Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’

Lascaux_painting

Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.

1280px-TabulaRogeriana

Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.

View_from_Stormy_Point

The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.

 

(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under book-related

The (limited) meaning of existence

Never mind God – do I exist?

I don’t mean that feeling – familiar enough to some of us – that you have somehow become invisible to those around you, nor am I suggesting that I might be a figment of your imagination (a kind of reverse solipsism) – rather I am concerned with the scope and application of that often-used term ‘exist’.

‘Existence’ is generally coupled with ‘reality’ – what is real is what can be said to exist, and vice versa; the branch of philosophy that deals with these matters is called ontology. Before we go into philosophy, though, let us tarry a moment with commonsense. Dr Johnson may not have understood what Berkeley was talking about , but his memorable refutation is interesting  – ‘he struck his foot against a rock with such force that he rebounded from it and said, ‘I refute it thus”.

What interests me here is that the commonsense definition of reality – the conviction that something is real – is a feeling : specifically, the feeling we get when we encounter something solid, as when we strike our hand upon the table or our head against the wall, or as Dr Johnson did, our foot against a stone. Real is real for us – which, ironically, is just what Berkeley was arguing with his esse est percipi.

The aim of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as he states in his preface, is

‘to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts’.

Here is what he has to say on the matter of the subject (in the philosophical sense of what is denoted by the pronoun ‘I’– as opposed to ‘me’, which denotes my objective aspect: what I see in the mirror is not I, but me):

LWTLPsubj

Here is the section that precedes it:

LWTLPSubj3

It is interesting to compare Wittgenstein on the Subject with Hume on the Self:

‘I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’
(A Treatise of Human Nature, sect VI, ‘of personal identity’)

Are Wittgenstein and Hume saying the same thing? It may be a matter of where you put the emphasis – is it ‘there is no such thing as the subject’ or ‘there is no such thing as the subject’? (the latter allowing that there may be subjects, but they are not things).

Of course we find that language is against us here: if what we are talking about is no thing, then it is nothing, surely? And if it is nothing – well, it is simply nothing, an absence, a non-entity.

Not necessarily: it may be that the coverage that language provides is not universal – it does not cover all there is  – and that calls to mind the final section of the Tractatus:

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’

It might be that there is a process of mutual reinforcement (or indeed validation) going on here – if language stands to the world as a picture does to what it pictures – which is what Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus* – then the content of the one is the content of the other; so that once we move to a general level, things (or reality, which means the same) are what exist, and what exist are things. Whatever falls outside the sphere defined by language is nothing: it does not exist.

However, it may be that Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it: you can find things by looking, but what if what you seek is not a thing?

This puzzle becomes clearer if we go back, via Descartes, to S. Augustine. Descartes, seeking for some certain foundation on which he could build, asserts cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – making it seem a logical deduction; Augustine, over a thousand years earlier, observed that ‘the man who says ‘I know that I am alive’ can neither be deceived nor lie.’ (meaning he could neither be mistaken about it, nor pretending) – which makes ‘being alive’ seem a matter of knowledge.

However, my being alive is not something I know; it is not something I discovered as the result of research, after a period of doubt, nor is it subject to any verification**; rather it is what I am. Indeed, my being alive is surely the ground of my knowing anything. Likewise, to take the Cartesian formulation, we do not deduce from reflection that we are – we simply are; and our being is a prerequisite for any deduction. Wittgenstein says ‘you do not see the eye’ but he might equally have said ‘you do not see the ‘I’ ‘

This relation, the subject-object interface, is a problem for philosophers; it does not trouble commonsense, as the Johnson story I began with illustrates. And like many philosophical problems, its root can be traced back to Plato, whose discrediting of the senses is equally a discrediting, marginalisation and suppression of the Subject, which henceforth is regarded by philosophers as an obstacle to be overcome, preferably by discounting it altogether, particularly when it comes to rational thought – consider the pejorative sense that ‘subjective’ has in any discussion in that field: to say that a viewpoint is ‘subjective’ is to brand it partial, biased, distorted by personal considerations and generally not worth heeding: it is involved, rather than detached (a telling distinction).

I think the time has come to rehabilitate the subject.

It is, as I said above, the ground of our knowing anything (and that resonates interestingly with a definition that some theologians – including Hans Kung, if I remember right – use of God: ‘the ground of our being’). I would suggest the model below to express the relationship between the subject and the world of  ‘independent objective reality’ (a treble redundancy, since ‘reality’ in its philosophical use carries with it the notion of being objective and independent, though it does not in its commonsense or Johnsonian one):
2018-03-01 09.51.04

I think the implications of this model are worth unfolding, and I will return to it in a later article. For the present I will say only that Language (in its philosophical sense) operates only in the red area; Art operates in the blue (which is the universal set, and contains the red).

