Plucked from the chorus line – a fable

(a racy tale of a manipulative and exploitative relationship, with cross-dressing, starring Speech as Trilby, Writing as Svengali)


Trilby by George du Maurier – grandfather of Daphne – has the rare distinction of giving two new words to the English language, one for a type of hat, the other a sort of person. It was a bestseller in its day (the original naughty nineties, towards the close of Victoria’s reign) and was adapted for the stage; it tells, among other things, how the masterful musician and hypnotist Svengali transforms the tone-deaf artist’s model Trilby O’Ferrall into a hugely successful diva by dint of his mesmeric power.

The trilby hat was made popular in early stage productions of the work, while ‘svengali’ has come to mean (according to Chambers) ‘a person who exerts total mental control over another, usually for evil purposes’ though it is now more loosely used (by the popular press) to describe the sort of showbiz starmaker-manager who is deemed to exert an unhealthy degree of control over his (usually female) star.

I have been trying for some time to find a succinct way of expressing the impact that the invention of writing has had on language, and hence on thought, and it occurs to me that the Trilby-Svengali tale works admirably, though it is better to suppose Trilby a chorus girl rather than a model.


Let us suppose, then, a fin-de-siecle theatre (probably in Montmartre, not far from the Moulin Rouge) – it is called the Theatre of Expression (or le Theatre de l’Expression, if you want) and it has a rather distinctive approach in that it has no star performers – all its entertainment is provided by a multi-talented chorus line of charming soubrettes: Speech, Song, Gesture, Dance, Art, Sculpture, Music, who work together with great skill, interweaving and overlapping their talents, to general delight and widespread appreciation.

Then one day a scrawny young lad comes to the stage door and begs to be taken on in any capacity: his name is Writing, and he doesn’t look like much, but he cherishes vast and secret ambition. Since he has no obvious talent, he is given a range of menial tasks that no-one else wants to do, like making lists and inventories and keeping records (this because the charming soubrettes have no formal education and can neither read nor write).

It might be thought that this lack of education would inhibit the women of the chorus, but far from it – they feel no need to write or plan their routines, preferring to give full scope to their creativity by improvising, though of course they have a whole range of standard routines that they know instinctively because they use them often and they are in any case vividly memorable (in contrast to the dreary lists that Writing has to compile).

To distract himself from this drudgery, Writing takes to noting down the contribution made by Speech, with whom he is rather smitten, though she is by no means the most outstanding member of the troupe. She is flattered by his attention, then fascinated (though a lttle disturbed) when he is able to recite some of her routines, but laughs outright when he suggests he should write them all down and give them permanent form – what would be the point of that? she asks.

Nonetheless, Writing has conceived a plan, and being a stubborn sort of fellow (his chief virtue is staying-power), is determined to push it through. He lays siege to Speech, flattering her with his attentions, and whispering in her ear that she is the real star of the show, that the others are just bit players that depend on her, and if he had his way he’d give her the prominence she deserves. Speech pays little heed at first – she is a gregarious sort and enjoys the company of her friends and how well they all work together – but Writing is nothing if not persistent.

And courting Speech is not all that he is up to: taking advantage of the chorusgirls’ trusting nature and lack of formal education, he uses his position as scribe and secretary for the company to take more and more of the business of the theatre into his hands. Then he proposes marriage to Speech, promising her that if she agrees, he will make her a star. Her head is turned, and she agrees. To mark the partnership, Writing invents a new name for them both – henceforward, they will be Mr & Mrs Language, in complete union, despite their opposite natures (he is solitary, aloof and independent, she outgoing and gregarious).


However, it is a far-from-equal partnership: it is Writing, Mr Language, who calls all the shots. He will no longer allow Speech to improvise her own routines; she must follow what he lays down for her. Transcribing what she says has enabled him to analyse it closely, and he has a range of improvements he wants her to make – he has had to decide on a standardised spelling, so he insists she tailor her pronunciation to it and that she heed the system of punctuation he has invented, as well as the formal grammar he has drawn up, ‘correcting’ what he sees as faults in her natural delivery – he is particularly concerned to eliminate ambiguity and faults of logic (a notion he has invented, but which he claims to be the ‘guiding spirit’ that Speech has hitherto followed imperfectly, but now, as Mrs Language, she must employ with conscious diligence).

