12 April, 2011

Word of the Week

A word I have been thinking about recently is ‘visceral.’  I really like this word and connotations it brings with it.

The definition is easy enough.  From www.merriam-webster.com:

1.       Felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body
2.        not intellectual : instinctive, unreasoning
3.       dealing with crude or elemental emotions
4.       of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera

I want to say, I really like the way the first definition has been crafted: “felt in or as if in the internal organs.”  So many human emotions are conveyed using physical imagery.  A pang of longing, heartache, nervous butterflies, bone-chilling terror, blood running cold.

The original use of ‘visceral’, as stated by www.etymonline.com, meant ‘affecting inward feelings.’  Humans have long thought that the bowels were the center of emotion, most likely because of the physical reactions we have to strong feelings.  Over time, the more literal sense of ‘visceral’ was adopted, meaning the internal organs, specifically the ones in the abdomen.  Now to us, phrases like “bowels filled with compassion’ are at once poetic and snickeringly amusing.

What I like best about the word is the power it holds.  To me, ‘visceral’ has the second and third meanings listed above: elemental, instinctive, wild, raw, unrefined.  It carries with it a sort of savage power, almost a hunger or need, something that overwhelms the rational mind, reducing us to barely more than animals.

Blind with rage, snarling in fury, frozen in fear; all emotions that are so overpowering that we can’t think or reason, striped down to our ‘elemental’ emotions, the instinctive will to survive, the urge to flight or flee.

When a person, or in my case, a character, has been reduced to this point, it is an opportunity to explore who they really are.  What are they going to do now that their humanity, their morals and ethics brushed aside?  Who have they become?  Are they going to do what I think, what I planned for them?  Are they going to rise up and be noble and brave?  Are they going to lash out, run away, fight to the death, beg for mercy?

All very interesting questions, not only for my stories, but for life. 

To paraphrase Dr. King, a man’s character is who he is, how he acts, the choices he makes, while in adversity.