Current Research

Current Research

Haj Ross
Department of Linguistics and Technical Communication

There are three interpenetrating facets in my work: syntax, poetics, and the nature of insight. I will briefly characterize each in turn.

My major focus in the area of semantics/syntax is the grammar of paths – the large macroconstituents which specify where themes move. [From LA ] [along the coast] [past San Simeon] [to San Francisco] is a typical path, consisting of a Source, two Trajectories, and a Goal. All of these are optional; Trajectories can be repeated in a path as many times as one wants. These legs of paths all have a common structure, and all can be modified by adverbs like right and straight. All of the prepositions in this path can be followed by there, which turns out to be restricted to occurring in paths and locatives. Where, however, often thought to correspond closely to there, has in fact a more limited distribution: it can only occur after the two end-prepositions from and to. [As we see from who jumped from where / *along where / *past where / to where?] There are many surprising restrictions on proforms like there: they cannot advance (cf. I cleared the snow from there but not *I cleared there of the snow); only in some contexts can they be preposed (cf. There I would never jump from / *along / *past); and only in certain contexts can they be modified by right (cf. We’re going to fly from (right) there / along (*right) there, and also We’re going to leave from (right) there at noon vs. We’re going to leave (*right) there at noon.
These are not isolated facts; the function of spatial proforms like here, there, and where is to background the subconstituents of the paths in which they can occur, by contrast with constituents which can be pronominalized with definite pronouns like she, he, it, and they or with deictics like this and that. Constituents that are linked to the former type of proforms cannot be what sentences are “about,” while those linked to the latter type can be: What Mort said about the tower was [that that was what he would leap from ≥ ?*that there was where he would leap from].
My goal in this work is to use the details of the syntax of paths to arrive at a deeper understanding of the spatial basis of the semantics of many prepositions, as well as verbs and nouns. For instance, whether an NP is pronominalized with it or there affects whether it can be taken as a patient: What they did to the sidewalk was to clear the snow [from it ≥ ?from there]. And while it feels correct to treat many uses of from as being metaphorically extended Sources, I believe that the microsyntax of paths can tell us something about exactly how this extension takes place. The further away a path goes from its spatial roots, the less can its legs be modified by right: cf. I am clearing the snow (right) from the driveway vs. I am learning calc [(right) from the book / (?right) from Professor Dudsworth] vs. I am benefitting (*right) from your advice vs. I stopped him (**right) from publishing the book.
Metaphorical extension lies at the heart of semantactic change, and thus of grammaticalization. Terms taken from the spatial vocabulary of languages are used again and again as a basis for talking about time (on Tuesday), aspect (in the course of studying), grammatical role and case (surprising to me); about quality (under par), quantity (a high number), emotions (in love, on edge), and too many others to mention. It may even be the case that in any language, space is the basis for the most metaphors. Whether or not this proves to be right, it is my hope that the greater the understanding we have of the literal spatial system, the greater clarity we will be able to bring to bear on the ways in which this system can be extended to provide the foundations for the conceptual architecture of a language.

Syntax has its own agendas, and cannot be assumed to be isomorphic to semantic structure. Nonetheless, it provides the best window on semantics we have. Ultimately, whatever merit may lie in the book – Paths – which I plan to write in this area will depend on the extent to which the tools which emerge from the network of distinctions and restrictions which are called for in the syntax provide for revealing resolutions of semantic issues.

In this context, let me mention my work on what I call defective noun phrases (DNP’s). Normal noun phrases (which I call purebreds) undergo / partici-pate in all of the following morphosemantactic processes:

Pronominalization (both inbound and outbound); Definitization; pluralization, modification by various determiners and by full or reduced relative clauses, both restrictive and appositive; various movement rules, whether local and governed, like Passive, Tough Movement, Middle, etc., or long-distance, like Topicalization, Relative Clause Formation, Heavy NP Shift, etc.

