Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms

There is an interesting comparison to be made between people and language: we can – especially when we are young and earnest – come to see both as standing in need of improvement, though essentially perfectible (with ourselves as the agents of perfection, naturally); only when we are older do we come to think that it might be better to accept both as they are and accommodate ourselves to their quirks and foibles, rather than seek to correct them.

Language allows words to have a range of meanings, some of which are contradictory – but where once I would have deplored that and sought to correct it – in pursuit of some Holy Grail of clarity – I now think it better to accept it but be aware of it, and consider what effect it has on our thinking. 

Of particular interest to me as a writer are a number of oppositions that we make and often take for granted, which I think can mislead us. Three I would like to single out are

truth and fiction

real and imaginary

invention and discovery

‘Telling tales’ can be a matter for praise or opprobrium, depending on whether we are talking about Homer or the class sneak, but it is interesting that we use the same words for both – ‘just a story’ ‘a mere tale’ ‘pure fiction’ can all be synonyms for ‘lies’ yet we can also speak of fiction telling us profound truths. Although we can (usually) distinguish specific instances without much difficulty, this use of the same word for both creates a kind of infection, so that all fiction is tainted with the suspicion of falsehood and – more importantly, perhaps – it is assumed that the truth must lie elsewhere and have a different form.

So, I would say: always remember that fiction can be true.

In the same way, we use ‘imaginary’ and ‘made-up’ to mean ‘false’ and ‘not real’ yet if we take ‘imaginary’ to mean ‘the product of imagination’ then surely everything that we think of as characteristically human – that is, anything that is not the unassisted product of nature – is imaginary, in the sense that it is something we have ‘thought up’ or ‘made up’ – trains and boats and planes, canals and agriculture, cities – all these things are ‘real’ yet equally none of them has come about by accident – they are the results of design and forethought, of deliberation – they originate in the human imagination, in our ability to envisage what is not present to us, to manipulate things mentally (and isn’t it interesting that ‘seeing things which aren’t there’ serves as a synonym for insanity as well as an exact description of imagination? – this is a division that runs deep).

 So, likewise, do not forget that something can be both imaginary and real.

And are these products of our imagination inventions or discoveries? We tend to use the former to mean things that we have brought about by our own efforts, things that did not exist before we dreamed them up – bicycles and steam engines, say – while we reserve the latter for things that were ‘there all along’ but which we have at some point come upon or uncovered – like penicillin, maybe, or the source of the Nile, or Gravity – yet is the distinction as clear-cut as it might seem at first glance? 

To begin with, both words mean much the same, etymologically – ‘invention’ is from  the Latin ‘to come upon’ and can still occasionally be found in that sense in English (‘The Invention of the True Cross‘  (3 May) was a catholic Feast-day commemorating the discovery of the supposed cross of Jesus by St Helena, Constantine’s mother, though it has afforded wags like Rabelais the opportunity for witticisms – ‘The Invention of the Holy Cross Personated by Six Wily Priests’ is one of the many fantastically-titled books found by Pantagruel in the library of St Victor ). And any invention could equally be described as the discovery and application of existing principles.

So: inventions generally involve discovery, too – to say that something is an invention does not preclude the possibility that it existed beforehand and independently, in some form.

Is music a discovery or an invention? Is mathematics? Is God?

Are they real or imaginary?

Truth or fiction?

– all questions rewarding to dwell upon on a rainy afternoon.

‘With shabby equipment, always deteriorating…’

We live in an age of infrastructure: we take for granted an underpinning layer of nigh-magical technology, much of it electronic, on which our day-to-day lives rely; occasionally we are visited by anxiety lest it should fail – as the result of a solar storm, perhaps, such as a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event was noted mainly for its marvellous effects (it produced aurorae so bright that one could read by them, and some people thought it was morning) though it did cause a widespread failure of the telegraph system, which must have resulted in considerable disruption in Europe and North America; but considered against the effect of a similar storm today, its impact was minimal.

The reason is simple, yet striking: though the world of 1859 was (in parts) recognisably modern in a way that the world of a century before was not, it was a world lit by gas, fuelled by coal and powered by steam – electricity had yet to be harnessed, and the main supply of oil was obtained, not by drilling through rock, but by harpooning whales.


This brings home to us the astonishing fact that, however transformative our present-day technology may be, the greatest transformation of human society by far – the Industrial Revolution – was wrought with implements of almost primitive simplicity: hand tools, pick and shovel, human muscle and (actual) horsepower.

This thought occurred to me when I was meditating on that most transformative of all things, the human imagination, and its principal instrument, language.

You could probably say that language and humanity are coeval: it is language that makes us human, that has enabled us to do all the marvellous things we have achieved in the brief blip of geological time we have existed for – language underpins it all; it is our ultimate infrastructure, if you like.

Yet it is still pick-and-shovel technology: though capable (in the right hands) of expressing great complexity of thought, the mechanisms it relies on to do so are few and simple, and the chief of them, as I have said elsewhere, is metaphor.

Metaphor works by using a structure or set of relations that is already familiar to give us a way of thinking about something new that we are trying to understand. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is something puzzling in this: if the only way we can come at the unknown is by expressing it in terms of the known, how do we progress? if we describe  what we do not understand in terms of what we do, how is our understanding increased? It can seem like an increasingly elaborate structure built on a narrow foundation that never widens – which is what troubled me when I was young and thought (wrongly, I believe) that all our metaphors relied ultimately on spatial relations, and that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, which must necessarily have a limiting effect on what we could think.

These days I see it from a different perspective: I find it reassuring that language is always being strained to breaking point whenever we try to think of difficult things or big ideas – as Eliot has it in Burnt Norton :

Words strain,

crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

will not stay still.

and, later, in East Coker :

each venture

is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

with shabby equipment always deteriorating

so that we arrive where we do by a kind of sleight-of-mind trickery, such as Wittgenstein describes in proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

As I say, where once I found this worrying, I now find it reassuring and indeed exciting – it means that our knowledge – particularly of the large and important things – is much less certain, much more provisional than we pretend.

Consider, for instance – as I mean to do in another post – a distinction we probably think clear-cut, between what is real and what is imaginary – is that something we can be sure about?