*though he later abandoned the picture theory – where meaning is a correspondence between words and a state of affairs in the world – for the idea that meaning is the use of a word, a shift of the most profound significance.

**this in fact is the theme of Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Eight questions

My estimable friend Jackie Morris, artist and illustrator, writer of books, friend of bears, has some questions she would like us to answer (you can find more details here – http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/a-survey/ – including the prospect of prizes if you so incline).

Here are the questions:

  1. If you could see through someone else’s eyes who would that be?
  2. If you could see something one more time, what would that be?
  3. If you could make something, anything, what would you choose to make?
  4. How would you describe your desire?
  5. Do you make wishes?
  6. Do you dream?
  7. If you could develop a skill before you die what would you choose?
  8. Do you have any regrets? if the answer is no please move to question 8a.

8a. What are your regrets?

I  like 8a. Honesty is the best policy (apart from outright brazen lying)

My first reaction was to feel sad and think that I could not really answer any of those questions. Then I decided I would try anyway.

So, first question, through whose eyes would I see?

an albatross, I think. I like the idea of that lone cruising

‘Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.’

as Mr Eliot so admirably puts it.

Next, what something would I see again? ‘Something‘ excludes people, and a host of bittersweet possibilities; so I would say – what? I do not know. Perhaps I do not believe you can see anything again – it will always be different. As Heraclitus observed, you cannot step in the same river twice.

What to make? I have lately become enamoured of the whole process of making books, having recently made one hundred of my own (see here: Making McAvinchey) So, something possible and specific – a hydraulic printing press like this one: http://affordablebindingequipment.com/hydraulic-letterpress-printing-press/

How would I describe my desire?

Not fervent enough, alas, but I will try to burn hotter.

Do I make wishes?

Often.

Do I dream?

yes, both waking and sleeping.

What skill would I develop? Letterpress printing or working a lathe.

Regrets?

That I did not do more; that I held back and lacked courage; that I thought too much and felt too little; that I did not love enough.

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Another way to misrepresent the EU referendum result: the Charles Moore Defence

Charles_Moore,_former_editor_of_the_Daily_Telegraph,_at_Edmund_Burke_Philosopher,_Politician,_Prophet[photo by Policy Exchange – Flickr: Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, at Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30224977%5D

As we have seen ( in Liars in public places) the usual method of misrepresenting the 2016 referendum result, as employed by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin and Johnson, is to lie outright –  these honourable men equate those who voted to leave with ‘the British people’ whose voice, we are told, must be heeded, and whose will must not be thwarted. Yet if we look at the actual figures, this arithmetic is downright dishonest:

British People (total) = 65.5 million

British People (eligible to vote in 2016 referendum) = 46.5 million

“British People” (as defined by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin & Johnson) = 17.4 million.

(i.e. 38% of the electorate, 26.4% of the population – a large minority by any honest measure)

This morning, Mr Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, made another sort of misrepresentation to the people – he told us that the vote to leave was  ‘a massive vote – 17.4 million people, the largest number to vote for anything in our history’   (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 February)

This is a claim I have heard before, from others who, like Mr Moore, are keen to present the 2016 referendum result as something it is not. For what it’s worth, the assertion is true (though only barely so) – but to be honest, it is not worth much at all.

For a start, we must ask ourselves on how many occasions ‘in our history’ the British people have voted on a single issue such as this*.

The answer is 3.

In 2016, as we have seen, 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU;

in 2011, 13,013,123 voted to reject the alternative vote and stick with first past the post;

and in 1973 17,378,581 voted to remain in the EU

that is only 32,161 fewer (or 0.18% less) than the ‘massive’ 2016 tally – from a substantially smaller electorate (40 million against 46.5) and a slightly lower turnout (64.67% v. 72.21%) – sufficient, I would say, to render Mr Moore’s grand-sounding claim void of any worth and confirm it as a clear attempt to misrepresent the 2016 referendum result as some sort of overwhelming landslide which it would be futile to challenge, whereas it was actually very close on the day – 51.89% v 48.11% – and in percentage terms meant that only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave as against 34.7% who wished to stay and a further 27% who did not offer an opinion.

For comparison, the 1975 result was decisive –  67% to 33%,  17.378 million v. 8.47 million, 43% of the electorate for, 21% against with 36% not offering an opinion.

I have said elsewhere that the 2016 result would be more honestly presented by saying that 62% did not vote to leave. In case I am accused of duplicity, we should consider the 1975 referendum in the same light.

Can we say that 57% ‘did not vote to stay’ ? I suppose we could; on the other hand, since the status quo then, as now, was that we were already in the EU, then voting to leave is the vote for change; so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in 1975, 79% did not wish to leave the EU, since only 21% expressed a desire to do so.

