BOOK REVIEW: Peter Brook on meaning and language

‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the conclusion to his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. That line would spark off logical positivism, a kind of scientific fundamentalism about language, claiming that if the phrase has no real-world correspondence, and that correspondence cannot be demonstrated, the phrase is meaningless.

Wittgenstein himself would go on to show the folly of this thinking and repudiate any of his own philosophy that contributed to this narrow, and rather stifled view of language. Peter Brook’s Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, makes no great philosophical or academic claims for itself, but it does drive home the futility of reducing language and communication to a fixed system.

In some of his earliest ‘reflections’ in the book, Brook examines the granular nature of each word in English. Like atoms, they may deceive us into thinking they are the smallest unit of meaning, but words themselves have multivalent resonances. Each word contains its own universe, potential pent tight and which can only be released in active use.

The concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are intrinsic to human life, says Brook, and they are also intrinsic to human language. Language emerged out of a need to communicate what actions were ‘good’ and what were ‘bad’ and eventually the gradients in between. Levels, the idea of being better or worse, exist within words too. There are better words and worse words for communicating a given thing, and there are levels of meaning. As Brook puts it: ‘… an endless scale of finer or coarser vibration, of finer or coarser meanings.’

Brook’s book reads like a conversational diary entry, or perhaps extended programme notes to a theatre production. There is no real thesis. These are ‘reflections’ after all, they are not meant to constitute a literary or academic theory. Some readers may find this baffling, a kind of directionless meandering thoughtfulness.

However, there’s some advantage in Brook’s relaxed, meditative tone. We are not being led towards some promise of resolution, as there is no question being asked, no demand being made upon the reader. We are simply allowed to join Brook in relishing the bewildering beauty of language, the subtlety of the very idea of meaning itself.

Brook’s work in both French and English informs this book throughout. He describes a flash of enlightenment when teaching actors performing in French how to ‘do’ Shakespeare the English way. The French actors appeared to be rushing the lines, and Brook instructed them to slow down the delivery, to relish each utterance the way Gielgud might have done. But this didn’t work, because – Eureka! – as a language French works completely different from English.  ‘I had failed to recognise that, if in English we speak in words, the french speak in thoughts.’ That is, French sentences contain a complete and ‘rapier sharp’ rendition of a lightning fast thought, and thoughts are essentially complete and too quick to capture in words. The ordinary Frenchman, speaks his words the way we might recite proverbs. The idea is formed perfectly in the mind, complete, before it is uttered. In English, contrastingly, and most notably in Shakespeare, we feel our way to the end of the sentence, we improvise as we go.

An actor’s task is obviously not to improvise his words as he goes, but the effect of the language is to convey the impression that that is what is happening. Shakespeare’s characters are so real to us because they speak in the same intuitive process as we do. Brook says the sense of the unexpected must exist in the actor’s mind, a sense of the meaning being open and alive.

Carrying on his meditations on the difference between French and English, Brook points to a common occurrence between speakers in each language – the speaker comes against a block and says ‘how do you say?’ What’s amusing about this, says Brook, is that the words are very often the same. However, certain words and phrases may share the same meaning, but as spoken in practice they carry very different undertones. The sense is the same, but the practical nuance of meaning is not exactly the same as their correspondence in each language.

The English phrase ‘I’m out of sorts’ corresponds to the French saying ‘I’m not on my plate’. They both have a similar meaning, but they carry with them different cultural resonances. He also uses the example of ‘Why’ vs ‘Pourquoi’. They are both the same in a practical sense but the French subtext is one of interrogation, an answer is expected. In the English usage, the dominant ‘y’ is left hanging, as if the question is by nature open.

To Brook’s delight, English is brilliantly anarchic, and can subsume Americanism and street slang and we are used to the idea that it is constantly changing. Brook says that the language of Villon and Rabelais shared this ramshackle nature with English, but during the Age of Reason, the Academie Francaise developed a rigorous system of curation, whereby new words are accepted or rejected, effectively by committee. In French, a word, any word, is the mot juste – self-contained and needing nothing other than itself to coney meaning. In English things are never so simple.

