The Disintegration of Expression


The week when a group of scientists have decided to hold the ‘Doomsday Clock’ at three minutes to midnight (though I cannot help feeling that the notion of a clock that can always be reset undermines the idea of time running out) is an apt one to consider the diagram above, which also deals with time, though the message it has to convey concerns not how little time might be left to us  but rather how much has gone before.

The diagram is drawn to different scales and has two related parts. The strip along the bottom with the grey wavy lines represents the last 200,000 years, which is the period our particular species of human, Homo sapiens, has been around (though that is still a small fraction of the human timeline, which streches back some 6.5 million years). The upper part of the diagram represents the last quarter of that time, with today (2016) at the right hand edge, and the jagged left hand edge being 50,000 years ago.

The area to the right of the blue line marked E is the last 5,500 years; it is reperesented on the bottom strip by the coloured portion to the extreme right of the grey strip.

Five and a half thousand years ago saw two significant events, the invention of metalworking and the invention of writing. It therefore marks an important boundary, or rather two: everything to the left of the line marked E (shown at greater length by the wavy line below) is the Stone Age; it is also conventionally regarded as Prehistoric Times, since History is deemed to start with the invention of writing and the possibility of contemporary records.

(It is worth pausing a moment to consider our immediate reaction to the terms ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ – both are widely used pejoratively, to denote whatever is hopelessly primitive, barbarous and old fashioned, with no place in the modern age)

The red line marked with a star is more recent – 2,500 years ago – and takes us back to the beginning of the Classical period in Greece, the age that saw that most significant generation of teachers and pupils, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Somewhere in that time occurs what I have called the Muybridge Moment  by analogy with Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of stop-motion photography, which enabled him effectively to freeze time and analyse the motion of a galloping horse. In the same way, somewhere from Socrates (who wrote nothing) to Aristotle, whose writings arguably provide the foundation of Western thinking and the modern world, the full potential of writing is realised for the first time: it can freeze the flow of speech, giving it an objective form which can be analysed and codified.

That, for me, is a more significant moment than the invention of writing some three millennia earlier, which though a necessary condition for the development of the modern world was not yet a sufficient one, as its potential had yet to be recognised.

One inference that can be drawn from the diagram is that the farther we go to the left, the likelier it is that any human practice we find will by now have become so ingrained that we regard it as coming naturally to us; it is congenital, something we are born with, or born with an aptitude for (to use a very recent metaphor, we are programmed to do it). The prime case, of course, is speech, which we have presumably engaged in from time immemorial, and which we learn (and teach) without need for any formal training.

The naturalness of speech, however, is disguised to a large extent by the advent of literacy: reading and writing, though immensely advantageous (and a key measure of ‘development’ that we use to judge nations and societies) are by no means natural to us: considerable effort and training is required to master them (and to teach them) and not everyone succeeeds in acquiring them; but to be without them – in a literate society – is to be disabled. When it comes to human expression, we are not content to rely on nature: it must be augmented, even supplanted, by formal instruction.

That point is worth bearing in mind: it is quite likely that other of our natural aptitudes have become overlooked and effectively hidden by the way our system of education has developed.

Let us now consider what the first three lines on the diagram represent: none marks an event or a first beginning; rather they are records of activity that must already have been going on for some time – for thousands, even tens of thousands of years – but of which we have some tangible, dateable evidence at these points.


A, some 42,000 years ago, is the date of some bone flutes that have been found in the Swabian Alb region of German. Music, of course, must be older than that: it is probably primeval – the voice is the oldest instrument, though percussion – drumming and rhythmic clapping and stamping – must be a close second. And if we mention rhythm, it is natural to think of dance, and to suppose that it, too, is very ancient, though it leaves little in the way of direct evidence.

(However, there is possible evidence of the controlled use of fire by our ancestor, Homo erectus, dating from 1.5 million years ago, and demonstrable evidence from 0.79 million years ago (790,000 years). Is it at all unreasonable to suppose that dancing around fires, singing and drumming, is equally ancient? Or, for that matter, telling tales around the fire?)

B, 40,000 years ago, is the date of certain carved figures found in the same region of Germany as the flutes, though these again are not a start point but rather an indication of an established human activity; and there are some who find evidence for sculpture much older still (the ‘Venus of Tan-Tan‘ is dated around 300,000 years ago).

C, 30,000 years ago, is the date of some cave-painting found in France, Spain and Indonesia; again, not a start point, but evidence of an already highly developed and skilled human activity.

(I might have included a line a shade to the right of C, around 29,000 years ago, to mark the oldest know ceramics, i.e. fired clay. The striking thing is that its first use is aesthetic, the making of figurines or statuettes In terms of practical application, the oldest pottery vessels we know about are some 9000 years younger, from around 20,000 years ago.)

D, 10,000 years ago, differs from the others in marking a start point – that of civilisation, the habit of living in settled communities supported by agriculture, as opposed to our previous nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life. Jericho claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited human settlement, with beginnings dated some 11000 years ago.

‘Civilisation’ is another word loaded with overtones, though unlike ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Prehistoric’ they are not pejorative: ‘civilised’ is the opposite of ‘barbaric’ – it denotes having all the cultural adjuncts that we esteem highly – education, art, music, literature, and a certain level of human behaviour implying decent treatment, hospitality and respect for others. Which should give us pause, since as our diagram shows, ‘civilisation’ is very much a Stone Age, Prehistoric invention.


