The author, smiling winningly Scott Raymond home

Constraints

23 Sep 2000

While working at my cybercafe of choice in Paris, I’m often faced with the problem of dealing with foreign keyboards. Usually they’re French, but I also run into German, and Spanish. When they’re English, they’re usually British English. The layouts of all the keyboards are similar, but different enough to be a hassle. The other day while emailing a friend I was unable, for the life of me, to type the letter ‘m’. So I composed a reluctant lipogram to her. It wasn’t very impressive, especially when compared to the novel Gadsby by Ernest V. Wright in the late 1930s, written entirely without the letter ‘e’. It begins, “If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that ‘a child don’t know anything.’” Now that takes skill.

All of this has me thinking about the effects of imposing essentially artificial constraints on communication. When you deny yourself complete freedom in, say, writing, often it allows you to actually express yourself better, counterintuitively. For example, writing poetry or lyrics: often the reason they have so much expressive power is because the writer limits himself metrically or in rhyme. In the same way, in my experience the medium of radio (I’m thinking specifically of non-music programs) has been much more moving to me than television. Because the producers are dealing with only an audio channel rather than both audio and video, they’re forced to focus on squeezing maximal expression out of the medium. The medium isn’t the message, exactly, but the medium interacts with the message.

Looking at the question one meta-level down, the rules of language are essentially artificial constraints. Words generally can’t go in any order, they’re constrained by syntax. This doesn’t limit range of expression, it actually enables it. Real creativity is possible because of the structural rules that are imposed.

Now jump up quite a few meta-levels, and consider: perhaps it’s possible to gain freedom in life by submitting to ‘rules’. Perhaps emancipation is not the same thing as being without constraint. Perhaps true freedom can be found through submission to the laws of the universe, and the laws of God. (what do you think?)