Friday, November 26, 2010

Res ipsa loquitur

In college, I majored in both Music and Classical Languages, with an emphasis in Latin. The result was a decent grounding in classical literature, a facility with translating those Latin texts that dominate the choral repertoire, and most importantly, a hefty supply of pithy Latin quotations for dealing with those tricky life situations that either defy common parlance, or require a level of obscurity that only the language of the ancients can provide. Certainly, Latin is overused in the service of making mundane experiences seem exceedingly more profound, but I am often reminded that the words of our Roman ancestors (including my grandmother, who spoke Latin's closest relative, Italian) can also provide a unique perspective on those struggles we find the most confounding, and which we often myopically attribute solely to life in the modern world.

I choose for the name of my new blog one of my favorite Latin expressions, "Res ipsa loquitur," meaning "the thing speaks for itself." Used primarily as a legal maxim, this expression has always fascinated me because of how applicable it is outside of the legal arena. Things, particularly people, speak for themselves all the time, whether or not words are involved. Our values, passions, strengths, and aspirations find daily voice in our words and actions, and in our interactions with others. Yet so do our frustrations, fears, exhaustion, insecurities, and personal tragedies, all of which contribute just as much to the way we speak for ourselves as any of our more positive attributes. With so many factors influencing what we "say," controlling the message we send becomes a challenging task.

I know people who respond to this dilemma by saying less. If the thing speaks for itself, and it is influenced by undesirable qualities or characteristics best left unrevealed, then perhaps stifling "the thing" will allow for better control of the message. Still waters run deep, however, and although there is much to be envied about the quiet soul, what bothers me about the silence method is that others often fill in the blanks when no information is provided. If you don't speak for yourself, someone else will inevitably do it for you, leaving you little room to complain when your message is distorted.

Others attempt to control the message by never shutting up. If the thing speaks for itself, they believe the best course is to let it do so as often and as loudly as possible. The problem with this approach, of course, is that the more we talk, the more we tend to dilute our message, reducing our words to background noise in a world already over-cluttered with both aural and visual stimulation. The yammering mouth, no matter how passionately and genuinely it yammers, will eventually get tuned out. This is a lesson I'm afraid I've learned the hard way in some circumstances, but it is a valuable one nonetheless.

It seems that neither silence nor logorrhea is the answer to controlling the message I wish to send, though one might argue that the imposing length of this blog entry displays my tendency towards one of those extremes. Whether I'm communicating professional or personal ideals, the answer lies not in how little or how much I speak for myself, but the way I speak when I choose to speak. I think it is this realization that has motivated me to start this blog. First, I miss writing. I used to do it all the time, and somewhere along the way (like practicing piano), I relegated this enjoyable pastime to the realm of luxury, unable to resist that nagging feeling that I should be doing something else, something no doubt more important. But what could be more important than finding and focusing your voice, clarifying what is important to you, and doing so through a calm and enjoyable medium? In the same way playing piano feeds my aesthetic soul, composing my thoughts in writing feeds my intellectual, philosophical, and verbal soul. (And anyone who knows me is well aware of my fondness for words.)

I have no delusions that my musings will attract hundreds of followers, though anyone who chooses to read runs the risk of learning a great deal more about me. And although I hope to establish some degree of regularity with my writing this time around, I don't know how often I will manage to blog. I simply look forward to the exercise of routinely organizing my thoughts and focusing my voice in a public forum. Whether or not anyone cares is, I suppose, irrelevant.

So here I go, setting about the task of letting my "res" "ipsa loquitur" all over the blagosphere. To close this inaugural entry, I reflect on one of the things I've always loved most about the Latin language: its masterful use of connotation. "Istud," for example, is a reflexive pronoun meaning "that one," just like "illud," except that "istud" at some point along the way acquired a somewhat negative connotation, embodying the concept of "that one" with a bit of a snarl, or just a twinge of invective implied. So, too, does the word "res" connote a variety of meanings, including "thing," "event," "affair," "business," "property," or my favorite, "cause."

Through this blog, may my "cause" speak for itself.



  1. Nice.

    Res ipsa loquitur is the response, essentially, of a fair number of musicians to criticism. If you read this, we have to talk about Britten and Messiah. Which version of the latter are you doing? I'm listening to McCreesh lately, but that's surely not the edition you're working from, right?

  2. Hi John - Thanks for visiting. "Res ipsa loquitur" is an especially useful response whenever we don't know what the hell the music is actually trying to say. :) Using the Alfred Mann edition of Messiah. Would love to talk to you about Messiah & Britten anytime - just give a call.