Not content with dictating to his wife, he lays down the law for the rest of the company: he is in control now, and there are going to be changes. For a start, the Theatre will now be known as the Theatre of Language, and Mrs L is to the star turn – the rest will have to be content with subordinate and supporting roles. Also, there is to be no more of this improvisation – now everyone must submit their routines to Writing beforehand, and he will knock them into shape. And he would prefer to deal with them individually, so there is to be no more overlapping, no more spontaneous concerted behaviour; everything must be orchestrated by him. For some time now he has been troubled by the rather vulgar and emotional nature of the entertainments they put on, and has decided that henceforth they will take a more intellectual, cerebral approach.

In a bizarre turn of events, Writing takes to dressing in his wife’s clothes and doing his own turns on stage, though he lacks her natural gift and has to read everything from a script. The theatre ceases to be the joyous, spontaneous place of old; the atmosphere is oppressive, and all the players feel undervalued and imposed upon, unable to do anything without Mr Language’s official approval. From time to time, they persuade Speech to slip away from her husband and join them for a night out, where for a little while it is like old times, as they reprise the old routines (and invent new ones) for anyone who will listen, in the pavement cafes and even in the street.

After one such night they return in the early hours to find that the locks have been changed, and that the theatre has been closed. In response to their furious knocking, Mr Language appears (wearing one of his wife’s best frocks) and tells them that he has decided that live performance is too dangerously anarchic and open to interpretation and must be strictly controlled; to that end, he has turned the theatre into an academy, to educate the general public. Only when he is satisfied that they have a proper understanding and a true appreciation of the performances will they resume, under strict supervision. Of course if the women wish to wander the wide world they can do as they like, but if they want to live respectably with a roof over their heads, they better do as he says.

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Storypower: Quigley’s Ineffable Escapade

under a twilight canopy

The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life has become clear to them have been unable to say what constitutes that sense?)’ (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.521)

That remarkable book, The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, is to my mind a work of genius, but that is by the way. An episode from it came to mind just now when I was reflecting on the Wittgenstein quote above that I used to close my previous piece, though it resonates even more strongly with another, the one that closes the same work:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’ (Tractatus, 7 )

Quigley’s Balloon

(to set the scene, this converation takes place between the nameless narrator and the sergeant of police, who are inspecting the scaffold on which the narrator is to be hanged:)

Up here I felt that every day would be the same always, serene and chilly, a band of wind isolating the earth of men from the far-from-understandable enormities of the girdling universe. Here on the stormiest autumn Monday there would be no wild leaves to brush on any face, no bees in the gusty wind. I sighed sadly.

‘Strange enlightenments are vouchsafed,’ I murmured, ‘to those who seek the higher places.’

I do not know why I said this strange thing. My own words were also soft and light as if they had no breath to liven them. I heard the Sergeant working behind me with coarse ropes as if he were at the far end of a great hall instead of at my back and then I heard his voice coming back to me softly called across a fathomless valley:

‘I heard of a man once,’ he said, ‘that had himself let up into the sky in a balloon to make observations, a man of great personal charm but a divil for reading books. They played out the rope till he was disappeared completely from all appearances, telescopes or no telescopes, and then they played out another ten miles of rope to make sure of first-class observations. When the time-limit for the observations was over they pulled down the the balloon again but lo and behold there was no man in the basket and his dead body was never found afterwards lying dead or alive in any parish ever afterwards.’

Here I heard myself give a hollow laugh, standing there with a high head and two hands still on the wooden rail.

‘But they were clever enough to think of sending up the balloon again a fortnight later and when they brought it down the second time lo and behold the man was sitting in the basket without a feather out of him if any of my information can be believed at all.

‘So they asked where he was and what had kept him but he gave them no satisfaction, he only let out a laugh and went home and shut himself in his house and told his mother to say he was not at home and not receiving visitors or doing any entertaining. That made the people very angry and inflamed their passions to a degree that is not recognized by the law. So they held a private meeting that was attended by every member of the general public apart from the man himself and they decided to get out their shotguns the next day and break into the man’s house and give him a severe threatening and tie him up and heat pokers in the fire to make him tell what happened in the sky the time he was up inside it.

