… let’s hear it for words, and in particular,
let’s have it in writing!
‘Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.’
Lost in the mists of time the origins of human language, evolving from that early signalling and expressive sound-making we shared with our animal kin, the scream, the shout, the sibilant hiss and song, like bird song or the song of the Humpback whale, and spoken language evolving beyond that sign language we share with some of our hominid ancestors. Lots of conjectures regarding those first spoken words, but who knows what and why, and like in the song, who knows where or when?
What we do know is that the fossil record, from endocast maps of the brain, reveal evidence in early Homo, but not in the Australopithacus species, of a brain section known as Brocca’s area, the major area associated with spoken language. And there’s also tantalising evidence for speech in voice-producing apparatus of the neck, the larynx and the pharynx in humans, a vocal tract unique in the animal world. This evolution appears in a less developed stage in Home erectus but by the time of Home sapiens, some 300,000 years ago, the modern voice apparatus has evolved, indicating the potential, if not the actuality for spoken language.
Vocalisation is one thing, structural use of words, the syntax of descriptive language, is another, bespeaking a level of conscious thinking enabling us to conjure abstract elements in ordered progression.
Actions denote volition behind the act, and complex action denotes complex thought. Artistic depiction is one such complex activity. The hundreds of paintings, engravings and reliefs of bison and other animals in the caves of Altimira in Spain, and Lascaux in France, during the Upper Paleolithic Aurgnacian Period, 43, 000 to 26,000 years ago indicate this complexity. Probably the first paintings were stencilings of actual hands held against the cave walls. Was this the first historical record? The stencils were succeeded by figural paintings of horses and bulls painted with lively naturalism.
A characteristic feature of those early pictures is their twisted perspective, which shows, for example, the head of an animal in profile and its horns twisted to a front view, On the basis of this archaeological evidence of sophisticated cave art, it seems logical to infer a complex language by its makers.
Even further back, in Mousterian times 150, 000 to 40,000 years ago, sounds mysterious don’t it, findings of engraved bone and ivory in archaeology indicate an ability to deal with abstract processes, but the flowering of art, around 32,000 years ago, findings of exquisitely carved animals like the Vogelhead horse in Germany, …not even mentioning the tool-making innovations of the period, suggest that something important was taking place in human development at this time.
Put it in writing…
Looking for the origins of writing is something more tangible than wondering when our Homo sapien ancestors began uttering those first words, especially as the earliest writing, cuneiform script ‘cuneiform’ meaning ‘wedge-shaped,’ originating in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, around 3,200 years ago, was inscribed on tablets of clay. Say wasn’t it good that paper was not invented by the Chinese until a few thousand years later? Many of the earliest clay tablets found came from a site in Uruk and seem to have been invented as an aid to memory used to record transactions. Cuneiform script, consisting of some 800 symbols was not an alphabet but a blend of pictograms and signs for syllables, the Phoenician alphabet was not invented until around 1,100 B.C.
From different regions of Mesopotamia, in cuneiform writing miraculously preserved in clay, we get many fragmented versions of the world’s oldest epic, the poem of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk , who journeys to the ends of the earth in search of the secret of immortality. Many centuries later, perhaps transcribed in the 7th century B.C. in Greek writing, based on Phoenician script, we get the beginning of Western European literature with ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey,’ both poems ascribed to the blind poet Homer, though possibly authored by two poets.
Homer’s stories were not actually created by him but were drawn from a narrative tradition orally passed on by bards who employed hexameter metre and for rapid composing, verbal formulas describing common events, descriptions of actors or nature, such as ‘swift footed’ Achilles, and ‘rosy fingered’ dawn, to drive the story forward. When Homer assumedly cooperated with a scribe to create his two masterpieces, he was less confined to oral requirements and could experiment with complex dramatic devices like flash backs in time and extended similes that illuminate an individual’s felt response to a situation. An oral verse form could not do what a written narrative was able to do.
The world’s oldest known story, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ like Homer’s Odyssey, was also an amalgam of stories preserved on clay tablets, often pierced together because tablets break, and covering a long period of time. The early Gilgamesh stories, written in the Sumerian language of Southern Mesopotamia as early as 2,100B.C., the famous Arkkadian 12 tablet version written by Sin-legi-unninni, who is thought to have lived between 1300-and 1000, B.C. If you haven’t heard this talk by Professor of Babylonian and Oriental Studies, Andrew George, regarding its excavation and so much more, a feast awaits you.
Though an actual King Gilgamesh did once rule Uruk, this is a story of legendary exploits, perhaps transcribed in the 7th century B.C, of the heroic and flawed Gilgamesh, who, after killing the Bull of Heaven and destroying a monster guarding the Cedar Forests of Lebanon, takes on a legendary quest, journeying to the ends of the earth to obtain the secret of immortality from Uta-napishti, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah, who is himself an immortal.
