"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Friday, January 20, 2006

Description is Art

Description is a powerful tool. The proliferation of writers has made us blind to the fact that most people cannot describe effectively, at least without a long time to think; and those who can rarely put their skills to good use. Modern literature tends towards cheap suspense, gore, romance, and ideas. Refer to Langauge I. I was rambling about an idea I had, albiet an interesting one, at least to me; I used funny, sometimes slightly violent and grose illustrations, and I described almost nothing at all.
I remember spending half an hour in class a few years ago, examining Louisa May Alcott's descriptions in the first few pages of Little Men. If I used the phrases she did in conversation, I would get weird looks. This ties in to language, I suppose, since we have become used to reading one language and speaking another.
I think my complaint here is that people don't appriciate the value of describing. I say this because it has become common-place, but dry. Watch someone's face as they are reading a beautiful description. They will probably frown as they try to follow the language used. Better yet, show someone a beautiful computer rendered New Zealand landscape in Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. See if this excites oohs and aahs. Probably a good number of people would be impressed by this. It is visual, prepared, packaged. It takes only the optic lobes to understand it. Now show a shot from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, a blazing lightsaber duel or a incredibly detailed shot of capitol ships fleeing and pursuing, smaller vessels bursting into clouds of bright flame and debris. You will probably get a better reaction.
My point is that written description is valued below visual, and leads me into my second point.
Descriptions of violence, conflict, and catastrophe are valued about those of peace, beauty, and reality. Many readers will sit entranced as they read about men being butchered, buildings being destroyed, and massive battles being joined. They will yawn and their eyes will drift when they come to the description of the brave knight, the mighty buildings filled with people going about their daily work, the farm of the militiaman. Why? Well, it's not very exciting.
This gets into all the arts. When it comes down to it, which is more exciting: chopan or Yellowcard? Be honest now, which one gives you a burst of energy?
This is my second point: The art of written discription has fallen so out of grace that it is only considered good if it dwells on subject matter that naturally excites strong emotions. One might argue that a landscape could, or should do so. This is another point, however -- that we devalue the "natural art" all around us. But anyone who lives in New Zealand, though they may love and enjoy their nation's landscapes, probably is not strongly moved overy time they look out the window. Some probably are, and that is a good thing. But these New Zealanders (please understand I am using them as an example solely because of their beautiful country's recent movization) probably come back again and again for more violent, gory, description.
So descriptive art is undervalued. Why? Well, for one thing it is slow, old, takes brain power to understand, and typically does little to move a story. Picture readers as the impatient young boy in the art museum tugging on his parent' hands to hurry up to the next exhibit, rather than stand staring at the one they are already at. But at the next exhibit he does the same thing. He does not appriciate the art in front of him.
Readers are not entirely to blame. I would not enjoy a modern art exhibition very much, myself. It has degraded into a contest to be instantly shocking, and sometimes violent and gory.
Descriptive art is a talent few authors possess. Fortunately, we have access to just about everything ever written. Look at Tolkien's long, extensive description of peoples, histories, lands, buildings, and armies. Yet, in the midst of thick battle, he says "Three times Aragorn and Eomer rallied them, and three times Anduril flamed in a desperate charge that drove the enemy from the wall." He does not explain in great detail how Aragorn cut apart numerous orcs, nor how the orcs did horrible things to their victims. At times he does go into gruesome detail. But here his point is not for you to enjoy the gore, but to have your mind and senses "entertained" by the desperate struggle to hold the wall. There is a place for descriptive art that describes horrible things, and violent, tumultous struggles, whether they are actual battles or just famines, depressions and arguments. My conclusion is that, while the subject of any art must by definition be an essential part of that artwork, it only rarely defines whether the art is good or bad. There are venues in which some things should never be described, others where it is necessary that they be. But where description is for entertainment, the question to ask is first "is this description here to be thought over and appriciated, crafted to be a thing of beauty in and of itself, a proper vehicle for conveying information to the senses?" and second "is what it conveys a thing worth considering for entertainment?"
One thing to notice here is that entertainment is having your attention held captive. Enjoyment is taking pleasure in something. We may properly read about a great battle, and be entertained, but I do not think we should enjoy the battle; perhaps the skill of the artist who describes it, however.
So, that is my convoluted take on describing things in books: people don't value it, don't do it well, and make their subjects the only point, instead of trying to make the medium itself beautiful.
For those of you who are wondering exactly what brought me to write this, please understand this blog is a school assignment. I do enjoy talking about what I think, but I normally wouldn't be writing about this, but I have to use the medium, whether I can think of anything I want to write about or not. I have a nasty sinus cold this morning, and feel rather light-headed. Perhaps this is an explanation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Language I: Views on the Creation and Evolution of Language

