Jottings Logo - John Fraser



Language, Truth, and Consequences

Playing for Real: Discourse and Authority


We live amidst an interminable clatter and jostle of discourse; of endlessly proliferating texts; of seemingly infinite regressions wherein to understand A, you must first understand B, and to understand B, you must first understand C, etc.

And yet we muddle along somehow.

Most of what we “know” is there for us because of what we have read or been told; and we make commitments because of it—buy this stereo system rather than that; sign a petition about nuclear disarmament; vote in such-and-such a way at a meeting; see a movie we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (and later recommend it to someone else).

I am interested here in the grounding of commitments: in how we can and do achieve a measure of stability; in how we have, at times, what we think is a reasonable trust in the discourse of others; so that when we, in our turn, seek to influence others, we are not being merely random or arbitrary.

I am especially concerned with the groundings that are appropriate to a university community. If I were a preacher, my text might be, “The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life”.


Let me begin with some unsatisfactory models of discourse. I shall be speaking impressionistically, but I suspect that most people conceptualize impressionistically, with the aid of half-formed images derived, ultimately, from literature.

At least, I know I do.

First of all, there is discourse—serious discourse—as overheard monologues.

A message is transmitted and decoded—sometimes a very long one—and (if this is a discussion) a message is sent back and decoded in its turn; and so on. And if a tape-recorder has been running, one can sit down and read the transcript—the “text”—of what was communicated.

Implicit in this model, usually, is the feeling that when the transmitted messages concern the “real” world, the world in which sentient beings suffer pain, we have what might be called a reservoir/conduit situation.

The truths—the shocking or uplifting truths—about this or that foreign country are there, and when anyone with first-hand experience of those countries speaks, a tap is turned and the truth flows.

The realities of Central America, say, flow to us from the investigative journalist, or political refugee, or returned academic who tells us what actions we must, as decent members of the academic community, take with respect to them.

Such people have “authority”—the authority of knowledge; the moral authority of right feeling. To question what they report and demand feels cheap and nasty.


Well, I can understand that attitude; it comes into play for me too when I read something that makes my blood boil.

But discourse is, of course, not a conduit; it is... discourse—a complex of selection, interpretation, fallible recollection, etc.

Which is why we have the clatter and jostle that I referred to—the wildly conflicting arguments about what “really” happened when that Korean airliner was shot down over the Soviet Union, the vertiginous somersaultings about Southeast Asia, the endless revisionism about almost everything.

And the attitude that I’ve described is intrinsically authoritarian. Certain truths are established beyond question, certain people are in possession of them, and there is no point to arguing about them.


This view of discourse—and of the truth-bearer—resembles the idea of the creative writer—quintessentially The Poet—as a monologuist with a special kind of knowledge that flows out and fills a variety of vessels (a delicate vase here, a massive tankard there) but is always essentially the same knowledge, whether of the universe or of the movements of his or her own soul.

The idea of The Poet is a curious one, of course. People don’t say honorifically, “You’re a real Composer,” even though composing music is much more mysterious than writing verse. Nor do they sneer at Arthur Hailey’s Airport as not “really” a novel.

And, as we have learned to our cost, there are dangers in the idea of special knowledge.

If a poet can be a seer whose truth-filled individual poems connect up into a prose-statement system with a special authority, then other “inspired” figures can also have a privileged status.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlowe travels up the Congo towards Kurtz in the hope of hearing “truths” from him; and Kurtz, that remarkable man, that artist, orator, potential leader of an extreme party, obligingly discourses; thereby weakening Marlowe’s will to live.

Subsequently, in the extreme politics of Europe, another artist-manqué would discourse to far more terrible effect.


In the view that I’ve just sketched, the poet is a sort of blessed epitome of undistorted perception—the quintessential preserved child, perfectly clear-eyed and candid about what it sees Out There, perfectly truthful about how it feels.

You cannot argue with such a being.

And inherent in the idea of the organic poetic self is a devaluing of language, forms, structures, a feeling that what really matters is the poetic thought, the “truths,” not the “mere words”; just as what matters in the reservoir-conduit view of political realities is “the facts.”

So that lower-structure utterances—letters; diaries, the obiter dicta of talk with a recording admirer—become more real, more authentic, than high-structure ones.

These devaluings can go further too. A short way down the road is the feeling that discourse is essentially symbolic and symptomatic—an elaborate system of maskings and codings behind which, when penetrated, lies the “real” state of mind of the speaker.

So that we pass from a belief in the perfect truth of “truly” poetic utterance to the belief that all utterances, in so far as they pretend to literality, are equally truthless; which is to say, equally undeserving of esteem with respect to what they assert.

And in a further reductive twist, that “real” state of mind dwindles to a system of manoeuvres on behalf of an infantilistic yearning for plenitude—the plenitude of a perfect coinciding of possession and desire.

So that even the ostensibly rational discourse of law-making, with its prohibitions and compulsions, collapse into fictiveness, arbitrariness, and duplicity.


On the face of things, this ought to bring us all back to a perfect equality of authority; no-one has it.

But of course, as Lenin said, “Who? Whom?” The question remains, in the world of power, of who is going to do what to whom.