‘But between that and the next morning there was a stormy night in between, a loud windy night that strained the trees in their deep roots and made the roads streaky with broken branches, a night that played a bad game with root-crops. When the boys reached the home of the balloonman the next morning, lo and behold the bed was empty and no trace of him was ever found afterwards dead or alive, naked or with an overcoat. And when they got back to where the balloon was, they found the wind had torn it up out of the ground with the rope spinning loosely in the windlass and it invisible to the naked eye in the middle of the clouds. They pulled in eight miles of rope before they got it down but lo and behold the basket was empty again. They all said that the man had gone up in it and stayed up but it is an insoluble conundrum, his name was Quigley and he was by all accounts a Fermanagh man.’
(The Third Policeman, pp137-9, slightly abridged)

This sent my thoughts on two different tracks: the first was an idea that I expressed in an earlier piece on the notion that we have devised a carapace that protects us from direct experience of reality:

‘The renunciation of self is central to much religious teaching, and it is interesting to consider that the price of experiencing reality (of the kind that humankind cannot bear very much) might well be a loss of identity, of our sense of who and what we are.’

The term ‘life-changing experience’ is rather bandied about these days, and can seem no more than the tag-line for a holday advert, but if an experience is truly life-changing, then we cannot expect to return from it unscathed; and it is in the very nature of such experiences that they may be incommunicable to those who have not shared them – if your complete frame of reference is altered (or exchanged for another) then on what basis can you communicate?

The second line of thought was that the O’Brien piece is yet another demonstration of the power of story (and poetry likewise) to convey what would be considered difficult and complex ideas if expressed in standard philosophical language in an easily accessible (and vividly memorable) form (‘Quigley’s balloon’ would make an excellent picture book, or equally (and most appropriately, given its theme of ineffability) a short and wordless animation)

We should not wonder at that, of course: we have only been expressing ourselves in philosophical terms for some 25 centuries; 25 millennia would not be even half the time we have been using stories (and their central method, metaphor) – which, as a way of thinking about things, are probably as old as humanity itself.

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The True Source: a companion piece

(This piece is the origin of the parable I published yesterday as The True Source. Stories and parables are one of our most ancient ways of expressing ideas, so it seemed natural to use one to try and express what I was trying to say about the relation between preliterate society and our own)

Here is an interesting exercise in imagination: what was life like before the invention of writing?

Suppose we tried to depict it by an animation: we might have scenes where great flocks of letters – like flights of birds – emerged from libraries, leaving the books on the shelves blank; the same might happen to roadsigns and shopsigns and billboards and newspapers – a man sitting reading his paper might watch astonished as line after line of type unravelled from the page and rose in the air like a cloud of flies, leaving him clutching so many blank sheets of paper. All over town, people would gaze in wonder at places where words and letters used to be.

Yet that would scarcely touch the real extent of the unthinking that is required to take us back to a preliterate world; removing the physical evidence of the written and printed word might be the most obvious aspect, but is also the least important, because the real impact of writing is on the way we think and consequently how we see the world.

weasel 3

(source of mug: Celestine & the Hare)

A small instance can sometimes be as telling as a great one: it is a commonplace of learning to draw (one I have experienced myself) that we can find it difficult to see what is actually in front of us – we look at the object on the table, but instead of actually seeing it as a shape, a pattern of light and shade, of colour and reflection, we substitute the process of recognising it – ‘that’s a cup’ we say, assigning it a label and putting it in the appropriate box; we do not need to look at it for longer than a moment to know what it is, and once we have satisfied ourselves on that point, we stop seeing; we have entered it on our mental register, as it were, matched it to our concept. And what we draw is not the cup on the table, but our idea of a cup.

Thus, in a space of some two and a half thousand years, and without really noticing, we have come to live in Plato’s World of Ideas (or Forms): our senses are subordinated to our intellect; we apprehend concepts rather than actually seeing things. However, rather than being, as Plato asserted, the Reality that underlies Appearance, it is (I would suggest) more in the nature of a screen (or as I have called it elsewhere, a carapace) inserted between us and reality (or experience). And this has happened as a result of the impact writing has had on language, and through that, on the whole field of human expression.

Wittgenstein’s hard-won observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ is one of those things that are at first difficult to accept (particularly when you are a word-child like me, schooled in the notion that words have meanings that are fixed and can be traced through their etymologies) but, once understood, seem both simple and obvious – and by reminding us of the true source of meaning, it takes us back in a stride to that preliterate world.

What Wittgenstein does, in effect, is look further back, beyond the apparent source of meaning to the actual one, much as one might go beyond the dam that holds the water pent up in an artificial reservoir to look for the source of the stream that feeds it and flowed through the valley before it was flooded. Two and a half millennia of advanced literacy, with the evolution of formal grammar, lexicography, philology and etymology, have (as it were) blinded us to the fact that there was a time before the dam and the reservoir, when there was just the stream flowing through the valley.