‘Civilisation’ (in the strict sense of living in settlements supported by agriculture) is one of the earliest examples of what I have called ‘elective indispensables’ – things we manage perfectly well without till we invent them, then adapt our way of living to them so they seem indispensable. A look at surviving nomadic cultures – the Mongols, for example, or our own (sadly beleaguered) travelling folk – soon gives the lie to the notion that hospitality, decency and a good standard of life are the preserve of dwellers in cities; and where has there ever been squalor, degradation and dehumanisation on a par with that found in great cities down the ages and still today?

As for the notion that ‘Civilisation’ is interchangeable with ‘Culture‘ in its narrow sense of ‘those human achievements we value highly such as art, music, poetry’ – the diagram gives the lie to that, too – it is evident that all these things have their origin tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of years before civilisation came along.

But surely literature – as its very name suggests – belongs to the age of writing (and so of (later) civilisation)?

It is a point worth examining. While the discovery of ceramics was turned first to creative or aesthetic use, and only some thousands of years later to practical applications, the case of Writing is the opposite. It would appear to have come in as an adjunct of number, to enable lists to be made of the things that could be counted – such as the contents of warehouses and treasuries. It was also used for records, of reigns, battles etc., and the promulgation of laws. It took a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call literature.

Although there is a case to be made that the invention of writing marks the start of History, that is to suppose that History is merely record-keeping; however, it has a much wider sense, ‘the account that people give of who they are and where they came from’ and here it overlaps to a large extent with ‘Culture’, not in the narrow sense of ‘desirable attainments’ but the broader one of ‘the customs and traditions – the way of life – transmitted from one generation to the next.’

Look again at our diagram. The inference to be drawn from it is not that the people who lived in the time up to the blue line marked E had no sense of who they were or where they came from, but rather that they had a means of transmitting their Culture which had no need of Writing.

Which brings me at last to my somewhat controversial claim that the period up to the red line should be thought of as the Age of Integrated Expression, in contrast to what I have called the Age of Language.

My case is this: what we think of as ‘Language’ is not a continuum with its origin in the very beginnings of human time but actually a radical departure from that continuum, dating back some two and a half thousand years. The major obstacle to our seeing this is that ‘Language’ is, as it were, the lens through which we view the past: it colours how we think of it. (And a small evidence of this is seen in the effect of the words ‘Prehistoric’ ‘Stone Age‘ and ‘Civilisation’ noted above)

What characterises ‘Language’ and marks it off from what went before is its narrowness of focus: it is concerned exclusively with its written and spoken form, which interact yet are to some extent opposite (a point examined here ) Although Speech is far older and comes naturally to us, the dominant partner in this relationship is Writing, as can be seen from the great importance that we attach to formal grammar, standardised spelling and punctuation, all necessary adjuncts of writing (in fact, remedies for its inherent weaknesses) for which Speech has no need at all, though it now strives to conform to them – consider the notions of ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’.

(these are points I have discussed elsewhere here, here and here )

I would argue that the natural mode of human expression makes use indifferently of all the means we use to express ourselves – speech, certainly, but also facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, movement, rhythm, music, art, sculpture – a range that extends from our immediate selves out into our surroundings. I see no reason to suppose that Speech in particular was deemed any more important than the others: I think that is an illusion fostered by the disintegration which has taken place with the emergence of ‘Language’ which has seen Speech separated and simultaneously elevated in importance but subjugated to Writing, while the other modes are effectively conquered by division, being turned from natural human activities into areas of specialist skill: music, painting, sculpture, dance (and indeed literature).

This ‘Integrated Expression’, I would argue, is the natural vehicle of human culture, the means by which we transmitted our ideas of who we were and where we came from for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. If we were looking back at it through our ‘Language’ shaped lens, we would distinguish Dance and Ritual and Music and Storytelling and Poetry and Art, and doubtless see that they were associated with particular times of year (Solstices and Equinoxes, for instance) and certain places (painted caves, perhaps, or megalithic monuments – to say nothing of campfires). However, the key to grasping it is not separation and distinction but combination and likeness, synthesis rather than analysis – which is also the mechanism of metaphor, the key tool of this older way of thinking as reason and logic (both children of ‘Language’) are of the new.

And the hopeful conclusion is that, although the old way may have been superseded, it still goes on, albeit cloaked and disguised – indeed, a case might be made that all that is vigorous in our present culture stems from these ‘natural’ elements in their various guises – Music, Art, Poetry, Storytelling etc. – rather than from our present education system, chiefly designed as a means of transmitting literacy (and maintaining the ascendancy of the literate).

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Literally Seismic


Pedantic old gurnard* that I am, I still experience a frisson of annoyance when people (journalists, mostly) say things like ‘the very epicentre of the fighting’ or ‘the epicentre of world trade’. That is because ‘epicentre’ has a precise meaning, which in these cases is ignored: it is properly used of earthquakes, to denote the point on the earth’s surface directly above the seismic event, which actually occurs deep down: that is what the prefix ‘epi’ denotes – it is from the Greek, and means ‘upon’ or ‘over’. We encounter it in epitaph, which literally means ‘above tomb’, hence a headstone or grave-monument, though it has come to mean the writing on such a stone, which might more properly be termed an epigraph, something written above or over, such as the inscription at the head of a longer text – a poem or a novel – or over the entrance to a building.

