I shall use no power point in this lecture.
No images. No music.
Just voice. Just words.
I want to recall some peculiarities of writing as a medium of expression.
I want to ask how this medium is integrated in our mental lives, and indeed our physical lives. Or rather, our mental/physical lives. Does anyone know where the one ends and the other begins?
Perhaps mind and body are only safely separate in the pages of our dictionaries. Separate words referring to things that aren’t separate and can’t be separated.
With our lives then. I want to know how this medium of writing is integrated in our lives.
But perhaps that is the same as saying, integrated with us. Can we be separated from our lives? Me and my life? I think not. Words again. Creating distinctions that aren’t there. Creating redundancies. And confusions.
I want to ask how this medium of writing is integrated with us.
For better or worse.
So much by way of introduction.
There is no artefact: unlike sculpture, there is nothing you can walk around and admire. No one is going to say you must not touch. No alarm will go off if you get too close.
There is no image to contemplate, representational or abstract. Unlike painting, there is nothing that every viewer sees ‘the same’, more or less, given equal eyesight.
You don’t have to travel to look at writing.
You don’t have to queue or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat.
You can’t take a photo.
It has no fixed duration. Unlike music you don’t have to respect its timing, accepting, along with others, an experience of the same duration. You can’t dance to it. You can’t sing along.
But the duration is considerable. The book is longer than a piece of music. Longer than a film, an opera, a play. It is the longest artistic medium by far. Unless we skip.
There are signs on paper. Or on a screen.
We can change the size, or shape, or colour of the signs, we can alter their distribution on paper, on the screen. We can divide them in pages or, if we want, on the computer, we can unite them in one un- ending page, or one unending line.
We can read in Baskerville or Bookman, in Arial or Calibri. Bold or Italic. Capitals or not.
We can read the signs at whatever speed suits us, stopping and re- starting wherever we want, for how long we want, a cup of coffee, a shopping trip, a week’s skiing.
Only the sequence of signs matters. The writing is in the sequence of the signs. This is the one thing we can’t change. The experience is the sequence. The experience is not in one moment of perception but in the movement through the sequence from beginning to end, at our own speed, with interruptions. At the beginning of each sentence we are projected towards the end. At the end we have the momentum of the beginning. Same with the paragraph, same with the chapter, same with the whole book, the whole trilogy perhaps. The beginning re- quires the end, the end the beginning. We are locked into a journey.
But we make it at our own speed.
Most readers are monogamous. Serially monogamous, I mean. One book after another. But it is perfectly possible to read a half dozen books at once. Promiscuously. Something difficult with a symphony.
The signs recall sounds. Or recalled sounds. Sounds in sequence. One two or three sounds form the unit we call a word. Sometimes maybe four sounds. i n - o p p - o r - t u n e . Sometimes five Inoppor- tunely. Now we call the sounds syllables. As if they knew they were parts of a word. A unit. We love the idea of units that can be organized in different compounds; it gives us an illusion of control, though the sound is always different when involved in the whole than when pronounced alone.
A word is not something that exists in nature. There is no word in our bodies when we are born. A word has no material existence. It is indicated by sounds or a sign referring to sounds which in turn refer us to an object or to an action or to a thought, or constitute a link of some kind between the above. The word, however, is not the sound made to conjure it up and not the sign on the page that refers to the sound it makes. What is it then?
The relation between words and objects is arbitrary. You cannot deduce a word from an object. You cannot try sounds on an object to see which fits, aesthetically, logically. You must be told.
This is true even with so-called onomatopoeic words. The same object might require different words in different contexts. If it is to be understood. A window, a port-hole, a skylight.
The same word might refer to more than one object. Lock. In a door. In a canal.
Or to an object and an action. Lock again. Lock the lock. Confusion is an ordinary experience. With words.
Who invented the words? We don’t know.
To what end? It’s not clear.
Words are useful when we want to prompt someone else to bring to mind an object.
I need a glass of water.
Where did you put my coat?
But it would not be difficult to indicate these ideas without words.
