Real Time Short Stories

The Physics Of Language

Posted on: May 23, 2011

The laces. The sole and the heel. The tongue. And the cuff, the counter, the quarter, the welt. The vamp and the eyelets. The aglet, the grommet, the last.

I’m talking cobblers, of course, but some may recognise that this list of the different parts of a shoe is a specific reference to a memorable passage from Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. The passage, which can be read in full here, depicts a young man being instructed to pay attention to “the physics of language” – the names of things:

“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.


“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”

DeLillo is drawing an important line for us here, between notions of the abstract and the concrete. On the one side, we have the idea and on the other we have the language. I’ve started on this in an earlier post but it’s one of those principles which, like the names of the parts of the shoe in the excerpt, doesn’t hurt to be drummed in via a little rote learning.

An inexperienced writer will often confuse expressiveness and abstraction with inattention to detail. Joan Miró’s art gives us a handy reminder of where to draw the line. He resisted being labelled as an abstract artist:

For me a form is never something abstract: it is always a sign of something. It is a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake

No matter that the art itself may work along abstract lines; no matter how it may express the artist/author’s subconscious and exercise that of the viewer/reader: what is employed in the creation of the work is the concrete detail of real life. This can be a tough line to walk. Am I suggesting the shutting down of the writer’s imagination? Am I arguing against pure, expressive lyricism, or positing a deadening Stakhanovite realism for the 21st century, like the offspring of a queasy union between Thomas Gradgrind and Dave Pelzer? I don’t think I’m debating the direction a writer’s work may take, or the generic and imaginative paths it may follow, but looking more at the building blocks of technique. It’s about understanding that concrete language is suffused with multitudes of meaning that are as readily apparent to a reader as they are to the writer. The abstract nature of emotion isn’t necessarily best expressed through the use of language that feels emotive, that appears to mimic the rage, passion, euphoria of the emotion itself.

This is something inexperienced writers can mistake. Five years ago, I was in Lagos and spent one morning delivering a workshop to a group of local writers. I asked them to represent their city, or Nigeria, in a single concrete image. I was offered a host of metaphors – the one I remember most clearly was that of a butterfly with blood-stained wings – from everyone in the group bar one of the writers, who chose the yellow buses that attempt to provide a public transport service to the second most populous city in Africa. I knew about the yellow buses, having been there less than a week. Every artist in Lagos, looking to sell paintings to tourists, knows to paint the yellow buses. If you’ve only seen Lagos on the television, you’ll probably know about the yellow buses. And that’s why it worked: the poem this writer went on to produce described a scenario that felt real and, consequently, it made more emotional sense than a yellow busload of empty metaphors.

This is not a culturally-specific sermon and this is basic creative writing didacticism: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted,” as E.M Forster blogged a century ago. Why is it such a commonplace for inexperienced writers to deal with just the laces and tongue of the prose before showing off their fancy footwork? I think there’s a clue in the phrase, “the physics of language.” It’s too easy for writers to absent themselves from the scientific workings of the world about which they are writing. It’s an abstraction borne out of a devotion to the spontaneity of the first draft. Going back over a text to check, for example, the name of “those black, metallic or plasticky bits on the ends of your shoelaces” may somehow seem a violation of your personal vision. Yet the rigour of inquiry, the determination not to let your language settle for vague stabs at aphorism but to attempt precision where possible, is not only a good habit but can add new dimensions to the work. Once you have the components of a thing, the way a thing works, the name of the thing – say, aglet – you begin to speculate as to how or whether your characters might have this knowledge and this, in turn, makes their hearts beat just a bit more persuasively than they had done before.

This is also why science provides a necessary enrichment of the writer’s process. The short fiction specialist publisher, Comma Press, is recognising this with science-themed anthologies. The Darwin 200 anniversaries in 2009 demonstrated how our understanding of what we are, where we are, what this is and where it’s heading has been, is being, revolutionised by the theories and discoveries of evolutionary biology, DNA and genome research, quantum physics. Scientists attempt to build narrative arcs into the first moment of the Big Bang; they seek to map the subatomic activity that takes place in what appears to be the empty space around our bodies; they discover common threads linking every life form on the planet, allowing us to understand ourselves as primates, molecules, stardust. Science is currently giving us the poetry, mapping the abstract worlds beyond our imagination. Writers have language – that’s our field – and we should rise to the challenge of seeking to understand how it works.

A reminder that some of the intersections between science and literature will be explored this THURSDAY 26 MAY in the Evolving Words showcase at Liverpool’s Poetry Cafe – details HERE


4 Responses to "The Physics Of Language"

Darwin and EM Forster, two of my favourites !

Fascinating. A great blog all-round, by the way! Let me know what you think of mine . . .
Keep on posting!

Thanks Toby, and I recommend people to visit your blog: philosophy you can hold in your hand – excellent stuff.

[…] the areas of knowledge that might inform a writer’s work in an earlier post when I considered The Physics of Language, Dom DeLillo’s articulation of how language houses and stratifies knowledge. Professional […]

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