A theory of knowing

In graduate school, I learned a little bit about a lot of different theories that have been in fashion over the last century or so of literary criticism. But these days, I keep returning to two ideas that I’m sure I have misunderstood, rewritten, and misapplied a million times over in order to make mine.

The first, from psychoanalytic theory, is that the essence of human consciousness is lack and desire. To exist means to sense that you are incomplete — something is missing. For the psychoanalysts in the mold of Freud and Lacan, lack begins for girls when they realize they don’t have a penis. In 2018, in the middle of an outpouring of stories of the casual destruction of women’s lives that men leave in their wake, the notion of penis envy strikes me as absolutely hilarious. The most massively influential movement of the 20th century, one that has had profound impact on the way we understand human behavior and consciousness, is predicated on the idea that there would be nothing worse — nothing more existentially traumatizing — than not having a penis. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it were satire. But penis envy aside, the gist of it is that we feel we are lacking something, and yearn for fullness; completeness; plenitude.

The second theoretical thread, from semiotics, is that language is both gift and curse. Language allows us to try to share our experiences with others. But mediated through language, what we actually get is a crude approximation of experience. Language — no matter how precise, no matter how descriptive, abstracts reality.

I write the word “tree.” But “tree” is shorthand for a whole bunch of things. Did you imagine a quaking aspen, a tall oak, a Japanese maple? I can narrow it down — I am thinking of a specific birch tree in the woods in Maine, by the edge of Lake Maranacook. I can tell you about the way the silver bark reflects the light while everything else in the wood seems to absorb it; the way the rings of bark loosen and peel off like snakeskin. The way the trunk crooks and curves like a frail old man’s back as it stretches up to the sky. I can tell you how the pale green leaves show their underside as the wind picks up and a storm approaches. But no matter how evocative my description, it will never capture the truth of the tree itself; the words will always just be symbols that stand in for the thing itself. Language tries — oh, how it tries to share with you the truth of the tree! — but ultimately it is not up to the task.

Were you to travel to the lake and see it, you might pick out the one I’ve described and think, “Ah! That is the one she meant!”

And you will notice the details I couldn’t capture, or you will think, “I don’t see a crooked spine but a silver lightning bolt, frozen in place.” But neither the spine nor the lightning bolt are the tree itself. They are metaphors, symbols, signifiers — always imprecise. The tree IS, beyond description. The moment I begin to put it into words, something is lost.

Is that not lack? Is that not the heart of our loneliness?

***

My eldest child is fifteen years old now. He is tall, lean, handsome. I ask him questions, I probe, I want to know how his mind works, what he dreams about, what he longs for, what brings him joy. The answers are unsatisfying; he is mostly quiet and monosyllabic with me, though not unkind.

His silence did not always trouble me. There was a time that I did not need him to speak to know him. When he slept, I felt his hot, sweet breath on my face and I knew his contentment deep in my own belly. When he cried, I felt a twinge, then pain in my breast; only when he had drunk his fill were we both were relieved. He babbled and cooed joy at me, wordless melodies formed on my lips and I sang to him. In those moments without words, we lacked nothing.

I rely too much on words. I search for beauty in poems. I read scientific explanations for natural phenomena. I narrate my own life, translating it into a stream of silent sentences. If I cannot use imperfect, abstract language to communicate the truth of a tree to you, how can I expect it to access the truth of the world? The truth of myself? To connect me to you?

I must remember the other ways of knowing that my infant child reminded me I already knew. There are wordless ways of knowing great truths. When I move alone through the woods, I know the world through the cracking branch underfoot, the trickle of the creek, and the rustle of the leaves, and I know that it is good.

There are wordless ways of knowing my own self. When I run for long enough, I know that I am not only my thoughts but I am rushing blood and thumping heart and burning breath, and I know that I am good.

And though I have not yet remembered them, there are ancient, wordless ways that will bring me to you. I will dig deeper, down into the well and find them. Lack is a lie that words tell me. We have all we need.

Photo by Martyn F. Searle, 2011.

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Kerry Searle Grannis

Kerry lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and three children. She's a think tank administrator, elder in her church, and holds a PhD in English.