Words are necessary when we want to bring to mind something that can’t be intuited from the contingent situation.
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
Or something that doesn’t exist.
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.
No amount of cleverness with Charades would conjure that up.
Not everybody understands the words we use; not everybody who identifies the meanings of the words separately will understand how we used them in sequence.
They will understand other words no doubt, but maybe not our words. For words exist in discreet groupings. The organization Ethnologue lists 6809 different systems of sounds, that is, series of words and accompanying rules for arranging them in sequence. Each system, or language, divides the world up in different ways and employs different sequences.
If you try to shift a sequence of words from one system to another, it may be that everything feels different and strange. Translation. Not everybody who understands your words understands them in the same way. They grew up in a different place perhaps where the words were used rather differently. Or they learned them from a book. Or at school. People in the past used our words in a different way from the way we use them now. People in the future will use them in a different way again.
Our words are a moment, a happening.
When we read signs on a page we may not always know how to make the sound they signify. If we haven’t been told. When we change the sound of a word, even a tiny bit, or the cadence in the sequence of words, it may be that we don’t get the results we expected.
This is a precarious medium.
It’s the medium we live in.
Indeed it’s the medium that constitutes the community of ‘we’.
Let’s go back a bit.
When we arrived in this world, before we rightly knew what was going on, they were already filling our heads with words. We came to something we call consciousness hearing words. We started to copy words. We realised that making certain sounds in certain sequences would get us what we wanted. Certain formulas expressed pleasure, others displeasure. Soon the words seemed as natural as our cries and shouts and breathing and eating and it came as a shock the first time we realised that some people used quite other words, words we couldn’t understand, some people didn’t give us what we wanted in response to ours.
They didn’t understand. They weren’t one of us.
We could barely walk before they put books in our hands. Now they wanted us to imagine the sounds silently, constructing them from visual signs, subtracting them from the give and take of company. Alone. Adults read alone, withdrawn, the mind full of words that have no material existence. Remembered sound.
Soon the sounds became pure mental phenomena. Unheard. Unspoken. If we wish, we can learn sequences of signs, from a book, we can commit them to memory. If you choose you can have a poem entirely in your head, without ever having heard it. In your head, it is exactly, I repeat, exactly, the poem on the page, not like remembered music or remembered painting, which is never exactly the same. You can have the poem, exactly, in your head. Unspoken.
A sequence of suppressed sounds. Pure mental phenomena.
You can think it to yourself as often as you choose. “To be or not to be”. Kubla Khan. The Wasteland.
No copyright law can defend poetry from memory’s reproduction.
Soon it became difficult to imagine active, purposeful consciousness without words. Apparently a human being can have no full existence without this … invention. Words.
When we say stream of consciousness we mean stream of words.
Reading, writing, talking, thinking, we find we are moving in a separate system. Not the material world of the senses. The habit is compulsive. The minds’ constant generation of words crowds out its perception of physical phenomena. We are losing our grip on things as they are. Or maybe changing the hierarchy of things as they are. Because words do exist. In our mind, which, for us, is an important place.
This second, mental, word-driven life is congenial. Reading silently, the words speed up. We follow the sequence faster than we could ever say it. Reading through this paper on the screen took only a few minutes. Speaking it to you aloud is pitifully slow.
The eye streaks ahead. The page turns while our sense of what came before is still falling into place. Other perceptions, a distant lawn-mower, a smell of fresh baking, a fall of temperature – are dulled. The world has been left behind. A whirling word machine had lifted off from the heavy surfaces of soil, cement and skin. Mind and body part company, validating their split in the dictionary.
If everything we see in the world around us has its word, its name, we can also invent words for things we can’t see. Say a sound and at- tribute an imagined referent. Angel, soul, spirit, ghost, god. They exist, in words. In the head. In the head, with words, we can conjure anything.
One of the words we invented was “self”.