To put this another way, we have grown used to assuming an infrastructure that in actual fact is fairly recent in origin. Thinking that meaning is a property of words is much the same as thinking that electric bulbs are a source of light – they are, but only if you take the complex infrastructure of the national grid that provides the electric power for granted.

In a preliterate society (and let us remind ourselves that we were ‘civilised’ – in the sense of living in settled communities supported by agriculture – for some five thousand years before we were even slightly literate) words were not attached to books but to people and situations: to hear a word would be to hear a voice, and (save the unusual circumstance of someone speaking in the dark) that voice would have been part (perhaps not even the dominant part) of a complex weave of expression, using the face, the hands, indeed the whole body (and it is quite likely that musical sounds and rhythm would have been as much part of it as words, which in any case would not have been thought of as we think of words). What is more, this complex weave of activity would itself be inseparable from some larger activity, something that people were doing together, from the mundane (some kind of repetitive toil, say, in field or barn) through the recreational and cultural (celebrations and rituals, story telling) to the solemn and magical (ceremonies associated with death and burial and communicating with or appeasing gods).

I think, if we were transported back in time to such a society, we would soon give up on any attempt to determine the meaning of individual words as irrelevant, and look instead at the activities in which they occurred (what Wittgenstein called ‘forms of life’) – ‘what does this mean?’ would give way to ‘what are you doing?’ as a question more likely to elicit an illuminating answer. Indeed, viewed in this context ‘meaning’ – or more precisely, ‘doubt or uncertainty about meaning’ appears as something that arises when information is lacking, when the picture is incomplete – as when we come on a fragment of writing torn from a larger piece. In that situation, we pore over each of the few words that we have, interrogating all possible combinations of meaning; yet if we are able to reunite it to the page it was torn from, such questions lose all their force – the significance of the piece is swallowed up, as it were, in the whole.

And this resonates, in my mind, with another quote from Wittgenstein, which might be a good point to end on, for now:

‘The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.
(Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life has become clear to them have been unable to say what constitutes that sense?)’ (Tractatus, 6.521)

It is not so much that we find an answer, more that the question loses its significance; we are no longer troubled by it – an explanation is no longer required.

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The true source: a parable

fine spate - Version 2

Once upon a time there was a farmer who had to travel a long way through desolate country to take his grain to the mill; on the left side of the road that he followed – little more than a track, really – a broad plain spread out, with a long ribbon of mist in the middle distance showing the line of a great river, while on the right side, steep green ramparts reared up, the outer edge of the foothills that towered over the valley yet were themselves overshadowed by the mighty mountains beyond.

These hills were cut at intervals by precipitous glens from which powerful streams gushed, fed by the glaciers above and feeding in turn the great river on the plain beyond. The largest of these streams marked the mid-point of the journey to the mill; where all the other streams could be forded, this one was large enough to need a bridge. As the farmer creaked across it with his cart full of grain, he saw how fertile the broad plain below the bridge was, and he mused that if he farmed there, his journey to the mill would only be half what it was now.

The same thought was still running in his mind the next day as he made his way back home with a wagonload of flour, now with the plain on his right and the hills to his left. It had rained in the night, and the plain looked wonderfully green and fertile. ‘That would certainly be better land to farm,’ he thought. Then he rounded a bend and saw that the night’s rain had done other work: the stream had swollen to a tremendous torrent, undercutting its banks and bringing down trees and boulders that bounded along, swept by the current, till they fetched up against the bridge.

There was already a great mass of debris piled against it, and behind that, the water had begun to rise till it was almost level with the bridge. The farmer saw that he had an instant to decide whether to go on or stop, and fearful of being stranded on the wrong side with his load of flour he urged his reluctant horse onto the bridge; he was barely half-way across when an ominous groaning told him that disaster was upon him. With commendable coolness, he sprang onto the horse’s back, cut the traces, and scrambled to the far bank and safety just as the bridge gave way and his wagonload of flour was swept to oblivion.

You can imagine the farmer’s state of mind as he watched his wagon smash to matchwood in the raging flood: there went all the fruit of his labour; but on the other hand, he was lucky to be able to stand and watch its loss – he could very easily have been down there with it.

