Having my Cake

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











Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

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.”

Out Here coverUrsula 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.



Having my Cake — 15 Comments

  1. Me too – it took me years to figure out the meaning of that proverb.

  2. Or you could have looked it up on Wikipedia once Wikipedia came into existence. There’s a nice article on this phrase.

  3. But… words are real! No, not in the same way as a branch or a rock, but still, they do have their own reality.

    Indeed, I’d say that humans have created a whole layer of reality, which we all help to carry around. Some individual people “tent” a bit of it away from the “consensus reality”, but even there, there’s always a connection. And over time, we’ve built up our “human reality” to the point where it can have activities, processes, landmarks of its own. Sometimes it does occlude our view of the underlying, material reality — that’s a shame (and sometimes a serious hazard), but it’s also part of the tradeoff for being human.

  4. That proverb has always confused the hell out of me. “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” What? Are you supposed to run around eating other peoples’ cakes, then? Then I figured out that people keep inverting the order, which is why it makes no sense. “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too” makes sense because after you’ve eaten it, you don’t have it anymore. Voila!

  5. I agree that the main difficulty is that the verbs are out of order, just like the nouns when we say we put on our shoes and socks. But thanks for also noticing the difficulty caused by the alternative meaning of “have” as in “I had cake at the party”.

    The relevant grammatical terms are “stative” and “dynamic”, and I wish they were as well known as, say, “active” and “passive”. Examples of stative verbs are understand, know, love, and most uses of “be”. “Have” is stative when I have two children, and when you have a cake in the sense of the proverb. “Have” is definitely dynamic if I tell you my wife had both her babies at Children’s Hospital, or if you invite me to have some cake.

    “See” in its literal sense is stative. If we want a dynamic verb, we use “look”. But various metaphoric uses of see are dynamic. It’s unremarkable if I see a married woman (stative), but problematic if I’m seeing one (dynamic). The following dialogue plays the literal stative “see” against another figurative dynamic use:

    Receptionist: Doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.
    Doctor: Tell him I can’t see him.

    And likewise …
    Child: Can I have some cake?
    Parent: Sure, if we still have some, you can have it.

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  8. About 40 years ago a computer scientist / artificial intelligence researcher named Roger Schank designed a simple conceptual language (with very limited capabilities, aside from his proof of concept for about 15 years; then the field of natural language processing by computer moved on) into which the semantic underpinnings of simple natural language expressions could be translated: “Conceptual Dependency,” it was called. In the books he and his colleagues and students wrote about what was basically computational psycholinguistics, some of the more intricate semantic patterns were generated by expressions dealing with possession, ownership, having control over or responsibility for, and many other phrases that attempt to capture these many concepts with similar words.

    One can study the words and marvel at the intricacies and the varieties of linguistic expression (bottom-up analysis, I think that would be called) and contribute much to our appreciation and understanding of language usage.

    One can study the meanings and how they are expressed in natural language (top-down analysis, I think that would be called) and contribute much to how out concepts and ideas are organized and how we express them in natural language.

    Both approaches require an ontology and a representation for meaning in natural language. Both are fascinating disciplines in which to work, as they require an ability to make clear what was previously hidden: the mechanisms of inference and metaphor, speech acts, coreference, humor, sarcasm, comprehension, translation, and dozens of other uses to which we put natural language.

    The question will arise: what should one with a love of language study first? A close friend of mine is an expert in coreference. My fascination is with comprehension and the role inferences play in it. But to a true lover of language, I believe the answer to that question is: Gain a deep knowledge of your specialty, but study everything about natural language there is to be studied, in human beings and machines.

    We have only seen the first blush of machine comprehension, thanks to Roger Schanks semantic grammar (Conceptual Dependency theory and applications). If we redouble our efforts to understand human comprehension, memory, and cognitive architecture in human and computational environments, sometime in the next few decades things are going to become really interesting.

  9. Let me briefly add the Conceptual Dependency parsing of “have” from an English word in a sentence into a CD structure is even more complex than Esprit de l’Escalier’s analysis of it. Verbs like “to have,” “to be,” and “to do” in English require extraordinary in-context processing to translate them into Conceptual Dependency structures, and one reason that formalism fell out of favor was that building a CD dictionary (with a semantic memory) would take hundreds of graduate students decades to compile and debug it. The meanings of the words needed to be learned, and I believe a natural language learning project (in English) on that scale would not yet prove cost effective as the field advances.

  10. My parents weren’t native English speakers and sometimes proverbs got a bit mangled in translation but the one that always perplexed me was “No news is good news.”

    I took this to mean, because of how it was used in out family, that there was no such thing as good news–that any and all news was always bad news, that news was the harbinger of disaster. It was only much later that I understood the phrase to mean that if you didn’t hear otherwise, you could assume it was good news.

    The cake one I _got_ but it always pissed me off because it seemed to belittle me for wanting more than one slice of cake.

  11. What you are, I think, is a sorceress, a wizard – you cast spells. Your grimoire is grammar (the root of that word anyhow). You use words to manipulate the world – or to tear down the artifices of other spell-casters who have obscured the true nature of things. Your words are as real as the reality they reveal, and your brooding interest in minutiae quite logical, for a miscast spell can be terribly embarrassing for an accomplished wizard such as yourself.

  12. I always used to have trouble with ‘More haste, less speed.’ I took it to be an instruction: be more hasty and less quick. This never stopped me understanding it’s meaning, but for a very long time I didn’t know why it meant what it meant.

    I realize this is a question much akin to the dreaded and unanswerable ‘What’s you’re favorite book?’ but I’d still like to ask: what’s you’re favorite word?