The World as Poems Know It

With the shift toward industrialization came the growth of consumerism, of materialism and the ever-utilitarian eye that goes with it. Along with the boom of these ideas in the nineteenth century grew a fear in the minds of some; artists and philosophers, poised to understand the changing dynamics of society, looked out and saw a movement away from the “actual world.” Martin Heidegger developed a school of thought which in its simplest terms insisted that men had removed themselves too far from true existence—backed by musings on art, language, and the essence of Being itself. To be in this position was really to have lost the world. Such a position is dire at best, and those who agree with Heidegger’s philosophy are eager to find an escape.

Genuine poetry is one thing which, above all else, does not lose us the world. Ordinary usages of language are careless and given to degenerating the connections between words and things through a focus on their more distant meanings. If not handled properly, poetry can have this effect as well. But true poetry uses the language of reality in refreshing ways, giving renewed meaning to the world itself by taking a step away from it. Poetry allows us to make our own connections rather than forcing them upon us and, in so doing, brings us that much closer to the actual world.

There is some question about the particulars of this “actual world,” which must be clarified; a stable definition is necessary for analysis to continue. The very nature of this project implies its complex result, and we must stop to address it before moving forward. Once we have settled on a definition there can be discussion of what in poetry touches a reality so defined.

Scholars cannot decide whether the “actual world” is most definitively the physical or creative. There is a world of external facts, and some believe in this world of external facts as the “actual world” in its eternally valuable completion (Spencer 174). Perception is then thrown out the door. But this is impossible to allow in a full definition, in an explanation of the “actual world” that accounts for its intricacies. At heart the “actual world” is not only the world of facts and the concrete, not only the way existence is imagined. It is hopeless to attempt a separation of the two. The “actual world” is made up of external objects and facts, and those who people it must learn it in their own imaginative terms as it unfolds, before it has crystallized beyond their understandings. All is lost if life becomes only what it might do down the line. The matter of importance is that the things in this world are understood for the sake of their own being.

According to Heidegger’s philosophy, poetry brings us nearer to this “actual world.” He argues its language functions “to declare, to make clear, light, bright, shining” (Versényi 132), whereas prosaic language would attempt to persuade, would seek to explain. Prose wants to tell something; poetry just wants to be heard. The poetic is considered by some the most important form of art (Rosiek 157), and as art it pushes the dreary, the expected, the day-to-day utilitarian slug out of our minds and off to some seldom-seen corner of consciousness. It “gives no knowledge for or impetus of controlling the things of the world” (Versényi 93)—it holds a non-exploitative relationship to actuality—and so it is valued.

There is a poem by William Carlos Williams which, among other possible examples, serves well to highlight this trait. It is called “The Children” and reads as follows:

Once in a while

we’d find a patch

of yellow violets

not many

but big big blue

ones in

the cemetery woods

we’d pick

bunches of them

there was a family

named Foltette

a big family

with lots of

children’s graves

so we’d take

bunches of violets

and place one

on each headstone

The poem is short and simple to read. The six stanzas connect easily, and that difficulty of comprehension so feared in poetry is nowhere to be found in the earthy cadence and common language of the piece. And more, there is nothing it chooses to tell. In the place of some point it could be making, the poem gives its reader things—moments, and objects, and images from the world—purely for their own sake. The reader is permitted to take it from there. Though counterintuitive to an extent, it seems this “amalgamation of outer and inner reality which is poetry at its best” is—well, “more ‘actual’ than the world it reflects” (Spencer 192).

The key is in the imagination. The poem does not insist on making connections or feeding one’s utilitarian point of view. It gathers flowers and children and graves together on the page, but its words do not extend beyond that point. The worlds that are created—that come alive in our minds through the “transactional and creative process” of reading (Kazemek 22)—are fresh, though they are made up of the most commonplace things. And this act of imagining is paramount. The give-and-take transaction between the reader and the words before him works precisely when “comprehension and creation go on together” (Kazemek 24). One is fed the information slowly—first the violets, then the cemetery woods—until there is a whole family beneath the ground. Children’s headstones are a poignant thing, but they are brought to view gradually, and hidden in the plainness of their mention, so the reader is forced to acknowledge the sad fact of those graves’ existence alone. With the act of imagining, the reader develops a closer tie to the world in these words, a world which, being made up of the same stuff as our own, can transpose this firmer connection onto the “actual” (Spencer 177). So we are brought back, readers swallowed by an instrumentalist society, tied again to the “actual world” we forgot.

