465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

It is a Wednesday afternoon in April, 1973. I am taking my Humanities III class at Abbott Academy on a field trip to MIT. Each week we strike into the territory surrounding Andover, Massachusetts, for the distance of up to a one hour’s drive. We then pair up and venture into the wilderness to see what sort of place we have come to. After exploring for an hour and a half, we gather, share our discoveries, and drive back to Andover. One Wednesday we went to a crossroad in rural New Hampshire [which I can no longer find on the map] to see what life was like in that neck of the woods. Another, we went to Plumb Island on the coast of Massachusetts to explore plant and animal life among the dunes. Today we are in industrial Cambridge, enjoying the mixed scent of the Necco factory, rubber factory, and Heinz pickles from the campus of MIT in their midst. My students radiate out from under the dome of Building 10. I cross Mass Ave. to look at the chapel built since my own student days 20 years earlier. There it is, an unassuming brick cylinder off the path to the athletic field. I am surprised how small it is. A for simplicity, D- for elegance. In I go. Blackness. Radiant gold flakes falling from a light tube above. Not falling, exactly; metal shapes skewered on rods radiating downward in the column of light. The effect is of power and illumination descending, shimmering over some kind of altar. As my eyes get used to the dark, I sense concentric rows of benches echoing the contour of the wall. I sit. A shape there, just outside the beam from the skylight. Someone’s standing by the altar. A young woman. Holding something in one hand. She swings it up. Music! A Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin. She plays for what seems like eternity—which I later figure to be about 20 minutes. The light descends, the sculpture glows in its dark surround, I sit, the woman plays. The music is the medium in which, together, we exist. She ceases playing, puts her instrument in its case, and walks out. As she passes me, I tell her I’ve never met an angel before. She says nothing, and leaves. Later, I have a hard time telling my students about the experience. It has nothing to do with language. To force my vision into words is to ridicule or diminish it. You had to be there, I tell them.

 

When everything comes together in consciousness like that, for good or ill, we are overwhelmed. Could be 9/11, could be Obama’s inauguration. Such states of cohesion are milestones along our journeys of life discovery. We are tempted to take them as revelations of true reality, even though those alongside of us may be experiencing something totally different. At any rate, these are momentous occasions.

 

More often, consciousness is conflicted, opening onto a world of mixed messages. Which makes a hash of so-called reality as a kind of tumult neither good nor bad. It just is. With us being pulled this way and that so we hardly know who we are. But every now and then we take that fatal step into the dark chapel, or come across a paragraph by Thoreau that makes particularly powerful sense. We are moved by being for once of one mind. Consciousness is still as complicated as ever, but all the facets contribute to the overall effect.

 

We know all about love-hate relationships. Pepperoni pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and extra cheese is a gift from heaven—except for the gastric distress it brings on, and the extra weight we carry for eating it down at one sitting. School would be fun—if it weren’t so boring. The Friday paycheck is great—if only it went far enough. Most experiences are a mixture of the good and the bad, which turns what seems at first glance to be pleasurable into drudgery, or vice versa. Vacations, for instance, are a great idea. But when it comes to making all the arrangements, and seeing what everything costs, it makes more sense to stay home and read a good book. Everyday consciousness is usually at sixes and sevens, so we grit our teeth and bear with it. That’s life, we say. So we steel ourselves and grind on.

 

Which sets us up for those rare times when it all (attention, feeling, expectation, percepts, concepts, memory, motive, judgment, understanding, action, etc.) comes together and we feel more alive than we have in ages. That’s what basketball mania is all about, community theater, good sex, and other peak experiences when our usually fragmented consciousness gets itself together for once.

 

When I was a freshman in high school, I entered the annual prize speaking contest. I loved James Thurber stories at the time, so decided to deliver “The Car We Had to Push.” It was an all-school event, putting me as a novice up against far more mature and accomplished speakers. I remember reciting myself to sleep every night for a month, haltingly at first, then smoother and smoother. On the day of the event, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so clasped them behind me. I got through without a hitch and thought that wasn’t so bad. When the judges announced their decision, my classmate Josephine Case won first prize for girls with “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, and I won for boys. We each got a ten dollar bill.

 

That was the first time in my life I ever got my act together. I learned it was possible, and how much work it took. Before that, I was a tinkerer who got things to take apart by breaking into barns and stealing old cars. I walked along Payne Creek springing muskrat traps I thought were cruel, getting both the trapper and town policeman on my case. As a teenager I was definitely not together.

 

But over time I have learned something of what it takes to manage my own consciousness. Insofar, that is, as consciousness is subject to my stewardship—which is not very far. But I do know how to stick with a job, how to work in stages or drafts, and something about the sorts of experiences that turn me on: nature photography, writing haiku, reflecting on consciousness, trying to figure how ecosystems work, and so on, none of which is easy

 

The main thing I have learned is to keep exploring my options. And then to be deliberate in choosing which ones to give up on, which to pursue. My personal consciousness is the medium I have been given for living a life. I much prefer having it as my friend rather than an enemy constantly catching me by surprise. It has taken me a lifetime of curiosity and exploration to learn how to work with my consciousness rather than in spite of it, which makes living each moment as rewarding as it is challenging.

 

What can I say? I do what I love, love what I do. Which is code for I am my consciousness, my consciousness is me.

 

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