Irritation that a word is used imprecisely might be compared to the pain that some might feel on seeing (say) a vernier caliper (or even a good screwdriver) used to lever the lid off a tin of paint: here is something designed for a precise purpose – a precision tool, indeed – used in ignorance to perform a basic operation requiring only something crude and simple. Part of the pain in those cases is the fear that the instrument may be damaged – which can hardly be said of a word – but a considerable part is aesthetic: those who know what the proper function of the tool or word is wince to find it used so ignorantly.

Imacon Color Scanner

These days, however, my irritation (a product of my upbringing and early education, which put great weight on the accurate use of words) is liable to be displaced by delight in this evidence that language is a natural thing that belongs to us all equally and to no-one in particular, despite the efforts of those (myself among them) who have claimed authority over it and seen fit to prescribe how it should be used.

If we look closely at what is happening with this use of ‘epicentre’ we find, once more, a species of metaphor. Metaphor is, in my view, the key mechanism in how language works and develops; it consists in transferring a word or term from its original context to a new one, in order to invite a comparison of the two, and from that spark a new meaning or sense in which the word can be used (and we should not overlook the playful element in this, a point I shall return to: there is a close affinity between how metaphors work and how jokes do)

Just as we will use ‘seismic’ to express the importance or impact of some event, likening it to an earthquake, so we borrow ‘epicentre’ to add a touch of the same flavour – this is not just any old centre, it’s the centre of something important, it’s where it all happens, the point from which it all flows ouward. (It is worth pausing to consider the importance we attach to centres as if there was something intrinsically important about them, but surely it is just a customary usage, rather than reflecting any real significance – why should the centre be more important than the periphery, or any other point?)

I have the impression that we meet this use of ‘epicentre’ more often in radio or TV journalism than in print, and that points to another factor that is often overlooked, namely how the sound of a word can affect its use and so its meaning. ‘Epicentre’, opening as it does with that plosive ‘p’ sound in the first syllable, is easier to pronounce emphatically than ‘centre’ with its soft sibilant opening – so it can be made to sound important as well as borrowing importance from its seismic origin.

We see a similar thing in that other bugbear of the self-proclaimed pedant, the use that is made of the word ‘literally’. Sports commentators in particular are apt to say things like ‘the ball literally exploded behind the keeper’ or ‘the home support literally raised the roof’ and this is apt to evoke superior scorn from those who think they know better: ‘O, did it really explode? was there much damage?’ or ‘they actually raised the roof? by how many feet?’


But look again: surely if this use of ‘literally’ is to be objected to, it is on the grounds of redundancy rather than anything else – what does ‘they literally raised the roof’ say that is not already expressed by ‘they raised the roof’ ? For all the pedants might wish to say, the addition of ‘literally’ does not turn ‘raised the roof’ or ‘the ball exploded’ from a metaphor to a piece of reporting; it merely serves to reinforce the metaphor – not very well, since both metaphors are rather stale, which is what the commentator senses in his desperate attempt to refresh them, when he might be better advised to drop them altogether.

The ‘shock value’ of a metaphor is its assertion that one thing is another, which evokes the response ‘how can that be?’; then we think about it, and light dawns – ‘I see it now’. Using ‘literally’ in this way is an attempt to renew the ‘shock value’ that ‘raised the roof’ and ‘the ball exploded’ (might have) had when first used.

Again, how it sounds plays a part here: it is a characteristic of English that the insertion of an adverb before a verb has a climactic effect, rather like a drum-roll which prepares us for the delivery of the telling word or phrase by warning of its imminent arrival. We see something similar with the insertion of an adverb such as ‘wholly’ ‘totally’ or ‘utterly’ before what is technically called a complement – thus ‘this is unacceptable’ ‘that is untrue’ or ‘this is deplorable’ become ‘this is wholly unacceptable’ ‘that is totally untrue’ ‘this is utterly deplorable’ – all expressions (try saying them aloud) where our vehemence can be concentrated in the adverb, which is almost spat out. Indeed, in these cases, the force of the utterance is largely transferred to the adverb, which conveys the speaker’s attitude before the final world is even spoken.

A final example is furnished by the unusual word ‘careen’ which is another technical term, though its use must now be rare – it means to tilt on one side, and is a nautical term – ‘to turn a vessel over on its side, especially for repairing or cleaning’ – its derivation is from the Latin carina, keel. I have lately heard it used (in one case by no less a person than Mr Stephen Fry, who occasionally makes wireless programmes about English usage) as a synonym for the verb ‘career’ meaning  ‘to rush headlong’. The etymology of ‘career’ is from carriere, the old French word for a racecourse, derived ultimately from the Latin for wagon, carrus. (cp. curriculum vitae, which literally means ‘little chariot of life’).

The two words are unconnected, but their similarity in appearance and sound makes them easily associated and confused, and it is likely that the dominance of ‘career’ as a noun meaning profession or occupation has made people wary of using the same word as a verb with what seems a quite different meaning (our careers are meant to be carefully plotted and managed, not a blind rush forwards) – hence the adoption of ‘careen’ for that purpose.

So the next time you find yourself on the verge of apoplexy at some linguistic usage, calm down and take a step back: language belongs to everyone, and anyone can change it – and they will, whether you like it or not.

*a gurnard of course is a kind of fish, pictured at the top of the page, but its name (apparently derived from the French grogner, to grunt, which it does when caught) evokes to my ear ‘gurn hard’ suggesting tetchy complaint, which allied to its rather grumpy looks makes it seem a fitting term for a pedantic whinger, even though it has no etymological connection – how language evolves, in action.

