AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM SEGAL
In Light of Meaning
An Interview with William Segal
There was a question on my mind when I went to see William Segal: why is it that language helps us to concentrate on ourselves?
David Appelbaum: What beckons you to study human speech?
William Segal: For me there are two aspects which are most interesting. The first is the power of the word when it is based on a special and mysterious energy which initially gave rise to the word. One says something, and, depending on the energy behind it, the word or sentence arouses or fails to evoke a corresponding energy in the listener. We all know that the same idea in the same words expressed by different people can have quite different impact. Searching for the key to this, it seems that the most important influence behind language is invisible, an invisible energy. From that point of view, a word or a sentence, when spoken with attention, is charged with a special energy. Energy follows attention—where I put my attention there follows a flow of force—and where there’s an inner presence accompanying what is expressed, power is added to whatever is spoken.
The other aspect which is interesting is the unique human capacity to poetize language. Why does one combination of words make impact, stir interest or movement, while the same words in different combination fall flat? Poetry plays with words, makes them reverberate.
That capacity is what interests me: when I feel the life of language and in feeling that, feel my own life again. How does one come to this capacity? Is it a gift, or is it a matter of practice?
Some people have this extraordinary gift: their words and combinations of words have an effect that is greater than the average person’s. Some are able to develop it. Certainly it must be like any other art or craft: practice and study and knowledge bring a heightened capacity to make words sing. Other people come to that place where their words ring true, have real meaning because of who they are. It comes back to what I said before—there must be an inner energy behind it, an inner emotional or intellectual quality. It is true, too, that people are gifted in different degrees in illuminating language, just as they are gifted in different degrees in relation to painting or carpentry or music.
Sometimes it seems that language, almost on its own, has this power of suddenly throwing open the doors to a reality that’s hidden. Is that a forgotten aspect of language? How would you understand that?
There are very few occasions where we speak from the reality of the moment. If I spoke from this moment, there would be a concentration of energy that would make the moment alive. Each word would be underlined and would convey something to you. And, depending on my capacity to feel as well as to bring thought to the words themselves, our communicating would have extra quality. Of course, the order of the words, the right words at the right time, are weightier than language used in any old way.
What is there in language itself that allows me to speak or try to speak from the reality of this moment?
There are moments when we wish to relate to one another from the core of our being. Just talking, just exchanging comments is not enough. Still, language is our human mode, the major mode of expression. But language is a two-edged sword—it can serve reality or hide it. Take words like patriotism, love, duty. . . I can raise my hand and convey something to you through a gesture. Or I can say “Aum,” and that sound may mean something to you. But to explain or develop a sentiment or a thought, I need suitable and expressive words, and the way one places the words, the choice of words—their novelty or unexpectedness—help to catch your interest. Your interest aroused, you’re a little more awake to what’s being said. That means there’s more attention being paid on your part as well as mine—more participation of more parts of ourselves—and as interest develops, images in one’s head begin to build further images; additional sources of energy develop. A continual energy creation is going on.
So there’s something in language that, for instance, now helps you and me relate in this very subtle kind of connection. I feel in some ways the words are an essential part of my exploring how to remain related to others.
Language, like music, is one more key to unlock areas in the human psyche that would otherwise remain shut. If what I say interests you, you begin to open up different parts of you that are ordinarily closed. One part being opened is a key to another part being opened. So a few words, a few phrases spoken, unlocking a center in yourself, give rise to a whole series of door openings. One discovers something that has been in hiding. All this makes for new relationships. We relate to each other through the way we express ourselves and language is a quintessential mode of expression.
It seems as though many of my discoveries about myself, about the world, are discoveries in language: “This is what this means.” Is language something alive, something that expands as my awareness develops?
Depending on how it is used, language is more or less alive. Compare dead language falling on deaf ears to language that touches the thought, opens up the thinking and feeling part. Words can touch feelings, and can even touch our senses by richness of texture. In the hands of a writer or poet, language reaches one or more parts of the mind-body configuration. Depending on the word itself, depending on how it is spoken, its sound, it can open up more or fewer passages . . . can bring an unexpected flowing-outward or emergence of energy which ordinarily is absent. If we speak only in cliches, as we do most of the time, it’s not very interesting. But sometimes one speaks the right word at the right time and evokes a corresponding opening or interest, which starts the flow of energy that makes life interesting.
But can language—something that you say or that I read—bring me back to an unknown part of myself that is changeless?
Some images open the mind and the feelings so that we begin to glimpse unsuspected levels in ourselves. Over-used, familiar words have little effect, relatively small power to awaken. The unexpected word or phrase, the fluid combination or the combination which carries a unique or different thought, is more evocative than the ordinary cliche. Some words, like some phrases in music or color passages in a painting, have more effect than others. Intervals, the spacing between the words, or the rhythms, the cadences, the relationship—they all play their part.
The tempo, the timing. Even the printed page when it’s read is read in time.
[Quoting from a fourteenth-century Italian poem translated by William Jay Smith] “Out from its flying cage flies the nightingale.” An ordinary writer might have said, “The nightingale flew out of its flying cage.” What a difference! [He goes on] “And in tears he said, who opened its doors?” [emphasis on the “o” sounds] The sound gives an extra dimension to the words themselves. So it must be that a true, whole art is one which touches more than one part, more than the intellectual part. One is not able to intellectualize poetry.
Do you think this art was once known by the poets of all cultures?