There is more to it, to be sure, than leaving empty spaces to be filled by the reader’s mind. The imagination is given reign in a sense that extends beyond—or, rather, beneath—the level of content itself. In true poetry—in a way definitively unlike any other form of language—words are alive. They are reordered, refreshed, and reestablished to take on that most undervalued of all designations, the new. It is undeniable that those called “first-rate” poets have a style which “does more than fulfill our expectations, it surpasses them… and uses the ‘actual world’ in a fashion which makes it seem something new” (Spencer 176). For “The Children,” it is color, in part, that does it. We are told they find “a patch / of yellow violets” (2-3), and not two lines along the just congealed image is shattered. For the yellow violets become “big big blue / ones” (5-6). It is a small thing, almost accidental, no more than a moment of signal static if you aren’t looking for it, yet somehow it frees the imagery. “The literal inaccuracy of [these images] is what makes their poetic accuracy” (Spencer 177); the reader is freed from the constricting frame of long-decided meaning, and suddenly the work, the art, is all openness and accessible connections. The flowers are both yellow and blue at once, and there is no attempting to picture them like that. We could think of them as something to be used in a garden or fitted in a bouquet for the tea setting under other circumstances. But these are violets that do not exist, that cannot exist, and so stop any practicality from coming between us and the actual thing.

Of course, this all hinges on “genuine poetry.” There, is, to be sure, quite a lot called poetry which is nothing of the sort. This can range from the banal whose same words are used in the same ways we’ve always heard them before to, alternatively, those overly presumptuous pieces whose language “instead of sinking, [try] too ambitiously to rise” (Spencer 176). There are, too, those poems which negate everything we’ve been attributing to their art, those poems which seem to hide the world rather than find it for us in their material. These ones are garrulous and act like prose; they blow the upper hand they could hold by telling us what they have to say.

An uncannily effective example is “Pals,” a piece by the otherwise unoffending poet, David Yezzi. It has somehow committed every error. The language is mostly common and arranged in all the expected ways. Yezzi does not here present unexpected word pairings or surprising turns of language as Williams does. He creates images out of obvious, literal connections—no phrasing more original than the rather unsurprising, “your mirror’s best reflection” (5). The second line is uncomfortably colloquial, and the eighth includes over-exaggerated vocabulary. There is no inherent offense in any of those words he puts to work; the trouble is in the way they are used, in that none of it opens something new. This results only in a falsified work, proof of the piece’s very insincerity which keeps us at a distance from the reality described. Unlike Williams’ clear and surprising poem, this one is trite and heavy and predictable all along. Poetry of this sort is “dressed in robes hired from the costumer’s” (Spencer 176), as one scholar puts it, and the unexciting game of dress-up has no chance of bringing anyone closer to the world. The poem is decidedly talking at us. It is about pals and all the good they are worth, and the reader is not permitted for a second to consider another view. The author’s supercilious assumption is that he ought to be informing us of just how things are. So we are trapped by the poem.

The issue is, of course, that this is exactly what we are trying to escape in poetry. There is quite enough ‘being talked at’ in a society as full of “radio and movies continuously blaring out a series of emotional platitudes” (Spencer 190) as our own. We do not need the distance of Yezzi’s opinions on friendship or the temptation towards utility in his words. Poems like Williams’ are what we need, real poems, clear, hard poems that leave opinion out of it. We need the words, “a family / named Foltette / a big family / with lots of / children’s graves” (10-14) and the placement of violets. This is all. The “actual world” itself is present; it does not need the writer’s qualification to mean something.