What is undeniable is that a number of public figures – many of them elected representatives – consistently misrepresent the 2016 result as so overwhelming that to challenge it would be futile and an affront to democracy. 

They do so because they fear that the result – which was actually very close and showed the country to be deeply divided on the issue – will certainly be reversed in a second referendum.

For them, that makes a second referendum something to be avoided at all costs. For us – the British people – it makes it a democratic imperative.

 

*There have been 11 referendums since 1973, but only 3 involved the whole of the UK. General elections, which involve multiple parties, constituency votes and complex manifestos, are clearly not the same as single-issue referendums in  which the overall vote is what counts. For information, since the war, the winning party has generally gained around 13 million votes, with the lowest being Tony Blair’s victory in 2005 (9.55 million votes giving a majority of 31) and the highest John Major’s 14 million in 1992, which gave him a slimmer majority of 10; while Teresa May’s total of 13.63 milion in 2017, though among the highest, left her short of an overall majority – which shows that the total popular vote is of little significance in these contests.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics

Johnson now certain Britain wishes to remain and would reverse Brexit in second referendum

 

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48     picture: BBC Website

Boris Johnson has admitted that a second referendum would reverse Brexit and see Britain vote to remain in the EU.

In his speech today, Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.

Since Mr Johnson presents himself as a firm advocate of Brexit, it is inconceivable that he would describe a referendum that confirmed Brexit in those terms or as having these effects; if anything, it would silence the Remainers.

His words can only mean that Mr Johnson expects a second referendum would reverse Brexit and leave the 38% of the electorate who voted for it feeling betrayed.

His words are open to no other construction.

But if he believes that the British people wish to stay in the EU, why is he intent on denying them the chance to say so? Can it be that he puts his own career above democracy?

Leave a comment

Filed under politics

Reading between the lines in Boris’s valentine

Boris Johnson, whatever else he may be, is a wily creature. His Valentine’s Day attempt to woo us all to get behind Brexit is a typically guileful effort. It is presented as a magnanimous ‘reaching out’ to ‘Remainers’ along the lines of ‘let’s all pull together to make this happen’.  He wishes to persuade us ‘that Brexit is not grounds for fear but hope.’ His general style, as always, is one of bluff confidence.

Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48   (picture: BBC website)

However, even the wiliest creatures do not always succeed in concealing their true feelings; sometimes they let slip rather more than they mean to.

 

Mr Johnson has done his arithmetic: he knows that when he and his cronies – the reprehensible Rees-Mogg, the unspeakable Bernard Jenkin – use expressions like ‘the voice of the British people’ (which must be heeded!) and ‘the will of the British people’ (which must on no account be thwarted!) then the expression ‘British people’ actually means ‘a large minority of the electorate.’

 

To be precise, it means 17,410,742 out of an electorate of 46,500,001 registered voters (in a country with a population 65,640,000). In other words, while those in favour of leaving the EU might amount to a bare majority (52%) of those who voted, in fact they are only 37.4% of the electorate and 26.5% of the total population. Another way of looking at this is that 62.6% of the electorate did not vote to leave the EU, and the fate of the British people – by which I mean all 65.6 million of them – is being dictated by the wishes of just over one quarter of them.

 

And Mr Johnson is convinced that a second referendum will see this arithmetic expressed at the ballot box – in other words, that this time around, the majority will find their voice and say they do not wish to leave the EU.  Consider this excerpt from today’s BBC report:

‘Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.
“Let’s not go there,” he said.’
Look carefully at what he is saying here, at the place he does not want us to go: another referendum ‘would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal‘.
Does he mean it would be a disastrous mistake if it confirmed the result of the first referendum? That those who voted to Remain would, for some reason, feel permanently and ineradicably betrayed were they to lose again? Surely not – if you have been beaten twice on the same issue, you are more likely to accept the result.
No. The only sense that can be made of Mr Johnson’s words is that the 38% of the electorate who voted to leave would feel betrayed if a second referendum showed that the majority of the British people did not wish to leave the European Union and it would be a mistake to let that happen. But whose mistake would it be, and by whom would the 38% feel betrayed?
The answer to both questions is Boris Johnson and his ‘Brexiteers’.
That is what Johnson’s speech is really about: he firmly believes (as, I would suggest, do most in the Brexit camp) that a second referendum can only result in a rejection of Brexit, at which point the mob will turn and rend him. It is not any concern for his country or even his party that drives him, but a deep personal fear. Hence his desperate pretence that the matter is already settled, that there is no going back, there is nothing to see here, move along and let’s all pull together to make a success of this (and save my skin)  – and do not, whatever you do, even entertain the possibility that you, the British people,  might get another chance to have your say on the matter:
‘Let’s not go there’
I disagree, Boris. By all means, let us go there. It is the only honest course.
[The situation bears a striking resemblance to the Tories’ attitude to a second Scottish referendum, which I discussed in The curious case of Toom Tabard and the Indyref Paradox]

 

Leave a comment

Filed under politics

Why Writing is like a Playtex Bra

‘It lifts and separates’ is a slogan that will be familiar to those of my generation – it was advertised as the chief virtue of the Playtex ‘cross-your-heart’ Bra. However, it also serves as a memorable illustration of my theory concerning the origin of what we think of as Language.

