The Physicality of Language

There is an emphasis–dare I say overemphasis?–on the intellectual, cerebral, and cognitive aspects of language today, especially in academia. Camille Paglia has written countless essays on the dominance of postmodern deconstructionism, how we are in a Foucauldian and Derridean era, so to speak. We are unfortunately in a paradigm of a very heady way of approaching ideas and language, and it is important to think beyond this. What of other aspects of language? We have explored the importance of rhyme in my post “Time for Rhyme” on this blog which also appeared in the Macedonian online magazine Blesok. But it is important to go further than rhyme and to think about how language can be physical, auditory, something that invokes movement.

French stage actor and pedagogue Jacques Lecoq did quite a lot with physical movement and mime in his teaching. I was fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity to watch a video of one of his classes, given to me by someone who had studied at his school (from what I understand students are discouraged from revealing too much on video about it). There was one exercise where students from different countries were asked to make a hand gesture related to a certain word. It was interesting to see the diversity of responses as to how language is physicalized, and how different cultures perceive the same words.

The Italian language is so enjoyable because it is so kinesthetic. I’m not only referring to the stereotypical hand gestures that most people imagine when they think of an Italian talking, but also the way in which the inflections and the double consonants and the way vowels are drawn out for emphasis resulting in a very rollicking, physical way of speaking. There is a reason why opera was born in Italy: opera requires the physicalization of language in one’s body. There are a number of physical gestures in Italian that express a certain emotion or thought. It is also important to mention that from region to region, the language varies greatly. Italy is a country full of not only mutually unintelligible accents but dialects. The singsong calls of the Neapolitan vendors at the market (in dialect, or with a Neapolitan accent) are not something that would ever be heard in, for example, Milan, nor would they easily be understood by people of different regions, if even understood at all. This gives a richness to the linguistic culture of “the boot” (as some people lovingly refer to Italy, due to its shape), which is unified through a “standard Italian” accent even though many people still speak dialects at home or within their communities.

I am bilingual in both English (my dominant language by far) and Tamil. The latter is a Dravidian language, completely unrelated to the Indo-European family. Tamil speakers, in my observation, do not always use their hands when they talk, though there are some common gestures and it is certainly a more gesture-heavy language than English. What is noteworthy is that Tamil has quite a lot of onomatopoeia in it. To me, this is a different sense of physicality in language: the actions and motions and sounds of things as well as objects themselves are represented well by the language. For example, the word for firecracker, “pattoss,” is an actual noun that is onomatopoeic. Of course, there is always the much-mocked head nod on the Subcontinent (which I do find hysterically funny). A cousin once told a story of a four head-nod conversation at a train station between him and a vendor on the platform in which both parties completely understood what the other was saying!

We cannot ignore the tonal languages in which meaning is conveyed by tones. This is a very simplistic way of describing the complexity of how pitching one’s voice, the inflections used, and the subtleties of sounds are equally as important to a language as its orthographic and cognitive features. We think of, immediately, Chinese, and there are numerous others such as Thai or Vietnamese and even Swedish. And to go beyond tones, there are families of languages with clicks, such as the Khoisan languages of southern Africa. The language of Xhosa, which is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa, features a high degree of click consonants that can be quite challenging to non-natives. Comedian Russell Peters even has a routine about this that many readers might find funny.

In our digital era where everything is two-dimensional and on a screen, highly physicalized languages are a welcome relief. English is a rich and complex language, but American English in particular can be so literal, efficient, and to-the-point that we need to think about different ways of expressing ourselves, both verbal and nonverbal. Americans need to know more about different types of languages around the world, because when you understand a language, you get to know the people who speak it.

Face the Face: The Lost Art of Beauty

I recently finished reading Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. The last section deals with the near-extinction of the description of characters’ appearances in literature. Baxter points out, astutely, that part of the reason for this is due to our long history of racial and disability discrimination. These are ugly and shameful behaviors that have been institutionalized and ingrained in American society. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater? Why neglect The Aesthetic?

