“A Certain Disregard for the Rules”

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Owen Barfield wrote that the logician wants a word to mean the same thing in every context in which it appears while poets value most words with meanings that change and are ever capable of changing. The logician is deaf to the subtle, evocative qualities of sound so long as a word remains utterly reliable, something to be counted on every time. For the poet, on the other hand, sound matters most; the sensual experience of hearing a word is not separate from the meaning the word evokes. Water rises and falls in sea. Warm arms and soft hands reach out in mother. At least that is how it is when language fulfills its highest function as it does in poetry.

“The logician tries for statement, the poet for suggestion,” Barfield wrote. The poet likes words that are alive, like beings. The logician prefers words that are dead, like objects. The logicians have a point. I do not want my pharmacist to operate on the basis of what the word “milligrams” suggests to her. I want her to know exactly what it means every time with absolutely no room for subtlety. Here, as in many, many other instances, common sense is surely called for. Put another way, we all very often need to have precisely the same sense of the same thing with no space for deepening or expansion. Yet a language that consisted solely of precise, unchangeable words would be an inanimate language and the world perceived by the consciousness that operated with such a language would be an inanimate world. Language needs rules to function as a language. The world needs rules to function as a world but anyone who has ever followed the progress of a hero in a fairy-story knows that it does not do to hold too rigidly to the rules.

Consider the hobbit. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits are a good-natured but conventional people. They like good food and family history but are largely unmoved by songs and stories of those who inhabit the “white spaces” on their maps. A typical hobbit conversation is rather dull to anyone who is not a hobbit and, sometimes, to anyone who is not a relative or neighbor of the conversants. Hobbits like to talk of things they already know. The topics may change with the seasons but little with the generations. Hobbits are suspicious of adventures, afraid of water when it runs deep and prefer good sense to wild fancy any day. Like the logician, hobbits like to know what they are dealing with. They like to play it safe inside the boundaries of their cozy Shire and cozy habits of thought but, in the context of the larger story, they are not safe at all. If it had not been for one and then other hobbits who set out for the unknown wilds, the Hobbits as they had known themselves in the Shire for generations would have been uprooted for good.

Common sense is the way most of us encounter the world most of the time. It is our everyday mode of consciousness and rightly so. Without it, we all would have met our end long ago but, with too much of it, we cannot long go on. If we see a river as above all an obstacle on the daily commute, we close ourselves off to all of its aspects that do not seem to tell us how to cross it. The play of the light and the wind on the water, the way the minnows stir the silt and the dragonflies trace lines on the sparkling surface, all these things are lost to us. Our world becomes that much lonelier when any aspect of it has been rendered mute. Perhaps even more urgent is the fact that, when we turn a deaf ear to the way one part of the world speaks to us, we risk missing all the myriad ways it changes. We become like a neglectful lover who has failed until it was too late to see how desperately sad his beloved had become. Unless we listen to the world, we cannot respond to it, we can only act on it, the way wicked Sharky acted on the Shire, turning its lanes and gardens into factory slums because it suited him to do so.

3 thoughts on ““A Certain Disregard for the Rules”

  1. Surely we are discovering together that Grey Havens acts as the magic fulcrum in our lives between the necessary common sense of the Shire and the necessary poetics of an unseen realm somewhere in the enchanted West.

  2. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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