Philosophy For The Many

If I wrote a poem (or any typically short piece of literature) and a scholarly essay (or any generally long work), which of the two are you more likely to pick up and read? If you are like me, the answer would be “neither,” but in a situation in which you are forced to choose, my best guess is that you would pick up the piece of literature that requires the least amount of effort. I mean, honestly, the only people who genuinely pick up excessively long pieces of literature are professors and older people who actually have the time to read them. Everyone else is either forced to read them or kidding themselves; they believe they have a true desire and passion for the art, but do not yet understand literature and simply want to come across as intellectual.
Sure, in order to get better and understand literature people must read more and harder material, however poems, plays, short novels/stories, and other seemingly simple forms of literature can be and are just as hard to understand as philosophical and scholarly writing.
A poem is (to many) a basic way to express themselves in their own creative way. A poem, however also entails more than that. A poem can utilize metaphors, rhyme, heightened language, slang, sounds, and improper grammar. Although a few of these things seem to go against a claim that poems can be difficult to interpret, these characteristics allow poems to convey the true feelings of the writer and make the piece of literature that much harder to understand. Poems are so valuable and enlightening because they are open to multiple interpretations. You may look at a poem, read it, and gather something completely different than what I gather from the poem. The most radical part about this is that the poem in question can be of any length and with whatever level of language it wants. If I were to say something that would appear to have one meaning like, “I looked at him, and I rolled on Friday.” One may think I am plainly talking about the act of physically rolling on that day. Another person may be very keen and know that Friday may very well be the name of a given object or animal (or person). Someone else can very well believe that I am crazy and said something random and irrelevant. From just one nine-word sentence three hypothetical people interpreted the same line in three different ways, and I, the author, never said or confirmed any of the three as being “correct”. All three interpretations are valid, but none refer to what I originally meant when I said that line. The truth is that I was referring to “rolling my eyes.”
Now, in this case I partially cheated because I took advantage of the fact I was speaking and “eye” is identical in sound as “I,” but had I not used that “loophole” there was still more than one way to interpret that line. Plus, I never added what many poems have as well: deeper meanings. These “inside joke” type of things add an extra layer of complexity that places another hurdle for the audience to jump over after they take what they read for face-value, that is the literal meaning.
In case you still do not believe that poems and other brief forms of literature are not the philosophy for the many, but instead are equally and sometimes harder pieces of literature, ponder this question, “would you rather have a final that is ten words or ten pages?” Intuitively, you might jump to have a final that is only ten words, but after contemplation, you would realize that ten words in not so easy and no longer more appealing than that ten-page paper. I’m willing to bet that even if I raised the number of pages to twenty, you would still prefer the twenty-page final. In fact, many of you would continue to take the pages option over the word option until the word option reached a page. The realization with this comes from the understanding that with length, comes a much easier and more accepted way to babble, or to be frank, bullshit. With proper care, or even without care, people can bullshit their way through a paragraph or even a page of that ten-page paper without being caught or penalized. But, with ten-words, every single word better count; it better mean something. Otherwise, it will be seen as garbage and you will be made a fool of.

This is the thing many fail to realize early on: Brevity does not equal effortlessness, nor means that it is self-explanatory. Many individuals and even classes spend hours if not days trying to comprehend a poem. The words on the paper (or nowadays screen) may be simple, but the purpose can be just as profound as the words are simple. Take for example a poem and a poet that many people know or have at least heard of, Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The poem is eight lines, and yet several sources have pages full of analysis for the poem. this ranges from every word to the sentence to the poem itself. There are various levels to the complexity of this seemingly simple poem. In case you are unfamiliar with the poem or need a refresher here is a common version of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