Williams has a refrain of sorts, initially used in his poem, Paterson: “No ideas but in things.” This is the basis of all genuine poetry. It is one of those rare concepts with a quality of eternal intangibility in it, that you often only recognize in its absence. We can be sure there are ideas behind good poetry, and these ideas can be as concrete as any other. But the ideas—if the poem is written well and honestly—are not left to fend for themselves, affronting the reading and disrupting any connection to the world as they do. Instead, the ideas are securely nested in real things. Common language depicting common scenes in uncommon ways supports this thought in “The Children.” It presents us the things of which it is built without a blinding screen of ideas—Williams’ or our own—clouding the readerly line of sight. And so, illuminated is that “actual world” that’s been hidden in shadow. With this sort of work before us, so much can happen.

Even re-finding the world could happen, without any particular wonder.






Works Cited

Rosiek, Jan. Maintaining the Sublime: Heidegger and Adorno. Bern, Germany: Peter Lang AG, European Academic, 2000. Print.

Versenyi, Laszlo. Heidegger, Being and Truth. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965. Print.

Spencer, Theodore. “Antaeus or Poetic Language and the Actual World.” ELH, vol. 10, no. 3, 1943, pp. 173–192.

Kazemek, Francis E. “William Carlos Williams, Literacy, and the Imagination.” The English Journal, vol. 76, no. 7, 1987, pp. 22–28.

Yezzi, David. “Pals.” Birds of the Air. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2013. N. pp. 43.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Children.” Six American Poets: An Anthology. Ed. Joel Conarroe. New York: Random House, 1991. 185-86. Print.

Works Consulted

Steiner, George. Martin Heidegger. New York: Viking, 1979. Print.


Peer reviewed by Alison Robey

Written in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, with basis mainly on “Babylon Revisited” and The Great Gatsby

“What They are Trying to Say at”: A Defense of Words in the Face of Rational Criticism



The natural human response to a puzzle is to solve it. This precept lies behind systems of government, modern science, and—of greatest relevance—the constant inclination of English scholars to interpret literature. In some cases everything goes well, but, at other times, it can turn into an uphill battle. Though this may frustrate us immensely, though it may go against our human need to find answers, those cases in which rational interpretation eludes us serve as an important reminder. Words, we realize, do have inherent value beyond the message they are used to signify. One such case is found in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. 

When the novel was first released, it was highly controversial among critics and readers. Though the book is now accepted by most of the literary world as a masterful piece of writing, it is as surrounded by disagreement as ever. The thing is, no one is quite sure what the book means. The general concepts, of course, are established. The novel tells the story of a Southern farming family through the death of the matriarch and her survivors’ attempts to give her a “proper” burial. Their quest is related through a series of 59 first-person “monologues,” with perspective shifting between each of the seven family members—the main characters—as well as several minor characters. Most everything one might say about the novel beyond this, however, is liable to questioning.

Much of the work’s ambiguity results from the style of narration. Traditionally, critics have read As I Lay Dying as a series of formal internal monologues. Readings of this type are attempts “to find meaning as statement” (Slaughter 16) in the text. But meaning as we know it—a layer of rational definitions behind the words, logically moving forward with the narrative—is not to be found here. The issue lies in the fact that Faulkner’s particular “interior monologues” simply do not fit the standard form; they are plagued by anachronistic narration, inconsistent verb tense, incomplete thoughts, and impossible diction. Some decide he is “a botched realist” (Hale 5), while others simply feel he has misused this narrative technique. Either way, the question becomes, “if Faulkner seems to misuse a narrative convention [interior monologue] that most writers employ for the sake of ‘realism,’ then what kind of novel has he produced?” (Hale 5).

In an attempt to answer this question, literary scholars like Carolyn Norman Slaughter have come forward in support of more “nontraditional readings [that] are beginning to let the meaning lie while they follow Faulkner’s strange experiments with time and space, with memory and imagination, with consciousness and unconsciousness” (16). By divorcing As I Lay Dying from any idea of rationality, readers can gain much more from the book than a frustrating struggle of ill-fitting interpretations. Faulkner’s very specific use of language in his novel, when read for its own value, allows for an understanding of his characters that extends far beyond what they say and do, into the realm of each individual’s inner-most consciousness.

