Monday, March 10, 2014

"I Don't Want to Live on the Moon," by Jeff Moses

Anyone remember this? It's a song written by Jeff Moses for an episode of Sesame Street. Here are the lyrics:
Well, I'd like to visit the moon,
On a rocket ship high in the air.
Yes, I'd like to visit the moon,
But I don't think I'd like to live there.
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love,
So although I might like it for one afternoon,
I don't want to live on the moon. 
I'd like to travel under the sea.
I could meet all the fish everywhere.
Yes, I'd travel under the sea,
But I don't think I'd like to live there.
I might stay for a day there if I had my wish,
But there's not much to do when your friends are all fish,
And an oyster and clam aren't real family,
So I don't want to live under the sea. 
I'd like to visit the jungle, hear the lion's roar,
Go back in time, and meet a dinosaur.
There's so many strange places I'd like to be,
But none of them permanently.
So if I should visit the moon,
Well, I'll dance on a moonbeam, and then
I will make a wish on a star,
And I'll wish I was home once again.
Though I'd like to look down at the earth from above,
I would miss all the places and people I love.
So although I may go, I'll be coming home soon,
'Cause I don't want to live on the moon.
No, I don't want to live on the moon. 
One of the things I think is interesting about this little song (or poem) is the underlying difference between the way the words visit and live are used. The speaker acknowledges that it would be fun to visit many strange places, but he doesn't want to live in any of them because he would miss his friends and family--the people he loves. Visiting places is fun. But it's in the places where our loved ones are that we do the real living.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Words, Emotions, Meat Markets, Philosophy, and Hamlet

Does language have anything to do with emotions? Well, we certainly do feel something when particular words are used, both when we use them and when we hear them. (It’s not just the words themselves, of course, but also how they are said that can incite or influence emotion. But let’s stick to words for this post.) 

Butcher Shop--or whatever you want to call it.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For example, a butcher shop could also be called a meat store, a premium deli, a meat market, or even a slaughterhouse. Each of these words makes us feel a certain way. The words connote something different, and my own acts of naming, as well as the store owner’s acts of naming, would reveal an attitude or an emotion towards the subject in question or the thing being defined. Depending on how we feel towards the subject we’ll use a different word to describe it. If I’m a meat-lover, I’ll call it one thing ("Paradise" or perhaps even "Heaven"), but if I’m a vegetarian who’s interested in animal rights, I’ll call it something quite different (perhaps "Hell"). The same strategic name-calling is true from the perspective of the owner. The owner wants people to come to the store, so of course he or she is not going to call it a slaughterhouse, unless of course it's October and Halloween is just around the corner--because the word slaughterhouse is attractive to certain kinds of people at that time of year.

So what I'm curious about is, is there really a non-emotional language, a language free from passion and attitude? Or does all language necessarily have some kind of emotional baggage? And isn’t this one of the things Solomon was getting at in The Joy of Philosophy, especially in his “Afterthought” at the end of the book when he talks about the “non-emotional” philosophical jargon of contemporary analytic philosophy?

Solomon’s metaphors at the beginning of his essay “On the Passivity of the Passions”  in his book Not Passion's Slave make me wonder about another related idea. After asking several questions about the nature of emotion, Solomon offers a few questions of his own:
[I]s controlling an emotion like controlling one’s thoughts, one’s speech, one’s arguments, putting them into shape, choosing one’s mode of expression as well as one’s timing? . . . Or is it like coordinating one’s actions through practice, like riding a bike, which may be "mindless" . . . but is nevertheless wholly voluntary and both very much within one’s control and a matter of continuous choice? (195)
Is learning to “use” emotions similar to using certain words? Well, it can’t be that easy, but words and emotions have a metonymic relationship to one another? Might one be a type or shadow of the other? I mean, what about actors in movies and television? How do they train themselves to have particular emotions at particular times if emotions merely happen to us?

Interestingly enough, at the end of The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin quotes the following passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet, where an actor has just wept while quoting a passage from a play. Hamlet wonders how it is possible, if the play is just a play and the actor is just an actor:
A classic scene from the classic play.
Art by Eugène Delacroix, 1839.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Is it not monstrous, that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage waned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in 's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing! (Hamlet 2.2.522-528)
Solomon ends his “On the Passivity of the Passions” with these words: “The truth is, we are adults. We must take responsibility for what we do and what we feel. And in our taking responsibility we learn to recognize the responsibilities we have, including responsibility for our own emotions” (232). Part of being responsible adults (or “Big Babies,” as Mark Johnson calls us in his book The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding) includes what we do with language, both when we speak and when we listen.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...