As you can see, all of these words are intelligible. Some publications have different punctuation, and some say ‘June’ instead of ‘day’ and ‘ones’ instead of ‘your.’ Nonetheless, all the words are easy to pronounce and the vocabulary is fairly basic. However, the poem is not as easily digestible. Similar to the example i provided early on, there is a basic interpretation which takes the words for what they tend to mean on a day-to-day basis. This interpretation believes that she is talking about herself, either in the mirror or not, but talking about herself being a nobody nonetheless. And that keen person might say she is stating her name (nobody) and is incredibly glad she ran into another person with such a unique name. additionally, that last person can claim the same as before, the words are nonsense and inconsequential, and Dickinson may just be crazy. Now, going off of the more rational beliefs, Dickinson may very well have drawn inspiration for this poem from inflection and her insecurities, but the meaning drawn from the poem after examination is that Dickinson is glorifying anonymity. The most significant thing about these ”understandings” is that there is no way of confirming that these “understandings” are even true understandings or whether they are misinterpretations.
I know that when I first read this poem, I did not know what to think. I was not sure if I had the right idea, if I was all over the place, if she was all over the place, or if it was never meant to be understood. All of these thoughts still entered my head, even though I had just gone through a month of analyzing other poets and other short forms of literature. I spent weeks learning techniques and conditioning my brain to think a certain way (sometimes this meant not thinking a all), and yet, even after all the practice and note-taking, the comprehensibility of the poem was still challenging for myself and my peers. The poem is only eight lines. It rhymes. It expresses emotion. But still, the meaning is ambiguous. Now, imagine if she had decided to write a novel or a philosophical piece about the benefits of not being known and the dullness of being famous. I’m almost positive that more people would understand what she is discussing and in a shorter period of time. After-all, Dickinson would have an enormous range that she could take advantage of. Whether the work was one page or one hundred pages the concept would still be easier to grasp than that hidden within the forty-three words of the poem.

If you still do not accept the fact that poems and other short forms of literature are not philosophy for the many, think about one of the -if not the-most essential qualities necessary for understanding literature: being literate. In order to even read, let alone judge and try to process literature, you need to be literate. If you cannot understand any words visually, then poetry cannot be accessible to you for the same reasons many feel philosophical and scholarly writing is not accessible: it’s too hard and unreadable. Well, after reading through something I am sure you did not intend on reading through to the end, it is impossible to question if poetry can be just as inaccessible to the many as philosophical and scholarly writing.

In conclusion, there is no way to refute the claim that individuals can still reach a higher level of understanding through poetry and other pieces of literature, even though they are short and simple. Honestly, there is no reason as to why you waste time denying a truth and spent time reading this redundant essay proving how inaccessible poetry can be and at the same time showing how accessible scholarly writing can be. I mean you just read this and I am sure you understand well enough to provide the gist of it to a friend without worry of being wrong. So, stop thinking about where you can try to find holes in my argument: there are other questions to think about.


The Magic Word

Plato is not often wrong. As perhaps the most well-known and respected philosopher of all time, Plato knew what he was talking about (the man died 2400 years ago and is still a household name – he certainly did something right). To claim that Plato is mistaken is to challenge a well-thought-out view held by one of the greatest thinkers in history, a view that was passed down over more than two millennia, each generation agreeing that it was interesting and valuable enough to be read by the next. To claim as a 19 year old undergraduate that Plato is wrong – Now that’s really daunting. Fortunately, I have support from another of history’s great thinkers in Martin Luther King, Jr. In his Gorgias, Plato claims that you only need to be a skilled writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side. I don’t think that’s right, and King flat out rejects it. If you bear with me for a few pages, I’ll flesh out this flaw in Plato’s philosophizing about rhetoric, a flaw that has implications even today for how people communicate about the world’s most important issues.

We’ll start in 1963. On April 12th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested after demonstrating against racial violence in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the nation’s most segregated cities. On that same day, eight white religious leaders published a letter criticizing King with the sort of faux-moderate ideas most corrosive to the civil rights movement: Those that claim to agree with racial justice on the whole but resist disruption of the status quo. In this case, the demonstrations in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely” (quoted in King, 1).  King spent his time in jail drafting a response, writing in longhand on scraps of paper and the margins of a newspaper. Completed in just four days and published under a modest title, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the response garnered national attention over the following months.

You already know how high the stakes of King’s movement were: The abhorrent institutions of segregation and racial oppression abused millions of Americans every day. As King sat in Birmingham Jail with pencil in hand, he sat with the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. You know the significance of the challenge he faced: King had to overturn the very foundation of society, to make one of the most important arguments ever made in the 20th century. You know, even if his audience in 1963 did not, that King stood on the side of truth and justice: Racial equality is unambiguously right, just, and good. So, when King began to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when he began to write on behalf of millions of oppressed Americans at a pivotal point for truth and justice, what did he write? And, perhaps more important for our disagreement with Plato, how did he write?