One of the most simple yet incomprehensible portions of the novel is Monologue #19. It consists of a single line from Vardaman: “My mother is a fish” (Faulkner 79). There is no doubt that Vardaman’s mother is not, in fact, a fish. Vardaman’s mother is Addie Bundren, an unmistakably human woman. If one were to attempt a logical interpretation of this line, then, it would make sense to interpret it as a representation of his disorienting grief. The metaphorical language is strange, perhaps, but not incomprehensible. Attempts to do this, though, are constantly set back by inconsistencies in the text. An interpretive theory can go through only so much reinterpretation—only so much bending, and twisting, and compressing to fit a new angle of the literature—before it loses all validity. In the end, it seems no theory about this line can fit the novel throughout. There is no making sense of this strange declaration.

The first appearance of the fish in the narrative comes even before Addie’s death. While she is sick in bed, Vardaman goes out and catches a gigantic fish to show his mother (Faulkner 30). Already, in this small way, the relationship between mother and fish is being established. In some sense, it seems reasonable that Vardaman displaces the concept of his dead mother onto the fish. When Addie dies, there is this sense that she no longer exists; as Darl puts it, “If it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (93). For Vardaman, then, it is not just a question of bringing her back to life but of bringing her back, period. In response to the lifeless body lying in his mother’s bed, ready to be laid in the coffin, Vardaman expresses, “I saw when it did not be her… It was not her because it was laying right yonder in the dirt” (63). The reader knows the “it” which had been lying “right yonder in the dirt” was the fish when Vardaman first brought it home. Here, he replaces one corpse with another—the mother with the fish—and, in so doing, misplaces their identities. Yet, with the slightest bit of pushback, this potential defense of Addie’s existence falls to pieces. To start, why would the boy choose something already dead as his mother’s replacement? He says the body in her bed “did not be her,” but why should the lifeless fish be any more her than that other lifeless body? Then there is the added trauma of ‘the killer’ in the fish scenario, as opposed to simply ‘the killed’ in the other. Vardaman is that killer. If he is trying to salvage his mother’s existence, why would he make her into something he’s killed? These explanatory loops just go on and on.

Psychology aside, there are also passages indecipherable at the linguistic level. Take for example:

I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then. And now she is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her. (Faulkner 52)

This is one of those segments that leads eminent Faulkner critics like Walter J. Slatoff to write, “One is puzzled by the meanings of many of the events; one is far from sure what the book is chiefly about” (Kerr 5). If we can accept this fact—if we can decide not even to try to understand passages like this one, where does that leave us, the readers? According to one theory, this strange voice of Faulkner’s “makes us cease to regard language as a transparent medium by which agents communicate and instead forces us to recognize language itself as a determining agent” (Hale 8).

To take “language itself as a determining agent,” we must worry not about what the words are saying but about how they are speaking. In the passage quoted above, structure is of particular importance. The sentences are short, jerky, disjointed. If this is a view into Vardaman’s mind, it reflects the difficulty of his personal position at this moment. The youngest member of the Bundren family, Vardaman is going through the grieving process in a highly tumultuous and especially traumatic way. As one scholar explains it, Vardaman’s attempts to cope with his mother’s death are, at root, verbal solutions (Delville 63). The boy cannot process this tragedy, so his verbal expression breaks down. The lack of coherency in his monologues reflects the state of Vardaman’s mind: he is a child, and his mother is dead, and he cannot understand that.

