Day 173: The Language Forest

My favorite image for language itself is a great forest: it’s a living thing, and it’s bigger than we are, and we’re born into the middle of it and we gradually get to know more and more about it as we grow ourselves. It provides us with shelter and food and pleasure. (The forest is the phase space of all we can possibly say.) But parts of it are being burned down, and other parts are struggling to find light and nourishment, and the terrible thing is now we’re conscious, the nature of the forest itself has changed. … We can’t pretend to be innocent in the face of language, any more than in the face of knowledge of any sort: we are conscious, and so we are responsible. Whether we like it or not, the forest of language is not wild virgin forest any more; it’s being managed, and some of it is being managed badly. And we’re responsible, we the story people, the poetry people, the book people. In our parts of the forest, we are in charge.

Philip Pullman, Dæmon Voices

Day 151: Finding one's dæmon

Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, which Philip Pullman has said inspired his creation of dæmons in the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Dæmon is pronounced the same as "demon" but is not demonic. A dæmon to the ancient Greeks was a being somewhere between gods and humans. Neither one nor the other, which sounds frustrating if you're the dæmon. Another definition, the one that concerns me here, is an attendant spirit guide, a form of external spirit that makes itself known as an internal voice and frequently takes on an imagined (or not) material existence as an animal—an individual's dæmon may manifest as a wolf or a raven. The Pythagoreans claimed special knowledge of dæmons, but then they would.

I've been sprawling about some of the writing on dæmons because I'm reading Philip Pullman's excellent Dæmon Voices, a collection of his writing about storytelling. As these things do, my inquiry converged with something unexpected. Seven years ago, Dahlia Lithwick, a writer for Slate, scribbled "Chaos Theory: A Unified Theory of Muppet Types." She examined the universe of Jim Henson's imagination and emerged with Muppet Theory,

...a little-known, poorly understood philosophy that holds that every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts.

The upshot of my day's musing and textual walkabout is this: I wish my dæmon to be a Chaos Muppet.

If I can't make that happen—and I'm not at all sure how these things work—then I'm founding a punk band just so I can name it the Chaos Muppets.

Day 139: Philip Pullman


I have just begun Philip Pullman's volume of essays, Daemon Voices, and after the first selection I am enamored, so consider yourself warned that there might be a bit of Pullman in the coming days. This is him on taking care with language:

We should become attuned to our own utterances; we should install a little mental bell that rings when we’re using expressions that are second-hand or blurred through too much use. We should try always to use language to illuminate, reveal, and clarify rather than obscure, mislead, and conceal. The language should be safe in our hands—safter than it is in those of politicians, for example; at the least, people should be able to say that we haven’t left it any poorer, or clumsier, or less precise. The aim must always be clarity.