This blog post is included in:
No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler
December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The inability to understand proverbs is a symptom of something — is it schizophrenia? Or paranoia? Anyhow, something very bad. When I heard that, many years ago, it worried me. Everything I ever heard about a symptom worries me. Do I have it? Yes! Yes, I do! Oh, God!
And I had proof of my paranoia (or schizophrenia). There was a very common proverb that I knew I’d never understood.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
My personal logic said: How can you eat a cake you don’t have?
And since I couldn’t argue with that, I silently stuck to it, which left me in a dilemma: either the saying didn’t make sense (so why did intelligent people say it?) or I was schizophrenic (or paranoid).
Years passed, during which now and then I puzzled over my problem with the proverb. And slowly, slowly it dawned on me that the word “have” has several meanings or shades of meaning, the principal one being “own” or “possess,” but one of the less common connotations is “hold onto,” “keep.”
You can’t keep your cake and eat it too.
I get it!
It’s a good proverb!
And I am not a paranoid schizophrenic!
But it seemed odd that I hadn’t arrived sooner at the “keep” meaning of “have.” I puzzled over that for a while too, and finally came up with this:
For one thing, it seems to me that the verbs are in the wrong order. You have to have your cake before you eat it, after all. I might have understood the saying if it was “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”
And then, another kind of confusion, having to do with “have.” In the West Coast dialect of English I grew up with, “I had cake at the party” is how we said, “I ate cake at the party.” So “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” was trying to tell me that I couldn’t eat my cake and eat it too…
And hearing it that way as a kid, I thought “hunh?” but didn’t say anything, because there is no way, no possible way, a kid can ask about everything grownups say that the kid thinks “hunh?” about. So I just tried to figure it out. And once I got stuck with the illogic of the cake you have being the cake you can’t eat, the possibility never occurred to me that it was all about hoarding vs. gobbling, or the necessity of choice when there is no middle way.
I expect you’ve had quite enough cake by now. I’m sorry.
But see, this is the kind of thing I think about a lot.
Nouns (cake), verbs (have), words, and the uses and misuses of words, and the meanings of words, and how the words and their meanings change with time and with place, and the derivations of words from older words or other languages — words fascinate me the way box elder beetles fascinate my friend Pard.
Pard, at this point, is not allowed outside, so he has to hunt indoors. Indoors, we have, at this point, no mice. But we have beetles. Oh yes Lord, we have beetles. And if Pard hears, smells, or sees a beetle, that beetle instantly occupies his universe. He will stop at nothing, he will root in wastebaskets, overturn and destroy small fragile objects, push large heavy dictionaries aside, leap wildly in the air or up the wall, stare unmoving for ten minutes at the unattainable light fixture in which a beetle is visible as a tiny moving silhouette. . . And when he gets the beetle, and he always does, he knows that you can’t have your beetle and eat it too. So he eats it. Instantly.
I know, though I don’t really like knowing it, that not many people share this particular fascination or obsession. With words, I mean, not beetles. Though I want to point out that Charles Darwin was almost as deeply fascinated by beetles as Pard is, though with a somewhat different goal. Darwin even put one in his mouth once, in a doomed attempt to keep it by eating it. It didn’t work.* — Anyhow, many people enjoy reading about the meaning and history of picturesque words and phrases, but not many enjoy brooding for years over a shade of significance of the verb “to have” in a banal saying.
Even among writers, not all seem to share my enjoyment of pursuing a word or a usage through the dictionaries and the wastebaskets. If I start doing it aloud in public, some of them look at me with horror or compassion, or try to go quietly away. For that reason, I’m not even certain that it has anything to do with my being a writer.
But I think it does. Not with being a writer per se, but with my being a writer, my way of being a writer. When asked to talk about what I do, I’ve often compared writing with handicrafts – weaving, potmaking, woodworking. I see my fascination with the word as very like, say, the fascination with wood common to carvers, carpenters, cabinetmakers — people who find a fine piece of old chestnut with delight, and study it, and learn the grain of it, and handle it with sensuous pleasure, and consider what’s been done with chestnut and what you can do with it, loving the wood itself, the mere material, the stuff of their craft.
Yet when I compare my craft with theirs, I feel slightly presumptuous. Woodworkers, potters, weavers engage with real materials, and the beauty of their work is profoundly and splendidly bodily. Writing is so immaterial, so mental an activity! In its origin, it’s merely artful speech, and the spoken word is no more than breath.
To write or otherwise record the word is to embody it, make it durable; and calligraphy or typesetting are material crafts that achieve great beauty. I appreciate them. But in fact they have little more to do with what I do than weaving or potmaking or woodworking does. It’s grand to see one’s poem beautifully printed, but the important thing to the poet, or anyhow to this poet, is merely to see it printed, however, wherever — so that readers can read it. So it can go from mind to mind.
I work in my mind. What I do is done in my mind. And what my hands do with it in writing it down is not the same as what the hands of the weaver do with the yarn, or the potter’s hands with the clay, or the cabinetmaker’s with the wood. If what I do, what I make, is beautiful, it isn’t a physical beauty. It’s imaginary, it takes place in the mind — my mind, and my reader’s.
You could say that I hear voices and believe the voices are real (which would mean I was schizophrenic, but the proverb test proves I’m not — I do, I do understand it, Doctor!) And that then by writing what I hear, I induce or compel readers to believe the voices are real, too… That doesn’t describe it well, though. It doesn’t feel that way. I don’t really know what it is I’ve done all my life, this wordworking.
But I know that to me words are things, almost immaterial but actual and real things, and that I like them.
I like their most material aspect: the sound of them, heard in the mind or spoken by the voice.
And right along with that, inseparably, I like the dances of meaning words do with one another, the endless changes and complexites of their interrelationships in sentence or text, by which imaginary worlds are built and shared. Writing engages me in both these aspects of words, in an inexhaustible playing, which is my my life work.
Words are my matter — my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of wet clay, my block of uncarved wood. Words are my magic, antiproverbial cake. I eat it, and I still have it.
9 April 2012
*From Darwin’s Autobiography: “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.”
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. One of her recent books is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Café’s anthology Breaking Waves.