Before we answer that question, let’s see how Plato would expect King to write in this context, namely a situation in which one writes on the side of truth and justice. Plato’s expectations are explicit in Gorgias. Speaking through Socrates, Plato calls skilled writing “rhetoric,” which he defines as “persuasion which produces conviction” through “producing pleasure” (18, 27). Pleasure in Plato’s sense is unclean and harmful; a focus on pleasure distracts from the essential goodness and truth in an argument, waters down or sours justice with superficial appeal. Plato’s distaste for pleasure ruins all rhetoric for him: He says that rhetoric “boils down to sycophancy, sucking up to people,” and that it has “no concern for what is best” (28, 30). Pleasurable writing amounts to either regrettable entertainment or a tainted tool of the malicious. Plato argues that “for the person who is not planning to act unjustly I don’t think [rhetoric]’s use is very great – if indeed it is any use at all, which it hasn’t been shown to be” (55). Plato does, however, offer a way out, a way to argue on the side of justice without contaminating truth with rhetoric’s impurity. Plato imagines two kinds of writing: One would be “sycophancy, the worst kind of appeal to the public; the other would be admirable, … battling to say what is best, regardless of whether this makes it more pleasing or unpleasing to those listening” (84). The distinction here is solely the focus on pleasure. Sycophancy aims to please, and according to Plato is of no use to someone speaking on the side of truth and justice. Admirable writing absolutely disregards pleasure. It is this second, pragmatic style of writing unencumbered by attempts to please which Plato would implore King and others advocating truth and justice to use.

But, Plato continues, this second kind of writing, writing that spreads justice with no regard for pleasure, “is a rhetoric which you have never yet seen” (84). Although writing on the side of justice without regard for pleasure is an option, not a single skilled writer does it. Plato takes this lack of a perfectly just rhetorician to discount rhetoric as a whole. Here’s his logic: Appeals to pleasure sour truth and justice, and all skilled writing aims to please, so all skilled writing strays from truth and justice. This is where I think Plato is wrong: He takes the fact that nobody writes without regard for pleasure to mean that writers don’t have society’s best interests in mind. I think skilled writers aim to please only because they must in order to communicate effectively with their audience. Disregarding pleasure simply does not work. Even if you argue on the side of truth and justice, you still need to write pleasurably.

King understood this. But before we get to him, let’s first define what exactly it means to write pleasurably. In other words, what does Plato think King should avoid? One key characteristic of pleasurable writing, and the most troubling for Plato, is that it caters to the beliefs of its audience: It has an impulse towards “giving the citizens what they want” (83). Beyond conforming to its audience, pleasurable writing aims to produce enjoyment. Plato repeatedly uses the difference between cooking and medicine to illustrate his point. Pleasurable writing feeds you what feels good, what will keep you reading, even if, like a tasty but fatty desert, its value is only superficial. Plato believes writing should act like medicine, giving you only what is best and truly valuable regardless of how it feels. We can see that Plato condemns writing that includes any and all stylistic flare, that goes out of its way to demonstrate graceful command of language, that shapes concepts with sharp but perhaps extraneous literary devices. In short, Plato distrusts writing that detours even slightly from plain truth for the sake of eloquence. If arguing for truth and justice, King must not aim to please.

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., does just what Plato abhors: He is clearly on the side of truth and justice, yet he focuses intensely on writing pleasurably. The claim that King aimed to please in the letter may seem counterintuitive and even troubling when considering the gravity of his situation. As previously explained, the consequences of failure were grim. But that is precisely the point: That even when truth and justice are most direly threatened, pleasure must be a focus of writers standing in opposition.

King invokes pleasure in several ways. First, King handles his audience carefully. Explicitly, the audience is the eight white clergy who publicly criticized the Birmingham demonstrations. However, King never actually sent his letter to those clergy and instead had it published for a wider audience of religious white moderates resistant to the civil rights movement. King establishes a friendly, respectful relationship from the start by mentioning that his detractors “are men of genuine good will and [their] criticisms are sincerely set forth” (1). This respectfulness, which Plato might deem sucking up, is continued throughout the piece. King refers to his audience as “my friends” and “my Christian and Jewish brothers,” and is eager to point out when they are correct (2, 3). For example, he says, “You are exactly right in your call for negotiation,” and agrees that their apprehension regarding lawlessness “is certainly a legitimate concern” (2, 3).