And what matters there is action—“politically correct” action—and not mere words (with behind such action the sustaining pastoral myth of an eventual plenitude in which the Earth, our benign mother, gives in sweet abundance all that we desire and all our dealings with each other are harmonious).

And authority situations—the right to command, the right to prohibit—also remain, but with larger claims than before and a greater impatience with—at times a positive fury towards—resistance.

The facts are known, and to question them is to be behaving outrageously and beyond the protective pale of reason.

And a concern with definitions, rules, forms, and procedures becomes another instance of mere talk, an obstructionist attempt to thwart a desired and obviously good end.

As someone said indignantly some years ago in my hearing during a debate about which of various policies to pursue, “Why are we talking so much? Why don’t we act?


In all this there is a coarsening of options with respect to our relationship to discourse.

Either there is free-play, in which the words of literature and other texts have no grounding and no authority and one can do with them as one wishes in one’s own pursuit of power and plenitude.

Or there is an insisted-on surrender to the politically correct words: “As Engels has shown...”, “The Executive Committee feels...”, etc.

And determining who possesses face-to-face authority over whom becomes a matter of signs.

The secret police produce their identity cards (a move with analogies to certifying that someone is “really” a poet); and a wrong turn of phrase or a wrong book on a bookshelf reveals that they are dealing with an enemy of the people.

The working assumption here, of course, is that a true predictive theory of power relationships in the real world has been established, and that all you need do to know how individuals thinks, and what behaviour to expect of them is decide which pigeonhole they belong in.

All this is authoritarianism; I dislike authoritarianism.

Authority, the kind of authority that I am concerned with here, seems to me very different.


Let me offer—or recall—an alternative model of discourse: discourse as conversation.

Implicit in the monologue model is the assumption of the full presence of the speaker in his or her words. He or she “knows” what he or she means and wants, and communicates it (or seeks to do so) with full intentionality.

The inadequacy of that model is obvious when we think of conversation as we experience it—of the whole mix of gestures, jokes, hints, allusions, and so on, in which we say things that we had no prior intention of saying, and find that we know things that we were not previously conscious of knowing.


An ostensibly casual conversation can be a complex thing, with its start-of-play signals (“Hi! How have you been keeping?”), soundings-out (“Did his manner strike you as a bit odd?”), movements towards action (“I wonder if somebody shouldn’t...”), and so forth.

And when it reaches closure (an annoyance tacitly buried, an agreement to do something reached), it can do so complexly.

Conversation—actual, unrecorded, face-to-face conversation—is not a text that the participants can read, skim, re-enter at will at any point.

It is a walk through a wood in which the trails keep forking. Or a game: sometimes, a game in which the roles and rules keep changing.

And it partly consumes itself. As the carpet unrolls in front of us it rolls up behind, and we cannot be fully conscious both of what is going on now and what went on earlier in it.

I shall return to some of these points.


I suggest that our spoken discourse consists of a series of comings-together—this seminar hour, that department meeting, that two-person conversation outside the library—with their own kinds of shapes and closures.

I suggest that authority, in contrast to authoritarianism, lies in those encounters: in the processes, in the conclusions (if any).

It does not pre-exist the encounter.

No-one comes empowered to give orders; to impose his or her will: to make someone go and see a certain movie (“If you don’t, my morally indignant friends will throw rocks through your window”).

The authority of a department meeting lies in the scrupulous following of agree-upon rules and the acknowledgement that at that meeting, by a majority vote, after a full discussion, the English Department decided to restrict the size of freshman classes to thirty-five.

What counts in such transactions is (we tell ourselves) simply the cogency of the arguing.

It’s not possible—well, not acceptable—to trick fellow department members into voting one way by withholding information or phrasing a motion ambiguously.

And at any point someone can ask further questions while trying to get things clear.

No-one can say, “Oh, they do that at Toronto and Queen’s, so we must too.” The present here-and-now discussion is the reality.

Nor can a speaker say, “Oh, that’s been proven by Derrida” (or Northrop Frye; or F.R. Leavis) and assume that that settles it. Any more than when he or she is discussing a novel with a colleague or with students in a seminar.


In effect this is what might be called a Shakespearian model of discourse.

When we watch or read Hamlet or Othello, what happens is what happens in the play.

We don’t look around for other characters or “forces” that are responsible for what happens: Othello’s parents, say, or Scandinavian geopolitics.

The characters in front of us—Hamlet, Claudius, Othello, and the rest—are the characters responsible. We don’t hunt for the real truth about them in what they don’t say; and the outcome, the closure, is their closure.

The plays do not proceed on the assumption that the facts about honour or the workings of conscience have already been established. Nor do we assume that there is an authoritative, privileged speaker in each play.

We are reminded too of the possibility of someone’s being utterly certain about the truth of something on the basis of what’s been said to him (Othello knows that Desdemona’s unfaithful to him)—and utterly wrong. And we can see how absurd would be an announcement, “The Danish Royal family feels that....”

Agonistic groups do not get converted into organic ones by sleight-of-tongue.

Henry V does not talk to his troops about what “England” expects of them. Nor does he say, “I am the King. Obey me!”)

