In the introduction of Imagining Language, I came across this: “Gary Snyder’s recognition of languages as ‘naturally evolved wild systems.’ ‘So language does not impose order on a chaotic universe, but reflects its own wildness back.'” I found the concept of language as “wild” to be very interesting and challenging. For several years, I have been beating myself up over my own insatiable, obsessive love affair with books. My self-criticism is that I have sacrificed my own internal wilderness — my sense of intuition and other non-rational ways of being as well as my kinship with the linguistically silent external world of forests, pain, physical desire, etc. To hear language described as wild, putting this guilty pleasure of reading and writing on a spectrum with the healthful reconnection with the forest that I never seem to manage… it is startling. I am tempted to use it to justify my guilty habit of words, but I think it serves only to point more strongly at the mystery that I have been circling where words are balanced by silence and the two intertwine.
In trying to learn more about Gary Snyder and his ideas surrounding the wild nature of language, I found an interview with him published in the the Paris Review of Poetry in 1996. Here are some fragments:
There’s no question that spending time with your own consciousness is instructive. You learn a lot. You can just watch what goes on in your own mind […] I think anyone who does this comes to realize that we have a very powerful visual imagination and that it is very easy to go totally into visual realms where you are walking around in a landscape or where any number of things can be happening with great vividness. This taught me something about the nature of thought and it led me to the conclusion–in spite of some linguists and literary theorists of the French ilk–that language is not where we start thinking. We think before language, and thought-images come into language at a certain point. We have fundamental thought processes that are prelinguistic. Some of my poetry reaches back to that.
I think language is, to a great extent, biological. And this is not a radical point of view. In fact, it is in many ways an angle of thought that has come back into serious consideration in the world of scientific linguistics right now. So, if it’s biological, if it’s part of our biological nature to be able to learn language, to master complex syntax effortlessly by the age of four, then it’s part of nature, just as our digestion is part of nature, our limbs are part of nature. So, yes, in that sense it is. Now, of course, language takes an enormous amount of cultural shaping, too, at some point. But the structures of it have the quality of wild systems. Wild systems are highly complex, cannot be intellectually mastered–that is to say they’re too complex to master simply in intellectual or mathematical terms–and they are self-managing and self-organizing. Language is a self-organizing phenomenon. Descriptive linguistics come after the fact, an effort to describe what has already happened. So if you define the wild as self-managing, self-organizing, and self-propagating, all natural human languages are wild systems. The imagination, we can say, for similar reasons, is wild. But I would also make the argument that there is a prelinguistic level of thought [I agree]. Not always, but a lot of the time. And for some people more than other people. I think there are people who think more linguistically, and some who think more visually, or perhaps kinesthetically, in some cases.
Interviewer: Let me quickly ask you about your book of selected poems. No Nature, as a title, obviously takes many aback. It seems apocalyptic until you realize that it’s a kind of Buddhist joke: the true nature is no nature, the nature of one’s self is no nature. Is that correct?
Snyder: Yes, and it’s also a critical-theory joke.
Interviewer: In what sense?
Snyder: In that some folks hold that everything is a social construction, and I add that society is a natural construction, including the industrial and the toxic.
I am disappointed by Snyder’s use of “nature.” I have made the skeptical argument about nature before that Snyder is referring to humorously in the last exchange, but I think I have come to see nature as referring to something sacral or set-apart. Humanity participates in nature passively, but I think we have been separated from it culturally by our out-of-balance destruction. I realize that our destructiveness is strictly “natural” — that nature involves epoch-ending destruction — but the word “nature” ceases to have any pragmatic meaning at all if it is made elastic enough to signify everything. A line has to be drawn around the meaning of nature somewhere. I choose to draw that line so that it excludes many of our worst cultural habits from the realm of the natural. Far from further distancing humanity from nature, I feel that “setting apart” nature is an act of stating a clear destination that human culture must strive towards. Given Snyder’s wibbly-wobbly use of the word, I’m not sure that his assertion that “language is natural” contains an underlying meaning beyond “everything is natural.”
Moving on, Snyder also made some interesting observations about the relationship between art and religion:
I don’t think art makes a religion. I don’t think it helps you teach your children how to say thank you to the food, how to view questions of truth and falsehood, or how not to cause pain or harm to others. Art can certainly help you explore your own consciousness and your own mind and your own motives, but it does not have a program to do that, and I don’t think it should have a program to do that.
Interviewer: So you mainly draw that line on ethical grounds?
Snyder: Well, there’s ethics, there is philosophy, there is the spirit of devotion, and there is simply its capacity to become a cultural soil, a territory within which you transmit a way of being, which religion has a very strong role in. And then there is the other end of religious practice and Buddhist practice, which is to leave art behind. Which is to be able to move into the territory of the completeness and beauty of all phenomena. You really enter the world, you don’t need art because everything is remarkable, fresh, and amazing.
Interviewer: So how do you keep writing?
Snyder: Because you don’t want to live in that realm very much of the time. We live in the realm of forms, we should act in the realm of forms. Jim Dodge and I once went to a Morris Graves exhibit in Oakland, where he was arguing with me about this Buddhist position in regard to art. I was saying, “You don’t need art in a certain sense, Jim.” So he went to the Morris Graves exhibit looking at the Morris Graves paintings, and I went through it looking at the spaces between the paintings with as much attention, and pointing out wonderful little hairline cracks in the plaster, the texture of the light, and so forth. There is a point you can make that anything looked at with love and attention becomes very interesting.
Interviewer: So you think people should read the margins of your books?
Snyder: This is an oral art. They should listen to the unsaid words that resonate around the edge of the poem.
Interviewer: Just as Chinese poetry is full of empty words, deliberately empty words for the ch’i, the sort of breath, to circulate through.
That passage starts with Snyder’s attempt to sketch some definitions for “art” and “religion,” which immediately seem to sort of overlap and become a bit confused. It is interesting, because he’s trying to make a case that the two are separate but seems to dwell more on where they overlap. I would argue that good art effects in the viewer a transformation that allows for a “move into the territory of the completeness and beauty of all phenomena.” That is what I get from my favorite poets, but I also understand art’s power to move us in very specific ways. Personally, I think that the boundaries of religion, art, and language are going to become very blurry around the phrase “ways of being.”
There — in those last two sentences. Do you see it? The Void again. The Void and “a sort of breath.” I feel like a paranoiac seeing patterns.