By contrast, DNP’s, which are also headed by nouns and look a lot like purebred NP’s, fail to exhibit some or all of these behaviors. There are various type of DNP’s; in (1) – (4) below, I give a partial listing of these types, in each case showing a selection of various behaviors which we would expect to find but do not:

(1) Measure phrases (MP’s)

a. Jed gave me $20, but the motor will cost more than $20 / *them.
b. We will be in Dallas for two hours, but I don’t want to explore the city
[*for the hours / ??for the two hours / ?for those hours].
c. *Two hours is tough for me to imagine the concert lasting.
d. But Topicalization is OK: Two hours this concert will never last.

(2) Articleless nouns

a. *Jan is in bedi and I will go to iti. I bought a bedi and then went to iti.
[*if trying to mean “went to bed”]
bi. Maxine went to the bed. The bed Maxine went to.
bii. Maxine went to bed. *Bed Maxine went to.
c. Oil was on the (shiny) top(s) of the cars / on (*shiny) top(*s) of the cars.

(3) Predicate nominals

a. *My cousins are not yet drunkards but will soon be them.
b. A good student is tough for me to imagine Hankins biting / ?being.

(4) Various types of chômeurs (boldfaced in the following

a. [Oil / My oil / That oil / It] was leaking from Tap 5. fi Tap 5 was
leaking oil / ?my oil / ?that oil / **it].
b. The price(s) of Macintosh and IBM rose. Macintosh and IBM rose [in
price(*s) / *in it / *in them].

My claim is that defectivization of NP’s happens after predicates, and less frequently in subject position. What is an MP and completely unpronominalizable as the object of pay is pronominalizable as a passive subject: I paid $20 / *them to Tim vs. $20 / ?They were paid to Tim. Another indication: after pay, plural NP’s lose their normally available behavior of count nouns, and behave only like mass nouns: I paid $20, much of which was stolen/*many of which were crumpled. In subject position, the count behavior is somewhat more viable: $20, many of which were crumpled, were paid to Tim. Articlelessness (with count nouns, like bed, church, top, etc.) happens typically after prepositions, not in subjects: Jo is on (the) top of the car/ *(The) top of the car was filthy. Similar is the behavior of place nouns like Siam, which pronominalizes with it as a subject or object, but only as there in spatial contexts: I lived near Siam / there / *it. Plural place nouns, a marked subtype, show even stronger restrictions, and are generally pronominalizable with they only as subjects: The Azores / They are enchanting. Let’s visit there / ?them. Hank just got back from [there / **them. Modifiability is normal for NP’s; it is for this reason that modifying an idiom chunk ups its noun-phrasiness, making it undisregardable by Passive: Ed was taken (?*frequent) advantage of by Sam.

I believe that the fact that what can refer to humans when an object, though not when a subject [cf. What I married was a Swede / *What married me was a Swede ] is traceable back to the same general tendency: after predicates, NP’s tend to be less definite and more predicative, as we learn from discourse studies, which show clearly that nouns in a text are first mentioned after their predicates, and only subsequently move into subject position. After predicates, NP’s are half-hearted, and fickle. Subjects are virtuous and upstanding, trustworthy, loyal, and brave – the very core of purebred nominality.

This work on defectivity connects interestingly with the work on paths, since
NP’s in paths are often defective, especially if they are geographical NP’s, like proper place names (like Argentina, the Straits of Magellan, etc.), or features of landscapes (bodies of water, mountains, cliffs, etc.). Thus note the contrast between Jeff escaped [from the prison / from it] and Jeff escaped [from Argentina / *from it]] / [from the outskirts of Milwaukee / ***from them].

In another area of syntax, my interest in constraints on processes of unbounded length continues. I have recently finished a paper on the impossibility of questioning “fat” PP’s, i. e., prepositional phrases which start with an adverb which modifies the head preposition. We see the constraint in action in such ungrammaticalities as (*Far) behind what tree did you park?