One of our best cultural critics and public intellectuals, Camille Paglia, has frequently pointed this out in the context of feminism. A chief complaint of Paglia’s is that American feminists have dismissed and even destroyed the presence of art in their quest for female equality and empowerment. As an artist, I cannot help but agree that this is often the case. One such example from my undergraduate days was in an English literature class, where the professor presented an image of a Victorian-era painting in a round shape of a mother holding her baby, sitting next to a window. The professor asked for our comments. Moved by the tenderness and delicacy of the painting, I responded, “It’s beautiful.” However, what followed from my other classmates was a slew of answers that only commented on the repression of women, etc. Certainly women have been repressed and perceived solely as baby-making machines throughout the centuries. But this does not invalidate the sheer beauty of a beautiful image.

This is but a symptom of the lack of a genuine appreciation of art and beauty in American education. It was not until studying abroad at Oxford University that I was able to see that literature was an art, much to my delight. Oscar Wilde himself had lived, literally, across the street! Wilde is a perfect example of the English tradition of the dandy, something that does not exist in American culture, whose roots are in Puritanism and hard-line Protestantism. For a straight male in our culture to dress himself well would subject him to suspicion that he is homosexual or a metrosexual. But our modern metrosexual feels disingenuous: it revolves around a collection of products, usually appeals to men of a high SES, and is, as the name indicates, metropolitan/urban. Perhaps our only sincere dandy cultures exist within lower SES Latino and black cultures, where many men revel in decorating themselves and it is not socially shunned.

The problem is that beauty is highly commoditized in America, and therefore we lack a true sense of the aesthetic, the attractive, the beautiful. Countless magazines (usually based in New York) promote a Madison Avenue image of women each season, as does the billion-dollar fashion industry with a token “overweight” woman (read: the truly normal American-size woman) here or there. The cosmetics industry, also a billion-dollar industry, develops myriad products to make women look and feel young and “better.” And therein lies the legitimate criticism by feminists against the beauty industry and why many of them reject beauty: the American beauty aesthetic relies on perfectionism. It is too normative, based on white Barbie doll or socialite standards. That said, it is hard to resist a gorgeous spread shot on a desert island in a fashion magazine with beautiful lighting, flowing dresses, and glorious colors on the model’s face. It is a natural impulse to admire that which is beautiful. But like everything in America, things go to extremes.

We do not have deep roots in a folk art culture, as do many countries in the world. A Central American woman would have beautiful embroidery on her dress, a South Indian woman would wear a sari with stunning contrasting colors, an Eastern European would have a handpainted floral motif on a piece of furniture. Nor do we have a Scandinavian democratic philosophy of “form and function,” with everyday objects that look appealing. Nor do we have an aristocracy; though this is a very undemocratic institution, if we were to evaluate it strictly from an artistic perspective, it is something that leads to the development of a profound arts culture in any country. There is a reason why English Royalty has such great appeal to the practical Yankees. America is too practical. It thrives on business, efficiency, speed. We do not waste time with our words; those who have spent time in Britain will notice a more flowery prose than ours here across the pond. Our books do not describe people, how they look, what they are wearing – an opening like “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…” does not belong to an American writer, although this may not be a fair comparison, given that Jane Austen wrote this line a couple of centuries ago.

Arts education is always in danger in America, be it in primary schooling or in academia, where it is considered “impractical” to major in anything creative or art history. Decision-makers and policymakers should be aware of this, and how ironic it is that our best innovators such as Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs were tremendously creative people. The late Maxine Greene, a philosophy professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was one wonderful example of the sort of educator we need more of. Jacqueline Kennedy was also a seminal figure in promoting and developing arts in America, and we need more high profile women like her. But we also need parents who tell their kids to put down their electronic toys and pick up a sketchpad and simply draw–draw a bird, draw a tree, draw themselves. We need more of those coffeehouse folkies who write songs to their girlfriend’s beautiful hair. In short–we need more art and beauty.

The Italian Sensibility

This post is a natural complement to a post I wrote several months ago on the French sensibility.

When one thinks of Italian, probably the first thing that comes to mind is sound and the aural. Italian culture is a very auditory culture: it thrives on sound. The Italian language is very mellifluous; its pure vowels make it a singer’s delight, and the intonations up and down indicate the rise and fall of a person’s emotions. This is not an easy task for those who learn Italian as a foreign language, especially those who come from languages that are not intonation-heavy. The doubled consonants add pauses, creating a wonderful rhythm to the language that makes for interesting emphasis. And of course, naturally, with the Italian language goes the use of the hands: Italians are born with eurhythmy in their blood. The hands themselves speak an entire language of their own, frankly, though they served to highlight or underscore what’s being said.

