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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

The Importance of Being Inspirable

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By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, February 2014.

It’s always a bit disconcerting when a notion forms in your mind and you cannot find a good word for it. Memory going bad? Mental energy running out? Bad vocabulary? In many cases, it is one of the above – or more.

Also, when you are bilingual or multilingual, that kind of experience tends to happen quite a lot. Some notions come into easy expression in one language but not in another. I am sure you know how you sometimes switch languages right in the middle of a conversation – within a train of thought – in order to be able to express an idea or achieve a socio-lingual move. Sometimes, that switch takes you only half the way, and you are left confused, lost in a cul-de-sac created by your own mind.

That kind of experience is valuable because it tells you at least two things. First, while one can define thinking as the using of words, the activities of the mind are broader than that. There is the vital grey area where pre-lingual activities leap into lingual shape, into grammar, into retorts – into conversation. Where that leap takes place is where a notion seeks a word.

Second, having more than one language opens up intermediate areas where notions from one language force you to coin a word or a phrase in another language. Being bilingual, therefore, is more than being skilled in two languages. One plus one here definitely adds up to more than two.

But, of course, the grammar of a language, if we are not too pedantic in character, provides possibilities for new coinages of words and phrases to fit emerging notions. Playing with words is of course the basis for humour – and a lot of good poetry. Most of all, finding a good word for a good notion is a most satisfying thing.

Just the other day, after interviewing Tan Twan Eng (see cover story) and while trying to think up a good heading to pronounce his ability to absorb transitory and seemingly trivial impressions that later are put to such excellent use in his books, I thought of the word “inspirable” to signify a steady psychic state of receptiveness.

It turns out that the word is actually in existence, and it does not generally mean what I want it to mean. Oftentimes, it means to be inspiring, to be inspired or to be inhaling. Bummer.

This led me to analyse the word “inspire” in its various forms – inspirational, inspiring, inspired, etc. What struck me was how we tend to think of inspiration as something extraordinary and external.

The state of being capable of being inspired on a perpetual basis by small and fleeting things – thus, to be “inspirable” – has no proper denotation! To be able to be inspired is an acquired capacity not easily attained.

Here, I recognise a serious hindrance to the creative process and to the ability to appreciate immediacy, to the propensity to be philosophic.

To be inspired should definitely not be understood as something happening to one, and only occasionally at that, and even as a godsend. The ability to be inspired should be what everyone ought to develop in himself or herself, for we are always surrounded by things and events that are potentially inspiring or inspirational. It is our own individual psyche that bears the blame for our being uninspired.

We should all come to realise The Importance of Being Inspirable.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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