Cleft and pseudocleft sentences always provide central examples for island phenomena; I am readying a book, called That Is the Question, on the architecture of emphasis. The first two chapters already exist, in a rough form. The first gives a general overview of the remote structure for pseudo-clefts and of the transforma-tions associated with them which seem to me to be most nearly adequate. The second chapter discusses an important distinction between types of questions – conjunctive and disjunctive questions. The first type is a concealed factive; it looks like a question, but its answer is known. An example would be where he stayed – at the Hilton and at the Sheraton – is amazing. Note that appositions to the wh-word can be conjoined with and. By contrast, in the more often studied type of questions, the answer is not known, and appositive phrases have to be disjoined: where he stayed – at the Hilton or at the Sheraton – is a mystery. I conclude by demonstrating that the embedded question clauses with which pseudo-clefts begin can manifest as either variety of question, under various contextual conditions.

The rest of the book is concerned in general with the syntax of emphasis, a topic that intersects with many other areas. Possibly one of the most interesting is a class of structures which are related to pseudo-clefts – sentences like That is who ordered what, Here is how long we can stay under water, etc., a class which gives the book its title. These sentences, when used as relative clauses (they can only be appositive ones, a fact of great interest in itself), seem to have the power to penetrate the structure of some phrases and lexical items, a bit like x-rays. Two examples are Milt went to bed, which is where he fell asleep [NB: which = in bed, ≠ to bed, which suggests that the directional to bed contains, in some way, the locative in bed ] and Sandra crawled into the room, which is how she wanted to go in [suggesting the lexical equation crawl into X = go into X by crawling , where the how is able to refer back to the boldface part of the semantax of crawl into, a part which is not visible superficially.]

A last syntactic focus concerns what I call “squatitives.” These are negative polarity items which are used to cast aspersion on various referents, as we see one of them, squat, doing in this sentence: Mr. Meechum doesn’t know squat about bikes. Paul Postal and I have been working on this area for the past five years or so; one of the interesting conclusions we have come to is that squatitives, which we have found not only in various Indo-European languages, but also in Tunisian Arabic, Taiwanese, and Korean, all seem to be knowledge/ability based. That is, the fundamental thing to insult about a person seems to universally be either their knowledge or their ability. For example, in English, while many people can say Frieda never stole squat from the company, it is impossible to use beans, another squatitive, with anything but verbs of knowing or achieving: I don’t know beans about Armenian, ?He didn’t do beans on the final. Thus when we study other squatitives, like squat, which have fanned out from this universal seed, we find interesting things about semantic extension and change. It appears too, that it may be possible to draw conclusions about the theory of islands from the distribution of squatitives: squat may be able to be used to determine what are the boundaries of islands.

Interestingly, my three major research foci in semantax are linked by defectiveness. We have seen how locatives are defective; and we can determine that the emphasized constituent in a pseudo-cleft sentence also is, by trying to left-dislocate it.

(5) The left dislocation of the focus of pseudo-clefts

a. What we love to devour is Cranshaw melons.
b. *Cranshaw melons, what we love to devour is them.
ci. ? Cranshaw melons, what we love to devour is that.
cii. Cranshaw melons, that is what we love to devour.

And it is abundantly clear that squatitives are highly defective. For one thing, while ordinary NPI’s can be possessivized, squatitives cannot, as we see in this contrast: Jack never computed the area of anything / anything’s area, Jack never computed the area of squat / *squat’s area.

A recurrent theme, in all my recent work, is the crucial notion of viability, which I discussed briefly in my paper at the CLS in 1986 (#85 in my bibliography), a theoretical construct which is linked in an essential manner to semantactic prototypes, entities which are proving to be of great interest in cognitive studies. There are prototypes in syntax, both prototypes for syntactic processes (like Reflexivization, Raising, Agreement, etc.), and also for syntactic constructions (like relative clauses, coordinate structures, pseudocleft structures, etc.). In my CLS paper, I suggested the necessity for the postulation of a system of viability decrementing processes, which are called into operation each time a prototype, whether of rule or construction, is deviated from. I believe that such a system is not only unavoidable, but also theoretically highly desirable, precisely because it offers a vastly more subtle and flexible way of looking at the biography of a sentence, and furthermore, because it is the kind of theoretical refinement that can be built into any syntactic theory of which I am aware. Some of these issues are taken up in some detail in my most recent paper at the Chicago Linguistic Society (#113).

