Archive for philosophy

Emotive Language and the Limitations of English Phrases

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2013 by KarenElizabeth

I am a person who loves words.  A “logophile“, if you will, (or “lexophile”, if you are like me and prefer Latin instead of Greek roots for your terminology).  I am also a monolingual person, having never successfully learned a second language (although I’ve dabbled in both French and German, both were learned solely because of school requirements and promptly forgotten afterwards).  As a writer, a poet, and a lover of communication in all its forms, I enjoy finding the exact words and phrases that express what’s in my mind.

It is, therefore, a genuinely distressing experience when I find myself in situations where words, quite simply, fail me.

"Words Fail Me" by DeviantART artist ~simplyrain

The English language has a lot of words (it’s been argued that English has the “most” words of any language, but such claims are hard to verify), due largely to the fact that English includes many assimilated words “borrowed” from other languages.  It is spoken all over the world — it is the third most common “first language” (after Mandarin and Spanish), and is the most popular “second language” for people to learn.  Much of globalized business and politics is conducted in English, so it’s a language rich in legalese and very specific terminologies.

Where English tends to be lacking, though, is in emotive and expressive words.  We can describe in great detail an object, a person, a place, an event:  something concrete and tangible.  We understand the nuanced difference between something that is “big”, “huge”, “enormous”, or “gargantuan”.  But when it comes to describing our feelings, we’re really not that great at it.  We stumble over our words.  We say things that we don’t really mean, and we misunderstand one another.

Take “love”, for example.  We love our families.  We love our romantic partners.  We love our children.  We love our pets.  We love a great piece of art, or a hockey team, or a delicious meal.  And there are a lot of different things that we mean when we say the words “I lovI love lampe”.  There are people who refuse to say “the L word” for fear of diluting its “deeper” meaning, while there are others who use it almost constantly to describe most any positive feeling.  And there are all sorts of qualifying words that we add to “love”, in an attempt to further define it:  “platonic love”, “fraternal love”, “romantic love”, “true love”, “puppy love”.  Sex is often referred to as “making love”.  And we, as a society, tend to see love as some sort of unexplainable, mystical force:  you can “fall into” or “fall out of” love, or be struck by “love at first sight”, as if it’s all being done by some outside force or by “fate”.  We are confused by love, and afraid of it, and yet we seek it as some sort of ultimate fulfillment in life.  “All You Need is Love”, and “Love Conquers All”.

We are also terrible, in English, at describing sorrowful emotions.  I recently went through a loss — my bearded dragon, Ziggy Stardust, unexpectedly passed away.  And while I spent a few days randomly bursting into tears at work, and being unable to even look at his empty, lonely terrarium, and feeling otherwise terrible in my grief (not least because his death was unexpected and the cause undetermined, so despite my proper husbandry practices I can’t help but worry that I may have missed a sign or done something wrong), I had a lot of trouble putting those awful feelings into words.  The best that I could come up with was “I’m sad”, and that of course does nothing to really describe the way I felt.

At the same time, it’s hard to properly express empathy for another person when they are experiencing grief or other negative emotions.  SayingI'm sorry “I’m sorry” is the socially accepted response, but it certainly doesn’t seem like the proper thing … “I’m sorry” is generally an expression of regret for a mistake or a fault, or a request for forgiveness, and isn’t truly descriptive of the empathetic feeling of sorrow you have when a friend or loved one is experiencing grief.  And yet, to go into a long explanation of your own feelings and emotions at a time when someone else is already feeling sorrow:  well, that just seems selfish and self-absorbed, doesn’t it?  So we resort to the socially-appropriate thing and say “I’m sorry for your loss”, and hope that it gets the right feeling across.

I’m not really sure what the solution is to our lack of emotive words.  There are people who are trying to bring the various Greek terms for “love” into common parlance — agape for the “pure” or “ideal” love between romantic partners, eros for “passionate” sexual love, philia for the platonic love felt for friends, storge for the filial affection felt within families, and xenia for the ritual “love” between a host and their guest (something that’s not as relevant today, but was a foundational element of the Greek culture).  But getting people to accept new terminology is not exactly an easy thing, and it’s likely to cause just as much confusion as it solves.  In addition, there’s the fact that many Westerners (and especially North Americans) are very uncomfortable with talking about emotions.  Displays of extreme emotion, whether happy or sad, are often seen as inappropriate or ridiculous, and discussing one’s “feelings” is a thing that’s often sneered at.  We prefer to keep emotions bottled-up and private, and so communicating them is not a high priority for many people.

I just wish I had the words to always say just what I feel.