He tells them (“dear friends”) what conduct befits honourable Englishmen in battle, himself included; and he asks them to go with him into the breach.

In effect he asks them to trust him; to see things as he sees them in his speech, and to act accordingly.


But what are we doing when we feel that we can trust someone?

—that when they tell us something that has happened, there is a fair chance that what they’re saying is true;

—that when they praise a novel to us, there’s some likelihood that we too would find things to admire were we to read it;

—that when they suggest a course of action, their proposal may be worth attention?

What produces the feeling in us with respect to various difficult writers or works that it may be worth persisting with them?

Well, often, I think, such speakers display an awareness of the kinds of game-rules that I’ve been describing.

They tacitly acknowledge that there are no authorities, themselves included, whose dicta settle anything.

They tacitly recognize the problems of textuality and draw us into their own experience with the discourse of others.

They tell us how they tried to find out what was going on in the besieged capital; whom they talked to; what problems they had getting hold of a reliable government spokesman.

They give us some indication of how they read a text, whether a press release or a poem: their initial reactions, their puzzlements, their reservations.

They engage with other commentators—or other kinds of commentators—and with us.

They give us the feeling of being accessible to us; so that if we were to say, “What about so-and-so?” or “I’m not quite sure I...”, they would try to translate their arguments back into terms of shared discourse.

And they give us the impression that they are thinking their way through the issues that they are discussing.

The presence of such features has obviously contributed to the affection of many readers for Orwell as a political journalist, for the literary criticism of Leavis, and for how Wittgenstein, Austin, and Nietzsche do philosophy.


But of course there is more to the question of trust than that.

There is also the kind of commitment in discourse that is a summons to commitment. And there are degrees of commitment.

Most of the time we get along with a comfortable linguistic looseness when we talk with one another.

We have a functional acceptance of gestures and sketches: “‘She didn’t feel too well, ’ ‘Oh, that’s a pity’”; “‘So you had a good time?’, ‘Oh yes, very nice, thanks.’”

We don’t normally follow up such statements with definition demands (“What does ’too well’ mean? Can one ever be too well?”) or information demands (“Did you go swimming a lot? Where did you swim? Did you wiggle your fingers in the sand when you lay on your towel afterwards?”).

But there are times when we feel that someone is much more present in his words; that he is playing for real, and inviting us to do the same.

There is a large difference between someone’s signing his name on the attendance sheet at a department meeting and signing the American Declaration of Independence—pledging his life, his sacred honour, etc.

There’s a broad spectrum, too, with respect to how one “thinks” about something inside the privacy of one’s own head: the flickering spectral images of possible outcomes; the Joycean mutter of half-formed phrases like radio heard through bad static; the kind of full-voiced, fully committed statement to oneself (while reading some infuriating news item) that one would make aloud to a colleague or in a public forum.

And I need hardly recall the difference in feeling between “Oh, do we really have to go?” (to a party) and (between clenched teeth), “I don’twant — to go!”

But what are we talking about here? What is it that draws one into an engagement, demands one’s attention, keeps one talking and listening and interrogating?

And when I speak of feeling, does this lead us back to the idea of a self hidden behind the words—a self to be “uncovered”?

I don’t think so. And here I must become a bit more technical and literary.


First of all, as one or two of my examples will have recalled, there is the crucial fact of emphasis and rhythm as a component of meaning, a constituter of meaning.

Let us say that I am trying to make out some very badly faded words in a manuscript; or testing my eyesight against the print-out messages on that very soothing silent TV channel: “I — never — gave — him — any — money.”

What do those words “mean”?

Well, there are at least nine distinct possible meanings when those words are used in spoken discourse:

(1) “I never gave him any money” (meaning, “He may have got money from someone, but if so, it wasn’t from me”; or, “Even if someone else was foolish enough to give him money, I wasn’t”);

(2) “I NEVER gave him any money” (not even once or twice);

(3) “I never GAVE him any money” (though he may have TAKEN some); or

(4) “I never GAVE him any money” (but I LENT him some);

(5) “I never gave HIM any money”....;

(6) “I never gave him ANY money”... ;

(7) “I never gave him any MONEY”. . . ;

(8) “I NEVER gave him ANY MONEY” (and I wish now that I had).

And this kind of nuancing and obliqueness—compounded, of course, by voice timbre, body language, and degree of verbal emphasis—bears on the promissory or invitational nature of spoken conversation.


Often, as I’ve said, we know perfectly well what kind of response is being invited by a statement or question (“Oh yes, very nice, thanks”).

We “take” the meaning, one might say.

But at times it’s unclear what kind of response is appropriate, as with the nuanced “I’m not sure I’d tell her, if I were you,” or Iago’s “Ha! I like not that” when he and Othello see Cassio leaving Desdemona in Act III.

More meaning seems implied (or promised) than is stated; and there is a question as to what to do about it—which fork in the trail to take; how far to go.

Moreover, as one advances (if one decided to advance) one fork leads to another.


Two colleagues, let us say, are talking outside the library:

A (reflectively): “I think I may go and hear Blank’s talk tomorrow” (Blank being a campus luminary).

