Part III–and the last–of my mini-series on how world building and artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.
To set the table for our thrilling conclusion, here are the key points from the first two posts in this series.
In Part I, I introduced you to our two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: the “elvish craft” of enchantment (Tolkien) and translucence (Le Guin). We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish. We also began to compare the similarities in the Nna Mmoy way of life and Elvish culture.
In Part II, we examined Le Guin’s notion of translucence more closely by stepping through key passages in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” We saw that the source of translucence in story-telling is in the relationship between the language and the broader culture of a people. The translucence of the Elven language originates in their deep history and wrestling with the wider Powers of Arda, their sometimes ill-conceived oaths, and struggles against the Enemies of harmony, beauty, freedom, and delight in living things. The Nna Mmoy have none of these difficulties, nor self-awareness of their own history. The translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the complexities of the language itself because they live in a “safe,” unchallenging environment. For any language to have translucence, it must be fed by springs of complexity and variety.
In this final post in the series, I want to show that translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our best writers have that elvish craft, that ability to enchant with translucent diction. But translucence also works on listeners and readers, and the attentive reader uses and understands language that is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. If you learn to detect translucence, you may embark on an exploration of unexpected meaning, challenges, and discoveries that open up to you.
The idea that translucence explains how layers of meaning are assembled and integrated into a whole work is at first difficult to grasp. I think an analogy with how maps function illustrates what’s going on.
Compare the author gifted with the Elvish Craft, or the adult Nna Mmoy speaker, to a mapmaker.
The mapmaker translates his or her knowledge of a place, its terrain and features, onto a two-dimensional representation of the place. Without exception, the mapmaker must compromise between clarity and richness, simplicity and comprehensiveness, detail and practical applicability, and so on. The map is not in a transparent, one-for-one correspondence relation with the terrain it depicts. The map is a selective image of the real place. The map is like geography. Both maps and geography abstract from the familiar concrete world of ordinary experience in order to give the map reader a useful tool to orient himself in the real place.
The map reader uses the map to navigate the place, explore its features, and reach destinations. Now every map reader knows this: the experience of studying the map is nothing like experiencing the place itself. You can’t study the geography or a map of the Everglades to obtain first-hand experience of what it’s actually like. The point of the map is to usefully guide; it does not act as a substitute experience of the place.
But there’s something else every map reader knows. Before you ever pick up a map, you’ve already encountered many of the features depicted on the map: road, stream, hill, swamp, town. You have a familiarity with the ordinary (Primary) world that the mapmaker depends on to communicate a more comprehensive understanding of the place. What the successful map (Secondary World) does is manifold:
- It calls attention to specific features in the Primary World;
- It allows you to experience familiar features in the Primary World differently;
- It allows you to experience new features in familiar places.
We pick up a map of a new place handicapped by our myopic, partial vision of the real world. We take a journey to the broader world depicted by the map and our vision gets corrected, our perspective is elevated a little higher, and we glimpse how much more interesting–perhaps scary, perhaps wonderful–the Primary World is. The map is by necessity selective. It can’t show everything. If we seek to know and experience the Primary World in all its richness and terrible desolation, we will need good maps.
Translucence is what makes the good map work. There are enough familiar, easily identifiable objects in the terrain that the novice reader can get underway. Though an image, and an incomplete representation, the good map is accurate. And once you visit the actual place, you find the real landscape exceeds what the symbols on the map only hint at: the heights and depths of the ground below, the brilliance of the sky above, the ruggedness of the coastline, the colors and smells of the city, the expansive vistas of the high plains. None of this was on the map, and yet it stands out to you once you’ve been oriented by the map. Translucence teaches you that there’s more to what you see than what you see. From your original familiarity with some features the mapmaker can draw on, your vision of the real world penetrates to new features and rises to new perspectives.
The Analogy Explained
I tried to drop enough hints in the map analogy so that you could piece together its meaning on your own. But it’s not easy, so let me spell it out a bit more.
In the analogy, the mapmaker is the storyteller or author of the story, the world-builder. The map reader is the listener, or the reader of the story. The map is the story. The symbols and conventions used on the map are the language of the story. The map is a guide to a place in the world. The map reader comes to the map like the reader comes to the story with some pre-knowledge of both the symbols (the language) and the features represented (the world and its history). There’s another interesting similarity between maps and Tolkien’s idea of the Primary and Secondary. You’ll recall that Tolkien’s Secondary World is a fictional place, but a special kind of fictional place; namely, one that sheds new light on the ordinary, Primary world. The map is a representation of the Primary world through conventions of symbol, arrangement, and scale. The map purports to show the Primary world through these conventions and representation. The map is not a fictional world, but it can shed new light on the terrain and features of the Primary world.
Storytelling, or any other cultural form of expression, including handmade crafts, is also rooted in our prior familiarity with the world, the world we perceive and that perception gives us a hold on. We come to stories with our own stock of acquired vocabulary, concepts and meanings. The author (mapmaker) exploits this background knowledge and crafts original speech that creates new meaning. We may have been to a location a hundred times before, but never noticed the geological feature shown on the map. Indeed, it may be so hidden from sight that we would never have found the feature without the map. We now have an altered perspective on a familiar place. What was once hidden to us now stands out and opens new features for us to explore. But the new feature, the original speech, always rests on a background of already understood speech.