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My Personal Artistic Manifesto – Updated June 2012

Posted in Ramblings, Theatricality with tags , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2012 by KarenElizabeth

When I first started univeristy, I was introduced to the concept of the “artistic manifesto”.  It was something that struck me as immediately useful, whether for a company of artists or for a single person: a document to which you could return, time after time, to review the reasons why you started out on a particular path, and to examine whether those goals are still valid, whether you’ve remained true to them, and whether some of your practices need to change.

I sat down to writing almost immediately, and after several drafts I had a starting place.  An artistic manifesto that I was proud to put my name to — something to build the beginnings of my career from.

Every so often since then, I’ve sat down and re-read the document I wrote.  I’ve updated it a few times — even re-wrote it entirely, at one point — but certain things have carried through.  Even as the world changes, and my life changes, and my knowledge grows, I like having something that I can go back to.  Something that says, “this is what I want from my life”, so that when I’m facing a choice, or an obstacle, or just feeling unmotivated, I can read my own words and feel inspired.

I spent part of my day, today, updating and re-writing portions of my manifesto.  Not because it had become less valid, but because it’s been about two years since I’d last done so, and some things in my life have changed since I last took a serious look at this.  And when I was finished, I thought:  I want to share this.  So here it is, in its entirety.  My personal artistic manifesto, in its current iteration.

—-

1.

I believe in art.

I believe that art is not merely a pastime, or a hobby.  Art is a necessity for human life, as important as food, and safety, and shelter.  A life devoid of art is not worth living — indeed, cannot even be called “life”.  To live without art is merely to exist, in a sort of existential limbo, awaiting illumination and enlightenment.

I believe that art is the purest of human endeavors, beginning as it does with the most basic of human qualities, the thing that separates intelligent beings from mere animals:  the need to communicate.  When early man painted on cave walls, told stories around the fire, and learned to create music, the purpose was to communicate.  To share, with other intelligent beings, a bit of their knowledge and experience.  And this was not mere entertainment, a simple way to pass the time:  important knowledge was passed on, bonds forged between individuals, and the advancement of the human species was fostered by this great variety of communication.

I believe that art has more power than science, or religion, or politics, because none of these things would prosper without art to support them.  No idea, however grand, can be realized without communication.  If it is not shared, and spread, and accepted into a culture, an idea dies.  Kings and empires have been brought down by the stroke of a pen; revolutions sparked by the notes of a song.  It is our responsibility, as artists, to use and shape this power wisely.

2.

There is no art that is not political.  Art is an expression of the culture from which it comes, whether in support of or against the status quo.  To dismiss art as merely entertainment is to ignore its true nature and power, and the artist does this at their peril.  It is when we engage the power of our chosen medium that we can truly shape the message we convey, and create the most powerful end product.

There is no art that is not collaborative.  Every artist is shaped by the people and the culture and the world that surrounds them, so that even if they create in absolute isolation, they are still bringing the world in with them.  And when the art is shared with an audience, then there is collaboration as well:  the audience’s thoughts and feelings and reactions will shape the art in different ways, so that one piece may touch every single person in a slightly different place.  Thus, art is never static, never “finished”:  it is always living, changing, existing in the present tense for all who encounter it.

There is no art which is “good” or “bad”, for these absolutes cannot apply to the basic need to communicate.  There are, however, different levels of skill with which a piece may be executed, and some art is therefore more effective.  Then, too, there is art that effectively serves its purpose, but lacks any relevance:  this art does not speak to an audience, or does not share anything worth saying.  It is the artist’s responsibility to use the power of their art to its fullest — to always execute a piece to the best of their ability, and to make sure that their message is a thing worth saying.

3.

I believe that artists should always aim to communicate something meaningful.  Without passion, art rings hollow, and quickly becomes irrelevant.  What is meaningful to each particular artist may be different, but what is most important is that passion be the thing at the beginning.

Art is a great motivator for change, and should always be used for promoting action.  Art which supports the status quo is ineffective, as it only promotes inaction.  It is the responsibility of the artist to create that which communicates a need for something to be done.  A participant in art — whether they are the creator or an audience member — should be left changed by their encounter with art, and motivated to go out and do something about it.

4.

I believe that theatre is one of the most effective forms of artistic expression.  Theatre is highly collaborative, to a degree not seen in many other mediums, requiring many different people with a great variety of skill sets to realize a production.  The involvement of the audience is live and immediate, with their presence and feedback providing the opportunity for the same production to be different on every single night.  This immersion and involvement of the viewer places them into a state where they are ready to be impacted and changed by the message being communicated through the art.

5.

It is my aim to create art which is effective and relevant, and to shun that which supports the status quo and inaction.  I will create art that effects the changes I wish to see within the world.