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Where to Find Talking Bears, or The Needless Suspension of Disbelief

polar bear child stroking tube

Something I have been struggling to pin down is a clear expression of my thoughts on the oft-quoted dictum of Coleridge, shown in its original context here:

‘it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’

This strikes me as a curious instance of something that has become a commonplace – you can almost guarantee to come across it in critical discussion of certain things, chiefly film and theatre – despite the fact that it completely fails to stand up to any rigorous scrutiny. It is, in a word, nonsense.

But there is another strand here, which may be part of my difficulty. This dictum, and its popularity, strike me as a further instance of something I have grown increasingly aware of in my recent thinking, namely the subjugation of Art to Reason. By this I mean the insistence that Art is not only capable of, but requires rational explanation – that its meaning can and should be clarified by writing and talking about it in a certain way (and note the crucial assumption that involves, namely that art has meaning).

This seems to me much like insisting that everyone say what they have to say in English, rather than accepting that there are languages other than our own which are different but equally good.

But back to Coleridge. If the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment’ is what ‘constitutes poetic faith,’ then all I can say is that it must be an odd sort of faith that consists not in believing something – or indeed anything – but rather in putting aside one’s incredulity on a temporary basis: ‘when I say I believe in poetry, what I mean is that I actually find it incredible, but I am willing to pretend I don’t in order to read it.’

That is the pernicious link – that this suspension of disbelief is a necessary prerequisite of engaging with poetry, fiction or indeed Art as a whole; we see it repeated (as gospel) in these quotations, culled at random from the internet:

‘Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.’

(‘Any creative endeavour’ ? ‘is only successful’ ? Come on!)

‘In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.

In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as “suspension of disbelief”. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.’
(‘required to believe’ ? ‘in order to enjoy’? Really?)

The implication is that we spend our waking lives in some sort of active scepticism, measuring everything we encounter against certain criteria before giving it our consideration; and when we come on any work of art – or at least one that deals with ‘persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic’ – we immediately find it wanting, measured against reality, and so must give ourselves a temporary special dispensation to look at it at all.

This is rather as if, on entering a theatre, we said to ourselves ‘these fellows are trying to convince me that I’m in Denmark, but actually it’s just a stage set and they are actors in costumes pretending to be other people – Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, Gertrude; of course it doesn’t help that instead of Danish they speak a strange sort of English that is quite unlike the way people really talk.’

The roots of this confusion go back what seems a long way, to classical Greece (about twenty-five centuries) though in saying that we should remember that artistic expression is a great deal older (four hundred centuries at least; probably much, much more). I have quoted the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius before:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhenius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

This is the epitome of the pernicious notion that art is a lie, at its most successful where it is most deceptive: thus Plato banishes it from his ideal state, because in his world it is at two removes from Reality. Plato’s Reality (which he also identifies with Truth) is the World of Forms or Ideas, apprehended by the intellect; the world apprehended by the senses is Appearance, and consists of inferior copies of Ideas; so that Art, which imitates Appearance, is but a copy of a copy, and so doubly inferior and untrustworthy.

Aristotle takes a different line on Appearance and Reality (he is willing to accept the world of the sense as Reality) but continues the same error with his theory of Mimesis, that all art is imitation – which, to use Aristotle’s own terminology, is to mistake the accident for the substance, the contingent for the necessary.

To be sure, some art does offer a representation of reality, and often with great technical skill; and indeed there are works in the tradition of Parrhasius that are expressly intended to deceive – trompe l’oeil paintings, which in the modern era can achieve astonishing effects

but far from being the pinnacle of art (though they are demonstrations of great technical skill) these are a specialist subset of it, and in truth a rather minor one, a sort of visual joke.

Insofar as any work of art resembles reality there will always be the temptation to measure it against reality and judge it accordingly, and this is particularly so of the visual arts, especially cinema, though people will apply the same criterion to fiction and poetry.

They are unlikely to do so in the case of music, however, and this exception is instructive. Even where music sets out to be specifically representative (technically what is termed ‘program(me) music’, I believe) and depict some scene or action – for instance Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ –it still does not look like the thing it depicts (for the simple reason that it has no visual element). Music is so far removed in character from what it depicts that we do not know where to start in making a comparison – we see at once that it is a different language, if you like.

The Sea Interludes are extraordinarily evocative, yet we would not call them ‘realistic’, something we might be tempted to say of a photo-realistic depiction of a seascape compared to one by Turner, say:

(original source here)  Tom Nielsen – ‘First light surf’

Screenshot 2015-12-09 18.40.27

(JMW Turner, ‘Seascape with storm coming on’ 1840)

Of all the different forms of Art, it is cinema that has gone furthest down this erroneous path – with the rise of CGI, almost anything can be ‘realised’ in the sense of presenting it in fully rounded, fully detailed form, and the revival of 3D imagery in its latest version and various other tricks are all geared to the same end of making it seem as if you were actually there in the action, as if that were the ultimate goal.

Yet even with the addition of scent and taste – the only senses yet to be catered for in film – the illusion is only temporary and never complete: we are always aware at some level that it is an illusion, and indeed the more it strives to be a perfect illusion the more aware we are of its illusory nature (we catch ourselves thinking ‘these special effects are amazing!’).

On the other hand, a black and white film from decades ago can so enrapture us that we are completely engaged with it to the exclusion of all else – we grip the arms of our seat and bite our lip when the hero is in peril, we shed tears at the denouement, we feel hugely uplifted at the joyous conclusion – but none of this is because we mistake what we are seeing for reality; it has to do with the engagement of our feelings.