Yet it was neither of those things that was in the forefront of his mind as he and his horse ambled slowly homeward; rather it was the recollection of the water pent-up behind the bridge in a spreading pool, and the deep groan as the whole structure gave way – such tremendous force! If he could only harness that…

So it was that the farmer undertook to rebuild the bridge in exchange for the right to farm the land in the plain below and to control the waters above; and as well as a bridge, he built a dam and a sluice and a watermill.

Now everyone came to him, from both sides of the river, because his mill was better built and more powerful than any other; and in addition, he had his own grain to mill, grown right on his doorstep. Soon he had built a jetty and had a fleet of boats that carried his flour downstream to the great river and the cities beyond, and he smiled every time he watched them go, thinking of that day long ago when his first load of flour had been swept away in the very same stream, and what had seemed like ruin was the beginning of his good fortune.

The miller’s trade made him so wealthy that soon he was able to let the management of both farm and mill to others and invest his profit in new enterprises – a distillery, and factories with looms to weave wool and linen (he had built flax-dams in the lower reaches of the stream). Soon there was a thriving community: a village, then a town.

The miller would always tell his children the tale of the bridge being swept away and how what seemed like disaster had proved to be the gateway to prosperity. His children grew up straight and tall and his oldest boy went to the city to study and came back with a head full of new ideas: he saw that his father’s mill and factories, splendid and prosperous though they might be, were only a small part of what might be done.

When in the course of time he came into his inheritance, he set to and built a much bigger dam and flooded the glen behind it to create an enormous reservoir; he installed turbines to generate electric power and transformed the town into a great city, the wonder of the world for its modernity. People flocked there, and it prospered; what the children learned in school was not the tale the farmer who became a miller had told his own children; rather it was the story of the great dam, and the reservoir behind it, the source of all their prosperity.

Now you might think that this is a tale of hubris, of over-reaching; you might take a look at that dam, with the huge prosperous city spread out below it on one side, and all that tremendous force pent up behind it on the other; and you might detect a whiff of irony, and think, ‘I see what’s going to happen here – the very source of their prosperity will prove their undoing!’

But you’d be wrong: for one thing, the people knew only to well how important it was to keep the dam in a state of good repair, so they never slacked in maintaining it in prime condition – yet for all that, their city failed.

What they taught in the schools was wrong, you see: it wasn’t the dam that was the source of their prosperity, nor the reservoir behind it; it was the stream that fed it, and that came from the glacier high up in the mountains – but the glacier was in steady retreat (the climate had changed) and one day it was gone altogether: the stream stopped flowing, and every time the reservoir sluices were open, the level dropped, and it was not replenished. The turbines stopped turning, the electricity failed, and the people moved away, leaving the city to fall into ruin and be reclaimed by nature.

Soon only the dam remained, a huge enigmatic wall reared up across a parched and stony gully. It was something of a puzzle and a mystery to the few people who passed that way, who asked themselves what it could mean, and how it could have come to be built in such a desolate spot.

(though this might seem like an ecological fable, it is actually intended to be a story about language – for a cpmanion piece that throws light on the origin of this parable, see The True Source: a companion piece)


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The End of All Our Exploring

Much has been said of the gallant little spacecraft New Horizons winging its way past Pluto at 14 kms a sec – it’s taken nine and a half years to get there, a journey of some 3 billion miles – and now it is heading off into the farthest and coldest reaches of our solar system: it certainly seems a long way off.

And yet, when you consider that our solar sytem is one of five hundred that we have actually discovered in the immediate neighbourhood of our own, and that a reasonable projection suggests there may be as many as a hundred billion solar systems in our galaxy, and that our galaxy (The Milky Way) may itself be one of a hundred billion in the universe –
well, it is as if New Horizons has scarcely reached the end of the garden path, with the whole wide world beyond.


Such thoughts of the immensity of the universe naturally turn the mind to the idea that we surely cannot be alone, that there must be intelligent life elsewhere – indeed, the wonder is that we have so far failed to find it – the ‘Fermi paradox’, an idea examined in an article here.

And yet what these thoughts called to my mind was a question posed by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus:

‘is some riddle solved by my surviving forever?’ (6.4312)

It seems to me that heading ever outward in space and heading ever onward in time carry no guarantee that the trip, in the end, will yield – not so much anything worthwhile (I’m sure it would) – but rather what we were hoping to find, what we were looking for all along – and that put me in mind of an old folk tale that exists in many variamts, recently appropriated by Paolo Coelho in his widely-read book The Alchemist; here it is in a shorter form, drawn from Jewish tradition:

‘There was once a poor, G-d fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King’s palace, he would find a buried treasure.
Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King’s soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.
After two weeks time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, “Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?” Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man’s attitude. Finally, the King’s guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, “What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery.”
The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my.possession. Yet, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence.’

