I began reading "Maus II" by Art Spiegelman with the hope that the concept that language enjoys a particular relationship with reality might be touched upon within the frames of this story. Within a few pages, the caricatured Art says the following: "I feel so inadequate trying to reconstruct a reality that was worse than my darkest dreams", and in the next frame "I guess I bit off more than I can chew. Maybe I ought to forget the whole thing". Of course, the "whole thing" is far from forgotten. Spiegelman proceeds to craft a literary and visual (for the first time this semester, discounting some illustrations in Lewis) recreation of the experience of the Holocaust.
There is something unique about the experience of reading a written caption that describes the imagery sketched out by Spiegelman. "The others had to jump in the graves while still they were alive" reads a caption depicting one instance of genocide in the graphic novel. And after the meaning of those words takes hold, it is then that the reader recognizes the image for what it is, and in so doing really visualizes the horror. The sudden discovery that perhaps you are not quite as jaded as you once thought by mainstream media's fascination with violence is always a little shocking. That is the reaction that I encountered when reading "Maus II". Despite the effectiveness of films such as "The Pianist"and the opening sequence of "Inglorious Bastards" (amongst many others) in visually representing the atrociousness of the Holocaust, there is almost a sense of reassurance that results from realizing that genuine emotional reaction to the depicted reality still occurs.
That such reactions do occur, I believe, is a direct result of the efficacy with which language is capable of describing reality. When we visualize an image, we experience an emotional reaction to (this is a truism) a picture. These reactions are often violent, overpowering, inspirational, and highly affective. But when we read words that cause an emotional reaction, what we react to is not a presented image but rather a conceptual understanding. To read the words "the others had to jump in the graves while still alive" is to understand a conceptual proposition of true horror. We see images, and we "feel" images, but we do not understand them as deeply as we understand language. When we are overcome by words, we are overcome by the power of an idea and that is a mode of emotional connection that I am not sure visual imagery is capable of constructing.
My favorite idea that we touched upon this semester concerns the power of language to shape reality; that is why I was looking for a segue within the text of "Maus II". A few semesters ago I spent many months studying Wittgenstein's philosophy of language. In a few words, he believed that words form propositions, and propositions are truly pictures of possible realities. Later on in his life, Wittgenstein came to assert that these propositional pictures possess an internal sense, which is to say that propositions do not need to be compared to reality in order to ascertain their truth (they make sense within themselves), and that language contains its own meaning apart from reference to the external world. For Wittgenstein, how we talk about things necessarily impacts how we think about things: linguistic concepts are inseparable from mental concepts.
When that semester ended, I believed that I possessed an adequate, though underdeveloped, appreciation for Wittgenstein's philosophy. But I did not. That appreciation finally arrived this semester, as I read "Our Sea of Islands" and put serious thought into the idea that language is capable of shaping reality. I am slowly working my way through Wittgenstein again, and like all genuine encounters with good ideas, my literary and philosophical beliefs are slowly adjusting to what I think is true.
There is a real world out there, and language is how we relate to it. When we use words to describe it, we paint pictures. The pictures that we paint must be true, but we possess the ability to determine which truths are essential, and which less important. Yes, there is evil in the world, and in the modern age there are all sorts of appeals to ugly mechanistic determinisms such as evolution and economic necessity and natural inequality. But we paint our picture of reality through the words we choose, and just as all pictures possess perspective, so we too enjoy the power to accentuate the better elements of our world. When we paint, might we not relegate the ugliness of the world into the chiaroscuro and tenebrism that illuminates the power of light through contrast?