One of my earliest memories are of moments when I learned the words for things. Especially when I was three. I knew a lot of words and talked in sentences. But I was only three. So my world was a mix of words and nameless entities.
I remember walking down the street in a lush midwestern summer. My parents and I were going to the beach. The air was redolent with lilacs. We passed a garden filled with roses, fresias, bluebells. In the center was a huge piece of rough, grainy stone.
What’s that? I asked.
A birdbath, my mother answered.
All at once, the word birdbath wrapped around the stone, encasing it, like a cloak. It was a transparent cloak that let me see through to the stone. And it was a skimpy cloak that didn’t cover the stone completely.. At times like these I understood what words did and didn’t do: They allowed me to name what I was talking about. They allowed me to compare, so when I saw the birdbath on Hamlin Street, I could say that it was smaller. They even allowed me to write a story about a birdbath. But the wordbirdbath was never quite the thing I’d seen before it had a name.
I remember understanding this with several words–all of them nouns:
At some point I knew words for almost every object in my world and stopped sensing that sliver of transition when the word leapt toward the thing and the thing found its place in the world of words. I began to acquire what is known as a vocabulary.
But even though I forgot those moments, I think that these early experiences helped me understand the limits of language. Maybe this is why I studied linguistics, majored in philosophy, drowned in the dualisms of empiricists, and eventually found myself on an island with William Blake and Martin Heidegger (an unlikely pair, who probably would have fought while I gathered palm fronds and cracked coconuts). And maybe this is why I bothered to read the postmodernists and have always loved Wallace Stevens
Most of all, it probably explains why, as a fiction writer, I often feel like a journeyman with a humble set of tools. Language is an unpredictable swinging door. It can bring us closer to experience or pull us farther away. It only points toward the moon. And except for those serendipitous passages and poems, in which language unites with rhythm, sound and the imagination, it never becomes the moon.
As must be apparent, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about language. But what I understand best are moments when I was small: The summer garden. The stony object. The word wrapping around it.