Along with the Italians’ love of language goes the love of music, which is another aspect of sound. The Italians are naturally musical people. Their love of music is not something only formally cultivated; no, the average Italian can burst into song, or hum a well known melody with natural spontaneity from the soul that no amount of musical training could produce. This is, after all, the country that created opera! Think of opera but also of popular Neapolitan songs that have endured over centuries and have traveled all around the world. Mozart himself was probably the greatest “Italian” composer: his musical sensibility maintains all of the joy and grace of Italian culture, and his text setting of Da Ponte’s spectacular texts reveal his unbelievably nuanced understanding of the language. Don Giovanni is the ultimate Italian masterpiece. And the violin culture of Cremona, home to Stradivari and co., is yet another example of the Italians’ love for and understanding of music, through the making of complex string instruments.

As above, the Italians’ use of the hands gesticulating wildly speak leads to another facet of the culture—-the love of the physical, the kinesthetic, the body. The body is immortalized in countless Italian statues and sculptures over the millennia, admired openly by men on the street, and celebrated in fashion. Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the body is Michelangelo’s David, the colossal sculpture of the epitome of male beauty. The Catholic faith as we know it (also anchored in Italy) addresses both the sins of the flesh as well as the holiness of the body: think the Eucharist ritual enacted at every mass. Think, also, of the trope of the whore in Italian film or literature—-her significance is larger than the mere fulfillment of male pleasure. One need only cite the brilliant Camille Paglia here, for her extensive writings on images of women in Italian art, literature, and history.

Needless to say, drama is a key element of Italian culture, be it on a personal level or an artistic one. Witness a shouting match at a Milanese supermarket when the cashier decides to go on break just when it is a customer’s turn to pay. Imagine “Ridi, pagliaccio” being sung as a child throws himself on the floor after being refused a cookie by his mamma. Marvel in the art form of opera, which includes such elements as blood and guts, lust, murder, death, passion, forbidden love, scandal, seduction, and intrigue, to name a few. The southern Italians have a reputation for being more passionate and dramatic than the reserved Northerners, but still, the latter are still more expressive than the average American or Northern European.

This passion and love for language is also reflected in the Italians’ love of debate, philosophy, and intellectualism. Since the Roman times, there runs a critical, analytic, even cerebral streak in many Italians. This is evident in those who feel tired of the cultural and political shenanigans of their country, who have a lot of commentary. Think of all the great Italian writers and philosophers: Eco, Gramsci, Dante, Lampedusa, et cetera. Perhaps this concrete, practical side of Italians was the inheritance from the Romans, for it was they in their practicality who drained the swamps, built the infrastructure, and created an empire. Chances are, the Italian intellectual is not so much of an abstract, spiritual thinker, but one who relates to his or her society and social circles.

This relating to people is also at the root of Italian society, for familial and personal ties take precedence over all else. The Anglo-Saxon sense of individualism and the quality we find here in the US or Britain or other Anglophone countries is not held to the highest ideal. Rather, one’s priorities lie with those in one’s circles; this probably makes Italy one of the most psychologically healthy countries in the developed world. One’s personal life matters: it is at the core of one’s being, it is one’s sustenance in a country where the government is unreliable and the political situation eternally unstable. In America, the personal is political; in Italy, the personal trumps the political—-no self-respecting Italian would completely forgo his or her personal life for the sake of a successful career, as is all too common here. This is not to say that there are not successful Italians or that there is not a professional work ethic in Italy. Bear in mind Italy’s financial prowess and economy, which can only have resulted from hard work. But an abstract sense of what is “professional” is replaced by a sense of meaningful relationships with others. And if one dares to succumb to clichés, the love for the familial ties is ever-present in the Italian man’s love for his mother.