In marked contrast to the cinema, the theatre now rarely aims at a realistic presentation; on the contrary, the wit with which a minimum of props can be used for a variety of purposes (as the excellent Blue Raincoat production of The Poor Mouth did with four chairs and some pig masks) can be part of the pleasure we experience, just as the different voices and facial expressions used by a storyteller can. It is not the main pleasure, of course, but it helps clarify the nature of the error that Coleridge makes.

How a story is told – the technique with which it is presented, whether it be on stage, screen or page – is a separate thing from the story itself. Take, for instance, these two fine books by Jackie Morris




East of the Sun, West of the Moon‘ and ‘The Wild Swans‘ are traditional tales; in retelling them, Jackie Morris puts her own stamp on them, not only with her own words and beautiful illustrations, but also with some changes of detail and action (for more about the writing of East of the Sun, see here).

The nature of these changes is interesting. It is like retuning a musical instrument: certain notes that jarred before now ring true; the tales are refreshed – their spirit is not altered but enhanced.

This ‘ringing true’ is an important concept in storytelling and in Art generally (I have discussed it before, in this fable). On the face of it, both these tales are prime candidates for Coleridge’s pusillanimous ‘suspension of disbelief’: in one, a talking bear makes a pact with a girl which she violates, thus failing to free him from the enchantment laid on him (he is actually a handsome prince); in consequence, the girl must find her way to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon, an enterprise in which she is aided by several wise women and the four winds; there she must outwit a troll-maiden. In the other, a sister finds her eleven brothers enchanted into swans by the malice of their stepmother, and can only free them by taking a vow of silence and knitting each of them shirts of stinging nettles.

After all, it will be said, you don’t meet with talking bears, any more than you do with boys enchanted into swans, in the Real World, do you?

Hm. I have to say that I view the expression ‘Real World’ and those who use it with deep suspicion: it is invariably employed to exclude from consideration something which the speaker does not like and fears to confront. As might be shown in a Venn diagram, what people mean by the ‘Real World’ is actually a subset of the World, one that is expressly defined to rule out the possibility of whatever its proponents wish to exclude:

Screenshot 2015-12-09 19.18.50

In other words, all they are saying is ‘you will not find talking bears or enchanted swans if you look in a place where you don’t find such things.’

Cue howls of protest: ‘you don’t meet talking bears walking down the street, do you?’ Well, it depends where you look: if you look at the start of East of the Sun, you will meet a talking bear walking through the streets of a city. Further howls: ‘But that’s just a story!’

polar bear child stroking tube

(Some people met this bear on the London underground but I don’t think it spoke )

Well, no – it isn’t just a story; it’s a story – and stories and what is in them are as much part of the world as belisha beacons, horse-blankets and the Retail Price Index. The World, after all, must include the totality of human experience. The fact that we do not meet with talking bears in the greengrocer’s (and has anyone ever said we might?) does not preclude the possibility of meeting them in stories, which is just where you’d expect to find them (for a similar point, see Paxman and the Angels).


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The Muybridge Moment


The memorable Eadweard Muybridge invented a number of things, including his own name – he was born Edward Muggeridge in London in 1830. He literally got away with murder in 1872 when he travelled some seventy-five miles to shoot dead his wife’s lover (prefacing the act with ‘here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife’) but was acquitted by the jury (against the judge’s direction) on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. He is best known for the sequence of pictures of a galloping horse shot in 1878 at the behest of Leland Stanford, Governor of California, to resolve the question of whether the horse ever has all four feet off the ground (it does, though not at the point people imagined). To capture the sequence, Muybridge used multiple cameras and devised a means of showing the results which he called a zoopraxoscope, thereby inventing stop-motion photography and the cinema projector, laying the foundations of the motion-picture industry.


(“The Horse in Motion-anim” by Eadweard Muybridge, Animation: Nevit Dilmen – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Muybridge’s achievement was to take a movement that was too fast for the human eye to comprehend and freeze it so that each phase of motion could be analysed. It was something that he set out to do – as deliberately and methodically as he set out to shoot Major Harry Larkyns, his wife’s lover.

It is interesting to consider that something similar to Muybridge’s achievement happened a few thousand years ago, entirely by accident and over a longer span of time, but with consequences so far-reaching that they could be said to have shaped the modern world.

We do not know what prompted the invention of writing between five and six thousand years ago, but it was not a desire to transcribe speech and give it a permanent form; most likely it began, alongside numbering, as a means of listing things, such as the contents of storehouses – making records for tax purposes, perhaps, or of the ruler’s wealth – and from there it might have developed as a means of recording notable achievements in battle and setting down laws.

We can be confident that transcribing speech was not the primary aim because that is not something anyone would have felt the need to do. For us, that may take some effort of the imagination to realise, not least because we live in an age obsessed with making permanent records of almost anything and everything, perhaps because it is so easy to do so – it is a commonplace to observe that people now seem to go on holiday not to enjoy seeing new places at first hand, but in order to make a record of them that they can look at once they return home.

And long before that, we had sayings like

vox audita perit, littera scripta manet
(the voice heard is lost; the written word remains)

to serve as propaganda for the written word and emphasise how vital it is to write things down. One of the tricks of propaganda is to take your major weakness and brazenly pass it off as a strength (‘we care what you think’ ‘your opinion matters to us’ ‘we’re listening!’ as banks and politicians say) and that is certainly the case with this particular Latin tag: it is simply not true that the spoken word is lost – people have been remembering speech from time immemorial (think of traditional stories and songs passed from one generation to the next); it is reasonable to suppose that retaining speech is as natural to us as speaking.