With the words we know, silently, in our heads, we create something, an entity, a fantasy, and we call it ‘self’, a creature with a past and a future, in much the same way that sentences and stories have a beginning and an end. To reassure ourselves that it is really there we invented another word. Identity. And another, character. And another, personality. The more words the more it exists.
Self is a linguistic invention. It’s hard to have a self without words.
Every self has a story. It exists in relation to other selves and other stories, in a continuum. It seeks to distinguish itself by comparing itself with others, using other words, not all of them easy to define – fear courage, good bad, happy sad, winner loser.
The self exists in a web of words spun out of the mind, separate from the world of sense. By the time we become adult it is impossible to imagine ourselves, our stories, without words. Harder than imagining the world without cars. Harder than imagining the state without bureaucracy.
At the cinema we see lives invented in a mixture of pictures and words and music. We can think of our lives as films. But when we tell our stories, day after day, to each other, to ourselves, we do so in words. We cannot easily, at the bus-stop or in a café, create a complex story in images. We use words. We share our exciting secrets in words.
Although we have images everywhere, all the same if, on the net for example, we are looking for a particular kind of image we must type in a word. We must first think of a word. When we shut our eyes there are words. In the dark there are words. When the electricity fails and the screens go out there are words. Images are powerful. Images flash across our brains. Then we tell ourselves about them in words. That memory was Helen. That dream was your mother.
In the hierarchy of mind, words organize images. We talk about sculpture. We don’t sculpt about words.
Words are the weft on which consciousness is woven. Some people exploit this state of affairs to invent stories, writing down thousands upon thous ands of soundless signs, mimicking the way people construct their lives and the lives of others. In words. This reinforces the process we are all involved in.
Written narrative, more than other mediums, is intimately connected with the reader’s mental construction of self, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of form. Much is at stake.
Society prefers writers who don’t tinker with the sequences we all know, and on which our self-constructions depend, who treat those sequences as if they were natural and inevitable, as if the brain was made up from birth of words, born into words. Our words, mind, not other people’s words. It is comforting to think, I was born who I am. I was born English! Long live the monolingual. Long live the British Isles.
How unsettling it is to hear anything but English!
“Jim, s’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n, Huck; I’d take en bust him over de head –”
“Shucks, It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French?”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
“Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? You answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, he ain’t got no business to talk like one. Is a Frenchman a man?”
“WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man?”
Being human is associated with language use. Native language use. People who speak foreign languages are a tiny bit less human. The stranger the language the less human they are.
If foreign languages are unsettling, silence is even more so. When we imagine protracted periods of consciousness without words, when we think of a day, an hour, even a minute without any words in the head, we are overcome by a kind of vertigo. What would the mind be without words? What do our brains do when they are not talking to us? Where would the self be?
A chatter of books is a good thing. It fills the world with words. It reinforces the self. Which is bound for the paradise we have invented for it. In words.
But inevitably from time to time it happens. Some spoilsport grows dissatisfied with words.
Can you imagine?
Words don’t say something he has decided at some wordless level he feels. Words no longer correspond to reality, for him.
Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, of one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted… (…) …the pot remained a pot, Watt felt sure of that, for everyone but Watt. For Watt alone it was not a pot, any more.
A writer who finds himself in this kind of distress – words no longer signify – starts to interrupt the sacred sequences, to bring the word machine down to ground. Writers, notoriously, want other people to share their anxieties.
Beckett was living in a foreign country, France, and a foreign lan- guage, French, when he wrote Watt. Some say the book is written as if under siege from French.
D.H. Lawrence claimed he felt compelled to write The Rainbow in a language that was “like a foreign language” so deeply did it go against the grain of society’s sense of how self and experience are constructed. Both Lawrence and Beckett felt it necessary to attack the received sequences of words and the value ascribed to them
Three sentences from Women in Love.
She was destroyed into perfect consciousness.
She could forget perfectly.
She forgot to have misgivings.
It is dangerous to do this kind of thing. Even to think that we can start playing with words, with the sequence in which words appear, obliges us to recognize how precarious, how arbitrary it all is. We had been progressing nicely inside our map, our word map, but alas the map wasn’t the territory. In words we are fine. Back on the ground, we are nowhere.