Theatre is my chosen medium, although I am not exclusively a theatrical artist.  I will work to promote the creation of theatre and to advance the craft of the stage.

I believe that art is more effective when it is created with the audience in mind.  Thus I will focus my creative energies on art that is specifically relevant to the people who surround me and who will be my audience.

Art is meant to be shared with others.  I will share my knowledge of my craft and work to create opportunities for other artists, as well as for myself.

I will keep learning, and seeking to learn.  I will never consider myself “finished”, because a piece of art is never finished as long as there are people to interact with it.

I will not give up, no matter what obstacles stand in my way, because to live without art is not living.

I will change the world.

Eye for an Eye

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

I know, I know, I’ve been horribly lax in my posting habits these last few months.  I have a dozen half-finished drafts waiting to be finished and posted, and I just haven’t found the motivation to do so.  I’m sorry about that.  I will try my best to be more diligent.

But in the wake of the day’s big news, I felt the need to post, well, something.  Because amid all the exultant expressions of Western victory, I’ve found that I truly am a pacifist to the core.  I cannot find joy in the death of another, or even a sense of justice served.  I am saddened — even hurt — that this, this eye-for-an-eye justice, is the recourse of a supposedly enlightened, humanist society.

Fundamentalism, in all its shapes and forms, terrifies me.  The extremes of hatred, cruelty, ignorance, and violence that are possible only when backed by the single-mindedness of the starry-eyed idealist … this is, unquestionably, humanity at its worst.

Bin Laden, Al-Quaeda, all of the various terrorist leaders and organizations the world over:  they are examples of the evils of fundamentalism.  And I desire very much to see those ideals wiped, permanently, from this earth.  For all that I try, constantly, to see the best in every person and to never condemn or feel hate, I too am human, and I sometimes fail to see how some of these twisted, depraved individuals could ever be made to see reason and kindness.

But by the same token, when I see the exultation in people’s eyes, see them smiling, waving flags, hear them singing, cheering, laughing — because of a violent death?  This doesn’t solve anything.  If anything, this only teaches that it’s okay to hate.  It reinforces the idea that there are no peaceful solutions, that there is no common ground.  What have we accomplished, that we should be celebrating?  A human life, snuffed out — no matter that this particular human was, without doubt, a depraved psychopath.  While life remains, there is hope of change.  Of teaching, and learning, and talking, and maybe coming to understand things about the world that we had never encountered before.  Killing Bin Laden doesn’t teach him — or anyone else — a thing.  If anything, it only creates more hatred.  Violent death creates martyrs, gives people a rallying point around which to consolidate and strengthen the very fundamentalism that I would see wiped out.  And, on the other side of things, it reinforces the “us vs. them” dichotomy that much Western fundamentalist thought is based upon.  We must see this man as unequivocally evil and irredeemable, or else we must feel guilt at his death.  Too many will convince themselves that this was right, and just, and even necessary.  And they’ll demand more blood, to further justify their rightness.  To bury their guilt under a building mountain of bodies, until even utter genocide will not seem enough.

The death of another should never bring us joy, because it is the value we place on life that makes us human, and kind.  To take joy in the death of another requires hate … and today, I simply see too much hate in the world.  It saddens me.

Death, and How We Deal With It

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , on December 13, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

My grandfather died on November 30th.

He went peacefully, and it’s something we’ve been expecting for a couple of years now, ever since he was first diagnosed with cancer.  Even though his health had declined in the last few weeks of his life, he wasn’t on any medication and his mind was still clear right up until the end.  His last words were a joke about how his wife (my grandmother) would be jealous of the nurse who was holding his hand.

I cried for days.  In fact, I’m tearing up a little bit right now, just writing about it.  I’ve never been (particularly?) good at dealing with death, and it upsets me (almost?) irrationally, even at times like this, when it was an expected thing and as peaceful as anyone could possibly have wished for.

You’ll note, of course, that I put the “particularly” and the “almost” in parenthesis, with question marks.  Not entirely proper punctuation, of course, but it reflects my confusion, and the true subject of this blog post.  The truth is, I’m not really sure how we should deal with death, and so saying that my particular reaction to it is somewhat poor and irrational is, in and of itself, not the most rational of statements.

In the past two weeks I have, of course, talked to many people about my grandfather’s death, and all of those people had different levels of separation from the event.  Some of them were friends, with no connection to my grandfather at all.  They could feel and express sympathy for me, but not really experience any true sadness at the death of a person whom they’ve never even met.  Their reactions were predictable, socially proper, slightly awkward, and exactly what mine would have been had the situation been reversed.  Where it gets interesting, though, is in looking at the reactions of other members of my family.  These reactions are more widely varied, and express, I think, a lot more of that confusion that I was talking about.