(‘The Treasure under the Bridge’ adapted by Gedaliah Fleer from the stories of Rebbe Nachman (slightly abridged) which I found here, with thanks )

Here it is again, more succinctly still. in four lines by TS Eliot:

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
(Little Gidding, V – Four Quartets)

And I wonder (not for the first time) if it is not rather Inner Space that we should turn our attention to, if we want to find answers to the questions that keep us searching.

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A Fable

A young man goes to a wise woman and says, ‘I am a seeker after truth. Show me what is true.’

So the woman takes him to a bell-foundry. She strikes the first bell, which gives out a beautiful clear note, as does the second; but the third is cracked, and gives a flat, dull sound.

‘The first two are true,’ she says, ‘but not the third.’
‘That is not the truth I mean,’ says the seeker.

So the woman takes him to a billiard table and rolls a ball which runs dead straight with no deviation; but another ball swings in a curve.

‘The table is true and the first ball,’ says the woman, ‘but not the other.’
‘That is not the truth I mean,’ says the seeker.

They watch some people next. A couple go about their daily round, in the course of which one succumbs to temptation but the other resists.

‘She was true to him, but he was not true to her,’ says the woman.
‘That is not the truth I mean,’ says the seeker.

The woman takes him to a bicycle shop where a girl is working on a wheel. She spins it and it wobbles; she adjusts the spokes and the wobble is reduced. Eventually the wheel spins without deviation.

‘She has made that wheel true now,’ says the woman.
‘That is not the truth I mean,’ says the seeker.

So the woman takes a book and reads, ‘She struck the first bell, which gave out a beautiful note, as did the second; but the third was cracked, and gave out a dull, flat sound.’

‘Yes, that is true,’ says the seeker excitedly, ‘every word of it! that is exactly as it happened!’
‘And yet,’ says the woman, ‘the book I read from was written a hundred years ago; it is a work of fiction – in what sense is that sentence true?’

And the seeker went away perplexed.

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No abiding city


Things take odd turns sometimes. After my Byzantine Epiphany I felt sure I was on the track of something, yet it proved elusive: after a lot of writing I felt I was still circling round it, unable to pin it down.

Then this morning I woke to the news that (with the General Election just over a week away) David Cameron was pledging, if re-elected, to pass a law that would prevent his government from raising the level of a range of taxes for the duration of the next parliament.

I have to say that this struck me at once as absurd, the notion of a government passing a law to prevent itself doing something: why go to all that trouble? why not just say, ‘we won’t do that’?

There’s the rub, of course – election promises are famously falser than dicers’ oaths; against that background, Mr Cameron feels the need to offer something stronger – no mere manifesto promise, but an actual law! – what could be a stronger guarantee than that?

There’s a paradox here, of course – because politicians’ promises are notoriously unreliable, Mr Cameron says he will pass a law to ensure that he will not go back on his word – and that’s a promise. The whole elaborate structure is built on the same uncertain foundation.

I am reminded of advice from a more reputable source, the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Again, you have heard how it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath…
But I say this to you, do not swear at all… all you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.’

You are no better than your word: if that is worth nothing, no amount of shoring-up will rectify the matter; and if it is good, what more do you need?

But there is something deeper here: the key, I think, to the very matter I had been trying to resolve.

Let us start with Mr Cameron’s utterance: it is perhaps best understood as a theatrical gesture. The actor on stage, conscious of the audience’s attention (and also of his distance from them, compared, say, to the huge close-up of the cinema screen) may feel the need to make a gesture which in everyday life would strike us as exaggerated and – well – theatrical. So Mr Cameron, in the feverish atmosphere of an election campaign, feels the need to outbid his opponents – ‘they say they’ll do something? well, I’ll pass a law that will make me do as I say!’

I have to say that even in context it sounds rather silly, but it would be even sillier outside it – so that is the first point, the importance of context to understanding.

The second is this business of making a law and the appearance it offers of transferring the responsibility from the person to something independent and objective – ‘don’t just take my word for it – it’ll be the law!’ It overlooks the fact that legislation is a convention that requires our consent to operate: the laws of the land are not like the laws of physics – they do not compel us in any way; we obey them through choice, not necessity.