It’s still known in the sense that rhythms in music can be translated into words, and there are rhythms which enable one to control, to affect, to heal, to destroy. In literature, for instance, there is Coleridge’s, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately p/eosure dome decree,” [emphasis on beats] or the sonnets of Shakespeare. In our culture words have been so bandied about, so readily available, we fail to appreciate them. We don’t live like the poets that we are. I think that in a more poetic age, I would relate to you differently, and we would talk in more poetical terms. We’re surrounded by printed words, TV words, everybody talks too much (including myself, of course), and so we don’t treasure this marvelous instrument of language.
This interests me very much, the opening, expanding function of language, as well as the part that we know all too well—the dead language. But in this opening, is there a kind of intention? You’ve spoken of attention, but is there a kind of intention that is needed in order for me to speak in such a way that I invite you to open?
There must be a threshold if language is to enter the human psyche. The threshold might be the space that precedes the uttering of the word. There can be a kind of calculated timing. But this has the danger of being a trick. A skilled actor, a Lawrence Olivier, uses his whole body as language, his whole bearing, as well as his lines. Still, insincerity and manipulation rarely deceive us.
You mentioned Eckhart at the very beginning. When I read Eckhart, or when I hear of “that which is no thing,” that seems to be a use of language which both says and unsays at the same moment. The trap of language seems to be that it leaves a kind of permanent trace—those words recorded in text—and the trap is that the fluidity, the movement is lost. In an approach to that which truly is unsayable, how do you see the place of language?
We can’t get away from the fact that language represents our thoughts and feelings. If the thought is a noble one or unusual, if the feeling is genuine, it will find appropriate expression.
And if you were struck by a sudden insight into reality, would there be words?
I think that there would be a gasp, one would just say, “Oh,” or simply an affirmation: “Yes.” Something very simple. Insights into reality are hardly expressible through talk. Words would seem artificial and too cumbersome. Words, as wonderful as they are, are neither subtle nor swift enough to express very strong emotions. In fact, wouldn’t a tremendously strong emotion paralyze speech?
Would you say the same is true of deeper states of consciousness?
No, because consciousness does not preclude awareness. There would be awareness in the sense of heightened cognition. The element of awareness itself implies more sensitive perception—a kind of calmness, a coolness. In emotional states equilibrium is lost. In a more conscious state also there would be an element of harmony or balance which could look at the situation without tipping in one direction or another.
In that condition of balance, is there a special function for language? Does language have a place?
Again, 1 would think that in a rare moment of heightened consciousness, speech would have to give way to stillness, silence. Silence is deeper than the word. “In the beginning was the word” is not entirely correct, because the void was prior to the word, and the silence precedes speech. Meister Eckhart said that prior to God is the ground of God. While the will of the Absolute is supposed to have created everything, the fact that among all creatures, there are human beings with language and words is still an “improbable proposition.” My friend, Peyton Houston, wrote:
The solitary person deals with a perpetual unintelligibility in words without a language.
Speaking of creation, how about Peyton’s vision:
How deftly she moved
when first from God’s hand:
his Heart held ten thousand hummingbirds;
tall sky, sun.
He would reach to it, to all of it, to her, speak words to her.
She taught him the language of his words: between them was the coherent notion.
Is there a secret attribute of language that makes it come alive so suddenly?
Well, “alive” partakes of originality and humor too. The poet Paul Reps wrote of “cucumbers cucumbering.” Such originality touches our sense of humor, wakes us up, starts fresh flows of energy. Like children, we want surprise, the unexpected. Some people have a gift for that.
You’ve mentioned “gift” a lot, this almost organic knowledge of inner intervals and tempos and so forth. It is true that the genius is born with the gift. Goethe says that the gift of attention is the only thing that differentiates the genius from the human being. Is there a way in which I could practice developing the sensibility and the sensitivity to speak with the kind of freshness which now is missing?
It’s as if there is a center that can vivify all parts of the circumference—a center that illuminates. When we speak and listen from this center, a relationship is set up where words have more meaning. A hitherto unused energy is added. Most people speak, as the expression goes, from the top of their heads, so the words issue mechanically—dead words. A stop, a moment of pause, brings unsuspected energies. There is a change, the quality of energy that’s transferred is quite different. It’s fresh. But that is not so easy. It’s easier to speak from our knowledge, from accumulated experience, from imitation of others.
Is there a courageous stance towards the unknown that is required?
There’s a risk. At the beginning, when one speaks from this center, one feels awkward, as if one has lost the support of the known. To remain related to the unknown, at the same time keeping in touch with the knowledge that one has accumulated through experience and education, is not so easy. Still, if one lived more from one’s center, one would speak with more sincerity, would find unexpected resources within oneself. One might even open in oneself conduits of expression and of material which are pretty well closed in us. One would tap material which is now dormant. Combinations of impressions would come together to produce more original, more effective language.
So we need to move out of the way and allow the speaking to come on its own?
Speaking from the center would be like that. It involves a kind of all-embracing attention. One would, while speaking, be quite aware, at each moment, of a center which, while doing nothing, affects all things. It may be likened to the reality self—changeless, it moves all things. Can one be aware of this element of consciousness while speaking, listening? Functioning from such a center would result in more genuine, more effective expression of thoughts and feelings. Living from this center will not make a poet out of one, but it would maximize possibilities as a human being. Remembering that there is a conscious element in oneself is better than not remembering.