Further, King conforms to his audience’s beliefs in both religiosity and patriotism. King is clearly conscious of his Christian audience and appeals to religion incessantly. Two quick examples: At the start, King explains his presence in Birmingham in Biblical terms. “Just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ, … I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown” (1). Later, in response to accusations of being an extremist, King remarks, “Was not Jesus an extremist in Love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ?” (4). King also connects his movement to American values. He says his goal of freedom will be reached “because the goal of America is freedom,” and that his movement’s “destiny is tied up with the destiny of America” (5). King calls upon the Pilgrims, Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence for inspiration. At the close of his letter, King writes that his movement stands “for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage” (6). Christian values and the American dream: What more could the southern religious white moderate ask for? Plato rolls in his grave at every mention of God-given rights, every Biblical allusion, every time King deviates from his argument to remind the audience that he shares their Christianity and love for America. But there’s a reason King spends so much time comforting his audience: He has to. Without gaining the trust of the religious white moderate and demonstrating shared interests, King could not gain their support in his campaign for truth and justice.

A more conspicuous point of conformity is King’s attention to grammar, which is especially clear in how he frames a quote from Rosa Parks. King writes that Parks responded to an inquiry “about her tiredness with ungrammatical profundity, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested’” (6). King’s audience is educated. By conditioning Parks’ statement with such a highbrow phrase as “ungrammatical profundity,” King makes clear that he is aware, as his audience surely will be, of Parks’ grammatical mistake. This is small but important. If King were writing for a less educated audience, he would not need to exalt his own grammatical knowledge above Parks’. King goes out of his way to demonstrate sophistication to his educated audience. Plato would deem this unnecessary, but King knows he must gain the intellectual respect of his audience if they are to believe his message about truth and justice.

Beyond flexing his command of language to demonstrate shared sophistication, King writes eloquently to make his work pleasurable to read. He polishes his letter with spectacular aphorisms and lofty metaphors such as in these lines: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (1). King beautifies his ideas with sharp images such as “stinging darts of segregation,” “shattered dreams of the past,” and a “dark shadow of deep disappointment” (2, 5, 1). Although the subjects he speaks of are gloomy, the language used in describing them is extravagant. Stylish language is not at all pragmatically necessary, but it adds an element of pleasure that attracts and embraces readers.

By studying King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” we can see that pleasure is not incongruous with arguing for truth and justice; in fact, pleasure advances King’s just argument by making it effective in reaching its target audience. If King had followed Plato’s commandment to write incognizant of pleasure, his letter would have been ineffectual in the campaign for civil rights. You need to be a skilled writer to stand purposefully on the side of truth and justice.




Works Cited

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 212, No. 2; pages 78 – 88. 1963. Print.

Plato. Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. Translated by Tom Griffith, edited by Malcolm Schofield, Cambridge University Press. 2010. Print.

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)

Conversations About Conversations

It’s the little blinking red light on the dashboard signaling a hiccup in the system. It’s the bridge that collapses under the weight of all the gears churning inside your head. More specifically, it’s the blank look on your face right now asking me what the hell I’m talking about. I suppose now would be more than appropriate — actually, necessary — to clarify what I am describing here, or better yet, what I have been meaning to say thus far. But the very question of what I mean necessitates more than just a response to what I am describing. It also requires communicating my description of something in a way to which others can relate. In other words, what does it mean to get everyone on the same page of something I am describing?

What we end up with are two questions: one, what does it mean when we describe something and what does it mean to translate that description to others? That is to say, what are we really doing when we describe, label, or categorize something as is? We might say we are making a judgment or taking a perspective on an object of interest. Thus, for some, an object of interest may appear a certain way, and for others, that same object may appear in a different way. But how are we to reconcile all the various descriptions, judgments, and perspectives? Is it still the object of interest with which we are really concerned? Or could our very descriptions, our language, and the words we use to somehow encapsulate the object of interest be the actual crux of the matter here?

What emerges from these questions is a divide between language and the objects that language supposedly represents via descriptions, labels, and categories, or simply put, words. And these words, of which we use an innumerable amount and in countless combinations, seem to jeopardize our grasp of the actual object in its essence, or the truth. It is like what Nietzsche says, “With words it is never a question of truth” (116). Our conversations end up being only conversations about our language. So that when one fails to follow the language of what the other is trying to say, it is not the object of the conversation that is obscure, but the colored, contextualized, presupposing, and goal-oriented words we use. And to get lost in the heavily assuming language we use might make us come to a full stop, flashing our little red lights, to show that the language we encounter problematically jars with our own. Or we might try to wrestle with that incongruity, pushing our minds to rebuild the broken bridge between the language we use to describe objects and the languages others use to describe the same object.