Finally, one cannot discuss Italy without discussing the love of beauty. Something unpleasant or disagreeable is described as “brutto” or ugly. The purpose of everything is to serve as a work of art, be it one’s wardrobe, appearance, or living space. “Fare la bella figure”—-to cut a fine figure—-is a worthy goal the high and low aspire to. Art is what redeems the challenges of living in Italy, with its crumbling buildings, corruption, unstable government, and dubious infrastructure. Rome itself is a living museum, full of beautiful things to see and explore. Art historians for centuries have spent time in Italy, and in the olden days of the Grand Tour, Italy was a must for the wealthy and art-loving people. Textiles, silks, painted pottery, blown glass, luthiers—-these are but a few examples of craftsmanship present in usable objects, where form takes precedence over function.

This essay could continue endlessly to extol the virtues of Italian culture (and, perhaps also criticize its faults). But as a final note, perhaps Italy’s best contribution to the world is its FOOD!

The Artist in America

If the “business of America is business,” as has been so famously said about this nation, then it is no wonder that artists do not feature in the general vocabulary and Zeitgeist in our culture. Artists are seen as something peripheral, errant, irresponsible. Art is something to be done “on the side,” for it is rare to find the artist who makes his or her living through his or her craft. Artists feature among the uninsured in this country, or the underinsured, because certainly there must be a high risk for a self-employed with paint artist who stands in front of a canvas all day (note sarcasm here). The National Endowment for the Arts seems to be in a perpetual state of doom due to spending cuts as well as censors who fear the visual portrayal of depravity. Certainly, there are fellowships and MacArthur awards and grants given to creative folk, but generally these do not sustain the artist, who must seek funds from multiple sources or undesirable jobs. And yet, oddly, we have one of the finest museums in the world—-the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—-and stunning collections in equally stunning museums and private collections around the country. Many museums were really founded upon a given collection by a wealthy individual or family. And given our ethnic and social diversity, we have probably the widest range of types of art on display and for sale in the United States. Want to invest in modern Native American? Check. John Singer Sargent portraits? Check. An installation of gigantic slabs of metal by Richard Serra? Check. You want it, we got it. And how many millions of people around the world own an iconic silver laptop or iPod with that familiar white fruit logo? Don’t forget—-it’s as American as Apple!

But we must go further and examine the mentality of our culture and why art, artistry, and aesthetics are not part of our daily vocabulary. Even people who are well educated and prosperous might simply be too pragmatic to appreciate that which is abstract and inexplicable. It doesn’t “make sense” to many people, it is “too emotional,” or, worst of all, “weird.” We do not come from a culture where there was an Oscar Wilde in our past, or huge movements in our daily culture that supported aestheticism and beauty. “Art for art’s sake” seems like a wasteful mentality to our practical, Anglo-Saxon values. Writing a folk song about a flower might seem “sappy,” and in no other country can you actually buy clothing from a category called “business attire.” Everything has to serve a purpose, because time is money, and marketing studies have calculated every last color detail down to the Pantone wheel as to what will sell best. In a culture that is so calculated and precise, there is very little room for the imprecise, the imaginative, the dreamy, or the ephemeral. When we have so many social problems and inequalities to solve—-very necessary tasks, indeed—-how can we afford the luxury of artistic pleasure?

America, since its inception, has valued a sense of justice, fairness, intelligence, hard work, equality, individualism, optimism, efficiency, and wealth. And ironically, those qualities are what can make a great artist. The artist needs the drive to succeed, the discipline to work hard, a uniqueness of vision, the funds to obtain the materials, and the boldness to ask the world for the compensation he or she deserves, is due. And the artist also needs supporters of the arts, in audiences, visitors to galleries, and scholars like Maxine Greene or Camille Paglia who bridge the gap between thought and the arts. We need the Steve Jobses and David Kelleys of America to link stunning form with necessary function.

And most of all, we need children. We need the child in each of us, the child that still exists even in the most boring office worker in his or her cubicle, the child that once experienced such joy in dipping a brush in red tempera paint, mushing Play-Doh between her hands, or spending hours hunched over a notebook with a pencil in his hand. We need to encourage everyone to keep the creative child as a part of our lives, and to express that naturally art-loving side of ourselves, especially as the world becomes more and more technology-oriented. To quote the inimitable Oscar Wilde, “Art is the only serious thing in the world.” If only more people lived that philosophy.