as the current meme goes. But the longer, mature view holds that understanding what shape you have taken—accepting your gifts and abilities, but also your inabilities and weaknesses—allows for the potential, if not the guarantee, of progress (we are free to reject what we see, after all).
Movement, action, become possible when a clear view of potential is fathomed. That can come only by an honest assessment of what form we have taken (or more precisely, for the person of faith, have been given). Instead of straining in frustration for the impossible, we can then move forward within a profile that shines with the sun of a genuine authenticity.
A.G. Harmon teaches at the Catholic University of America. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.