Hemingway makes so vivid this idea that every conversation is essentially just us conversing with language about language in his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” The story stars two waiters who are preparing to close their cafe for the night but are stuck with their last customer — a deaf old man slightly drunk from all his orders of brandy. The waiters exchange many words about this old man as they wait for him to finally pay and leave. Much of the dialogue is written without the conventional “he said,” “she said” labels before or after every verbal piece, so it is often ambiguous as to which of the two waiters is actually speaking. But it turns out that those labels aren’t necessary given that the waiters are marked by their different languages. And by languages, I don’t mean Spanish versus Russian or Bostonian dialect versus Californian dialect. I mean the language that betrays the speaker’s underlying assumptions, motivations, and background, which all in turn shape the way they understand and describe objects.

Hemingway assigns each character a role in this conversation about conversation. We’ve already established that the interlocutors are the two waiters who each speak through their respective colored glasses of reality. But the deaf old man also demands our attention for being two things: deaf and the subject of the waiters’ conversations. The first exchange between the two waiters brings to light the role that deafness plays in this conversation about conversation:

“Last week he [the deaf old man] tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.


“He was in despair.”

“What about?”


“How do you know it was nothing?”

“He has plenty of money.” (Hemingway)

Unable to hear, the old deaf man cannot answer for any of the questions and assumptions the two waiters make about a recent event that supposedly occurred in his life: his attempted suicide. He is like the silent universe that is inevitably mum about the truth, so to speak, to all those who inquire by poking and prodding for the truth. In this way, the deaf old man is the object whose truth will not be known regardless of how much the waiters make an effort to guess what it is.

So far, all that is known about the deaf old man is filtered by the waiters’ interpretations, which are subsequently expressed by their words, their language. That is, what we are left with are mere descriptions of an old man who supposedly tried to commit suicide, was in despair about nothing, and has plenty of money. And this train of thought, going from suicide and despair to nothing and money ends up revealing more about the waiter who spoke rather than the old man.

Readers can never be too sure of what kind of man this deaf old man is. Did he really attempt to commit suicide? Were his motivations truly despair? And was his despair really because of nothing? For all we know, the waiter who made these descriptions could be spinning a narrative to fit the picture he may already have of this deaf old man. In a later section of the dialogue, one of the waiters (it is not clear whether it is the same waiter who made the initial commentary about the old man) claims that the old man “must be eighty years old,” to which the same waiter or the second waiter immediately follow-ups saying, “Anyway I should say he was eighty” (Hemingway). The waiters are actively constructing an idea of this old man with their language, which becomes the truth accepted not only by the waiters accept but also by unsuspecting readers.

As the story progresses, the waiters’ descriptions of the deaf old man begin to reflect more concretely the character and values of each waiter. One of the waiters is in a hurry to close the café and come home to his wife before three in the morning while the other is unhurried and unnerved by any timely obligation. Upon observing the hurried waiter’s successful attempt to finally get the old man to leave the café, the unhurried waiter asks “What is an hour?”, to which the hurried waiter replies, “More to me than to him [the deaf old man]” (Hemingway). In response, the unhurried waiter says, “An hour is the same” (Hemingway). What is so remarkable about this minute exchange is that how well it exemplifies what it means for language to be distinct from that which it describes. The question by itself, “What is an hour?” seems to anticipate on face value, the essence of an hour, of time. But the response that the first waiter gives answer a different question; that is, he answers “What is an hour to me?” His understanding of time is relative to himself, which in effect replaces time, the object of interest, with himself. It is no longer the object that is inspiring its descriptions, but the waiter himself. The unhurried waiter, however, nullifies the label that the hurried waiter assigns to the object of time. That time is more to one than to another is purely arbitrary. For “An hour is the same” to whomever and whenever. There is nothing more to the object that makes it any more special to a particular person. Rather, it is the labels, the language we use, for describing these objects that makes them appear as such.

Perhaps most indicative of this idea of the autonomy of language is the conversation the unhurried waiter has with himself. At this point, the hurried waiter has left the café for home and the unhurried waiter is left musing on how good and necessary it is to have a clean, well-lighted café. Contrary to his hurried colleague’s opinion, the unhurried waiter deplores the absence of such a café, which he thinks leaves him with no dignity and “a nothing that he knew too well” (Hemingway). The idea of nothing makes its entrance again in the latter half of the short story. We’ve already seen it mentioned during the exchange about why the deaf old man was driven to despair. But in this case, the use of the term nothing is different. The waiter calls all things, including man, a nothing and contrasts it with light, cleanness, and order. Though the waiter does not specify what he means by this nothing, he prefaces it earlier while conversing with his colleague saying, “Each night I am reluctant to close up [the café] because there may be some one who needs the café” (Hemingway). There is a twinge of loneliness, a kind of emptiness, in this nothing upon which the waiter constantly dwells. But not much can be said as of yet until further on when the waiter says the following in his head:

Some lived in it [the nothing] and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. (Hemingway)

The waiter uses the term nada, the Spanish equivalent for nothing, as not simply a thing that exists but surrounds us, is us, and pervades the very language used for acknowledging and declaring allegiance to God. But what’s important to note here is also the phrase “pues nada.” It is recognized as a muletilla, which is a word that serves as a filler or verbal crutch. There is no meaning to a filler word, just as nothing is devoid of any meaning. They are arbitrary terms that illuminate nothing about anything, just as the language and the labels we designate for objects reveal pretty much nothing about the actual object itself.

The very repetition of nada further reinforces this nothingness by rendering the term meaningless and arbitrary. The waiter replaces nearly every significant word in the Lord’s Prayer with nada. But this act of replacement is more than just to emphasize nothingness in human lives, but also to devalue and forget the terms themselves — to strip all significance and meaning from all the terms that previously held so much command and presence and leave the words empty like husks. It is a brilliant demonstration of what we end up with when we acknowledge the divide between language and objects and realize there is no real substance to the terms and the languages we use to describe objects, except for the meaning that we fabricate and pretend to see as true. What we end up pledging allegiance to is neither God nor some heavenly kingdom. Instead, we “Hail nothing full of nothing” because “nothing is with thee” (Hemingway). Humans do not possess anything more than illusions of what is real. As told by Nietzsche, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (117). Not only have we fabricated our truths, but we’ve gone so far as to forget that they are fabrications! We trap ourselves, it seems, in this cycle of lies — of conversations about conversations — believing ourselves to have hit upon the pot of golden truth.

With so much nothingness in the world and in ourselves, it is no wonder the unhurried waiter loses his dignity, feels lonely, and ultimately, empty. And so, he seeks solace in a clean, well-lighted place and hopes that this diversion from the darkness of nothingness can last, quite frankly, 24/7. And perhaps this is one way Hemingway is telling readers to cope with this fabricated reality in this silent universe. But I beg to differ. It is not so much about finding solace, as if our lives are completely worthless and all our foundations must be broken down, as it is about exploring the breadth of our constructions. We might have a ceiling to our endeavors, but we have such long hallways that are endless and diverse in all the ways we make something out of nothing. It is true that conversations are nothing more than just that: conversations. But our ways of having those conversations are plenty. And questions of “What do you mean?” and “How do you mean?” will continuously appear as little blinking red lights and collapsing bridges, so long as we don’t try to anchor ourselves to the object. Because we can’t. And, well, that’s okay.

Works Cited:

Hemingway, Ernest. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Harry Youtt, n.d. 11 Nov 2016. < >

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” 1873, p. 114-123. 

The Not-So-Hidden Meanings of Silent Spring

By Emma Lezberg

“Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language,” said author Raymond Williams, and it has also become one of the most powerful—not despite its multivalence, but because of it.

First, there’s the meaning of essence, as in “the nature of the thing”. Then, there’s that trickier definition, the one that refers vaguely to those yellow leaves falling past my window, to those cows grazing in the field down the hill, and even, perhaps, to the tiny green shoots cracking the pavement in a parking lot across the street. It’s both the environment and the divine breath that infuses it.

This dexterity gives an author incredible leeway. Nature can be powerful or fragile, Eden or “avenging angel”, sublime or artifice—but whatever it is, it is a concept to be manipulated, even created, at the whim of the writer (Cronon, 48). The tornado threatening Dorothy’s home is menacing foreshadowing, the storm sinking Aeneas’ ships divine wrath, the wind whistling by Pocahontas’ ears a kindred spirit. And the connotations that arise from these uses have real-world effects: depending on how one defines nature, native peoples can be embodiments of a lost harmonious age or, conversely, savages marring pristine wilderness.

To environmental writers whose goal is to alter society’s relationships with nature, the flexibility of this concept has been their biggest ally.

Rachel Carson, a twentieth century scientist, set out to write a book detailing the dangers of chemical pesticides. Whether wittingly or not, her book also turned out to concern the Cold War, feminism, and injustice. That’s what you get when you write about such a malleable, hard-to-pin-down topic as nature.


Silent Spring, Carson’s 1962 masterpiece, begins with a fairy tale called “A Fable for Tomorrow”:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields….

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families….

