What is tautology?

“It is what it is”

Herein lies a phrase which has pissed off many a stranger in my company. It has been labelled ‘a conversation killer’, ‘a non-argument’ – ‘anti-intellectual’, ‘anti-academia’ … but, even still, it is one of the only truths we can possibly know.

‘It is what it is’ is an excellent example of tautology, and it is easy to comprehend what it is (bingo!) about the expression that frustrates people.

For example, I saw a friend about a year ago who I hadn’t seen in some time – perhaps a year or two prior to this meeting. He informed me that he and his girlfriend had recently broken up, which was clearly bad news to him, given his sombre expression.

I don’t think he delivered this news to me with the expectation of any words of wisdom, necessarily. But still, he kinda left the conversation hanging, and I felt obliged to engage with him.

“It is what it is,” I responded with what I thought was a sympathetic shrug – the most suitable response I could muster up. But this seemed to irritate my friend somewhat. As I say, I don’t believe he expected any wisdom from me … but perhaps he didn’t expect such bluntness.

“Well, so is everything … that doesn’t help at all, does it?” he replied, quite correctly. He was visibly annoyed, appearing to be holding back some harsher, possibly profane words.

And I totally understood his annoyance. If I imagined the roles were reversed, perhaps I would’ve been the same: if I was the party searching for a cure to a broken heart, and he had told me that ‘it is what it is’ … well, maybe I’d have been annoyed too. After all, it’s quite an anti-climatic answer to someone who maybe needs comforting, friendly, or helpful advice. And saying “it is what it is” offers nothing in this sense. Sometimes people don’t need to be reminded that there situation is out of their control; they just need some support.

In any case, for me to write about this exchange now (a year later), I have clearly reflected on it; and, upon reflection, I have decided that my answer, while inappropriate for my friend in question, was the truest answer I could have given.

Whether you have a broken-heart, a loved one has died, your phone has been stolen, or you missed the bus … it really doesn’t matter what loss has incurred to, or what pain has been inflicted upon you, me, or anyone – ‘it is what it is’, and nobody can deny it. We can try to get our head around why it happened, but is that really possible?

Tautology is (as defined by a quick Google search) “the saying of the same thing twice over in different words, generally considered to be a fault of style.” ‘It is what it is’ is literally saying the same thing again, with the same words … so it’s basically a tautology on steroids – it’s the rogue cop of tautologies!

I completely understand why it frustrates people to hear tautological phrases. It truly is, in one sense, an error of style – a statement which renders itself redundant.

Tautologically Tao

But certain tautologies remind me of the ancient wisdom of Taoism (pronounced ‘d-ow-is-em’). One of my personal favourite quotes attributed to Lao Tzu (considered the father of Taoism) goes like this: “He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.”

Before I go any further, I first want to acknowledge that Lao Tzu, ironically, spoke these words (pre-translation). But then again, his quote doesn’t actually explain what the silent person actually knows – the quote doesn’t reveal anything enlightening. I mean, someone might hear this quote and ask “what is it he does not know? What does he mean?” And I doubt Lao Tzu would attempt to compose a satisfactory answer for such a curious question. In fact, it isn’t beyond doubt that his answer to such a counter-question could be: “I mean that he does not know that it is what it is!” To which the ‘someone’ could reply: “what do you mean by ‘it’?”

And here lies the trouble with language. It reminds me of a Zen story about a Buddhist nun, Wu Jincang, and her meeting with Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.

“I have studied the Mahaparinirvana Sutra for many years, yet there are many places where the meaning still eludes me. Please will you enlighten me?” Jincang asked.

Huineng replied, “I am illiterate. Would you please read out the passage to me first? Then perhaps I can unveil its meaning to you.”

The nun was stunned. “You cannot even read the characters, how are you possibly able to understand their meaning?” she asked.

And Huineng explained that “Truth has nothing to do with words! Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the night sky. A finger, in this case, can be likened to words. Words are like a finger which points to the moon. The finger can point to where the moon is, but the finger is not the moon itself.”

Why is it called that?

Did you ever wonder why a table was named ‘table’, and a zebra was named ‘zebra’? Why not the other way around? What is it about the words that encapsulate their reference points so well? The answer is linked in with history, and these words each have a story that often spans back centuries and centuries … but ultimately, there is no evidence of a divine reason that a zebra should be called ‘zebra’ and not ‘table’.

And this trouble with words is the exact reason for humanity’s difficulty in describing what intangibles such as God, love, or consciousness look like. Words were invented by humans to describe humans’ experiences, for communication. But words, useful as they are as a communicative tool, are always in reference to something else; whereas the thing itself has no reference point. The word ‘table’ can never encapsulate what a table is in reality terms, no more than the name ‘Tom Robinson’ can encapsulate me, whoever I am.

My point here is that my response to my broken-hearted friend provided as much wisdom and truth as any deep, or affectionate response possibly could have. There are no words available to us that will truly help someone to understand what they are trying to understand.

Isn’t it funny how history has a tendency to repeat itself?

“True, tautologies – irrefutable in their truism – seem to be the only way to say something without distorting the reality of what is…” (Pavel Somov, Ph.D)

I couldn’t avoid referencing Somov in this post. I stumbled upon his article (click here) while in the process of writing this piece. Finding it reaffirmed to me what my blog, Tautological Times, is all about: it’s about giving myself the freedom to feel, and be, and feel creative in a world where genuinely pure originality/uniqueness does not exist for writers (there’s nothing anyone can write that hasn’t already been hammered out by a monkey on a typewriter).

Being introduced to Samov’s post, while having written a piece that makes many of the same points Somov had already made, reminded me of a sombre truth: nothing you create can ever be truly original.

But that shouldn’t upset us, as creative beings. Nobody ever wrote a story which didn’t incorporate aspects of the real world into it. Even in fantasy literature, such as Lord of the Rings, or children movies such as Monsters Inc, all have characters who are unmistakably human, and tell stories that relate to the human experience. And make no mistake! While Tolkien invented an entire world (and even a new language) for his epic stories, he didn’t create anything without influence from already existing or created entities (including but not limited to elves and dwarves).

So sod it! If you want to create something (writing, drawing, baking, or whatever it may be), just create something that feels good for you to create … you have nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. If you like it, there will certainly be others who like it, too.

And if you have a broken heart? Just trust that the feeling will pass, as all feelings do (in a typically tautological way).

(copyright, 2018) ((only half joking))