 

Another theme of the book is what theatre can teach us about human nature. For Brook, the ideal theatrical moment is one of a subtle, heart-stopping revelation, where the audience and actors are brought into one common experience. However, there are more instructive lessons that Brook garners from his lifetime in theatre.

Brook tells the story of a ‘68 theatre group, who, desperate to maintain the energy of change and renewal of that year’s dramatic social revolutions, moved to Geneva en masse and started their own company, one that would break away from the traditions of theatrical space, one which would create a moveable home.

The group designs a dome, a collapsable and flexible theatre, which can travel with them and which can give them the freedom to create their own boundaries of performance space. Brook recounts meeting these young revolutionaries, helping them put the finishing touches to their craftsmanship. After two years of fledgling work, the group had become close and creatively single-minded, having faced the challenges of their own limitations and the pressures of the new and unknown, together.

This group was the idealist, socialist collective, the same that was dreamed of by George Orwell, William Morris or Oscar Wilde. However, Brook asked them, now that they had built their flexible space, what do they plan to perform? The group were silenced by his inquiry. They had no clue. When Brook bumped into the leader of the group shortly after, he spoke of sad news. The initial challenge being overcome, the theatre group had splintered, and the dream was over.

The theatre troupe had put form before content, says Brook. They had become so engrossed in the practicalities of form, that they had neglected the very meaning of theatre itself, the art of storytelling. The story is a cautionary one, for revolutionaries, or for anyone wishing to create change and affect the culture. It’s not enough to innovate new forms or vernacular, or to solve practical challenges. You have to have a sense of meaning, a kind of spiritual purpose, to drive your action and to make it lasting and worthwhile.

This touches on something very prescient. Today we live with the innovations and political fall out from the 1960s. For decades now, children have grown up being taught to worship the glorious revolution, to aspire to be revolutionaries and to themselves make a stand for something. The problem is that ‘taking a stand’ has become an end in itself. Being a ‘changemaker’ is a sort of identity, rather than means to an end. No one thinks to ask what you are rebelling against and what you propose as an alternative. Style has usurped content. Today, all that matters is that you are ‘counter’; culture, in its highest and most humanist sense, doesn’t seem to matter.

 

The theatrical innovation for which Brook is known is now a kind of orthodoxy. Regarding the concept of the ‘empty space’, he says:

‘Emptiness is a starting point, not for its own sake, but to help discover each time what was really essential to support the richness of the actor’s words and presence.’

He acknowledges that today, the ‘battle has largely been won’, but he seems to be saying that preserving this empty space is getting harder and harder, regardless of how cluttered the stage is, or is not. Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare, says Brook, all built silence into their scripts; what was in between the lines was always more important than the words, which were merely stage directions for the accomplished actor. ‘Theatre exists,’ says Brook, ‘so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.’ In other words, what makes it all fall together is what is not obvious, it can’t be found on the page, but it is found through the actor’s connection with the poetry.

Emptiness and silence are theatre’s greatest weapon, according to Brook, when a peculiar hush comes over the actor and the audience at once, something special and truly human occurs. Brook is somewhat mysterious here, but he seems to be suggesting that this capacity for creating space, emptiness and silence, is what can make theatre a genuinely unifying art.

Brook also addresses something very important for the modern artist in any arena – the challenge of being both relevant and truly rebellious at the same time. Artists do battle with their times, but in the same breath they must also embody their times and the traditions which have formed it.

Today we live in a paradoxical age where rebellion has become the orthodox. To ‘swim against the tide’ is in some sense to actually give in to the overwhelming currents of the age. Shock tactics, conceptual befuddlement and angry protest are simply what is expected. Craft is not what will get you recognised, but adopting an arch attitude will, and it will do so because it is now the familiar, it is what the audience knows. The challenge then, says Brook, is for the artist to truly understand the nature of his times, before he can begin to go against them and confront them.

Ours is an era of consumerism, technological bombardment and perpetual innovation. And yet, many artists seem to think that the prevailing status quo is characterised the bowler-hatted, pin-striped establishment bureaucrat. Much of the art that is considered rebellious, is really rebelling against an ancien regime that is long gone. For an artist to be truly challenging, they would have to confront not the old empire or the stuffy, grey-haired bourgeoisie of the 1950s cliche; they would have to take on the glossy, trendy technocrat, who has a large hip hop record collection and owns shares in multiple tech companies.