B (dryly): “Oh, really?”

A: “You won’t be going, I take it?”

B (tersely): “Nope!”

A: “Why not, if I might ask?”

B (emphatically): “I will not serve.”

A smiles wryly; closure.

A’s opening statement tacitly invites a variety of possible responses (“I may too,” for example; or, “It’ll probably be interesting”; or, “What do you want to hear him for?”).

B in his reply (“Oh, really?”) declines to make a commitment but signals coolness.

A’s next question (“You won’t be going, I take it?”), to which the literal answer is obvious, invites more comment but leaves the way open for a neutral closure (“I’ve got papers to mark”).

B nominally closes things off, but his brevity and tone (“Nope!”) signal that there’s more that he could say.

A accepts the invitation to ask for more explicitness, but acknowledges the warning signals.

B closes things off even more emphatically with his “I will not serve,” but obliquely answers A’s question, and might in fact be willing to expand his answer.

A—who recognizes the (somewhat ambiguous) allusion to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist—decides to let things stop there.

In its full context, the exchange might unpack to something like, on the one hand,

“I know you dislike Blank for political reasons, but he’s got an interesting mind, and it seems to me that we ought to be able sometimes to allow our intellectual concerns to override our political ones”;

and, on the other,

“I do indeed feel strongly about Blank, so strongly that I refuse to make a distinction between the quality of his mind and the authoritarian uses to which he puts it, or to engage in play-acting civility. But I’m not going to inflict my reasons on you, unless you really want them, and I don’t hold it against you that you’re going to his talk.”


Set down in cold print, the exchange would be more indeterminate in meaning, of course. (Think of the possibilities inherent in the various stressings of “Oh, really?”).

But the meanings that I have ascribed to it are not wholly arbitrary, or dependent on a knowledge of the speakers, any more than they are in the various versions of “I never gave him any money.”

Even statements taken entirely out of context bear some degree of context within them.

Each year I ask my freshmen to make inferences about the speakers of sentences like, “When I told Dad how I goofed that exam, he literally blew his top,” and there’s a good deal of agreement.

They’ve heard people saying things like this (perhaps have even said such things themselves), and know where to fit them in.

In the same way, we ourselves can successfully read a distinguished unfamiliar poem without needing to be briefed about its author’s “thought”, particularly when it’s juxtaposed with distinguished poems by other writers.

And it is at such points that one can see the seamlessness of the transition from the spoken word to the printed—to “literature.”


When we deal with high-structure works, whether distinguished poems or distinguished political speeches, we are dealing with works in which a great deal of controlling and limiting of meaning goes on by means of syntax, rhythm, sequence, and so on.

Were the cashier at a supermarket check-out counter to say to us out of the blue, “Life’s such a walking shadow, isn’t it?”, we might very well raise our literal or figurative eyebrows.

But we don’t when Macbeth says:

and to-morrow,
and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace
from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow;
a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more;
it is a tale
Told by an idiot,

full of sound and fury,



And when one ponders the opening of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and asks oneself whether it goes, “That is no country for old men” (but it is for young ones) or, “That is no country for old men” (as distinct from young human beings of both sexes), one has already ruled out “That is no country for old men”; and both syntax and metre suggest that “old men” is the correct stressing.

Which is why, of course, the commitment required of reading a poem aloud—or of hearing it precisely in one’s head—is so important.

But at the same time, with each seeming closure or narrowing of meaning (“Ah,” we think, “the thought has come to an end,” or “Ah, now I know how the thought is going to continue”), there’s a new opening up; a forking.

The thought (as embodied in syntax and metre) hasn’t, it transpires, been completed, and the next line (it’s often a matter of the pauses at the ends of lines) can take us in a direction we hadn’t quite been expecting, as if one thing that was said (and “felt”) generated another.


The seeming closures, and then continuations, were obvious enough in the Macbeth passage.

An in some ways more interesting process goes on in the eight-line opening stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” with its ostensible four-square visual solidity, its not-quite-perfect rhymes, and its syntactical unbalancings.

That is no country for old men. [What isn’t?] The young [Do what?]

In one another’s arms [Do what?], birds in the trees [Do—what?]

—Those dying generations [Dying?]—at their song [Do—what?]. . .

We have the sensation of advancing into the not altogether known.

And though clarifications come, they are not complete clarifications, of the sort that tie things up neatly.

The wider-angle fourth line, “The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,” gives us the delayed identity of the country (Ireland), but in terms of a larger-than-life, an almost mythical plenitude. And with the temporary triadic closure of

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies,

we seem to have a folk-wisdom (and biblically tinctured) acknowledgement of the ongoing irresistible flow of natural processes.

But it is only a temporary closure. With the concluding, but still not perfectly rhymed, couplet,

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect,

we have a more individuated closure, in which the intellect that perceives that music is not merely abstract, and the dramatically positioned monuments not simply static.

And then (though I won’t continue the analysis) there’s the further forking—the leap—to the start of the next stanza, coming down hard on the depreciatory final word: “An aged man is but a paltry thing....” (“A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing...”)


What I am getting at will be clear by now

The meaning and feeling are there in the words.