I have been learning how viability intersects in complex ways with some aspects of the grammar of pseudoclefts, as well as in the other areas of my research which I have discussed above. What seems to be emerging more and more clearly in my thinking is a connection between within-language manifestations of viability differences and cross-linguistic implicational hierarchies. I am hopeful that when my research matures to the point at which I can propose in detail a formalization of a portion of the calculus of viability, this calculus may turn out to function in such a way as to link workers in two camps of thought on universal grammar – the typological thinkers, and the formalist ones.


Another focus of my research, for the past two decades, has been the study of poetics, in particular, of the ways in which poets “write with words,” to use an apt phrase of Mallarmé’s. Poems are not mere vehicles for the conveying of lofty thoughts, eternal poetic truths, etc., as Jakobson says very clearly:

“Textbooks tend to say that a poem can be freed of all its imagery, its tropes and figures, and can still be a great poem, thanks to its thoughts and emotions. When I began to analyze poems and to compare them with their translations, I found that the translations were always missing something. Although rhyme, meter, and composition had been preserved, something had been left out, and this omission destroyed the whole impression of the original. I realized that it was the grammatical structures of the original texts that were missing in the translations. To me, that meant that grammatical structures play a decisive role in poetry. They are the source of the grammatical tropes and figures.”

Roman Jakobson, Louvain Lectures (1972)

I would go beyond what Jakobson says here, while agreeing with him on the fundamental importance of grammatical structures in poetry. I am particularly interested in the source of what might be called verbal music, that is, in the study, down to the distribution of individual phonemes, of the way the sounds of the poem are artistically deployed. I see the phonemes selected for the poem as being analogous to the instruments of a symphony orchestra, each having its own characteristic timbre and articulatory gesture. “Writing with words” is weaving musical and gestural textures which parallel conceptual similarities which exist between the important words of a poem.
To give a brief example, let us note how a seemingly innocuous modification of the word’s most famous line can totally demolish its impact:

To be or not to be – this is the question.

When we ask what has gone wrong here, we see that in this line’s two syntactic halves, each has one syllable which bears the heaviest emphasis: not in the first half, and that in the second. The line thus has an “M-shaped” emphasis contour for its five stressed syllables:

not that

be be ques-

Thus we see that not and that are linked by virtue of being the two pegs from which the line is hung. And when we look at the line’s first four syllables, namely [tu:w], [bi:y], [o:(r)], [na:t], we see that they become progressively more closed, with the [t] of not, the first post-vocalic true consonant, being geminated by the following [t] of to. I suggest that Shakespeare lets us feel here a natural phonetic metaphor: sound is life, silence is death. Thus the geminate [t:], coming, as it does, at precisely the juncture where the repeated infinitive of the first half – the second occurrence of to be – comes on the heels of the strongest negator in English – not – and thus is cancelled, annulled . . . . This micro-silence is a taste of our own mortality. And the reason that the peak of the second half of the line must end with a [t] is that without it, we are not led to feel that chill again, to take it to heart, to make Hamlet’s question ours as well.

This tiny detail of sound is the reason why there is no language in the world that I am aware of which has a translation that can come close to the greatness of this line: Sein oder nicht sein – das ist die Frage; Ser ou não ser – eis a questão – neither of these nor any other that I know of gives us the sound metaphor of death as silence – a metaphor with a reprise in the second half of the line. While the universality of Hamlet’s existential dilemma can be carried into another language, no one has yet found a music to compare with Shakespeare’s. In the greatest poetry, neither meaning nor music can be subordinate to the other. Words are the meeting places of image, concept and melody, and to write with words is to keep all of these balls (and many others as well, of course) in the air, all at once.