So the brain would appear to have a predilection for the systems it constructs for itself, or constructs in a community of like brains, rather than the contingent world it is subjected to. It would appear to have a vocation for a form of collective isolation, if that is not a contradiction in terms. It seeks refuge in the separate world of language. Of literature.
On the other hand, when the distance between words and reality, felt reality, the messages we are all the time getting from the senses, grows too great, a control mechanism kicks in. Someone – a writer, a philosopher – wants to know how and where words adhere to the brain, what reality they constitute, if any, how they can be kept in touch with our sensations.
It is becoming more and more difficult, even senseless for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the
Nothingness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask. Let us hope the time will come … when language is most efficiently used where it is most efficiently misused. As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it – be it something or nothing –
begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.
To bore a hole through language. Where will that take us? And isn’t it rather unsporting that the writers who have exploited our word habit for money, should now start taking it to pieces?
Instead of keeping the word machine in the air they are shooting it down. Why writers of all people? Why not sportsmen? Libertines? Housewives?
Perhaps it’s a question of health. Using words so much, prizing himself on his ability with words, always alert to expression and nuance, the writer may begin to find words oppressive. Not any word on its own but the compulsive onward movement of words in the mind, the compulsive need to transform all experience into words. Someone begins to fear that for all his vaunted ability, he is not actually in control of these words at all. They clatter on, willy-nilly.
Off it goes… on. Comments Beckett’s narrator the Unnameable, despairing of putting an end to words. Off… it goes on. You are not in control.
The words organize themselves in voices and argue with each other. In our heads. There is something we can’t decide. Then self seems less stable. The self isn’t able, perhaps, to construct a story that settles some important decision. Do I leave home or don’t I? Do I marry or don’t I? The words can’t invent the story. They formulate various convincing but contradictory stories. Now we would like the words to stop a bit. To shut up. We are always caught in a sequence of words. Now warring sequences. We would like to stop and be still. We would like not to have to invent ourselves. The writer, perhaps, experiences this more intensely than other artists.
Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.
Thus Shakespeare’s Prospero.
Coleridge lives in a cottage with a wife, Sarah, whom he’s not in love with, writing letters to a lover, Sarah, arguing his situation back and forth, making himself ill.
“Thoughts that tortured me” he writes in a poem. The thoughts were words. To escape the words he goes on climbing expeditions in the Lake District. They are suicidal expeditions, in which he goes directly from top to bottom of the peaks without following a path. Coleridge invents the sport of recreational rock climbing, to eliminate thoughts, words from his troubled mind. To return to the body and the world of sense. ‘Afflictions’ had prompted him he says to separate thought and feeling, mind and body.” He needs to put the two back together again. He is plagued by words but words are his profession. Coleridge is in deep trouble. His pains begin. The stomach pains, the bowel problems, the urinary problems.
Coleridge begins to look for any experience that will silence thought and words. He finds the sublime, the ineffable. The emotional impact of vast, majestic nature. The experience is so powerful that, paradoxically, he wants to bring wordless majesty back into words, to tell others, to win praise, in words, for his experience outside words.
…I gazed upon thee, he tells an alpine mountain
Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,
Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer
I worshipped the Invisible alone.
A perverse circle sets in. A mind of warring words preying on a
fragile body seeks relief in an experience outside words. The experience is so strong that the self then tries to win praise for bringing it back into words.
It isn’t long before the mind becomes aware of this paradox and becomes itself the object of its own attention, the mind oscillating between trapped frustration, words in control of the mind, and exalted creativity, the mind in control of words.
Coleridge develops a drug habit.
Then writes about it.
In Italy, Giacomo Leopardi’s intensely verbal mind did not bring him joy. “Reflecting on the subtleties of urination,” writes his father Monaldo, “Giacomo would be unable to pass water.” Monaldo had to keep his son company in the early hours of the morning with the chamber pot. In an attempt to help Giacomo “steal a moment’s inattention from himself.” A moment without words. Then he could pee.