The disposition to think of “real” poetic thinking and feeling as occurring behind or beyond the words of discourse obviously derives partly from our experience with Shakespearean soliloquies.

In a passage like “Tomorrow and tomorrow,” the metaphors are so rich, and succeed each other so rapidly, that one feels drawn beyond the words into receding and shifting vistas of implications and interconnections.

But if Macbeth’s soliloquies are so convincing as examples of someone thinking, this is because how Macbeth speaks to himself in private is in accord with how he speaks to others. (We sense, correctly, that a person cannot move immediately from the highly voiced to the absolutely inchoate, or vice versa.)

And in Shakespeare’s England the higher structurings of discourse, whether in political speeches, or the Church of England services (“We have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep”), or private prayer to a Being to whom one may not lie, must have entered into and helped structure entirely “private” thinking.

But such thinking was not, on that account, any the less permeated with feeling. And to say that thinking and feelings in poetry—in good poetry—are inseparable from the words out there is not to speak of something emerging into visibility like toothpaste from a tube.


We have all had the experience of wrestling with a problematical letter to someone, scrapping draft after draft, and then having it come out right: “Dear Bill, I’m afraid that I simply cannot let you have another penny after this. Please treat this cheque as the last one. May and I wish you well, but we do not want to see you again.”

The “rightness” consists in one’s feeling that now one has said it right; that that is how one feels and means; that the reader will hear it said—said almost aloud—and grasp what one feels and means and realize that one does mean it.

The meaning and feeling are there at least for the writer, in a way that they weren’t before.

So too with poetry.

When Andrew Marvell concludes his “The Mower to the Glow-worms” with,

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come;
For she my heart hath so displaced
That I shall never find my home,

he is not offering an autobiographical statement of feelings behind the words.

He is creating feeling; creating something in which he and his readers can meet.

And when we read Louise Bogan’s “Exhortation” (I shall quote only the last twelve of its twenty lines), the correct thing to say is not, “I guess she was a very bitter person,” or “She must have been in a bitter mood when she wrote that,” or even, “It expresses bitter feelings,” but, “It’s a bitter poem.”

And when one tries to follow up that very loose description with a fuller one, one is likely to find the epithet dissolving and dispersing, as being of no critical use:

It is the dead we live among,
The dead given motion, and a tongue.

The dead, long trained to cruel sport
And the crude gossip of the grave;
The dead, who pass in motley sort,
Whom sun nor sufferance can save.
Face them. They sneer. Do not be brave.

Know once for all: their snare is set
Even now; be sure their trap is laid;
And you will see your lifetime yet
Come to their terms, your plans unmade—
And be belied, and be betrayed.


In distinguished literature there is simply more there, more given, more thinking and feeling going on in the words.

The words—their syntax, their rhythms, their associations—are the thinking and feeling.

As Ezra Pound said, “Great literature is... language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” And unpacking it is invited because of that richness.

We sense a Gestalt or configuration that pulls us forward, that makes us aware of meanings there that we cannot articulate at first, but which we would like to enter into and take possession of, or be possessed by, so that we can feel the works from the inside.

And when a distinguished poem permits us to read it from start to finish with complete concentration, it consumes itself in the way that a conversation does. Which is why we can return to it again and again.

All this makes—or should make—us more aware of what we mean when we talk about the “minds” of writers (or of other people).

We are not talking about something homogeneous.

We are talking about what goes on in this poem—and this—and this.

And, given the wide variations in quality that can occur in a writer’s work, and the variety of poetic languages that he or she may use, we can never presume to know automatically what goes on in one poem because of what goes on in others.


All this is language—language as we experience it from the discourse exchanges of earliest infancy onwards.

It is the tidied-up, depersonalized, monotone languages of a good deal of science and science-minded philosophy that are the anomalies, the departures, the special sub-languages.

And language as I am describing it connects up with behaviour, potential or actual.


It is sometimes intimated that because we live among—because our doings are permeated by—fictions, codes, conventions, games, the involvement of language with reality diminishes.

This gets things upside down.


In one sense language is indeed wholly arbitrary, as we’re reminded when the old gentleman, asked by a child why noodles are called noodles, says, “Well, they look like noodles, and they smell like noodles, and they taste like noodles, so we call them noodles”; or when the German says, “I call this Brot,” the Frenchman says, “I call this pain,” and the Englishman says, “I call this bread—and it is bread!”

But it would not on that account make sense if someone, accosted by a park attendant for not having his dog on a leash, were to say, “Oh, that’s not a dog, that’s a chien!”

Conventions, once settled on, lock into the real world and have consequences. It is wholly conventional whether an ace of hearts is a high card or a low; but a fortune can be made—or lost—because one holds one.

And discourse, including literary discourse, obstinately meshes with behaviour and invites us to think about its truth-to-ness.

When one reads, for example, Louise Bogan’s poem “Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell”—a poem two words shorter than its title—one automatically does some connecting up:

At midnight tears
Run into your ears.

“Yes, that could happen... lying on your back... quite a lot of tears... lying rigid, I suppose, rather than curled up foetally... staring, maybe (if the light’s on), at the ceiling... not using a handkerchief... not caring about cosmetic attentiveness in the abandon of misery.”