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves. (Carson, 1-3)

At face-value, this introduction is straightforward, a simple lesson in causality. The imagined town is utopian, but quite accurately reflects the American rural ideal. The fields are bountiful, the townspeople content, and “white clouds of bloom” signal the fertility of the landscape. Then, with the suddenness of witchcraft or a biblical plague, the fields turn brown, the livestock fall ill, and people begin to die. Turns out, though, that it was not by a divine decree or evil spell; rather, the “white granular powder” that replaced the spores in the air were the cause of the malady.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking: why begin with a fairytale? Sure, the white powder is pesticides, we get that—but this is no way to begin a scientific work!

Carson’s critics contended just that. They pointed to this fairytale introduction to argue that she wasn’t a true scientist and that her book was too emotional and too idealist to present itself as science (Smith 737-738). The counterargument would be that the main chapters in the book delve deeply into the molecular structure of pesticides, scientific studies, and field research, and that the introduction is her way of making her point accessible to a general audience. Still, one must admit that it’s a strange way to begin a scientific book…

But perhaps we’re missing something here. Perhaps the book opens with biblical imagery rather than chemical jargon because it is asking to be analyzed through a literary, sociopolitical lens in addition to a strictly scientific one.

Let’s start at the beginning, then. We said that the “white clouds of bloom” blowing in the wind were signs of fertility and prosperity. Then, suddenly, some “evil spell” was cast, the landscape was “silenced”, people grew ill, and “everywhere was a shadow of death.” What caused this? No “enemy action”, Carson makes a point of saying, but a “white granular powder” falling from above.


This book was published in September 1962, the month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and nuclear threat had been escalating for years beforehand. Even topics unrelated to the Cold War were employing Cold War terminology, as that was the language of the day. Likening any threat to nuclear disaster, the most frightening and cataclysmic danger of all, granted it more urgency. Carson does just that, and the powder falling from the sky and the mysterious illnesses are only the beginning. In Ch. 3, Carson describes how little we know about the ultimate effects of pesticides such as DDT, citing that Food and Drug Administration scientists declared that it is “extremely likely the potential hazard of DDT has been underestimated” and adding that “No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences will be” (Carson, 23). Remind you of certain bombs being dropped and how few tests had been done beforehand? Later in that chapter, she likens effects of chemical pesticides to the effects of radiation, to which we are “rightly appalled” (37). Through this introductory fable and throughout her book, Carson is implying that spraying hazardous pesticides everywhere—treating nature as our enemy, as it were—would lead to a self-imposed result as catastrophic as nuclear disaster itself.

How to deescalate the conflict between humans and nature to avoid self-destruction? To put it in historical terms, détente. Turning to Carson’s concluding chapter, “The Other Road”, she states:

We stand now where two roads diverge…. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. (277)

Of course Carson is overtly discussing pesticide use, but that’s nuclear terminology if I’ve ever seen it. By the time this book was published, the Cold War had been raging for fifteen years; escalation was clearly the road most traveled by. Straying from that path—détente—was the only way to assure the “preservation of our earth”. Carson is not just discussing pesticides; she’s discussing political issues and the stubborn folly of man, in regards to nature and also in regards to other human beings.

Her book ends with this sentiment:

Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life—with living populations…. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves….

As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways…. [The] practitioners of chemical control…have brought to their task no “high-minded orientation”, no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth. (296-297)

Note how little insects are mentioned. Take out those few references and this could easily be a passage arguing against escalation of the Cold War. Politicians, who have “no humility before the forces with which they tamper”, must remember that they “are dealing with life”. They must “cautiously seek to guide” their enemies “into channels favorable” to themselves in order “to achieve a reasonable accommodation”. After all, they are capable of “striking back”. (Mutually assured destruction, anyone?)

What are those “modern and terrible weapons” she mentions: pesticides or nuclear bombs? They could be either, or both.

Although Carson wasn’t an overtly political person or a feminist, many readers ascribe antiwar, ecofeminist viewpoints to her, and it is easy to see why. Throughout her book, Carson argues for an appreciation of the balance of nature—what was considered a feminist ideal—over the harsh “control of nature” that men had championed. Her definition of nature—as both powerful and fragile, but, more importantly, as complex and interconnected—underlies her rhetoric, conceiving a nature that is not to be dominated but to be protected. She calls for humility and recognition of all life, while many politicians and scientists sought only destruction.