Leopardi yearned for what he called the dolce naufragio of the mind. The sweet shipwreck of thought. He yearned for oneness with the solid nothing of the universe. His poems start to read like spells to bring the mind to silence. The words are formulas to bring formulas to an end.
The writer is at war now with his own compulsive addiction to words, his interminable fabrication of a world that is not the world.
Beckett is told that his boils, his anal cysts, his urinary problems, his constipation, are psychosomatic.
This word is a most revealing invention.
The suggestion is that normally mind and body are happily sepa- rate; when the body is ill the doctors give it a pill. But just sometimes the mind perversely tricks science by persuading the body to fake conditions that aren’t really there. This is unfair to doctors and risks bringing their profession into disrepute. They pass you to a man to whom you do nothing but talk. Perhaps when all the words are unpacked and all the stories told the body will be healthy again.
Guilty about his unemployment, the young Beckett cannot face a job. He escapes into reading and writing. It increases his capacity to torture himself with words. His divided mind is all words, formulating images for his predicament. His psychoanalyst tells him he needs more contact with reality, with his body, with people. More life away from words. In reaction, Beckett’s writing becomes more and more an examination of a mind trapped in words, in false premises. The word ‘self’ is exposed as a charlatan. The mind wishes in words, that the words would stop. Stillness is the goal. And since words are always on the move, stillness means silence. There can be no stillness with words.
Geb nodrap says Beckett’s Watt. Nodrap, geb nodrap.
Geb – beg – nodrap – pardon. Backwards.
But soon I grew used to these sounds, remarks Beckett’s narrator Sam, and then I understood Watt as well as before.
So all went well until Watt began to invert, no longer the order of the letters in the word, but that of the sentences in the period.
The following is an example of Watt’s manner in this period:
Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the temple. To him I brought. This emptied heart. These emptied hands. This mind ignoring. This body homeless. To love him my little reviled. My little rejected to have him. My little to learn him forgot. Abandoned my little to find him.
These were sounds, says Sam, that at first, though we walked pubis to pubis seemed so much balls to me.
This is an attack on the mind, the sense of self, through a subversion of sequence. It generates a physical unease in the reader’s head. An
anxiety. It is an attack to which, in the end, all the greatest writers
come, one way or another. The spotlight turns away from the fabricated world to the fabricating mind, the source. The word machine. And a heavy spoke is forced between its word-grinding wheels.
With a little effort the reader can sort Watt’s utterance out.
Abandoned my little to find him. My little to learn him forgot. My little rejected to have him. To love him my little reviled. This body homeless. This mind ignoring. These emptied hands. This emptied heart. To him I brought. To the temple. To the teacher. To the source. Of nought.
For ‘my little’, read, perhaps, ‘self’.
The source of nought. The source is nought.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on. I am vex’d sir, says Prospero.
Descend lower, descend only into the world of perpetual solitude, World not world, but that which is not world
Eliot. The last stop for literature is always the mind itself, where all literature is spun from. Inexplicably. The mind enchanted by words. Im- prisoned in words. It’s not a question, as scientists would sometimes encourage us to believe, of discovering which lobe of the brain is busy when we use words. That doesn’t help. Rather, we would like to understand the very chemistry of language, the meshing between word system and brain cells.
The quest is self evidently self defeating. Writers are the least well equipped to carry it out. A mind seeking in words the source of its word-sick drive. A mind seeking to be free of the community’s lan- guage but simultaneously trying to seduce the community through language. Trying to be free and trying to enchant.
That is Shakespeare’s Tempest.
The more an author calls language into question, shows it up for the dangerous mechanism it is, the less he is read. Revered perhaps but not read.
That is Mallarmé.
At the core of literature is a deep sense of failure.
We cannot get to the bottom of words and mind, the thought and the matter of thought. We cannot. And we cannot stop trying.
“All of old,” concludes the narrator of Beckett’s Worstward Ho, “Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”