14 January 2010

fallen desperately in love with an inch

It is no wonder that names have been considered uncanny manifestations of supernatural power, and that men have identified their names with their souls or used them to invoke spiritual forces. Indeed, the power of words has gone to man's head in more than one way. To define has come to mean almost the same thing as to understand. More important still, words have enabled man to define himself—to label a certain part of his experience "I."
  This is, perhaps, the meaning of the ancient belief that the name is the soul. For to define is to isolate, to separate some complex of forms from the stream of life and say, "This is I." When man can name and define himself, he feels that he has an identity. Thus he begins to feel, like the word, separate and static, as over against the real, fluid world of nature.
  Feeling separate, the sense of conflict between man, on the one hand, and nature, on the other, begins. Language and thought grapple with the conflict, and the magic which can summon a man by naming him is applied to the universe. Its powers are named, personalized, and invoked in mythology and religion. Natural processes are made intelligible, because all regular processes—such as the rotation of the stars and seasons—can be fitted to words and ascribed to the activity of the gods or God, the eternal Word. At a later time science employs the same process, studying every kind of regularity in the universe, naming, classifying, and making use of them in ways still more miraculous.
  But because it is the use and nature of words and thoughts to be fixed, definite, isolated, it is extremely hard to describe the most important characteristic of life—its movement and fluidity. Just as money does not represent the perishability and edibility of food, so words and thoughts do no represent the vitality of life. The relation between thought and movement is something like the difference between a real man running and a motion-picture film which shows the running as a series of "stills."
  ... It is most convenient for scientific calculation to think of a movement as a series of very small jerks or stills. But confusion arises when the world described and measured by such conventions is identified with the world of experience. A series of stills does not, unless rapidly moved before our eyes, convey the essential vitality and beauty of movement. The definition, the description, leaves out the most important thing.
  Useful as these conventions are for purposes of calculation, language, and logic, absurdities arise when we think that the kind of language we can use or the kind of logic with which we reason can really define or explain the "physical" world. Part of man's frustration is that he has become accustomed to expect language and thought to offer explanations which they cannot give. To want life to be "intelligible" in this sense is to want it to be something other than life. It is to prefer a motion-picture film to a real, running man. To feel that life is meaningless unless "I" can be permanent is like having fallen desperately in love with an inch.

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951: 46-48)