On the Intangibility of Words

The monk and the novitiate sat beneath the shade of the trees. The sky was grey and a cool wind prodded them lazily.

“Today I will teach you something about the nature of matter and non-matter; that which is real and that which comes from a higher power,” said the monk to the novitiate.

“I want to believe in a higher power,” said the novitiate. “But all I see belongs to the material world—the trees and the rocks and the sky. Even the invisible wind can be seen when it fills a ship’s sails.”

The monk nodded. “All of those things belong to the physical world,” he said. “The world of matter over which the alchemists seek mastery. But there is another type of existence; that of the intangible, that which cannot be seen and is not real and yet, still exists.”

The novitiate was unmoved. “How then can you show me something that cannot be seen—and is not real—and yet exists? You speak like an ancient philosopher, drunk at a Bacchanalian feast.”

“I am speaking of words,” said the monk. “For words are intangible.”

The novitiate scoffed and sought out a stick with which to draw in the sand. Promptly he used it to write a word in the soil at their feet.

“Look then,” he said to the monk. “Now I made the word tangible, is it not real? Do you not see it?”

The monk smiled. “All that I see are the scratchings of a forest animal; or a child with a stick.”

“Perhaps that is because you are sitting in the wrong place,” said the novitiate. “Come beside me and you will see the word as I see it.”

“Come beside me and see the world as I see it,” said the monk with a smile.

“Pah!” said the initiate. “You speak in riddles and nonsense, trying to confound me. But I am not convinced and the word remains. It would remain for longer still if I were to carve it into rock, or write it with ink.”

At this the monk leaned down and scattered some dirt across the letters on the ground. “Now your word is no longer a word,” said the monk.

“A-ha!” said the novitiate. “I determine yet another flaw in your argument. The word does not cease to be so merely because you disturbed the soil; a house is no less real for the fact that a fire may burn it down.”

The monk nodded and folded his hands across his lap. “You speak truth and with great reason. You are well-suited for this life, I think.”

“So then, have I disproved your claim?” said the novitiate, looking proud. “Would you agree then that words are, in fact, as tangible as the rock or the tree or the wind?”

This time the monk shook his head. “The word remains intangible,” he said. “A foreigner, or a child, would see no more than random scratchings.”

“But even if I did not know what a tree was, it would not negate their existence.”

“True again,” said the monk. “But the tree itself has no meaning. What meaning it might have—the tree, the forest, the mountains—is for God alone to know and thus, beyond the comprehension of even such a holy man as I.”

“Now you speak of meaning?” the novitiate ask. “I am growing tired of this conversation, you speak in ever-widening circles.”

“I speak of the knowledge that allows you to believe that I am wrong,” said the monk. “I speak of that which exists inside your mind—intangible—for we cannot remove or retrieve it. We cannot break open your head as a melon and find the word existing within.”

“I must say I’m pleased that you are unwilling to break open my head,” said the novitiate. “But also note that you compared it to a melon.”

“I speak of the ideas the word conjures,” said the monk. “Of the thoughts summoned by the mind—all of these things intangible, unreal, unproveable.”

“In the beginning was the Word,” the monk continued. “And yet we do not know it. Meaning arises from language like the branching of the trees. A seed, perhaps, contains the pattern of those branches, yet we cannot see it. It is intangible. It is holy: and now, perhaps, you may begin to understand something of the divine.”

“Perhaps,” said the novitiate. The wind was colder now. He wished to return to the monastery, where the halls were still cold but at least he could find a fire to warm himself beside.

The monk stood and scuffed out the novitiate’s word with the sole of his shoe. Now there was only dirt; but the novitiate would always remember the word that lingered there.