And if one finds oneself asking whether one should say (as I had done hitherto) “Run into your ears,” which the metre seems to demand, or “Run into your ears,” one starts trying to fit the phrase to other situations and recall how one uses it oneself or has heard others using it: “The water ran into his shoes,” “I ran into them at a party,” “The car ran into a tree.”

In the same way, faced with a first-hand account of something vastly beyond one’s own experience, one can set it against accounts of things closer to one’s experience that feel true, and think, “Yes, if those appalling things had happened to me, that is how I myself might have described it.”


And discourse can have consequences, sometimes major ones— sometimes undesired ones.

A preoccupied “Hi!” in passing can be wounding, given the different signals sent out by phrases like “Hi!” or “Hello! Lovely day, isn’t it?” with respect to degrees of closeness and liking.

The stub of a theatre ticket, a cryptic abbreviation in someone’s diary, a weather report are all “texts,” but when they’re interpreted and read together in the classic puzzler, they point inexorably to the fact and name of the person who shot the millionaire in his library.

A single word or turn of phrase can have consequences as explosive and ruinous as a minute slip of a scalpel during an operation.

Oscar Wilde was undone in his libel trial when he was asked if he had ever kissed a particular youth and he replied, “Oh dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy.”

Othello is undone when he accepts the invitation to questioning in a handful of words by Iago and moves in a single scene, through a serious of wilder and wilder forkings, from

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again,

to, “Oh! Blood, blood, blood!... Damn her, lewd minx!”

As a result of which, Desdemona dies at his hands, Othello dies by his own hand, Cassio is crippled, Roderigo murdered, Emilia murdered, and Iago put to death after torture.

In Shakespeare the movement from consequences to further consequences is inexorable.

There is no return of the same discourse attitudes as at the beginning of the play. No Polonius reappears after Hamlet’s death to talk about being true to oneself.


Moreover, discourse contains an element of risk whenever one obtrudes oneself on the notice of others.

It is present in a cocktail-lounge “Hi there!” (“‘You look interesting to me, I hope I look interesting to you’—‘Get away, you creep!’”).

It is present when one engages in condolences, reprimands, pleas, encouragement, exhortation, and risks rebuff or resentment—risks appearing (and being) clumsy, insensitive, timid, callous, and so forth.

Some discourse in poetry is like that: “Once more into the breach dear friends, once more” (“Get stuffed!”); “This above all, to thine own self be true” (“Oh, Daddy!”); Kipling’s “If” (“Yecch!”); Pope’s Dunciad (“What a perfectly horrid little man!”).

But there is plenty of risk-taking in non-manipulative works too.

In her tears-at-midnight poem, Louise Bogan—who presumably appeared thoroughly composed in daily encounters—exposes herself as someone who has been there; and a good deal more occurs in her “Exhortation.”

Even a quiet poem like Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (“Only a man harrowing clods / In a slow, silent walk”)—is a poem in which Hardy is consciously not saying and feeling in 1916 the politically correct, bugle-blowing, Defence-of-Civilization-As-We-Know-It things about the War.

Openings are particularly risk-filled, as they are in “real life” (such as when you want to start making peace with someone who’s mad at you).

Think of the daring success of openings like “They flee from me that sometime did me seek,” “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,” “April is the cruellest month”; and the disastrousness of “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot.”

But transitions too can be problematical, with a dizzying gulf lying between point A and point B.

And it must be scary to know that the whole momentum of a poem that one is writing is going to culminate in a final line and a final word.


All this may have seemed like a long detour. But what I have been getting at are interconnections between authority, commitment, and plenitude of a non-infantilistic kind, whether in conversational, institutional, or literary discourse.

I have been pointing, in one way or another, to discourse situations involving progressions towards closure and commitment, large and small: going to that movie together, passing such-and-such a motion, publishing this draft on one’s book, reading a line of verse aloud in a certain way.

I have been talking about the desire to feel that the closure reached is the right one—the best of the options—and that one will be able to defend one’s decisions if challenged later.

I have been pointing to what might be called playing for real—acting with an acceptance of the possible consequences of one’s acts, including how one reveals oneself in them.

When, for example, one writes, “Dear Bill, I’m afraid that I simply cannot let you have another penny after this” and feels that one has got it right, one has a feeling of plenitude—of being able to speak the words through with one’s voice, one’s face, one’s whole body; a feeling of the other listening and responding in the desired way.

And with poems too there can be a feeling of the poet’s having got it right, down to the finest metrical nuances, and being able to inhabit fully that saying; so that Yeats is more “there” in the published opening of “Sailing to Byzantium” than in an earlier version like, “Here all is young; the chapel walls display / An infant sleeping on His Mother’s knees....”

Likewise one can feel at time that a legislative body or committee has gone about its business with maximum responsibility and scrupulousness; with a resultant moral authority even when one disagrees with the decision reached.


As will be apparent by now, I have been juxtaposing two very different ideas of moral authority.

One is the claimed right to tell others what to do and think; the right of a claimed moral superiority or ideological correctness; a right effectively beyond argument; the right to command, to forbid, to invade .

