Friday, March 03, 2006


Having words for the way you think is essential to the way you think, a theory goes. Take colours, for example. In English, red and pink are traditionally named as different colours, whereas other languages don't necessarily make this distinction, seeing only light red. However, Russian treats light blue (goluboy) as a distinct colour from dark blue (siniy) in a way that English doesn't but that is analogous to our red/pink distinction. The Sapir/Whorf hypothesis would hold that having or lacking these words actually influences your ability to recognize and distinguish the colours themselves.

The book They Have a Word for It takes this as its starting premise. Aiming to write a useful vocabulary book rather than a mere compilation of linguistic oddities, author Howard Rheingold's ambition is to expand the way readers are able to look at the world by giving them the words to talk about it. He perhaps achieves this aim best in his chapter on aesthetics, which leans heavily on Japanese words. There's wabi, the flaw in an object that makes it more beautiful. And sabi, the patina that gives beauty to old objects. And aware, the bittersweet appreciation of transient beauty, such as that of the cherry blossom falling from the branch in autumn.

And then there's yugen, which by its very nature cannot truly be described. Rheingold defines it as "an awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words." It's an extension of aware, he suggests, an ineffable, poignant profoundity of the kind you might feel while sitting meditatively alone on a cliff at sunset, feeling the ephemeral nature of eternity itself.

The Japanese poets evoked yugen in a few words in their haiku. The film Blade Runner captured the feeling in the final words of the dying replicant Roy Batty: I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

I had no word for it then, but I felt yugen many years ago at Charleston Lake late one October, long after the end of vacation season, when the only sound echoing over the still water and the rocks of the Canadian Shield at sunset was that of one faraway barking dog. And today as I flipped through Rheingold's book, I remembered another time I felt yugen.

I was back home on a holiday weekend of my first or second year in university. Having nothing better to do, as we rarely did in Brockville, my friends Barry and Tim, Barry's visiting school friend Josh, and I drove out to Devil's Door Road. We only ever did this because we liked the name. There was nothing out there at all. It was just a pitch-dark country road. We would drive out, admire the road sign, get out of the car for a bit, take a leak at the side of the road, and then drive on. There was sometimes also some horseplay, but that was pretty much the ritual.

So we drove out to Devil's Door Road, got out, and took the usual leak at the side of the road. The only light was moonlight. The only sound was the wind in the trees and the splash of urine streaming into gravel.

Then, someone began whistling. It was Josh, the visitor. The lazy, languorous, casual sound hung all by itself in the still, chilly night air, and the rest of us all felt it at once. We stood there, transfixed, goosefleshed, utterly lost in the eerie beauty and purity of its song. No one said a word. We just listened. It was and is still the most beautiful, magical sound I have ever heard. It was a singular perfect moment.

And then Josh finished, zipped up, and the whistling ended. It took the rest of us a long, silent moment to shrug it off. "Holy shit," someone said after a while. And then we got back in the car and drove on.

That, I think, was yugen. And that Josh was one hell of a good whistler.


Blogger Scott said...

Devil's Door Road is called Devil's Door Road because of all the twists and turns that cause poor visibility which leads to car accidents that make people dead. Then, I guess the people go to hell because driving unsafely is a sin.

Anyway, Devil's Door Road is pretty cool.

3/03/2006 01:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

C'mon Lynn, a little more "Clown" and a whooole lot less "Man".

Your a gay.

3/03/2006 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Seanachie said...

This is a fantastic post.

3/03/2006 03:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no its not

3/03/2006 03:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Lucas said...

Linguistic determinism, Blade Runner, and moments of genuine being—this is an excellent post. Thanks.

Although not as poetic (in use or sound) as your examples from Japanese, there are a good number of German words I've come across (most in haughty university readings) that I find myself wishing I could use. I won't, of course, because I know that dropping "gemeinschaft" will make people think I'm a jackass. (Nonetheless, here it is.)

3/03/2006 04:22:00 PM  
Blogger Dickolas Wang said...

You make me laugh and you make me cry, Mr. Man vs. Clown!.

I was really surprised that you didn't have a punchline at the end there, considering part of the beautiful moment was excretion.

3/03/2006 04:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well-done, sir.

- Gloria

3/03/2006 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

I dare say excretion was very much a part of the moment. It's a blissful feeling in itself.

The book I mentioned has a pile of good German word, and they're my favorites, in fact. I've mentioned I've dropped torschlüsspanik recently while talking to an ex-girlfriend, partly because it applied to her and partly to make her current boyfriend look like a dolt for scolding his daughter for using big pretentious words like "certainly". But I've also gotten plenty of mileage out of fisselig and schlimmbesserung in appropriate situations at work. There may be a post on my favorite useful German words in the future.

I've always loved the Impressionism in that Blade Runner monologue. I might well have added another favorite movie quote -- from Citizen Kane -- that really captures the nature of aware:

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

Such a haunting quote from an old man in what is now an old movie, and it grows all the more so as the years tick by and 1896 recedes more distantly into the past.

3/03/2006 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

On the topic of that Blade Runner thing... Somehow It's been perverted in my head (Mike was involved somehow) and now whenever I describe something that's missing I say it's "lost, like tears in the toilet."

3/03/2006 07:09:00 PM  
Anonymous The other Pete said...

I’m floored you didn’t go for the final joke you smarmy bastard. It was a great post. Now I have a word to describe those moments. Plus a new book on my “to buy” list.

3/06/2006 01:41:00 PM  

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