Friday, January 1, 2021



The Treacherous Word –

A Bergsonian Perspective


Living in several languages, I have always been confronted with a greater or lesser amount of incongruities among them. No wonder then that the Sapir – Whorf principle of linguistic relativity has been a main concern of my research studies. Language as an imperfect means of expression and communication has been a much dealt with topic, but few authors have managed to provide such a wide-ranging insight into this issue as the French writer and philosopher Henri Bergson.


Much in the Whorfian vein, he was conscious of the far-reaching influence of language on humans' structuring of reality. According to Bergson, we perceive an object as being constant because we always name it in the same way, thus disregarding its perpetual, even though sometimes minimal, changes. Language is all the more unreliable when talking about sensations, which, through their very nature, are difficult to grasp:


What I ought to say is that every sensation is altered by repetition, and that if it does not seem to me to change from day to day, it is because I perceive it through the object which is its cause, through the word which translates it. The influence of language on sensation is deeper than is usually thought. Not only does language make us believe in the un-changeableness of our sensations, but it will sometimes deceive us as to the nature of the sensation felt. (2001: 131)*


As a matter of fact -- and poets know it best – we live in a state of continual fluctuation of sensations and feelings. Yet, we have a limited inventory of words at our disposal to express them, which often enough causes us to think/say, “I can't really find the proper words to convey what I'm feeling.”


As a tool of displaying inner states, language is, according to Bergson, wholly unsatisfactory. We are permanently induced to confuse feelings and sensations which are in a perpetual state of change with the words that express them. The structuring of reality through language misleads us into thinking of states of consciousness as distinct entities which can be put side by side in a fictitious, homogeneous medium which we call time, while, in reality, they pervade each other in a living, concrete time, named duration (la durée) by Bergson. This duration is heterogeneous in character and we can only be aware of it through our own states of consciousness, whereby even the word state is inappropriate, since consciousness is not static, but dynamic. This real time is not susceptible to measurement like conventional time, since it is not quantitative in character, but a sum of qualitative multiplicities.


As a basic element of language, “the rough and ready word”, as Bergson called it, comes to impose its own stability upon the fugitive impressions of individual consciousness and to restrict its potential. Each of us experiences love and hate in a particular way, yet the names for these feelings are constant. Words serve the social self, not the individual one. Bergson most obviously complied with the idea of linguistic relativity when stating that the same names of things or beliefs have distinctive meanings for different individuals.


While basically fully agreeing to Bergson's reiterations, I am trying not to ignore that it is precisely this shortcoming of language that compel wordsmiths all over the world to forge the language into original, intricate patterns of metaphors and other stylistic devices in order to create unique, unparalleled literary works.


Now, what is the relevance of this perspective to the OPA poets? Our Poetry Archive being an international, multi-cultural literary platform, the impact of the relativity of words is even stronger. Originating from different languages communities, the OPA poets must find a common denominator in the process of transmitting their poetry to the audience. This may occur in several steps. The non-native speakers of English need to translate or have their poems translated into English, which already includes a process of adjustment of the word fluctuations in their mother tongues to the target language, i.e. English. The non-English readers, on the other hand, are biased by their native languages in the reception of the poetic message. An amazing encoding-decoding process takes place which may alter the original poetic message to a great extent. To be aware of these mechanisms of poetry creation and reception is very important for all involved: poets, translators, teachers and, last not least, readers.


With this edition of OPA, we are glad to introduce poet PER JOSEFSSON of Sweden, as the Poet of the month. Poet MARIA MIRAGLIA of Italy has taken an exclusive interview of him for this edition. Let’s hope our readers will enjoy both his interview and his poems along with the whole issue consisting of more than a hundred poems of the poets all over the world. So, thank you once again and I welcome everyone to this new issue of OPA.


*Bergson, Henry, 2001, Time and Free Will, An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, transl. by F. L. Pogson, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York


Dr. Aprilia Zank

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