Symbols, Stand-ins and Euphemisms: The Impossibility of Whole Truths

Essay / December 2023 
Symbols, Stand-Ins and Euphemisms: The Impossibility of Whole Truths
By Phin Jennings

‘Pearl felt that she knew all the terrible words but none of their substitutes. Substitutions were what made civilised conversation possible. Whenever Pearl attempted civilised conversation, it sounded like gibberish. She could never find the appropriate euphemisms.’
- Joy Williams, The Changeling1

‘The Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless.’
– Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science2

When we try to tell the whole truth, we run into trouble. Whether in speech, in writing, or by other means, trying to reflect the world faithfully and comprehensively is pointless at best and impossible at worst.

In Jorge Luis Borges’ story, a map that coincides exactly with the territory it describes covers the territory entirely, rendering it useless. Joy Williams’ Pearl is unable to reformulate the ‘terrible words’ that truly reflect her world — to use euphemisms — and thus can’t be understood. The characters in both stories experience the difficulty of communicating in whole truths. Whole truths are messy and complicated. They are full of irrelevant, unknowable or inarticulable details. In both cases, the characters should have found or formulated an abstraction that gets to the heart of the matter, trimming away irrelevant details and re-formulating the untranslatable ones. They needed a model.

We communicate about the world using models. Their job is to simplify, to zero in on what is relevant and find a way to represent the boiled-down essentials on their own. Crucially, all models are wrong.3 They do not account for every detail; they prioritise the ones that matter for the purpose at hand. It is its wrongness that makes a good model useful.

For example, the MONIAC machine is a physical model of an economy. Created in the 1940s, it is a two-metre tall network of pipes and reservoirs. It uses hydraulics to distribute water into tanks with labels like ‘income after taxes’ and ‘consumption expenditure’, illustrating how money flows. Like Borges’ 1:1 scale map, a truly comprehensive economic model would represent every single individual and their activities. It would be the size of the territory whose economy it modelled. It would be useless. Generally, we are best off not considering each and every actor and transaction when we talk about economics. The MONIAC machine is useful precisely because it is wrong. It is not exhaustive, but it provides a working euphemism that helps us to understand a fragmented, complicated system. It is by way of euphemisms like this that we are able to communicate.

Telling whole truths, representing things as they really are, is useless. But is it also impossible? About 50 years after Borges’ story was published, Umberto Eco wrote an essay titled ‘On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1’ where he contends that The Cartographers Guilds’ map simply couldn’t exist, never mind its usefulness.4 Surely anything that we might want to communicate about: any territory, any object, any state of affairs, any idea, any person is simply too vast to articulate in full. Inevitably, there will be too much to get through, too much hidden, too much that we don’t understand, for us to be able to convey it all.

Take dying, for example. In The Changeling, Pearl is told that death is a euphemism. When we say that someone died or that they passed away or that they are no longer with us, we barely scratch the surface of the thing that we use those words for. They are weak models. We all have an idea — if only a hazy, nebulous one — of what someone is alluding to when they talk about death, but we know that the words don’t come close to capturing what that really is. This thought might be best articulated by the painter Joseph Yaeger, who uses the word ‘doublespeak’ for such euphemisms. In a text of the same name, he notes our inability to use language to truly reflect our inner states: ‘so limited, this sentence, this word, so meagre, so starved / relative to the world inside, everything / and yet it’s the best we have’.5

Making art is a form of doublespeak. It might at times reach beyond language, but a picture or sculpture is no more able to capture the whole truth than text or speech. Many think that this is a recent development in art history. Tom Wolfe, for example, wrote that the genesis of Modern art was the realisation that ‘art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature’.6 I disagree.

Euphemism is and always has been all we have at our disposal to communicate with. A lot of art goes where words cannot; it can communicate clearly where language falls short. But, like any communicative model, it is not exhaustive — it is not a mirror. This has been the case from the beginning. Look at Giotto’s murals inside the Scrovegni Chapel, painted in the 14th Century, or Pieter Huys’ Inferno, painted in the 16th Century. Do you think that these artists were looking to hold a mirror up to the world? They are not faithful and comprehensive renderings of their subjects; they are carefully selected constellations of symbols,stand-ins and euphemisms, designed to show us something about a reality that they will never be able to, and do not want to, faithfully recreate.

If you are looking for the whole truth, go out into the world and you might find it. In writing, speech, painting, sculpture and drawing, the best you will find are half-truths.

Footnotes:  1. Williams, Joy. The Changeling, Tuskar Rock Press, 1978, p. 3
2. Borges, Jorge Luis. ‘On Exactitude in Science’ Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, Penguin, 1998, p. 325
3. Box, George E.P. ‘Science and Statistics’ Journal of the American Statistical Association, 71 (356), pp. 791-799
4. Eco, Umberto. ‘On the Impossibility of Drawing a Map of the Empire on a Scale of 1 to 1’ How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, translated by William Weaver, Harcourt, 1994, pp. 96-106
5. Yaeger, Joseph. Doublespeak, Project Native Informant, 202§
6. Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word, Picador, 1975, p. 7

Image Credits:
1-2: Courtesy of the Author.