So he tries to think it through, tries to explain it to himself in a way that doesn’t hurt so much, but there is nowhere he can go with that thinking. He remembers the dead fish and the dead mother and, in his mind, “Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then.” There is no knowing the antecedent of these pronouns. The “it” could be the fish’s death, the mother’s death, the killing of the fish, or even the catching of the fish. “It” could be all these things together or something else entirely. The fact that the reader cannot know is symptomatic of the fact that Vardaman cannot know either. At different moments in the narrative, the fish means different things—sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not, but always fluid according to Vardaman’s mental state. What is most significant here is that Faulkner has painted Vardaman’s character “not as he talks, acts, or otherwise appears to others,” but “as he ‘really’ is” (Hale 9). By breaking down the boy’s linguistic expression, the author has allowed a view of the private Vardaman, rather than his public persona, highlighting the discrepancies between an individual’s internal and external life. The reader is, now, not observing Vardaman from the outside, nor even just listening in on his thoughts. Instead, the reader has been put into the position of Vardaman himself, feeling the character’s private responses when he or she could just be witnessing them. As scholar Dorothy Hale writes, this “private identity is what makes each self not just unique but profound” (11). Through study of Faulkner’s illogical language and the way he employs it, the reader is able to gain access to that profound selfhood of characters. We do not know why Vardaman’s mother is a fish, but we can relate to how, on the most personal level, his child’s mind is comprehending her death.

Another important consequence of reading the novel’s language for its own sake is the network of linguistic connections it allows the reader to make. When one stops obsessing over the message the text is trying to convey, possibilities are opened for the text to express things that don’t make logical sense. From the start, we have been looking at Vardaman’s declaration, “My mother is a fish,” only in terms of Vardaman and his mother. If we are reading the text rationally, this is the only way to do it. When we let go of meaning, however, a connection surfaces between this repeated phrase and Vardaman’s sister, Dewey Dell. The word ‘guts’ is used ten times in the novel: once as a description of Vardaman’s fish, and the other nine about Dewey Dell’s pregnancy. Dewey Dell does not want to be pregnant, and her personal goal throughout the novel is to get an abortion, in order to spare herself the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock. She refers to herself as “a little tub of guts” (Faulkner 56) and feels that “everything in the world for [her] is inside a tub full of guts” (56). The child, too, growing inside of her, is guts. About her lover, Lafe, Dewey Dell thinks, “He is his guts and I am my guts. And I am Lafe’s guts. That’s it” (58). It is impossible not to tie this, on the purely linguistic level, to one of the first images portrayed of Vardaman’s fish, when he exclaims to his father, “It was full of blood and guts” (36). If one follows this image throughout the book, further connections between the fish and Dewey Dell’s pregnancy emerge.

There is one particularly powerful image in monologue #30, a Dewey Dell monologue: “I saw Vardaman rise and go to the window and strike the knife into the fish, the blood gushing” (115). When, in the space of her own mind, her own private ‘reality,’ Dewey Dell conjures this thought—this sight, given the context, she could not possibly be seeing—the reader knows it is a thought purely her own. Dewey Dell envisions this violence against that other “little tub of guts,” just as she wishes to destroy the invasive “guts” in herself. In the end, though, she is unable to succeed in getting the abortion. Likewise, she never is able to cook—and thereby destroy—that fish (58). It is this sort of connection, fascinating in its own right and curious in its implications, which the reader would never be able to get at if not through language alone. It cannot be explained in logical terms; the young woman never opens up to her brother about her pregnancy, and there is no way he could have known the situation she is in or, more specifically, the unique language she uses to describe her condition. Yet, somehow, he strikes a note that holds true for his sister’s most private struggles, cutting to the quick by making the fish a symbol of death and motherhood for both Addie and Dewey Dell.

In Addie Bundren’s sole monologue, the consideration of words and their value is taken up directly. Addie feels that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 163). This sentiment can be applied to the whole novel and everything Faulkner achieves through his manner of writing. Of course, one does not walk away from the book with the feeling that “words are no good,” but there is a sense that they don’t quite match what they are trying to convey. Faulkner uses this flaw of language to make it more powerful, giving his words permission not to say anything. They must simply exist. They must simply feel right. As Addie explains, “when the right times [comes], you [don’t] need a word for that anymore” (164). This is true for As I Lay Dying. When a character’s sentiment is true enough, deep enough, the words that would normally describe it are nullified. To make his readers privy to the most essential bits of his characters’ internal consciousnesses, Faulkner uses words that move in an around “what they are trying to say at,” allowing them, finally, to fit—to be good for more than empty signification.





Works Cited

Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 61–72.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1930. Print.