The conventional account presents Language, as we have it now, as evolved speech, i.e. its origins go back to our first utterance, with the acquisition of a written form for transcribing it a logical development that occurs in due course – around five thousand years ago – but only after speech has held sway as the primary means of human communication for a couple of hundred thousand years.

However, I think that is not what happened; in particular, the notion that speech was the original and primary means of human communication, occupying a position analogous to what we call Language (both spoken and written) today, is an erroneous backwards projection, based on the status that speech only now enjoys.

The conventional account could be summed up briefly thus: ‘First, we learned to speak, and that is what made us human and marked us out as special; then we learned to write down what we said in order to give it permanent form, and that enabled us to store the knowledge and wisdom which has enabled us to achieve our present pre-eminence.’

However, there are good reasons to suppose that the eminence currently enjoyed by speech actually results from the invention of writing and its impact on human expression – what I would call the Playtex Moment, because the effect of that impact was to lift speech above the rest of human expression, and separate it.

Prior to the invention of writing, and indeed for a good time after it, since its impact was far from immediate, speech was, I would say, simply one aspect of human expression, and by no means the most important. By ‘human expression’ I mean the broad range of integrated activity – facial expression, gesture, posture and bodily movement, and a range of sounds, including speech – which human beings use to express their thoughts and feelings. Bear in mind that up to the invention of writing (and for a good time after it) speech was always part of some larger activity, to which it contributed, but did not (I would assert) dominate.

My ground for supposing this is that it is only through the effort to give speech a written form (which probably did not start to happen till writing had been around for a thousand years) that we come to study it closely, and to analyse it. I suggest there are two reasons for this – the first is that it was not possible to study speech till it was given a permanent, objective form; the second is that the need to analyse speech is part and parcel of the process of giving it written form. Crucially, it is only in writing that the notion of the word as a component of speech arises; speech naturally presents as an uninterrupted flow – rhythm and emphasis are of significance, but word separation is not. Word separation – which not every writing system uses – is a feature of writing, not speech.

In the same way, the whole analysis of speech in terms of the relations between words – grammar – arises from writing (for the good reason that it is only through writing that we can become aware of it). It is the understanding of Language that arises through the development of writing as a tool to transcribe speech that elevates and separates speech from the other forms with which it has hitherto been inseparably bound up.

The notion that we invented writing expressly to transcribe speech does not bear examination*: it was invented for the lesser task of making lists and inventories, as a way of storing information. It was only very gradually that we began to realise its wider potential (the earliest instance of anything we might call literature occurs a good thousand years after the first appearance of writing). Rather than writing being a by-product of speech, speech – as we now know it, our primary mode of communication and expression – is a by-product of writing.

And that is why writing is like a Playtex bra: it lifts and separates speech from all the other forms of human expression – but also (to push the analogy to its limits, perhaps) offers a degree of support that is only bought at the expense of containment and subjugation.

The interesting corollary is that if our present mode of thinking is Language-based – in the sense of ‘Language’ that is used here, a fusion of writing and speech – then that, too, is a relatively recent development**; however much it might seem second nature to us, it is just that – second nature: our natural mode of thought – instinctive and intuitive, developed by our ancestors over several hundred thousand years – must be something quite other, with a different foundation (which is, I would suggest, metaphor).

*if you doubt this, examine it: ask how such an idea would first have occurred, that things should be written down and given a permanent form – to remember them? people had been remembering without the aid of writing for thousands of years – why should they suddenly feel the need to devise an elaborate system to do something they could do perfectly well already? Ask also why, of all things, they would select speech as the one thing to make a record of – only if it were the sort of speech we have now – very much formed and influenced by writing – would it seem the obvious thing to record. Finally, ask how they would go about it – devising a script for the purpose of recording speech requires the sort of analysis of speech we can only acquire through already having devised such a script.

**do not underestimate what I mean by this: it is more than using words to think with. It is the complete model of the world as an objective reality existing independently and governed by logic and reason and all that stems from that; all that can be shown to derive from Language, which in turn arises from the impact of writing on human expression, a process that is initiated about two and a half thousand years ago, in classical Greece, by Plato and Aristotle.

Leave a comment

Filed under language-related, philosophy