If anything, writing was devised to record what was not memorable. Its potential beyond that was only slowly realised: it took around a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call ‘literature’. It is not till the classical Greek period – a mere two and a half millennia ago (Homo Sapiens is reckoned  at 200,000 years old, the genus Homo at 2.8 million)  – that the ‘Muybridge moment’ arrives, with the realisation that writing allows us to ‘freeze’ speech just as his pictures ‘froze’ movement, and so, crucially, to analyse it.

When you consider all that stems from this, a considerable degree of ‘unthinking’ is required to imagine how things must have been before writing came along. I think the most notable thing would have been that speech was not seen as a separate element but rather as part of a spectrum of expression, nigh-inseparable from gesture and facial expression.  A great many of the features of language which we think fundamental would have been unknown: spelling and punctuation – to which some people attach so much importance – belong exclusively to writing and would not have been thought of at all; even the idea of words as a basic unit of language, the building blocks of sentences, is a notion that only arises once you can ‘freeze’ the flow of speech like Muybridge’s galloping horse and study each phase of its movement; before then, the ‘building blocks’ would have been complete utterances, a string of sounds that belonged together, rather like a phrase in music, and these would invariably have been integrated, not only with gestures and facial expressions, but some wider activity of which they formed part (and possibly not the most significant part).

As for grammar, the rules by which language operates and to which huge importance is attached by some, it is likely that no-one had the least idea of it; after all, speech is even now something we learn (and teach) by instinct, though that process is heavily influenced and overlaid by all the ideas that stem from the invention of writing; but then we have only been able to analyse language in that way for a couple of thousand years; we have been expressing ourselves in a range of ways, including speech, since the dawn of humanity.

When I learned grammar in primary school – some fifty years ago – we did it by parsing and analysis. Parsing was taking a sentence and identifying the ‘parts of speech’ of which it was composed – not just words, but types or categories of word, defined by their function: Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb, Pronoun, Preposition, Conjunction, Article. Analysis established the grammatical relations within the sentence, in terms of the Subject – confusingly, not what the sentence was about – something that puzzled me at first – but rather ‘the person or thing that performs the action described by the verb’ (though we used the rough-and-ready method of asking ‘who or what before the verb?’) and the remainder of the sentence, the Predicate, which was what was said about the subject, and could generally be divided into Verb and Object (‘who or what after the verb’ was the rough and ready method for finding that).

It was not till I went to university that I realised that these terms – in particular, Subject and Predicate – derived from mediaeval Logic, which in turn traced its origin back to Aristotle (whom Dante called maestro di color che sanno – master of those that know) in the days of Classical Greece.







Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Aristotle is the third of the trio of great teachers who were pupils of their predecessors: he was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates. It is fitting that Aristotle’s most notable pupil was not a philosopher but a King: Alexander the Great, who had conquered much of the known world and created an empire that stretched from Macedonia to India by the time he was 30.

That transition (in a period of no more than 150 years) from Socrates to the conquest of the world, neatly embodies the impact of Classical Greek thought, which I would argue stems from the ‘Muybridge Moment’ when people began to realise the full potential of the idea of writing down speech. Socrates, notably, wrote nothing: his method was to hang around the market place and engage in conversation with whoever would listen; we know him largely through the writings of Plato, who uses him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Aristotle wrote a great deal, and what he wrote conquered the subsequent world of thought to an extent and for a length of time that puts Alexander in eclipse.

In the Middle Ages – a millennium and a half after his death – he was known simply as ‘The Philosopher’ and quoting his opinion sufficed to close any argument. Although the Renaissance was to a large extent a rejection of Aristotelian teaching as it had developed (and ossified) in the teachings of the Schoolmen, the ideas of Aristotle remain profoundly influential, and not just in the way I was taught grammar as a boy – the whole notion of taxonomy, classification by similarity and difference, genius and species – we owe to Aristotle, to say nothing of Logic itself, from which not only my grammar lessons but rational thought were derived.

I would argue strongly that the foundations of modern thought – generalisation, taxonomy, logic, reason itself – are all products of that ‘Muybridge Moment’ and are only made possible by the ability to ‘freeze’ language, then analyse it, that writing makes possible.

It is only when you begin to think of language as composed of individual words (itself a process of abstraction) and how those words relate to the world and to each other, that these foundations are laid. Though Aristotle makes most use of it, the discovery of the power of generalisation should really be credited to his teacher, Plato: for what else are Plato’s Ideas or Forms but general ideas, and indeed (though Plato did not see this) those ideas as embodied in words? Thus, the Platonic idea or form of ‘table’ is the word ‘table’ – effectively indestructible and eternal, since it is immaterial, apprehended by the intellect rather than the senses, standing indifferently for any or all particular instances of a table – it fulfils all the criteria*.

Which brings us to Socrates: what was his contribution? He taught Plato, of course; but I think there is also a neat symbolism in his famous response to being told that the Oracle at Delphi had declared him ‘the wisest man in Greece’ – ‘my only wisdom is that while these others (the Sophists) claim to know something, I know that I know nothing.’ As the herald of Plato and Aristotle, Socrates establishes the baseline, clears the ground, as it were: at this point, no-one knows anything; but the construction of the great edifice of modern knowledge in which we still live today was just about to begin.

However, what interests me most of all is what constituted ‘thinking’ before the ‘Muybridge Moment’, before the advent of writing – not least because, whatever it was, we had been doing it for very much longer than the mere two and a half millennia that we have made use of generalisation, taxonomy, logic and reason as the basis of our thought.