I am not aware of any work anywhere in the world which carries a theory of poetics to this level of detail, a fact which I regard as unfortunate, for work done above the level of the patterns made by individual sounds can only go part way towards liberating us from the “beautiful poetic truths” concept of what poetry is. I am now in the final stages of preparing for publication a collection – to be entitled Here Dwell Tygers – of around two dozen analyses of particular poems, a book which will spell out in some depth the intricacies of structure that the process of writing with words produces.

I come now, with some diffidence, to speak of the third focus of my thinking – the nature of insight. In all my work, starting with my early days in syntax, even as I was struggling with some syntactic or phonological problem, or trying to find some way in with a beautiful poem, I was also, one step back, watching myself, trying to find generalizations about when I would come up with fruitful hypotheses. I have done some reading in the literature on creativity, some written by psychologists, and some written by great artists or scientists. As far as I have been able to determine, there is no significant difference between scientists and artists, and mystics, when it comes to describing the way their minds are at the moment at which light breaks through, and the equation is found, the sonnet is completed, or the ecstasy of spiritual illumination is achieved.
For the interest of any of you who are reading this, I am always interested in statements to this effect by great souls; here are a few that I know of now. Please send me other statements like these to add to my collection.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:

. . . . Beethoven, Berlioz, Mozart and Wagner are among the noted composers who have experienced these automatisms, or self-creating compositions. In some cases the simple recording of such autonomous and given imagery is the method of composition. E. T. A. Hoffman, for example, often remarked to his friends, “When I compose I sit down at the piano, shut my eyes and play what I hear.” And Mozart remarked of his compositions: “Whence and how do they come? I do not know and have nothing to do with it.” He noted some very interesting alterations of time and imagery that occurred in these states:

All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once (gleich alles zusammen). What a delight this is I cannot tell! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream. Still the actual hearing of the tout ensemble is after all the best. What has been thus produced I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for . . . . For this reason the committing to paper is done easily enough, for everything is, as I have said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination. At this occupation I can therefore suffer myself to be disturbed; for whatever may be going on around me, I write, and even talk, but only of fowls and geese, or of Greta and Barbel, or some such matters. But why my productions take from my hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and different from the work of other composers, is probably owing to the same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, makes it Mozart’s, and different from those of other people. For I really do not study or aim at any originality.14

From Jean Houston, The Possible Human,
J. P. Tarcher, Los Angeles (1982), p. 161.