The other is the demonstration of the kinds of qualities that dispose others to attend to what one says; not necessarily to agree with it, but to listen.

When someone we know to be an experienced woodsman says, “Don’t step on that log!”, we assume that something’s wrong there—rotten wood, a snake concealed, etc.

And the authority of a critic in a brief aside about a novel, or a theologian quoted on the back of a dust-jacket, comes both from what else we may know of their work and from the feeling that, to judge from how they are speaking now, they have made a commitment, and that they could say more about the matter if asked.

It is natural to feel irritated, as I do, by the idea of the homogeneous sage exuding wisdom.

But there are pieces of discourse in which one encounters an impressive fullness of utterance, whether in the writings of critics like Leavis and Winters, or philosophers like Wittgenstein or (why not?) Plato’s Socrates.

And there are losses when the full voices are reduced to toneless texts which one can dismantle at one’s leisure.

There is a loss of the sense of distinguished minds at work out there, with their comforts and challenges that can make one feel, “I wish I were more like her” or “I wonder what he’ll say about that problem?”; and a loss, too, of a sense of the time required for growth and grasp.

It is because of that fullness that we desire, very properly, to go to the “source” of an idea, the text, whether by Hobbes, or Plato, or Marx, in which it is articulated and explored most fully.

It is because of that, too, that one is willing to keep working at trying to understand and come to terms with a difficult writer.


What are some of the implications of all this for a university, that source of so much of society’s thinking, and by far its most complex model of self-government?

I will be brief.


We live and work, as academics and students, in a community with a very wide variety of kinds of discourse, some of them highly structured, in which we reach toward closure.

There is the kind of closure represented by the publication of an intensely worked-at book or article.

There are the ongoing closures of votes at meetings.

There is the kind of progression that occurs in a seminar discussion of some text or consequential problem, in which there is no vote and no consensus but everyone’s perceptions are different at the end from what they were at the outset.

And so on.

And these activities, in which we consider competing claims and opinions and accept some and reject others, all seem to me extensions of the patterns I have pointed to in one-to-one conversation, with its start-of-play initiatings, its signals, its forkings, its potentials for risk, its potentials for moving towards greater clarity (if only a greater clarity about what divides the speakers).

Insofar as genuine agreement occurs, there has been a successful, non-authoritarian coping with claims to “authority” (“My opinion on this point is right”).

And in so far as the participants have been able to bring themselves to a full and free commitment, what they do subsequently may have authority for others.


It seems to me vital that such processes, whether in writing, or teaching, or legislating, be able to go forward freely.

In all of them, creative thinking involves moving from lower- to higher-definition formulations; from muddlings and explorings and interrogatings to conclusions that were not predetermined.

It involves a creative interplay between generalizing and particularizing, in which one tries both to see the broader aspects of particular experiences (like Yeats and Bogan passing beyond “I’m really feeling my age these mornings” and “What that reviewer said about me was foul”) and to see the implications of “abstract” formulae in terms of the experiences of individual consciousnesses.

And it necessitates feeling absolutely free to follow up and give voice to one’s glimpses of problems, contradictions, possible implications.


The blocking or aborting of such processes is of course a feature of certain kinds of madness, derangement, dread.

Typical voices, derived in part from real ones, invade one’s consciousness, interrupting the formation of statements in one’s head, challenging a word or phrase as it suggests itself.

So that there is an unstoppable clatter of half-discourse—of sensed but never fully formed, fully voiced, fully individuated accusations, in which each movement towards reply immediately sets off a further half-accusation.

And nothing is ever brought to closure: one never reaches the full-voiced mental dialogue in which one can achieve a full-bodied committed rebuttal or counter-challenge.

We are all aware, too, of the harm to a novelist or poet of being continually conscious of the possibility of censorship while he or she is writing.

By which I do not mean the awareness—part of the risk-taking process of committing oneself to print—that reviewers may attack the finished work.

I mean the awareness that other individuals have the power to demand—upon pain of punishment—that this or that passage be altered or excised for ideological reasons; or to deny the whole work circulation because the attitudes and beliefs in it are “offensive,” “socially unacceptable,” and so forth.


The same blockings and abortings can go on with academic writing and thinking, albeit more subtly.

And they do so because of the entry of authoritarianism into the discourse system of a university; which is to say, the privileging of some political beliefs over others, the assumption that all decent people share those beliefs, and the related assumption that not to share them is to be indecent.

That the truths beyond discussion, the facts that “everyone” knows, the things that have already been “proven” elsewhere–whether about nuclear disarmament, or Central American politics, or any of the other headline topics of the day—that these seek to entrench themselves in a university in the name of the highest virtues only makes them more dangerous.

For they bring with them a corrupting of the processes of truth-seeking thought to which we are supposedly dedicated.

They bring with them an authoritarian claim to power by individuals on the grounds of personal experience and politically correct belief.

They go against the central academic principle that if you want to prove a hypothesis, you do your best to see if it can be disproved, and the common-sense principle that what one reads and hears in a time of pandemic public lying is more likely than not to be inaccurate.

