Death of the Word

Michael Begnal
September 01, 1983

The primary cultural struggle in the 21st century will pit the image against the word. A recent issue of a national magazine offers this mystic formula for art appreciation: "Do not interpret; sympathize. Do not translate; appreciate. Do not even appreciate; apprehend directly. The vision that can be explained in words is banal. Meaning is not to be found in words."

As art becomes relegated to the level of entertainment, some of us wring our hands and point to the technological culprit: television. But, while it is true that there is usually little on the screen that can tax the 8-year-old mind, we should remember that the public is not really the victim here. We get what we deserve and what we demand. In our commercial society, the producer of the television show labors mightily to find out what sort of program will draw the most viewers. The television screen is our mirror.

A writer for the evening video soap opera Dynasty likens her program to Shakespeare, "where the Romans would poison each other and tell each other off. Audiences love it. They often can't say the things they want. It's a fantasy kind of expression." And if the audience has trouble communicating with language, in all likelihood they cannot read it very well either. It is easier to see an oil baron deal with his problems than to read about Julius Caesar or Coriolanus. It is much easier to look at a series of pretty pictures than it is to read a novel by Fyodor Dostoevski or James Joyce.

"Easier" is the important word here, since technological spectacle breeds passivity. A novel engages us and forces us to become involved, while popular images allow us to sit back and react. Literature makes us stop and look backward to what we have experienced. The televised image only pushes us forward to what will entertain us next. If a television program is not pleasing, we change the channel. We switch until we are satisfied, and, too often, until we are sedated.

If "meaning is not to be found in words," then it will exist, if at all, in sensations and emotions. Emotions are private; they cannot be communicated by themselves in any meaningful way. They are felt; they are gone. If we isolate ourselves from words, we isolate ourselves from each other: Words and language are what make a relationship. Without an involvement with words, we fall back upon ourselves, and in actuality we cannot even communicate with our own egos.

Perhaps it is a bit early to predict the death of the word or the death of the novel, but things do not look bright. Leisure time is breeding leisure minds. As we spend more time exercising our bodies, we spend less time exercising our intelligences. A serious novel, with all its big words, forces us to evaluate ourselves in relation to others. While the act of reading a novel is initially a private experience, paradoxically it forces us out into the public and demands that we consider a shared experience. It makes us think about whether what we have concluded coincides with reality. An image passes and seems to demand another one immediately. A word seems to ask that you pick it up and consider it as an object. It changes like a chameleon depending upon the context in which it appears. It is extremely difficult to deal with words, but all the struggle is ultimately worth the insight they provide into the human condition.

Last Updated September 01, 1983