I am often inspired by how much heavy lifting intonations do in conversation. Time and time again it feels appropriate to say that it doesn’t matter what you say as much as how you say it. If you don’t know what i’m talking about, please remember that dogs, to name one example, respond to the intonation in which they are spoken, not the words being pointed at them. Our intonation, body language, historical and situational context, levels and duration of eye contact seem to say more about our inner lives than the language we employ to represent ourselves.
So i’m wondering–what if tomorrow the intonations we’re used to hearing in a calm conversation on a Tuesday morning with a co-worker with whom you have a civil, yet weightless relationship were replaced with the intonation, the timing, and quality of eye contact a neurosurgeon might drop in a hospital waiting room as he’s telling you that the surgery he went into with casual arrogance resulted in your mother being in a coma? what if we went to the gas station and though all we were saying was 20 on 2, it felt identical to the feeling of having something lifted, like the metaphysical transaction that occurs in the confession? What would this shift imply about the importance of language in interactions between people?
Terrence McKenna said that “language is to life what life is to death.” I am a person who has previously attempted to replace living with reading. I’ve prioritized immersing myself in conceptualization at the expense of experiencing, but as I develop a healthier balance between the need to think and understand and the need to simply BE, I’m realizing that no matter how articulate I become, experiencing a paradigm shift is categorically different from reading about one. This might seem obvious to you, it seems obvious to me, but that’s partly the point I’m trying to make: though our relationships and experiences on one level proceed on the basis of the words we exchange, the shining forth of the inner life of the person we’re in relation with is how we interpret our experience, update our models of reality, and know how to proceed. Somehow we outsource our sense of the appropriate thing to say from what is not said. Somehow we know when a person is perceiving us in a way that is out of touch with who we know ourselves to be, when to end a conversation, or when a person could be understood as being “authentic.” So much of our interactions are non-linguistic, yet we try to “download them into language” whenever we attempt to understand their implication.
Part of why “language is to life what life is to death” seems opaque is that death is a state of non-existence, just like language is fundamentally insufficient in capturing reality. After death, the tools we’d employ during life become irrelevant, untouchable, incapable of being drawn upon. Considering the importance of intonation, subtext, body language, etc. What if language is useful only as a rough approximation of what occurs between subjects? What if the reason that I’m constantly looking for meaning in life and existing in a state of scarcity is that (And I suspect at least one other person knows what i’m talking about here) I’m using a system to establish a meaning for something (life) which is much more expansive and multi-textured than language could ever manage? What if the only appropriate solution to this problem is to step away from my word processor and go be a body?