My dad’s family is not a group of people given to wild emotional displays.  They tend to be stoic to the point of seeming callous, or even borderline sociopathic — not because they are unfeeling people, really, but because they just don’t express those things that they are feeling.  And so of course, when my dad called to tell me that his father had just died, there were no tears shed (on his part, anyways).  He stuck to facts, laid out the pertinent information, and then changed the subject (we ended up talking about when I’d be visiting for the holidays, and what sort of gifts I’d be interested in receiving, and what my sister is up to lately).  Up until a few years ago, I’d have said that his method of, “absorb facts, move on to something else,” is very effective.  As a kid, I was always kind of envious of just how calm and collected my dad could be in the worst of situations.  It’s only as an adult that I realize that such a method only serves to keep your emotions very private.  It doesn’t get rid of them, only makes them harder to express and to share.  It forces you to deal with things alone, and often makes those around you feel as though you’re a hard, unfeeling person, impossible to empathize with.  While I still sometimes wish that I didn’t cry at the drop of a hat, I’m actually pretty okay with not being an emotional robot, now, because I can see both the good and the bad sides of it.

My sister’s more like me in her abilities to deal with grief, if somewhat more flamboyant about it.  There were tears, shared anecdotes of our childhood, and not a small amount of ineffectual arm-flailing (she tends to flail when she’s upset … it’s both cute and annoying).  Unfortunately, this all comes at the beginning of exam season for her, and I’m a bit concerned that her unhappiness might have been an impediment to her (already not exactly stellar) study skills.  We shall see how that turns out when the final grades come in, however.

Most interesting to me was my grandmother’s reaction, and I have to say that I hope to one day be as much like her as possible.  She lost her husband of 60 years, the man whom with she had 7 children.  They married young, never had much money, but made it through together and always loved each other dearly, filling in each other’s weak points.  I always loved watching the two of them doing simple, household things together, like making food or washing dishes.  Grandma would bustle about very efficiently, while grandpa would stand by and await instructions — usually requests for things from high-up shelves or cupboards, since grandma stands under 5 feet tall while grandpa was a towering 6’8″.  They always called each other by pet names and weren’t afraid of showing their affection in front of the kids, holding hands and hugging and kissing whenever there was a quiet moment.  Theirs was one of the first truly functional and happy relationships that I ever saw, and it always gave me hope, a reminder that sometimes love really is all that you need to make a life together.

One might think that having lost the man who was quite honestly her other half, my grandmother would be a complete wreck right now.  All the family was kind of worried, and we all made a point of arranging visits, phone calls, etc. to make sure that she wouldn’t feel alone these first few weeks.  But she surprised us, and has been the most composed and functional out of all of us.  She’s not hiding her emotions like my dad does — she’ll talk openly about her sadness and sense of loss.  But she’s also not rendered helpless by those emotions, like my sister and I tend to be.  She’s continuing on, just as she always has.  She’s even insisting on hosting Christmas dinner at her house, just like every year … although I suspect it’ll be myself or one of my uncles fetching things from the top shelves, now.

Seeing her going on like this, being able to continue and be happy despite having lost so much with my grandfather’s death — it gives me that same sense of hope that their relationship always did, and reminds me that she has always been the strongest woman I’ve ever known.  Even grandpa, big and strong as he always was, didn’t deal with death quite so well:  he hated funerals, and didn’t like talking about any of it.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, so it’s hard to take any comfort in the thoughts that most people express at times like these.  But I know that if there were a “rainbow bridge”, grandpa’d be waiting on the other side of it, very patiently.  He’d sit down in a comfy chair, read a book, listen to the hockey game on the radio, and wait for grandma to be ready for him.

I can only wish that everyone could have so much love.

Of Suicide and Other Comforts

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Cradle of Filth inspired title aside, this actually is intended to be a (mostly) serious post about a topic that I take pretty seriously:  death.  Or, more specifically, suicide.  The taking of one’s own life, and modern Western attitudes towards it.  If it’s not a topic that you’re comfortable with, please do not read the rest of this post:  you’ll likely just upset yourself.  And no, I assure you, I’m not planning to kill myself.  This definitely isn’t that sort of a post.