(And of course the existence of a range of penalties and agencies of enforcement like the police and the courts are proof of this – you do not need any of that to make things obey the Law of Gravity; you only need threat and compulsion where there is the possibility that people might do otherwise)

These two things – the importance of context to meaning and the attempt to transfer responsibility from the person to something apparently objective and independent – chimed with what I had been struggling to express before.
I had been focusing on the effect that the introduction of writing has on language, and through that, on our whole way of seeing the world.

The gist of my argument was this: from time immemorial, we have had Speech, which is our version of something we observe throughout the animal kingdom – bird song, whale song, the noises of beasts. Then, relatively recently – between five and six thousand years ago – we invent something unique: Writing.


At first it is used for relatively low-grade menial (indeed, prosaic) tasks, such as making lists and records; it is a good thousand years before anyone thinks to employ it for anything we might call ‘literature’. That should be no surprise: where Speech is natural and instinctive, the product of millions of years’ development, writing is awkward and cumbersome, a skill (along with reading) that must be learned, and one not everyone can master.

Speech has all the advantages that go with sound: it has rhythm, rhyme, musicality, pattern; Writing has none of these. But it does have one thing: where speech exists in time and is fleeting, ephemeral, Writing exists in space and has duration; it is objective; it exists in its own right, apart from any context or speaker.

My speech dies with me: when my voice is stilled, it is gone (though it may linger in the memory of others); but my written words will outlast not only me but a hundred generations – they could be around long after any trace or memory of their author is wholly erased.

Thus, from Speech we move to Language – by which I mean the complex thing that arises after Writing is invented. The important thing about Language is its dual nature, and the interaction and tension between its two forms, the written and the spoken. These are (as I discussed before) in many respects antithetical – where Speech is necessarily bound up with a speaker and so with a context – it is always part of some larger human activity – Writing stands on its own, apart from any context, independent of its author, with its own (apparently) objective existence.

(and the differences go deeper – where speech draws on a rich range of devices to overcome its ephemeral character and make itself memorable – rhyme, rhythm, vivid imagery etc – writing (though it can borrow all of them) has no need of any of these, having permanence; the problem it must overcome is lack of context – it cannot rely on what is going on round about to clarify its meaning; it must stand on its own two feet, and aim to be clear, concise, unambiguous, logical.)

What Mr Cameron’s absurd utterance brought home to me was the deceptive nature of Writing’s independence and objectivity, which is more apparent than real. Just as the law he holds out as having some objective, compelling force that is greater than his word is only so because we (as a society) agree to assign that power to it (in this connection, see my earlier post, ‘bounded by consent’) – and ultimately has no greater strength than the original word that promises it – so the objectivity and independence of the written word are not inherent properties but rather qualities we have conferred on it.

The independence and objectivity we assign to language is a kind of trick we play on ourselves, and it is bound up with the matter I discussed in my earlier posts (here, here and here) concerning the ‘carapace’ that we erect between ourselves and Reality – a carapace of ideas on which we confer the title ‘reality’ even though it is a construct of our own.

(It was interesting to realise that my philosophical hero Ludwiig Wittgenstein had made this journey before me: in his early work, e.g. the Tractatus, he is much concerned with his ‘picture theory’ of language, in which a proposition is seen as picturing reality, by having its elements related to one another in a way that corresponds to how the elements of the reality it pictures are related:
‘2.12 A picture is a model of reality.
2.13 In a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them.
2.14 In a picture the elements of the picture are the representatives of objects.

2.1511 That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.

2.223 In order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality.’

This model takes for granted the objective nature of language: it is the words, the proposition, that is true or false, and that is established by comparison with the world; we do not seem to play much part.

However, in his later work, Wittgenstein moves to a different position: he now speaks of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’; it is only as part of a language game or a form of life – i.e. some human activity – that words have meaning; and indeed, as a general rule, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. He emphatically rejects the idea of a ‘private language’ in which our thinking is done before being translated into words: all that is available to us is the unwieldy, untidy agglomeration that is Language, a public thing that everyone shares and shapes but no-one controls or commands – despite the best efforts of organisations such as L’Academie Francaise)

As is typical of Wittgenstein, this modest-seeming manoeuvre effectively demolishes an edifice of thought that has stood for millennia: its implications are profounder than might at first appear.