How did we manage without them? and might we learn something useful from that?

I think so.

*seeing that ideas are actually words also solves the problem Hume had, concerning general ideas: if ideas are derived from impressions, then is the general idea ‘triangle’ isosceles, equilateral, or scalene or some impossible combination of them all? – no, it is just the word ‘triangle’. Hume’s mistake was in supposing that an Idea was a ‘(faint) copy’ of an impression; actually, it stands for it, but does not resemble it.

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The Mechanism of Meaning (it’s all in the mind)

Meaning matters. It is bound up with so many things: understanding and misunderstanding, doubt and certainty, to say nothing of philosophy, poetry, music and art; so it is worth considering the mechanism by which it operates. ‘Mechanism’ is a useful image here: when mechanisms are hidden – as they generally are – their effects can seem mysterious, even magical (as in the marvels of the watchmaker or the stage magician); yet when they are revealed, they offer reassurance: the point of a mechanism is that, unless it is impaired or interfered with, it will go on working in the same way.

Audemars_piguet_1908_montre_poche_640_360_s_c1_center_center magician-performs-a-levitation-trick-on-stage-nita-the-hypnotised-and-suspended-lady

The problem with the mechanism of meaning is that the popular notion of it is misleading: we speak of meaning as something conveyed, like a passenger in a car, or transmitted, like a radio message; we also speak of it as being embodied or contained in things that have it, whether they are sentences, poems, works of art or the like. These two usages combine to suggest that meaning exists independently in some form, and that the business of ‘meaning’ and ‘understanding’ consists of inserting it into and extracting it from whatever is said to have it. That seems like common sense, but as we shall see, when scrutinised it proves problematic.

Wittgenstein points us in another direction with his observation that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ which he uses alongside ‘language game’ and ‘form of life’ when discussing meaning, to denote the (wider) activity of which language forms a part and from which it derives its meaning.

It strikes me that the basic mechanism of meaning lies in connection : meaning is only found where a connection is made, and that connection is made in the mind of an observer, the one who ascribes meaning. In other words, meaning is not a fixed property of things: a thing in itself, on its own, does not have meaning. But we must be careful here: this is a stick that some will readily grasp the wrong end of – to suggest that a tree or a person (say) ‘has no meaning’ is liable to provoke outrage and earnest outpourings about the inestimable value of trees and people. That is because ‘meaningless’ is a pejorative term, properly used in cases where we expect meaning but do not find it; it might be compared to our use of ‘flightless’ which we apply to certain birds that are exceptions to the general rule; we would not apply it to pigs or gorillas.


We can gain some insight into how meaning works – its mechanism – by considering an allied concept, purpose. Let us suppose some interplanetary traveller at a remote time of a quite different species to ourselves. Somewhere on his travels he comes upon this relic of a long-lost civilisation: a rectangular case constructed of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, which opens to disclose a cellular array – there are some twenty-four rectangular cells of the same organic material, each containing an identical object, rounded, hard and smooth to the touch. He is quite excited by the find as it reminds him of another he has come across – again a cellular array in a case of semi-rigid, possibly organic material, and again each cell containing a smooth, hard, rounded object, though there are differences of detail both in the shape of the cells and the objects. He may submit a learned paper to the Integalactic Open University speculating on the purpose of these strikingly similar discoveries; he is in no doubt that they are variants of the same thing, and share a common purpose, on account of the numerous points of resemblance.

Were we at his side we might smile, since one is a packet of lightbulbs and the other a box of eggs; it is likely that the resemblances that strike him as the best clues to their purpose might elude us altogether, since we would dismiss them as irrelevant – ‘that is just how they happen to be packaged, for ease of transport or storage: it has no bearing on what they are for. As to the slight similarities of shape and texture, that is mere coincidence. These objects are entirely unrelated, and could not be more unlike.’

577e028b29cf98908190de258ad90d73 light-bulb_1467547c

It is worth considering the key difference between us and the interplanetary traveller that allows us to smile at his ill-founded speculation. These are familiar objects to us, and we can connect them at once to a context or situation in which they belong, where they fit in and have purpose; our ‘reading’ of them is entirely different from the alien traveller’s – we disregard all that seems to him most striking, because we know it is of no significance. We see that the apparent similarity has nothing to do with the objects themselves, but the fact that they are both in storage, awaiting use; neither is ‘active’, i.e. in the situation or context where they are used and have purpose.


How far an examination of the objects in detail might allow our traveller to deduce, on the one hand, a national grid for distributing electricity from power stations to homes and workplaces rigged with lighting circuits, and the delights of omelettes, fried, poached and scrambled eggs on the other depends on quite how alien he is – if he a gaseous life-form sustained by starlight, he is unlikely to penetrate far into their mystery. On the other hand, if his own existence has ‘forms of life’ or activities similar to ours, he might make much better and even surprisingly accurate guesses.

That, after all, is how we ourselves proceed if we come across artefacts or objects that are unfamiliar: we guess at their purpose by thinking of the kind of the thing they might be, the sort of use they might have, by analogy with our own activities or ‘forms of life’ (and it is no accident that truly mystifying objects are often tentatively described as having ‘possible religious or ritual significance’ since in our own experience this is where many things are found whose use could not easily be guessed; and in this connection consider the use made of everyday objects in burial rites – offerings of food put alongside the dead, or cooking or eating utensils for use on the onward journey).