J. Krishnamurti

From: Mary Lutyens, KRISHNAMURTI – The Years of Awakening. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1975)
Krishna [= Krishnamurti] also told Lady Emily in this same letter of June 2 {1922?] that he had received a message from the Master Kuthumi, ‘brought through’ by Leadbetter. Krishna copied it out for her:
‘Of you, too, we have the highest hopes. Steady & widen yourself, and strive more & more to bring the mind & brain into subservience to the true Self within. Be tolerant of divergences of view & of method, for each has usually a fragment of truth concealed within it, even though oftentimes it is distorted almost beyond recognition. Seek for that tiniest gleam of light amid the Stygian darkness of each ignorant mind, for by recognizing & fostering it you may help a baby brother.’ (p. 147)
Krishna’s own account follows. It was sent at the same time as Nitya’s [Krishnamurti’s brother] but the latter part was written only two days after the events described:
Ever since I left Australia I have been thinking and deliberating about the message [see above] which the Master K. H. gave me while I was there. I naturally wanted to achieve those orders as soon as I could, and I was to a certain extent uncertain as to the best method of attaining the ideals which were put before me. I do not think a day passed without spending some thought over it, but I am ashamed to say all this was done most casually and rather carelessly.
But at the back of my mind the message of the Master ever dwelt.
Well, since August 3rd,, I meditated regularly for about thirty minutes every morning. I could, to my astonishment, concentrate with considerable ease, and within a few days I began to see clearly where I had failed and where I was failing. Immediately I set about, consciously, to annihilate the wrong accumulations of the past years. With the same deliberation I set about to find out ways and means to achieve my aim. First I realized that I had to harmonize all my other bodies with the Buddhic plane [the highest plane of consciousness] and to bring about this happy combination I had to find out what my ego wanted on the Buddhic plane. To harmonize the various bodies I had to keep them vibrating at the same rate as the Buddhic, and to do this I had to find out what was the vital interest of the Buddhic. With ease which rather astonished me I found the main interest on that high plane was to serve the Lord Maitreya and the Masters. With that idea clear in my physical mind I had to direct and control the other bodies to act and to think the same as on the noble and spiritual place. During that period of less than three weeks, I concentrated to keep in mind the image of the Lord Maitreya throughout the entire day, and I found no difficulty in doing this. I found that I was getting calmer and more serene. My whole outlook on life was changed.
Then, on the 17th August, I felt acute pain at the nape of my neck and I had to cut down my meditation to fifteen minutes. The pain instead of getting better as I had hoped grew worse. The climax was reached on the 19th. I could not think, nor was I able to do anything, and I was forced by friends here to retire to bed. Then I became almost unconscious, though I was well aware of what was happening around me. I came to myself at about noon each day. On the first day, while I was in that state and more conscious of the things around me, I had the first most extraordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone which he was breaking up was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being, and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the roadmender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree, and the little ant on the blade of grass I could feel. The birds, the dust, and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine, and the tyres; as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything, or rather everything was in me, inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm, and all breathing things. All day long I remained in this happy condition. I could not eat anything, and again at about six I began to lose my physical body, and naturally the physical elemental [the part of the body that controls its instinctive and purely physical actions when the higher consciousness is withdrawn. It is at the low stage of evolution and needs guidance] did what it liked; I was semi-conscious.
The morning of the next day (the 20th) was almost the same as the previous day, and I could not tolerate too many people in the room. I could feel them in rather a curious way and their vibrations got on my nerves. That evening at about the same hour of six I felt worse than ever. I wanted nobody near me nor anybody to touch me. I was feeling extremely tired and weak. I think I was weeping from mere exhaustion and lack of physical control. My head was pretty bad and the top part felt as though many needles were being driven in. While I was in this state I felt that the bed in which I was lying, the same one as on the previous day, was dirty and filthy beyond imagination and I could not lie in it. Suddenly I found myself sitting on the floor and Nitya and Rosalind asking me to get into bed. I asked them not to touch me and cried out that the bed was not clean. I went on like this for some time till eventually I wandered out on the verandah and sat a few moments exhausted and slightly calmer. I began to come to myself and finally Mr Warrington asked me to go under the pepper tree which is near the house. There I sat crosslegged in the meditation posture. When I had sat thus for some time, I felt myself going out of my body, I saw myself sitting down with the delicate tender leaves of the tree over me. I was facing the east. In front of me was my body and over my head I saw the Star, bright and clear. Then I could feel the vibration of the Lord Buddha; I beheld Lord Maitreya and Master K.H. I was so happy, calm and at peace. I could still see my body and I was hovering near it. There was such profound calmness both in the air and within the lake, I felt my physical body, with its mind and motions could be ruffled on the surface but nothing, nay nothing, could disturb the calmness of my soul. The Presence of the mighty Beings was with me for some time and then They were gone. I was supremely happy, for I had seen. Nothing could ever be the same. I have drunk at the clear and pure waters at the source of the fountain of life and thirst was appeased. Never more could I be thirsty, never more could I be in utter darkness. I have seen the Light. I have touched compassion which heals all sorrow and suffering; it is not for myself, but for the world. I have stood on the mountain top and gazed at the mighty Beings. Never can I be in utter darkness; I have seen the glorious and healing Light. The fountain of Truth has been revealed to me and the darkness has been dispersed. Love in all its glory has intoxicated my heart; my heart can never be closed. I have drunk at the fountain of Joy and eternal Beauty. I am God-intoxicated. (pp. 157-160)

Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetratable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illuminable superior who reveals himself in the slightest details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction for the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.