Unlike many people, I have no moral opposition to suicide.  It’s not something that I think should be taken lightly, but I don’t belong to a religion that promises damnation to those who kill themselves (nor do I think there is any validity in such religions and their promises), and I’m not selfish enough to think that my own life experiences and choices should be used as a model from which to judge others’ lives and experiences and choices.  If you want to kill yourself, who am I to tell you that you’re wrong?  The world’s a pretty fucked up place.  Death, in and of itself, is not necessarily a negative thing, nor is suicide.  If you think it’s the best path presented to you … well, that’s your choice to make.  It is, however, a serious thing.  Ending your own life is among the most serious choices that one can ever make (right up there with creating new life, taking the life of another, or buying a Mac instead of a PC).

It bothers me that suicide, like many other forms of self-harm, has become somewhat “trendy” in recent years.  Not so much the deed itself (although statistics show a dramatic rise in suicide rates among young people since the 1960s), but talking about it and using threats of self-harm or suicide as a way of drawing attention to yourself.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “But Karen, you’re a goth.  You write poetry about suicide.  You listen to music about suicide.  Aren’t you being hypocritical?”  Well, no.  Or at least, not in recent years.  There was a time when I wanted that sort of attention, but it was a fleeting thing, and I grew out of it.  I look back, now, and cringe a little to think of just how absolutely desperate I was for attention.  The real difference, I suppose, is that I actually did seriously contemplate killing myself on several occasions (and on one occasion actually made an attempt to do so, although I chickened out and induced vomiting long before a hospital visit would have been necessary).  And when people first began to find out about those incidents, I was horribly embarrassed by them.  It took years for me to come to terms with my own emotions and actions, and one way in which I managed that confrontation with my inner self was through art (especially poetry and music).  The most “cry for help-y” poetry that I write is never shared with the world, purely because I don’t want to seem as though I’m begging for attention.

And with most people, that’s simply not the case.

I have several friends who will talk, regularly, about killing themselves.  Sometimes they’ll do so in great detail, even.  And yet when push comes to shove, they have no intention of following through on it.  They’ve considered suicide as a romantic, abstract possibility, but have never faced it with a bottle of pills to their lips or a blade to their wrist.  They’ll say “I should just kill myself”, and then wait for the reaction.  Wait for the affirmation of their self-worth as the people listening fall over themselves trying to be the first to say “No, don’t talk like that!  You’re special and wonderful and we couldn’t handle it if you died!”

I’ve stopped giving out such platitudes.  My patience with “suicide for show” stunts ended with a friend in university who called me up, multiple times, telling me that I needed to come over or else he was going to end his life.  I wasn’t the only one he did this with.  Many people spent sleepless nights comforting this guy and assuring him of how important he was.  Eventually, he ended up having 9-1-1 dialed on him a few times and had to spend some time in hospital being psychologically evaluated.

My attitude now is fairly simple.  If you really want to kill yourself, I have no place stopping you.  Just go ahead and do it.  And if you come  to me expecting a reaction and expecting me to fall over myself “saving” you, don’t hold your breath.  I’ll offer to call 9-1-1 for you.  If you say yes, I’ll do it, and let them take you away and evaluate you and put you on happy pills.  If you say no, then you’d best either drop the topic, or go ahead and get on with it, because I don’t want to hear anything more about it.

Yeah, it sounds cruel.  But you know what I’ve learned?  If you really, truly wanted to end your life, you’d do it.  You’re the only one with the power to do (or not do) whatever it is you may be contemplating.  Involving anyone else in that decision is selfish, cruel, and pretty much just one of the most rat-bastardly things you can do.  Because now if you do go off and kill yourself, that person who you involved in it is going to feel guilty.  They’re going to wonder if there was anything they could have done differently.  And if you don’t go and kill yourself, then you’ve just wasted their time, scared them, and generally made them feel awful.  All because you wanted attention.

Such stunts become especially rat-bastardly when the people you’re involving aren’t just random people from the Internet or friends you’re not really that close to.  When the people you decide to say “I’m thinking about killing myself” to are actually people who love you — family, close friends, lovers, etc. — then you’re being extra-special kind of selfish.  Because even if it’s crystal clear that you’re not being serious, you’ve just forced them to think about what would happen if you ever did such a thing.  You’re threatening to rip away something they care about on a very deep level.  And you’re doing it for show, to satisfy your own ego.

Several weeks ago I stood by in horror while an acquaintance of mine explained in front of her own husband all the reasons why she felt she should kill herself, the method she would like to use, and many gory details … and then she didn’t do it.  She horrified and terrified this man who loves her, and who she claims to love in return, and she did it for pity and attention.  The incident’s been floating around in my head, like a bad smell, ever since.

If any of you, my dear readers, ever do such a thing to someone you love … well, I reserve the right to hit you.  Violence is rarely the answer, but somebody needs to shut you up if you ever think that such a thing is okay.