Hale, Dorothy J. “‘As I Lay Dying’s’ Heterogeneous Discourse.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–23.

Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature, vol. 61, no. 1, 1989, pp. 16–30.

Works Consulted

Benstock, Shari, and Stephen M. Ross. “‘Voice’ in As I Lay Dying.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 5, 1979, pp. 957–959.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “‘As I Lay Dying’ as Ironic Quest.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 3, no. 1, 1962, pp. 5–19.

The Lie of Truth


The Lie of Truth

The idea that “truth” as we know it isn’t true is hard to swallow. It’s one of those mind-bending concepts that turns your world upside down if you think about it too hard. So, most of the time, you don’t. You accept what is called truth and leave it at that. You live your life based on the things Nietzsche calls “[lying] according to a fixed convention” (117) and call yourself honest while condemning those who lie differently from you. It’s convoluted, but it isn’t complex. Our truths are nothing more than metaphor, made-up concepts with a label stamped on top telling us they’re real, telling us: “This is poison. This is wine.” when both are simply water. But, unknowingly, we drink. And we drink. And we drink. And then, someday, we forget the labels are there at all, taking them as part of what we drink, and not questioning it once.

Of course, we’re all in this stage now of not seeing the labels. We are all in this stage of taking the truth for what it claims to be because it’s all we’ve ever known. So, apart from that hard-to-swallow aspect of this new view of reality, there is the challenge of considering something you have been trained your whole life not to see. In order to do this, to see the world as the mask of language it is, we must look to language itself: to literature, in all the ways it attempts to peel those labels from the glass.

Jack London’s White Fang provides a particularly useful lens through which to see the invention of truth. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is tasked with following the life not of a human but of a wolf. London uses language to get inside the beast’s head; in his attempt to show us reality from the wolf’s point of view, he must alter true and false—must create a new reality—by redefining the lies that are good and the lies that are bad. The fact he is able to do this, and successfully, insists there is no ultimate truth in the name of things, and the set of metaphors we use to define this world are in no way tied to it.

The third and fourth chapters in Part II of White Fang deal with the early life of the wolf by that name. Titled “The Gray Cub” and “The Wall of the World,” respectively, these chapters explore the development of the young wolf as he struggles from birth to make his entrance into the world. The character White Fang learns to understand his world by naming and classifying the things he encounters. Though, as the narrator explains, “the gray cub [is] not given to… the kind of thinking customary of men” (London 82), London and his readers are, and the only way he can unveil the perception of the growing cub to them is by laying it out according to “man-fashion” (86) reasoning. So White Fang creates his own syntax and, with it, a worldview. In doing so, he models how we, as humans, have created—have fabricated—ours.

The wolf cub spends the first weeks of his life in a small cave with his parents and the rest of the litter. The dangers of the wild are made immediately apparent to the cub, and, before long, White Fang and his mother are the only survivors of their clan. The world he inhabits is a cruel and unusual one. Life is subject to change—or disappear entirely—at any moment; the only constant for the cub is the cave around him. To White Fang, this cave is all there is of existence. As soon as he can open his eyes, White Fang begins “to learn his world quite well” (78). The narrator comments, “His world [is] gloomy; but he [does] not know that, for he [knows] no other world” (78). See, the wolf cannot know ‘gloomy’ without context. His is an isolated life, with no outside world to compare to and no inherited vocabulary to fill gaps in experience. All that is available to White Fang are four sides of stone, and stone, and stone, and light that encompass him. So London builds his reality with language—shows the reader how, as each thing gets a name, its truth becomes a part of the cub’s worldview.

So let’s start with something simple. Let’s start with the walls. The cave in which White Fang is born has walls in every direction. Take a moment. Let that sink in. The cave has walls in every direction. These walls are made of solid rock; they are hard, and gray, and hurt the tip of the little cub’s nose. All except one. This last wall he doesn’t come into contact with for quite some time, but he learns from his mother’s reproaches that this wall, like the others, is something he must not approach with his tender snout. Unlike every other wall of his world, this last is bright, white almost, but it still has those characteristics which define the quality of wall-ness in his mind: it exists as a landmark of the edge of his world. White Fang comes to know this particular boundary as “the wall of light,” but, as much as he is aware that this “one wall of his world [is] different from the rest,” he knows it—first and foremost—as a wall.