The question remains: if we allege that Carson was purposely bringing the Cold War into her book about pesticides, why would she do so? The fact that Cold War terminology was effective in conveying a sense of urgency is not the only reason. Ultimately, the two issues are related. Those who wanted to blow up the Soviet Union would also be blowing up our atmosphere, and as long as the world’s superpowers were focused on one-upping each other, they would not be able to work together to tackle environmental issues. As modern political and environmental activist Van Jones argues, “It takes all of us to save all of us.” Disposability is at the heart of the issue. To Carson, there is no disposable aspect of nature—everything is connected in the “fabric of life”—and there is no disposable human life either. Acting as if there is will only put us in more danger. The fates of man and nature are inextricably linked.


This is an ecofeminist concept: the idea that male domination has harmed both marginalized groups and the environment, and that it will take the nurture of women to heal this rupture between humans and nature. According to Smith, “through her use of metaphors about the balance of nature—precisely the language that so incensed many of her critics—Carson crafted a vision of nature that would resonate well with the philosophy of ecofeminism that began to develop a decade after Silent Spring was published” (734). Although calling Carson an ecofeminist would be anachronistic, her focus on preserving this “balance” and her insistence that all life is connected are right in line with ecofeminist views.

Yes, Silent Spring is anti-pesticides. But, more broadly, it is anti-domination, suggesting that what drives men to harm each other, to harm women, to seek uncompromising control in many spheres is also what drives them to harm the earth.

This is the heart of the argument. And now, as with all arguments like these, we must take a step back and channel our inner skepticism. Hold on, you might be thinking. We can extrapolate as much as we want from this text, but did Carson really mean to include all these sociopolitical messages in Silent Spring? Her first priority must have been to challenge the chemical industry, and she surely anticipated that critics would question her scientific qualifications. After all, she was a female scientist without a Ph.D., best known for her poetic books on marine biology (Smith 735). To be taken most seriously, wouldn’t her most logical course of action have been to focus on the science, to make her case against pesticides as objectively as possible? What if she really did intend to only write about pesticides, and other morals crept in inadvertently?

And that’s just it. I would imagine that she meant to draw this connection, that she recognized the “compromise” thread underlying potential solutions to many societal and environmental problems (why else start with the fairytale?), but here’s the key: it doesn’t matter if this connection were purposefully fashioned. The implications are present in Silent Spring whether or not such political ideas ever crossed Carson’s mind. By employing images like “white granular powder” falling from the sky and using phrases like “enemy action” and “most modern and terrible weapons”, the text is pointing to nuclear threat whether its author intended it or not. By its focus on “sharing our earth” and achieving “accommodation” and balance, the text is championing what would later be called ecofeminism, even if its author weren’t a feminist. And by connecting these two, by arguing against rash “control” and for “high-minded humility”, the text is urging readers to recognize the human arrogance underlying so many sociopolitical issues—even if she really did only aim to discuss pesticides. Language has an autonomy of its own, independent of its purported subject (in this case, pesticides), and sometimes even independent of its author’s intentions.

In fact, the under-the-surface nature of these secondary messages may have done the book a great service. Had Silent Spring made these connections less subtly—like the little-known book Our Synthetic Environment, published a few months prior and on largely the same topic—Carson’s book may not have had the impact that it did (Smith 745). But embedded in the connotations of its words, the text presented these implications to readers without turning them off as being too “political”.  Silent Spring was a bestseller and succeeded in getting the harmful pesticide DDT banned, but it also led to the creation of modern ecological study. It changed the way people viewed the relationship between man and the concept of nature, and connected for perhaps the first time environmental injustice with social injustice. This may have been the book’s most far-reaching legacy.

Not every word has quite the dexterity that “nature” does—not every word can be invoked to argue such a wide variety of stances—but all language, as a cultural invention, always points back to the society that gave it birth. There is no way to describe concepts like disaster or equilibrium without invoking societal implications, just as there is no way to describe nature that is completely neutral and without connotations. That’s how a book about pesticides ends up discussing international politics and equal rights…and how an essay on a book about pesticides ends up discussing language itself.



Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.

Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. Print.

Jones, Van. “Green Jobs Not Jails.” Confronting Climate Change. Williams College, Williamstown MA. 28 Sept. 2016. Lecture.

Smith, Michael B. “‘Silence, Miss Carson!’ Science, Gender, and the Reception of Silent Spring.” Feminist Studies 27.3 (2001): 733-52. Print.

Thorne, Christian. “Intro to Literary Theory.” Williams College, Williamstown MA. Oct. 2016. Lecture.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.