To understand translucence and how it works we have to examine something we take for granted: our familiar stock of words and why they seem to us easily comprehensible, usually univocal in meaning, and independent of the specific voices or script in which we first learned them. Small children who do not yet speak, whether Nna Mmoy, Elven, or Terran, encounter language as something already achieved by their society, as a meaningful world enveloping them, and which they must catch on to. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this situation in which we all, from ordinary speakers to poets and storytellers, find ourselves:
Speech is, therefore, that paradoxical operation through which, by using words of a given sense, and already available meanings, we try to followup an intention which necessarily outstrips, modifies, and itself, in the last analysis, stabilizes the meanings of the words which translate it. (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, 455-6)
In stories we are not simply using our stock of familiar words and straightforward meanings. Though much of our speech might be confined to the familiar and already constituted meanings (recall my example of the coffee shop in Part I), we forget how our familiar expressions have come to us by way of an obscure and ambiguous history. We require that pre-given stock of familiar words and meanings in order to read and understand stories of new and strange places, which simultaneously conceals the deep history of the familiar words and meanings. In Le Guin’s parlance, this is the inevitable effect of our speaking “snake.” It is only with additional effort that we notice the translucence of literal words or meanings and follow their allusions and suggestions into the infinite starfish branches of earlier, oft-forgotten or misappropriated, semantic depths. In their ordinary speech, the Nna Mmoy have no habitual and obvious meanings, for the simple concatenation of one syllable to another is sufficient to branch out into original speech. The Elves, on the other hand, speak “snake” like us, but they have not forgotten their history and have its semantic depths always available to them. We are either ignorant of the historical richness and depths of our language and the events of its formation, or we tend to overlook what is now habitual and obvious.
Storytelling arises obscurely out of its history and projects itself indefinitely into the future. I say “its” history because it is more than just the individual author’s history.
Are you still with me? Good, because here’s the punchline: translucence establishes our connection to our deep history. Light is shone on what is obscure. Surprising pathways to the familiar make them strange and new. Patterns we had not noticed suddenly take shape. (Some we invent, but the more accurate maps dispel confusion.) Aloof, superficial connections blaze with new significance and import.
Putting It Into Practice
Let’s test your translucence powers! I’ve listed some simple words below, a mixture of concrete and abstract things, with which you can practice thinking and speaking starfish. Here’s what to do:
- Each word is the head, or center of the starfish. Let the beginning of your thought or story be the literal, physical representation elicited by the word from the pre-given knowledge you already have.
- Now move to another thought wherein the word indicates something more, something beyond, the limits of what the physical senses or the particular image you’ve drawn from tells you. This is an allusive, playful, suggestive movement. It could be something emotional, some moral value or disvalue, some invisible structure or pattern, and so on. Before going on to the next step, pause to reflect on two things: (a) Did your move draw from something in your knowledge of human history, including other arts and literature? (b) Did your move draw from something in the memory of your own experience?
- Now that you’ve made one starfish movement, use translucence again for your second movement (third thought). Let the originating word move into yet another direction (layer of meaning).
Ready? Here you go:
Congratulations! You’re speaking like the Nna Mmoy. Your speech is translucent!
Let’s conclude with a few observations.
Each of the words in the list has a deep history of layered meaning. There is both cultural difference among these layers as well as cultural commonality. A snake, for example, may have either a dominantly positive or negative value association in a given culture. Most cultures have some degree of both (a lot of modern people are unaware of the ambiguities of meaning in their own tradition).
An author may intentionally or unintentionally draw the history of these words and ideas into her story or song. If intentional, she may pack layers of nonsuperficial meaning into her creation, but unless her new expression somehow outstrips or modifies the already available meanings, at best she is imitating rather than creating meaning. If unintentional, then she cannot foresee or control how her readers, who may have more comprehensive knowledge of the history informing the words and ideas in her story, will interpret and understand her meaning in diverse and sophisticated ways. Because of the obscurity behind her expressions and her unknowing appropriation of that history, her intended meaning is at the mercy of her readers who may recognize her expressions as familiar ones.
Not all stories are maps; not all authors speak or poets sing with translucence. Why is it seemingly so rare to encounter a story that draws you into its world like a magnet, that satisfies some deep longing, that thrills with its linguistic elegance or virtuosity, or seems to have its author always present with you as a partner “in making and delight?” It may be that the author’s diction, like textbooks or litanies of bare facts, favors opacity over translucence. Or it may be that the reader’s stock of meanings, our Elvish immersion in our cultural histories, is weak, myopic, or unformed. Such are the temptations of snake language. Our usual communication with one another (and our past) is through statements and questions that taper off into some univocal, single, surface meaning. We don’t ordinarily converse in starfish like the Nna Mmoy. We bifurcate our speech into “ordinary” and “artful,” with the dominating ordinary type valuing simplicity and practicality. In modern society we relegate the artful to the domain of private leisure and enjoyment.
Invented and novel connections to the deeper regions of our social and cultural histories requires listening and following authors from (or who are regular travelers to) those deeper regions. They are the mapmakers of the soul. Translucent stories allow us to visit the undiscovered country, to see ourselves more clearly as we really are, to transform our vision of our place, and to experience being known–and knowing–in ways that enrich and delight.