Well ya'll, good morning. Here I am to talk about language. What we speak. It's interesting that at least in recorded history there has not been a constant language. All language seems to be to some degree in a flux, never exactly solidifying. Dictionaries are only effective because this flux, or evolution of the language is slow enough for a dictionary composed twenty years ago to be 99.9% accurate. The debate over whether language is dependant on how people use it, or whether people's use of language is dependant on the language itself is similar to that of the chicken or the egg being the first in existence (I personally am for the chicken). To define the question to a greater extent, we can ask, did someone create a highly effective, communicative form of verbal sounds, or did people create the system through practical use of it?
If the former is true, then any evolution of the language is not at all beneficial, rather it allows for compromises and time-savers that will eventually devolve into a mess of subjective words, each with multiple meanings depending on how they are applied, lacking any definite (see the relation to definition) meaning to back them up. Theoretically, the English language could end up like a bad sci-fi movie I saw a few years ago. It was about this tribe of sun worshippers on a Lost Worldesque island, and had lots to do with all blonde girls being sacrified to the huge pit at a certain age, and running away from dinosaurs, and people being eaten by giant pitcher plants, etc, etc. The language of these natives included a one word vocabulary: "Akida."
"Akida." -- "Block of wood."
"Akiida." -- "You look cute in that loincloth, Bob."
"Akida, Akida." -- "Look what I found, a Bronchiosaurus."
"Akida! (Akida, Akida)" -- "A blonde girl, come on, let's throw her into the pit."
"Akidaaaaaa!!!!" -- "Ow, I'm being eaten by a giant pitcher plant."

I think our one word might end up being "like" "yeah" "Uuuh" or something similar. One never can tell, though.
All humor aside this does lead us to some interesting questions. If meddling with the language is bad, then what about all those colloquialisms, turns of phrase, and quotes that enrich it so much. If I say "I'll be back," it means one thing literally, and another completely different. I've never seen the Terminator (my wonderfully smart and kind, but rather forgetful history proffessor called it the Terminal Man), but I've heard and used that phrase many times. I have read that the infamous affirmative and/or positive "ok" came from a presidential campaign around the beginning of the twentieth century. He was called Old Krakenbury, and his campaign ads said "He's O.K." so much that the phrase caught. These phrases are localized, so people around the world may not understand them, even if they have learned the literal meanings of the words in the language (unless of course you add the new words, as some modern dictionaries have done). Many old or foriegn turns of phrase have been lost to general knowledge. Reading a five hundred year-old European legend is difficult. At times you come accross a combination of words you understand, but which have no meaning to you in that combination. There is also the obvious presence of words that, while they had definite, literal meanings at the time, now have none at all. These are clearly arguments against allowing or encouraging language evolution, but colloquialisms greatly enrich culture and language. Some might argue that the localization of such phrases breeds isolationism and racism. I believe I could take the legs out from under these same people using their own words against them, but I won't try, because what it comes down to is that if this does cause racial prejudice, it shouldn't, and brings about benefits that greatly outway any side effects. In addition, the fact is that anyone reading this could probably not walk to my house in a days time. Many probably could not in a week's time. Yet here you are reading it, if anyone is, that is. With today's advancements in communication, colloqiallisms are spread not among towns or provinces, but accross entire nations and languages. There still are bounds, outside of which such phrases are rarely used (as far as I know, only Australians use Aussie expressions with any regularity). So the sense of national identity, important so long as there are more than one nations, remains strong. In some areas that is true down to provinces, but to a lesser degree. One may not speak the colloquialisms of the northern U.S., but one still knows them.
So this refinery, or panache on languages is one argument against the idea of a foundationally correct language that decays over time.
The latter view is in touch with the times. It embraces the following ideas: 1) we are getting better. Everything we do is leading to progress. Everything we are involved in is progressing. We are becoming better people than our ancestors could have been. We are Evolving. See the premise of X-men, the negative light thrown on the Intelligent Design group, etc. 2) language was invented by our ancestors. We know better now than they did then. Besides, we are not the same type of human that they were. Species are transient. They are in flux, and so language should also be in flux to suit them. Each new species of homo sapiens needs a new species of language to speak. This sounds a little extreme, but it is the logic behind the inclusion of new definitions of phrases such as "shut up" (now meaning "you're kidding" as an alternative to "close your mouth"), introduced through television, advertisement, laziness on the speaker's part, etc. Laziness, that sounds negative. But isn't that one of our goals? To be able to do things with more ease? What is wrong with automatic dishwashers, instant mail delivery over the internet, instant communication, better cleaners, more services to hire, automated industry, mathematics, agriculture, etc. Labor is now being thrown more and more into the areas of research, development, and quality management, in a sense trying to cut back on itself.
A paraphrased scene from the Jetsons: having joined the army, George and another private soon get into trouble and are assigned mess duty. They lie sweating and gasping against a chrome wall.
"Oh, man, I didn't know the army would be this hard," wheezes George.
"Nope. They're merciless," replies his friend.
"Well, let's get it over with." George reaches up and presses a button on the wall. His friend presses another. Mechanical arms appear, collect the dishes and silverware, dunk them in sinks and begin washing them. George and his friend collapse from fatigue.
As communication proceeds towards ease, one might also think it would proceed towards clarity. It's easiest to say what you mean than to beat around the bush. Clarity focuses, combines doubles, makes smaller, simpler, plainer, more obvious, more clear, more easy to understand. This view of language predicts that if one word is used in the future, it will be a word alowing perfect communication. After all, who wouldn't want to say Ukida and be done with it? No more spelling, no more complicated keyboards, etc. Once the human mind progresses to a point where it can use a single word to communicate anything and everything, then both communication and ease will be fulfilled.
So those are the two ideas on language. One fellows entropy: language was created "perfect", whatever that may mean, and is gradually falling into chaos. The other ascends towards perfection of language. More later?
One last thing. I was reminded by my dear older sister that U-k-i-d-a is an incorrect spelling. I have replaced it with A-k-i-d-a, the correct and proper word. My apologies.