Sunday, 16 November 2014

Use of language in the Big Book

Someone said: "There is nothing cunning, baffling, powerful about alcohol in its liquid form. What’s cunning, baffling, powerful is we drink despite knowing all the consequences involved."

Someone else said: "I hear many things at meetings: 'I have a disease; I have a disease that wants me dead; I have a disease that tells me I don't have it.' I happen to disagree with all three of those things; the Big Book only mentions disease one time, and it says it is a spiritual one, not a physical one."

I don't disagree with either of these statements, at all. Good points.

However, I would enter a plea for leniency on the following grounds.

Language is used in a multiplicity of ways. Many people are quite literal in how they express themselves. Others—and Bill Wilson is an excellent example—make use of all sorts of rhetorical devices. Now, in the 1930s, I suspect the deliberate command (and overt understanding) of rhetorical devices amongst the relatively well-educated was greater than it is now.

With regard to the line about alcohol being 'cunning, baffling, powerful', this is an example of the Greek rhetorical device of 'metonymy'. This is where you refer to something not by its name but by something associated with it. Thus 'the financial sector based in New York' is referred to as 'Wall Street', 'the film industry based in Los Angeles' is referred to as 'Hollywood', etc.

The adjectives 'cunning', 'baffling', and 'powerful' refer to the thinking patterns of the alcoholic. They are cunning in that their arguments in favour of drinking despite the consequences can be very seductive, baffling because they run so counter to reason, and powerful because, well, look at how easily many are indeed seduced by them. Moreover, alcohol is part of this, because of its physical, neurological effect on the brain. Rather than referring to this complex set of ideas, Bill simply says 'alcohol', which is just one element in the mix, not the whole mix. (By the way, this particular type of metonymy, where one refers to one part of a whole rather than the whole, is referred to as 'synecdoche'.)

So, to sum up provisionally, it's not quite fair to argue against a statement in the book not being 'literally' true, when the author is deliberately using linguistic devices that go beyond the literal, for instance, to the metaphorical, to make a point 'punchier'. The point in question was never meant to be literal in the first place.

This brings me onto a second point:

It's quite right to say that the Big Book is cagey on the subject of alcoholism being disease. The Big Book does, however, use its own metaphor to describe alcoholism: 'King Alcohol', with the phrase 'shivering denizens of his mad realm'. The metaphor is extended almost to being a parable.

Now, no one really believes that there is a 'mad realm' of which we are 'denizens'. This metaphor—in which this imagery is substituted for the reality—is simply a device for conveying the concept of being involuntarily subject to greater, destructive forces.

Similarly, when people talk about the 'disease wanting them dead', they are employing the concept of a disease personified as having a will, because it's a helpful device to convey a complex set of ideas.

Sometimes it's helpful to hold two ideas in one's mind at the same time: firstly, metaphors and other devices do not aim to represent reality literally, like a photograph or a patent for a machine, but to convey ideas. Secondly, those ideas, whilst formally at odds with reality, may actually convey that reality more accurately.

It's very difficult to convey to someone new that their 'desire to drink' is not really their 'true self' (as the true self will not want to destroy itself) but a substantially physical urge to satisfy a 'need' to change one's brain chemistry, despite the consequences, presented to the self as being in one's best interests.

By contrast, it's very easy to say, 'you have a disease that wants to kill you': the idea can be conveyed instantly—and instantly the individual recognises that their desire to drink is a cognitive distortion; it is not their true self talking.

In summary: rhetorical devices and imagery—used amply in the Big Book and in the fellowship as a whole—are helpful in carrying the message.

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