The Ninth Veil

“The ninth veil represents the illusion that the words people communicate are unanimously and exactly congruent with the ideas to which they refer.”


I strolled down Smith street feeling confident and hungry. Teams of people shouldered past, peppering me with excited snippets of conversation, charging the hot night with their wild optimisms. I nudged my way through thick crowds that spilled like sweaty tongues from the fevered bars panting out their pop-music breath.

My shirt constricted my movements. It felt uncomfortably tight, but I endured the sartorial hindrance in the name of fashion. I looked sharp, or at least felt that way. So I let my flat-bottom black sneakers take me to Yah Yah’s for Thurs-gay night clubbing.

I walked right up to the front, and spotted a friend of a friend. She was engaged in a frenzy of conversation with a group of lesbians. And I immediately crashed into a wall of intimidation.

Despite my best efforts, I have to be in prime condition to face a cold opening of a group of excited strangers. I walked right on past. I scarfed a yogurt muesli bar, smoked a cigarette, and returned a changed man.

You see, entrance is key. Come in on the vibe, or above it. Inject a straight shot of happy into the group as you rock up. Keep up a charming veneer for about 30 seconds, then let the conversation carry itself back into its natural orbit. Then you’re in. Relax into it, pay attention, stay interested, and be patient for a chance to say something insightful or funny. That’s it.

That’s how my second attempt went down. And that’s how I began my first night out at a gay bar.

For some reason I get along well with lesbians. I reckon I enjoy the female demeanor minus the pretext of sexual interest. Men are more aloof than women. They’re vaguely combative; alpha male undertones bleed through many interactions. Straight women typically have a guard up, understandably. They’re vaguely defensive, and the maintenance of platonic context hinders easy interaction. Lesbians evade both those issues.

And it took all that I enjoy from lesbian company to convince me to swallow expensive espresso martinis and wiggle to a grab bag of pop songs trawled from the past two decades. It was a night of clubbing like any other I imagine; just with a lot of gay folks. I had a lot of fun.

And what do gay folks discuss between The Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ and Lil Jon’s ‘Get Low’?

Sexual labels of course.

I am fascinated by the discourse every time. I am encouraged that people are challenging the convention of words, even if it’s confined to the narrow sector of sexuality. It’s a start.

The terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ are far too clumsy to describe the subtlety of sexuality. Thus a collection of new terms has bloomed: pansexual, bisexual, queer, transexual, questioning, asexual etc.

The consensus in drunken, mawkish discussions outside gay bars everywhere is that even these terms stumble and crack. The beautiful snowflakes people are cannot be confined to such restrictive boxes. Then the cliche ‘Why do we have to put a label on it anyway!?’ And then the self-congratulation for transcending societally-imposed definition. It’s a high that goes with cigarettes and disco like national pride goes with flags and fireworks.

What these unique snowflakes may not realize is that sexuality is not a specially nuanced facet of reality that eludes the grasp of language. Many, many others are the same way.

Words themselves are limited in hidden ways. The ninth veil blinds us to that fact because practical labeling underpins all forms of interactions in our daily lives. We do it so much, and so automatically, that we talk to dogs. We talk to babies. Sometimes it’s from an ironic, or cutesy, reference. But other times people discipline dogs as if they could understand the spoken reproach.

It’s understandably ingrained. It’s a veil of society. Just as the others, the ninth veil descended at society’s nascence. And just as the others it has thickened ever since.

Humanity’s first ever profound forward-leap happened when the first ever idea struck. Before inventing the wheel. Before building the pyramids. Before emperors, kings, and chiefs. Before gods, messiahs, and prophets. Before humans could even be distinguished from animals. That’s because it was that first idea that made the first human.

There has been hardly anything more deeply auspicious than the first idea was. The first innovation of consciousness; a supreme blessing. But shortly thereafter came a grievous curse. Humanity’s great fortune entailed an equal tragedy: the inability to convey that idea.

Out of that necessity came art for one, but also came language. At its humble beginnings language was little more than rudimentary grunts and grumbles and guttural noises; crude sounds that referred to ideas only slightly more sophisticated.

As time progressed, new ideas formed with greater subtlety. And language would respond and refine itself accordingly. Always one step behind. Always one degree out of phase with the original idea; with reality.

As it has evolved over millennia, language has come closer and closer to emulating reality. It has developed enough to be a convincing means of imparting human experience from one mind to another.

But there still remain tiny cracks in this lens of communication. Those cracks distort the messages we send to each other. They cause misunderstanding and confusion, and consequently an inestimable amount of conflict. This is an inevitable result of the natural limitation of language.

Luckily, that conflict is vaporous. It’s not real. It only takes moving past the ninth veil, realizing the unavoidable vagueness of language, to dispel it.

Moving past the veil means intuiting an idea being expressed beneath the wording. Moving past the veil means trusting the human more than the expression. Moving past the veil is an effort in communicating more effectively:

  1. By identifying ambiguous words that hinge an argument, then carefully defining them before moving forward.
  2. By acknowledging emotional conditions in yourself and in your speaking partner, and weighting what is spoken appropriately from that.
  3. By using and reading body language to send and receive messages on a deeper level.
  4. And by learning as many words as possible to convey meaning more elaborately, with less room for misinterpretation.

Fortunately the vast majority of ideas people communicate in day to day life are simple and unambiguous. And there’s usually a mountain of context pinning them to meaning. Language is extremely well suited to conveying much of what we need it to.

However language is not perfect. The extent that it frames our perceptions, and thus the foundations of our expressions, far outsizes its effective capacity. So there is enormous value to be reaped by moving beyond the ninth veil; by disenchanting ourselves of the perfect congruity of language to reality.

No one is wrong in a heated argument when one person spouts something that’s misinterpreted by the other and the argument falls into greater animosity. No one ‘hates’ as much as they think they do simply because that word is a go-to for far too many displeasures. Attaching vilifying labels to groups of people is a reflex from behind the ninth veil. Writing people off as ‘stupid’ or ‘racist’ or ‘evil’ or ‘backward’ is lazy, inaccurate diction. It stifles further understanding which is the only way to resolve whatever issue is involved.

Although the vast majority of our sayings are received exactly as they’re sent, often the most important, heavy, pivotal conversations are ones that stumble over the boundaries of language. It is in the moment of expressing such subtle ideas that we ought take care to appreciate when a substantive conflict has arisen, and when it is simply language itself that is causing dissonance.

These dissonances spark in the minds of individuals, and can echo throughout society. I see it overtly in the sexual rights movement of the 21st century. The ninth veil surfaced that night outside Yah Yah’s. The ubiquitous discussions of labels on sexual orientation are, at their core, discussions about the limitations of language; about the ninth veil.

What I recognized there and then was a micro-example of a culture coming to terms with a linguistic disharmony. I am encouraged by the discourse because it signifies a refinement of language. The ardent desire, bordering at times on righteous demand, for fluid labels is the latest evolution of language. An evolution that has run a course for thousands of years, and that continues today. It is a superb thing to behold.

Thank you for reading.


p.s. Writing about this veil is ironic really…

I’m using words to convey an idea about the inefficacy of words to convey an idea.  It’s vaguely self-defeating, paradoxical.  So it goes.

Thank you for (further) reading.


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