Of course, to those of us who were raised learning “wall”, “floor”, “ceiling”, “door” since before we could speak, this seems absurd. We can accept it, maybe, as a beast’s formulation, but never as a legitimate concept! A cave mouth is simply not a wall. A door, perhaps, or a window, but never a wall. If we take a step back, however, we should be able to understand. What is ‘wall,’ but something we’ve named the thing? Or ‘mur’, or ‘mauer’, or whatever else you like. It is beside the point. Through our many human languages, we have defined the concept of wall, but repetition doesn’t make it any less of a fabrication. Go ahead and bang on whatever is behind you. What you feel is not wall. It is plaster and paint, brick, concrete, drywall, wood, glass… but it is not wall. Nothing is, inherently. So when White Fang names the wall of light, a wall it becomes. ‘Entrance’, on the other hand, has no meaning in this walled-in cave world. White Fang “[does] not know anything about entrances—passages whereby one goes from one place to another place” (81). How could he, when he has never been to another place, and his mother has no way of telling him there is such a thing? He has no understanding of the concepts ‘passage’ and ‘place’, so he has no understanding of the concept ‘entrance’ either. Without a word naming it, without the language to define that concept, ‘entrance’ is not just beyond understanding to the wolf cub, it is out of existence. Just as with the wall-ness of the wall behind you, there is no inherent quality of entrance-ness in the mouth of the cave. So that entrance is a wall just as much as anything else is—not only in name, but in truth. The language White Fang applies to his “wall of light” is the only thing that can define it.

This conceptualization of things—this naming and, thereby, defining—carries into  this section of London’s novel beyond the moment of the gray cub and the wall. As White Fang grows and explores his world for the first time, he continues on this same path, classifying and giving meaning to things as he encounters them, and, simultaneously, embodying the idea that nothing exists until there is language to name it. When he first ventures out of the cave, first steps through that “wall of light,” White Fang understands his situation as “sprawling through solidity” (88). Once his eyes have readjusted to brightness around him, the cub does not write off his definition of the wall, does not discount that sensation of “sprawling through solidity.” How could he do that when, all along, those things had been his truths? Instead, he does what humans do constantly: he shifts his definitions to make the “truth” fit. When he looks out, he does not find the wall of light gone. No, it is only that “the wall, inside which he had thought himself… [had] leaped back before him to an immeasurable distance” (88). Everything he encounters after the expansion of the wall is new to White Fang, not just in the fact that he had never experienced these things, but in that they truly did not exist before in his world. He discovers ‘fall’, ‘distances’, ‘things alive and things not alive.’ Each of these he encounters for the first time, not as a an adventurer finding things he’d never known, but as a one who had “without any antecedent knowledge, without any warning whatever that such existed… found himself an explorer in a totally new world” (91). The word new is key here; this world had no meaning until White Fang began to classify it.

When White Fang first encounters something strange, he bristles at it. He does not know, precisely, what he is bristling at, only that it is “something unclassified, therefore unknown and terrible” (87). In this sense, humans aren’t all that different from wolves. We don’t like what we don’t know, and, moreover, we are afraid of it. We are comfortable with the distinctions we have made, comfortable with the difference between truth and lies, between right and wrong, between entrance and wall of light. The greatest difficulty in accepting the idea that nothing is true and all is metaphor lies in the simple fact that we don’t want to accept it. It is unsettling to realize there is no non-literary language. How are we supposed to keep our feet on the ground if there’s no such thing? It is important, though, that we try to accept this. Just as White Fang remodeled his truth upon leaving the cave, we are constantly remodeling our own. If we aren’t aware what an easy mutability this is, we are liable to get reckless. We must know we are defining our truths if we want to define them well.

This, of course, is easier said than done. After all, don’t we want to know the difference between poison and wine?



Works Cited

London, Jack. White Fang (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966)

Nietzsche, Friederich. “Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873)