Protest has become naive, outrage has become glib, according to Brook. What was shocking and groundbreaking in 1967 is now banal and unsurprising. To be truly swimming against the tide, would be to offer solutions, to offer a world-view, to give people something positive and life-affirming when they leave the darkness of the theatre and enter the glare of the modern world. To do so, however, is to have oneself regarded with suspicion. The trend for deconstruction and anger is still in mid-stream, even as the traditions and customs that caused that trend have long been swept away.

‘A shock that awakens our indignation is cosy, and is quickly forgotten. A shock that opens us to the unknown is something else and makes us feeling stronger as we leave.’

For Brook, the mainstream must not be despised, even as the artist seeks to challenge it. As artists we emerge from a tradition, we don’t come out of nothing, no matter how unique we think we are. The challenge then, is to ‘find the vital currents’ even as we live in gratitude for all that has come before us. Only then can we avoid a merely adolescent rejection of the past and a unthinking worship of the new.

 

Brook says that Shakespeare’s genius was in combining the ‘esoteric’ with the ‘profane’. That is, for every moment of poetic grace and breathless insight into the human condition, there is an all too accurate expression of the every-day which brings us back to earth. For every moment of noble rhetoric, there is a crude joke. To emphasise one over the other is to lose the intrinsic significance and genius of the Bard. To play Shakespeare with only a perfect Queen’s English is overly-reverent; but to play him with only a modern swagger and vernacular is a ‘journalistic vulgarity.’

Brook says that contemporary audiences are right to pull back from anything that sounds too high-minded, too spiritual. However, to get caught up in only the earthly, materialistic struggles of human lives means one’s art will lack any of Shakespeare’s moments of lasting power.

Brook’s book is deceptively accessible. It is short, and it is not weighed down with citations, footnotes and references. It’s not an academic masterwork. It is however, deeply philosophical, in the sense of imparting wisdom, and rich with insight. You can dip into this book, and let the ideas and questions seep into your mind as you go for a long walk.

Someone who measures truth according to the level of new and surprising facts they are presented with, may well be disappointed by this book. However, for the jobbing artist, and in particular, anyone who is a performer, Brook’s writing here will be of invaluable, practical use.

Truth in the sense of literary and poetic truth, cannot be hit on the nose with specific words and precise descriptions. For the artist, truth is whatever falls through the cracks, whatever is implied, rather than what is said or pointed to directly. It cannot be any other way, because the great truths of the human condition transcend any one person or group’s experience, they are beyond the faculty of language in its evolutionary sense. If the reader is willing to abandon the idea that language should be a science, they may find themselves sharing in the same delight and wonder that Peter Brook has for the mystery of meaning.

Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning is available on Amazon. You can order a copy here

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The joys of obscurity

‘Society,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘often forgives a criminal; it never forgives a dreamer.’ To live the artistic life is to shun what is sensible, for the promise of what is possible. When you reject people’s ideals of success, they resent you. They take it personally. They love to celebrate artists by making them rich, turning them into one of them. being an unknown bohemian, however, is not just scorned, it is actively hated. It’s a threat.

Artists have always risked poverty and uncertainty to pursue their work. Today, in the age of democratised distribution, the artist risks something more terrifying and ignoble than poverty: obscurity.

Most artists are driven by some need to communicate, whether it is to an immediate circle, as with John Donne and his celebrated love poems, or to stadiums of global fans, as with the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

The demand for creative work, entertainment and new ideas has been undoubtedly helped by the internet. The need for beauty, as much as the ability to distribute it, is a welcome feature of our world’s global connectedness.

However, as much as this demand is ever increasing, there remains a widening gap between the supply and the demand. In short, supply is far greater than demand. And even if demand were to increase with every advance in technology, that demand would, as always, converge on established artists, or on new work filtered through friends, favourite websites and the imperishable voices of criticism.