They ignore the fact that alternative and carefully argued academic discourse with respect to those unquestionable truths usually exists elsewhere.

And they bring with them a whole mess of Orwellian falsifications and skewings:—the code-words or phrases that are not intended to be taken literally; the vague terms that are accorded a false precision; the replacement of spectrums by dichotomies; and the false antitheses by virtue of which to be opposed to something is to be presumed automatically to be in favour of its opposite.


All this makes for slovenly argumentation and a naive deference towards “authorities”.

It creates a greater tolerance of lying and falsification (“Well, maybe he was a bit careless with his facts here and there, but what he said was essentially right. Let’s not be pedantic.”).

It makes harder the two-way process in which the patterns of public discussion can help structure the private thinking of individuals, and the best thinking of individuals can enter into public discussion and decision-making.

And the university as a self-governing body becomes functionally less intelligent and less efficient.

It also becomes a lesser university in a more fundamental way.

With their demands for instant acquiescence and submission, their practical rewards for those who subscribe to them, and their encouragement of the belief that politics and the pursuit of power are the only real reality, the entry of unarguable political truths into a university works against the slow processes of maturation and exploration, the refusal to make premature commitments, and the evolution of a professional conscience in relation to the highest standards of thought, that seem to me the true professionalism.


Let me close with the aid of a final paradigm.

In Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s handbook about English prose, The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943), the following dialogue (fact? fiction? at any rate theatre) is to be found; and I have been fond of it ever since I read it as a schoolboy forty years ago. It is headed, “From the Minutes of a Borough Council Meeting.”

Councillor Trafford took exception to the proposed notice at the entrance to South Park: ‘No dogs must be brought to this Park except on a lead.’ He pointed out that this order would not prevent an owner from releasing his pets, or pet, from a lead when once safely inside the Park.

THE CHAIRMAN (COLONEL VINE): What alternative wording would you propose, Councillor?

COUNCILLOR TRAFFORD: ‘Dogs are not allowed in this Park without leads.’

COUNCILLOR HOGG: Mr. Chairman, I object. The order should be addressed to the owners, not to the dogs.

COUNCILLOR TRAFFORD: That is a nice point. Very well, then: ‘Owners of dogs are not allowed in this Park unless they keep them on leads.’

COUNCILLOR HOGG: Mr. Chairman, I object. Strictly speaking, this would prevent me as a dog-owner from leaving my dog in the back-garden and walking with Mrs. Hogg across the Park.

COUNCILLOR TRAFFORD: Mr. Chairman, I suggest that our legalistic friend be asked to redraft the notice himself.

COUNCILLOR HOGG: Mr. Chairman, since Councillor Trafford finds it so difficult to improve on my original wording, I accept. ‘Nobody without his dog on a lead is allowed in this Park.’

COUNCILLOR TRAFFORD: Mr. Chairman, I object. Strictly speaking, this notice would prevent me, as a citizen who owns no dog, from walking in the Park without first acquiring one.

COUNCILLOR HOGG: (with some warmth): Very simply then: ‘Dogs must be led in this Park.’

COUNCILLOR TRAFFORD: Mr. Chairman, I object: this reads as if it were a general injunction to the Borough to lead their dogs into the Park.

Councillor Hogg interposed a remark for which he was called to order; upon his withdrawing it, it was directed to be expunged from the Minutes.

THE CHAIRMAN: I see Councillor Hogg rising quite rightly to raise another objection. May I anticipate him with another amendment: ‘All dogs in this Park must be kept on the lead.’

This draft was put to the vote and carried unanimously, with two abstentions.


Now, I can imagine some Council member or bureaucrat thinking irritably, “We all know what we want. Why make such a fuss about mere words?” (with a clear image in his or her head of the Park as it should be—pristine, pastoral, with no free-running dogs making messes and getting into fights); so that the debate ceases to be, for him or her, the present reality and becomes simply an obstruction in the conduit through which the correct future should be flowing.

But it seems to me that the discussants are behaving with an exemplary scrupulousness with respect to language.

The words at issue are committed words—assented to with full legal commitment; words to be painted on a notice board and prominently displayed; not just a chalk-scrawled admonition (“Yankees Go Home”).

Councillors Hogg and Trafford recognize the power of language; how the proposed statements are charged with meaning; how they mandate action; and how they can carry within them some obviously undesirable action.

No one tells them to shut up and stop wasting Council’s time, or says, “I think we should have faith in the good judgment of our officials,” or drops dark hints about, “If Council knew what I know about dogs....”

And when Colonel Vine brings the discussion to a successful closure, it is not by virtue of his authority as chairman but because his own suggested wording is persuasive.

In fine, we have listened in upon a forum in which people are going about their proper business, free from moral intimidation, ad hominem arguments, and the pressure of foregone conclusions.

I suspect that, because of that freedom, things went better not only in the Park but in the Borough.

And I think that academics might have something to learn from Councillors Hogg and Trafford, and from Colonel Vine.


Return To Top
Language, Truth, and Consequences - Preface In Defence of Language; If It Needs It Playing for Real: Discourse and Authority Communication, Communion, Communality Mind-Forged Manacles; Reply to Questionnaire