If we go back to Plato and his fellow Greeks, we find a horror of mutability (‘change and decay in all around I see’, as the hymn has it) and a yearning for Truth to be something fixed and immutable – hence Plato’s world of Ideas, the unchanging reality that can be apprehended only by the intellect and lies beyond the veil of Appearance which so beguiles our poor, deluded senses.

Language – the complex thing that arises after the invention of the written form – is central to establishing this Platonic world, whose influence has lasted down to the present day, in particular its elevation of the intellect over the senses and its separation of Appearance and Reality.

The quality of Language on which all this hinges is the illusion it gives of being something that exists in its own right: words have meanings and can be used to describe the world; if only we tidied up language, rid it of its anomalies, used it more carefully and logically – freed it from the abusage of everyday speech – made it, in a word, more literate, truer to its written form – then we would be able to express the Truth accurately and without ambiguity, and permanently.

This is the edifice that Wittgenstein shows to be no more than a castle in the air: if meaning exists only in context, as part of some human activity, then all meaning is provisional; nothing is fixed (an idea I have discussed before). Language can never be tidied up and purified, cleansed of its faults, because language is ultimately derived from Speech, which is a living, dynamic thing, constantly changing with the forms of life of those who speak it, and the new ‘language games’ they invent.

The truth of what I have just said is by no means universally accepted; indeed, we have made some pretty determined attempts to contradict it: the first was the use of Latin as a scholarly language after it had ceased to be a living tongue (having transmuted, in the course of time, into the various romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian). Latin was the vehicle of academic discourse from the foundation of the first European universities in the eleventh century down to the time of Newton and beyond, a span of some five centuries; it remains the official language of the Roman Catholic church (although mass in the vernacular was introduced with the refoms of Vatican 2 in the early sixties, the Latin mass was not ‘banned’ as popularly supposed – only a specific form, the Tridentine rite, was discontinued; mass is still said in Latin to this day in various places).

It is no surprise to find that the Church – very much bound to the notion of an unchanging Truth – should be one of the last bastions of a purely literate language. In the academic and particularly the scientific world, the role formerly played by Latin has to a large extent been taken over by English, and ‘Academic English’ as a form is diverging from the living language, which in turn is diversifying (with the disappearance of the British Empire and the emergence of former colonies as countries in their own right) in much the same way as Latin transformed into various tongues after Rome fell.

I am sure that there are many today who will view my assertion that all meaning is necessarily provisional with the same horror that the Greeks contemplated the mutability of things, but I think if you consider it steadily, you will see that it is both liberating and refreshing.

In my previous piece I began by talking about the perils of building in stone – namely, that what you make will outlive its capacity to be understood, because although it does not change, the people considering it do. I think this happens all the time with ideas, and especially the ‘big’ ideas, about ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ – because they are important, we try to fix them for all time, but we overlook the fact that they are the product of a particular time, expressed in the language of that time, and that succeeding generations will see and understand things differently.

Of course the change of outlook and the decay of understanding is never sudden and can be delayed, and that is exactly what written texts do: they give a particular version of something an authority and a form that can last for generations, and which may block any development for a long time.

(That, broadly, is what happened with Scholasticism: the influx (via the Islamic world) of ancient Greek learning – chiefly Aristotle – into mediaeval Europe provided a huge intellectual stimulus initially, as great minds like Thomas Aquinas came to terms with it and assimilated it into the thinking of the day; but so comprehensive did it seem that there was no impulse to move beyond it, so that it began to ossify – the object of university study became to master Aristotle’s works, and the ‘argument from authority’ came into vogue – to settle any dispute it sufficed to quote what Aristotle (often called  simply ‘The Philosopher’) said on the matter – there was no going beyond that. This situation lasted till the Renaissance shook things up once more )

So am I, then, making a straightforward pitch for Relativism and denying the possibility of an Absolute Truth?

Not quite. Rather, this is an argument for ineffability, the idea that ‘Great Truths’ cannot be expressed in words. It is not so much that language is not equal to the job (but might be improved till it was), rather that the greatness of these ‘Great Truths’ (that label is of course inadequate) is such that it necessarily exceeds our ability to comprehend them, so limiting our capacity to express them; though poetry can get closer than prose:

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

and Art in general – music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry – offers a more fruitful approach than philosophy – not to success, but a more rewarding kind of failure; or, as Mr Eliot so aptly expresses it,

‘but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

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