Wednesday, October 1, 2008

helped me kill my Time

In my random reads, I romped into a ravishing reprint from National Geographic magazine. The author, notorious for his Letters from China, talks about his class of Chinese students coaxing themselves with learning English. Students revealing their mastery over a foreign language in their essays; and a teacher revelling in his students’ skills. Without a pause, the guru reacts: “The English was flawed, but sometimes that only gave the words more power.” How can that be, I wondered.

True that these young Chinese are learning, but how can their words have power when their English doesn’t. I scuttled to the next sentence to find why the author thinks so. And he extensively quotes extracts from the essays. Students, born in post-Mao China, writing about how confused they are about what their nation means to them; importance of family, their struggles, dutifulness, etc. All very typical of the Chinese.

Peter Hessler does want to impress his readers with that sentence, as any author desires to. But not in the usual way. Let me explain.

Words have a power of their own. They can make listeners a part of that power or tear them apart powerfully. Take an example. Mao, with polygamous pretensions, once roared: “Learn from the masses and teach them.” Not quite an ambiguous sentence, but a noxious one nicely veiled. It takes some time to entirely remove this veil. Sentences often come clothed—so that listeners or readers can’t immediately grasp the meaning. Readers would halt at such sentences, read back, muse at its meaning and may be amused.

Listeners can’t have that luxury, because such sentences will be followed by more of such kind. Even if they are able to strip the meaning, they are struck by another sentence. So they will be caught in a “chain reaction of veiled sentences”. Meaning eludes them, so to say, which the Hindu Upanisads concisely captured as: Neti Neti (Not this Not this). Even Jews prefer to remove the vowels from the name of their god, YAHWEH, so that it becomes un-pronounceable.

For the moment, let’s consider readers only. Readers revisiting such tricky sentences often see a cloud of confusion hovering on them. And this is what reasonable writers, not journalists, would want their readers subjected to. Diplomats are trained to do this, classically called “calculated ambiguity”. The sooner a diplomat’s answer is understood, the fatal it is for them. They defer the true meaning because the diplomatic art is about believing that a current crisis can be answered in the near future, not immediately.

Hessler is continuing that long tradition of practising the ingenuity of ambiguity. Such practice is not meant to fudge readers like me. But to rouse me out of my slumber of smugness, to an ovation of ignorance.

After that awakening, allow me to unashamedly take a dig at his sentence. It seems often the power of expression is discounted, at the expense of the English language. Overwhelmed by the medium (English) the message is lost. It’s the power of the human expression that’s equally, or sometimes more, important than the medium used to transmit it. Or as my beloved professor used to say: “Every word is the loss of the previous word and the lack of the next one.” Better luck unravelling this.

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