I would suggest that, as far as the mechanism by which they operate goes, ‘purpose’ and ‘meaning’ are the same, since both are defined in the same way, viz. by placing the thing in question in relation to some context, situation or larger activity where it has a place, where it ‘makes sense’, if you like;  (imagine our alien traveller’s reaction to being shown the circumstances in which a lightbulb is used – the mystery of the object disappears once the connections are made – literally, in this case).

This brings out important aspects of meaning that are often overlooked, not least because – as I observed at the outset – they are contradicted by most popular accounts of what meaning is. The first aspect is that meaning is not inherent: no amount of studying or dissecting the object in isolation will discover it – I emphasis ‘in isolation’ because discovering, say, the filament in the light bulb and how it is connected to the fitting at the base will advance our understanding only if we can relate them to other things: if we have no notion of electricity, or that it will make a wire filament glow brightly, then they will tell us nothing.

The second aspect is slightly trickier to explain but of greater significance. If we agree that meaning is not inherent, not something that can be found simply by examining the object no matter how minutely, then we can reasonably ask where it is located. One answer, from what we have said, is that it lies in the relation or connection to the context, situation or ‘form of life’; but I think that is not quite right.

Rather, it consists in being related to, or being connected with – in other words, it exists as the result of an action by the onlooker, and where it exists – where it means – is in that onlooker’s mind. This is not the usual account that is given of meaning, which is generally more like this, from Wikipedia:

‘meaning is what the source or sender expresses, communicates, or conveys in their message to the observer or receiver, and what the receiver infers from the current context.’

At first sight, this might not seem significantly different – we have relation to context, we have a process of inference; the main addition appears to be that the source or sender is taken into account, as well as the receiver. However, there is one slight-seeming but important difference, which is the notion of the meaning as something which retains its identity throughout, and which exists prior to the communication taking place and survives after it – the model that springs readily to mind is the letter, which the sender puts in the envelope, which is then conveyed to the recipient who takes it out and reads it.


The analogy with the letter is probably what makes this seem a ‘common sense’ account that most people would agree with, but the logic of it gives rise to problems. If we picture the process of sending a letter, we might start with the sender at her desk, pen in hand, poised to write; she puts the message on the page, folds the page and seals it in the envelope then sends it off; at the other end the recipient takes it out, reads it, and ‘gets the message’. What is the difficulty there, you might ask?
It begins to emerge if you try to make the analogy consistent. At first glance, it seems that

message (that which conveys the meaning) = envelope

But there is a problem here: the message is in the letter, rather than the envelope; in actual fact, the envelope is superfluous – the message could be sent without it, by hand, say, simply as a folded note. Still, that seems trivial – the sender puts her ideas into words, the receiver reads the words and gets her ideas: isn’t that just the same?

Not quite. The question is whether the meaning (or the message) exists before it is put into words; and if so, in what form? Again, this may seem unproblematic: of course the message exists before she writes it down; and indeed she might change her mind and instead of writing, making a phone call and say what she means instead, directly, as it were.

But we must be careful here: the question is not whether the message exists before she writes it down – or even before she speaks it – but before she puts it into words. This is where the image of  the letter in the envelope is at its most misleading: isn’t the meaning just something we put into words, in the same way we put the letter in the envelope?

That is what Wittgenstein calls the ‘private language’ argument – the notion that my thoughts are in my head in some form to which I have privileged access, and which I could choose to give public form if I wish, thereby making them accessible to others. Though this again seems like common sense, when examined closely, it is problematic. It forms the basis of popular notions of telepathy, but trying to imagine what such ‘direct transmission’ would actually consist of highlights the difficulty.

If you convey your thoughts to me, what do I experience? Do I hear your voice speaking in my head? if so, we are back to ‘putting things in words’ and no nearer any prior form our thoughts might take. The temptation is to fall back on images, as if these were somewhow more immediate (a picture is worth a thousand words, after all) but what would they be images of? And how, having received them, would I be able to infer your thought from them? A more illuminating (but no less problematic) possibility is that we might hear your thoughts as a musical phrase which we intuitively understand.

This works to some extent because we are accustomed to the idea that music can consistently evoke definite feelings in us – ‘that passage always makes me feel this way, invariably calls this to mind’ – though we have no idea how: ‘it just does’; so that seems consistent with our finding in it something that someone else has put there; but it still leaves the question of what happens at the other end – how would such a musical message originate?

The options here would seem to be either that the message is originally in some other form which I then embody in the music – which takes us back to where we started: if it’s comprehensible to me in that form, why can’t I convey that directly instead of ‘translating’ it into music? – or else we have to accept that only in expressing it do I find what I am thinking; what we experience prior to that is an urge, a sort of pressure which can only be relieved by giving it expression in some way – whether it is an inarticulate cry of rage, a musical phrase (the terrifying opening of the Dies Irae in Verdi’s Requiem, for instance), an image (Munch’s The Scream, maybe) or the words ‘I am very angry about this!’

The Scream

This brings us by a roundabout route to something I have been trying to articulate for a while  – the key distinction between language as the instrument of thought and as one means of expressing experience; but that is a subject for another article. In the meantime, I would conclude by saying that, if this account of the mechanism of meaning is accurate, then it has some interesting implications. It suggests, for instance, that meaning (like beauty) is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder; that it is not fixed, but variable; that it is impermanent; and – perhaps most importantly – it is inseparable from its context, the ‘form of life’ or wider activity of which it forms a part and on which it depends.

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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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