From: Relaxation, Concentration and Meditation: Ancient Skills for Modern Minds, by Joel Levey ISBN 0 86171 040 1

Rainer Maria Rilke:

Later, he remembered certain moments in which the power of this moment was already contained, as in a seed. He thought of the hour, in that other southern garden (Capri) when the call of a bird did not, so to speak, break off at the edge of his body, but was simultaneously outside and in his innermost being, uniting both into one uninterrupted space in which, mysteriously protected, only one piece of purest, deepest consciousness remained. On that occasion he had closed his eyes . . . and the Infinite passed into him from all sides, so intimately that he believed he could feel the stars which had in the meantime appeared, gently reposing within his breast.

Rainer Maria Rilke
The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke,
translated by Stephen Mitchell, Random House (1982)

Quoted in David Schiller, The Little Zen Companion,
Workman Publishing, New York (1994). p. 284.

Those who have broken through use phrases like those quoted: they are united with the object of their study, they are one with the universe, time falls away, they know a great peace. While such a consensus of experience is itself revealing and significant, I am less interested in its mere existence than in discovering ways to help people, myself included, achieve it. And one of the conclusions that seems inescapable to me is that the educational establishment, as it is currently conceived and constituted, not only does not help those getting educated to realize the transcendent states of mind that the greatest creators report as the loci of their discoveries – sadly, it is an active hindrance. We achieve breakthroughs despite the system, not because of it.

Thus what is called for is new ways of learning, learning together. I am a bit hesitant to call what I do “research,” possibly because it seems so fluid, so volatile, so evanescent. I try, in any context in which I meet with others who wish to learn with me, to build a noetic environment for us all within which it will become easier for all of us to access the kind of states that the creators tell us about. I have, over the course of the past twenty-five years or so, assembled a sort of toolkit of things to try, things which have worked once, and might be relevant to try again. But there are no guarantees, often what worked miraculously before falls flat on its face in this context, there is nothing for it but to improvise, to ride the wind.

If it is right to say that in my work on syntax and poetics, what I seek is theories of structure and artistic power [I don’t like this description very much. Feels very dry, far from heart. Perhaps better, though less acceptable in anything like the academy, would be to say: I want to feel truth, live beauty, breathe ever deeper this magnificence into which I have been born] it may be somewhat right to say that the work on insight is a search for contexts and activities which further breakthrough. But this is too abstract a way of describing the goal, a goal which is specific, concrete, linked to each individual in the learning encounter. The goal is for each person to reconnect to that place of vast space, to remember that this way of being is their birthright, that this ecstasy is what they must demand of an adequate system of education.

Is a jazz solo, or an action painting research? If it is, then what I am doing is a kind of “research” of that kind. But I do not think that I understand very well at all what it is that I am doing. All I know is that I am impelled to continue it, whatever “it” may be.

I want to say one final thing concerning my thinking. It would be easy, and in fact, traditional, to separate my work on syntax and my work on poetics, to give my research a disjunctive characterization. But I know from my own experience that each of these “sides” of my work deepens the understanding of the other, and that I am exploring within a whole greater than the sum of these two “halves.” I find that the willingness to let the unitary and necessarily integral discipline of the Study of Language be separated into the camps of science and art brings with it an inevitable lessening of the range and depth of our knowledge, to say nothing of drastically limiting the number of those with whom one can interact.

And similarly with the third “part” of my work. To do syntax “and” poetics in such a way that one will be satisfied with various insights into these “two” fields, but not to try to develop some stance from which to view the nature of insight itself – that seems too unvast a project, for me. My vision is to help in the construction of fields of study in which, to use Morris Berman’s words [cf. his The Reenchantment of the World], there is a fusion of fact and value. For me, nothing less seems worth attempting.


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.