Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The power of words.

There is a subtle yet pervasive power in words. Words written, crafted just so and evoked in a particular manner can transform an insipid observation into vivid imagery that commands yet persuades. Words which leave an indelible impression on your mind.

I've always felt that the difference between a mediocre book and an outstanding one, apart from its contents, is the author's ability to convey the entirety of a particular situation: the characters' feelings, settings and thoughts, realistically to the reader. The words do not have to be bombastic or the prose flowery. Simple words and short sentences can be powerful tools in a master's hands.
Take the following excerpt from Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore :

"I'm stark naked, sprawled on the chair on the porch, dozing off in the sun and don't hear him approach till he lightly brushes my head. Startled, I leap to my feet and scramble around for a towel. There isn't one around. Naked in front of him, I feel defenseless and vulnerable, my pubic hair, penis, balls, all exposed. I have no idea what to do. It's a little late to cover up."

And in those few sentences, the author manages to convey that sense of awkwardness and vulnerability the character experiences as surely as if you were the person who was caught naked. The direct, choppy sentences also contribute to the awkwardness of the situation. The effect would have been reduced somewhat if the author had said something along the lines of 'In my nudity, I felt vulnerable and defenseless.'

Then there are books, with sentences so effortlessly crafted and prose so fluid, you devour every page, hungry for more. Even if you may have to re-read the first few pages or chapters just to digest the information within. For just like a teething babe learning to chew, so do such books or authors whet our literary appetite for something far more substantial than your average easy reading. Take this one sentence from Umberto Eco's excellent Foucault's Pendulum:

"The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane's dimensions, the triadic beginning of pi, the secret quadratic nature of the root and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself."

A beautifully crafted sentence, perfectly structured. A sentence that enthralls yet does not disclose its true meaning on a cursory reading. The said meaning simply being that the movement of the pendulum is governed by a series of factors ranging from the single point of suspension to the infinite completeness of the very sphere. An explanation which does no justice to the linguistic grace of the original. If you would only decipher it. Mind you and this coming from someone who hates numbers in general unless they're numbers in my bank account in which case, the more the merrier.

Spoken words are no less powerful and still possess the ability to wound or heal as the wielder deems fit. Their reach, arguably more pervasive for illiteracy is no barrier to agitation by speech (as opposed to written words) though a limited vocabulary may be an impediment of sorts. However speech and the effect of spoken words is affected by a plethora of other factors ranging from the charisma of the person to the strength of the conviction of the person saying the words in question.

Still, it is my personal belief that when it comes to wounding and tearing down, written words have the potential to be so much more devastating than their spoken counterpart. Cold, harsh and impersonal, written words are devoid of the nuances and actions (the trembling hand, the conflicted face) that may mitigate and alleviate the harshness of a verbal onslaught.

Words are tools and the best tools are only as good as the craftsman who wields them. What we choose to do with our tools is our business but when you tear down another's home, expect yours to be torn down too. The last couple of weeks has been tumultuous though there appears to be a consensus of sorts on the ground.

Though now frankly, I am beyond caring. For as Electra in Sophocle's Electra says, "How could any woman of generous spirit behave otherwise, given the torments I face?"

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