The democratisation of internet means it is easier than it ever has been to become unknown. As a result, on top of the prohibitive odds artists have always faced in poverty and uncertainty, the almost guaranteed prospect of obscurity means choosing this life is not just impractical, it’s almost ridiculous. The idea that you can expect to make a living, never mind become rich, from living a creative life, is, at least on paper, fantastical.

Thankfully, ‘the odds’ have never persuaded the dedicated artist about anything, and today’s overwhelming odds are unlikely to convince a true creative soul that they should become an accountant instead. But the brutal facts about the unlikeliness of success are an welcome addition to the worries and neurosis of the creative mind.

In a TV interview in 1987, Bob Dylan said that fame was not what he, or anyone he knew who was successful, had ever set out to achieve. The desire communicate, to build an audience of like-minds, is not, despite their frequent conflation, the same as a desire for fame.

Fame for an artist is often just as bad as being ignored. Both involve being misunderstood, and both have little to do with the quality of your actual work.

Remembering his mentor and friend John Lennon, David Bowie once said that he and Lennon had bonded over the trials of fame. Both agreed that you spend the first half of your life trying to get it, and the second half trying to undo it.

All the while, your art gets lost in the noise. The very thing you set out to do, is obscured, whether by lack of interest, or too much interest in the wrong direction. The goal of living an authentic life, being true to who you are and the spirit of your sense of purpose, becomes irrelevant, in fame as much as in obscurity.

‘Businessmen, they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/None of them along the line, know what any of it is worth.’ Dylan’s line is as true for the hounded rockstar as it is for the painter sharing her work to the world only to get three likes on Instagram.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that forgetting the fruits of his work is the route to God. The spiritual path does not require renunciation, and neither does it come from earthly glory.

He says: ‘You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.’

It is difficult for the modern mind to see beyond the opposites here. Surely, forgetting about rewards and results is a form of renunciation? Why would I work for no reward? What is the point in doing one’s duty if the consequences of that duty are irrelevant?

We are here to do good work. The fruits of our efforts are none of our business, just as the origin of the inspiration is none of our business.

Samurai warriors, confronted with the inevitable death and the terror of war, realised the only way to face their fate was to manifest the highest virtue in the performance of each movement, each cut of the blade. Winning or losing became irrelevant, the only thing they knew they could control was right action. In doing so, they manifested self-transcendence, they turned the degradation of man’s inhumanity to man, into the highest form of devotion.

The artist is here to do justice to the fire inside of her. The idea that people may or may not pay attention to that fire is a depressing distraction from the task at hand. History abounds with examples of poets and artists who received no acclaim in their own lifetime. The fact that they kept going regardless of their isolation and obscurity, adds a spiritual power to the legacies of their scorned genius.

Think of Robert Johnson taking a selfie in a Mississippi photo booth, only for it to become the Platonic form for every future album cover in rock and roll. Think of Keats, spluttering blood on his pillow in Rome in a small, hot and dank little room by the Spanish Steps. He was convinced his name would be ‘writ on water’, but it is now irrevocably etched on the face of literature alongside Shakespeare.

That said, obscurity is painful. Van Gogh, writing to his brother, who was also his patron, bemoaned the suffering of being dedicated but unknown.

He wrote: ‘[D]oes what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?’

If the work is not good for its own sake, it’s not one’s proper work. The hardest job an artist ever has to do is face the doubts that come from living in a world of prudential value. The second hardest job is summoning the courage to reject the sound advice of the sensible.

Obscurity is its own reward, because creativity is its own reward. Being an artist requires faith. The odds are always against you, and that’s part of the fun. The joy of obscurity lies in its freedom. You no longer need to relinquish your creativity to the authority of the group, or the accolades of critics.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here before you.’

Musicians are particularly resentful these days about how hard it is to make money doing what they love. They should talk more to journalists, or better, to the poets. Lack of recognition comes with the territory, always has, and is now the very nature of any artistic industry. Those who bitch about this generally seem to be the ones who are not doing their art for the love of it, but for the glory and power it promises them.

The true artists knows there is a flip-side to Twain’s admonition. Just as the world owes you nothing, the artist too owes nothing to the world. And this is the greatest joy of obscurity.