Though the story is certainly fiction, The Epic of Gilgamesh is more interested in examining the human condition than the doings of the gods. Reading the thoughts expressed by its writer allows us insights into attitudes of a long past civilisation, attitudes to life and death, debate on the proper duties of kingship, the benefits of civilisation over savagery, on the structure of its poetry and more. The Gilgamesh poem, because of this, is something of an historical document.
Let’s hear it for History!
Let’s hear it for history I say! The study of past civilisations is a source of knowledge valuable in itself. Without writing, a recorded examination of past human thought and action is not possible. Some say it can’t be done.
Problem with words as descriptive tools, argues Michael Foucault. Words have been perverted from their original function as signification and given the impossible task of realistically representing and neutrally referring to their objects… But if words are mere things alongside other things this task is exposed for what it is, the construction of objects by word things.
Words are a problem, says Frederick Nietzsche. Man constructs his world, and in so doing is bound by the verbal structures at his disposal. If we rely on conceptual language, as in monumental or antiquarian studies of the past, we create inhibiting illusions, and if we rely on critical language, as in analytical history, we strip ourselves of illusions altogether. Either way the past becomes a deadening influence upon us as we seek to respond to the present.
Much better to live unhistorically like animals do, writes Nietzsche in his essay ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages if History:’
‘A leaf flutters from the scroll of time, floats away –and suddenly floats back again and falls into the man’s lap. Then the man says ‘I remember and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever.’
Lovely writing, if not quite accurate concerning animal memory, and you’ll notice that Nietzsche himself, and Foucault too, are using words as a means to construct their arguments. Seems they find words adequate tools to their own task at hand.
And so they are, when used appropriately. Is studying past thinking and events in the service of some extrinsic purpose doing actual ‘history?’ – No-o-o! Is doing actual ‘history’ about teaching a lesson, or attributing human activity to some deux ex machina intervention? –No-o-o! Francis Bacon got it right when he claimed that history’s essential task is to recall and record the past in its facts as they had happened. He didn’t say how this could be done but he did identify the task.
I’m with the historian John Dunn, (J.Dunn. ‘The Identity of the History of Ideas.’ In Philosophy 43 1968 p 98.) when he says that the problem of historical perspective bias may be managed if we seek to understand the biographical or social experience a past argument or event was designed to meet. There’s no open-sesame by way of documentary evidence and some areas of history are more accessible than others, but if we are able to study an argument or event in context, says Dunn, ‘to substitute the closure of the context provided by the biography of the speaker [or actors] for that provided by the biography of the historian,’ then we can begin to understand something of the specificity of an action in its own setting.
… A brief extract from my 5th Edition, History’s Chequered History in support of History. The study of history is valuable for its own sake.
‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ somebody said, and I agree. History revealing us in all our variety is a rich and chastening experience, like reading great literature. If even the papery whisperings of fictional characters mimicking real life extend our understanding of human jealousy, pride, pomposity, heroism, even altruism, characters created, admittedly by real men and women, how valuable then the actions of real protagonists and observers of events, filling in gaps, that without illumination, would be a vacuum in the record.
I think of the chilling scene in Orwell’s novel,’1984,’ where, in the Dystopia of Oceania, at The Ministry of Truth, the records are shredded and cast down the memory hole so that myth can prevail…’So now you will be told, about the past, that which you need to know.’ Then there’s another against-the-record alternative, life with no record. ‘Let’s clean-slate into a future without regret, without memory, ‘ say, nothing to compare to, as though new born, and jest as unaware!
So herewith on to the papery whisperings of fictional characters mimicking real life in yr great literature…
The written word as in yr great literature.
Jorge Luis Borga, both writer and reader, when asked if he didn’t regret spending more time reading than actually living, replied: “There are many ways of living, and reading is one of them.” (Quote in Pierre Ryckmans, essay – ‘Reading.’ ) Say, anyone who loves reading has tested the truth of this observation. Who can underestimate their first reading of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ or Melville’s ‘Moby Dick.’?
Harold Bloom, deep reader and writer on the western canon,’ says of its writers that they break into the canon by way of aesthetic strength, ‘which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.’ (‘The Weston Canon.’ H. Bloom. (1994) P.27.)
This from Herman Melville, “Moby Dick, Ch 104.) yr exuberance of writing concerning the hunt for the great white whale:
‘Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crate for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding the suburbs.’
Encompassing the gamut of human behaviour, the great literature of the western canon takes us to places altogether elsewhere, but doesn’t place itself in the service of any moral cause, however worthy, doesn’t seek to make us good, your great literature is not a program for social salvation. What makes these writers and their books canonical? ‘The answer more often than not,’ observes Harold Bloom, ‘has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that can not be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we no longer see it as strange.’ (Bloom. P,3)
Dante is an example of the first mode of strangeness and Shakespeare of the second…
From strangeness to strangeness…
Aesthetic strength, figurative language, cognitive power, originality, Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ encompasses all of the above, even when read in an English translation, as I must do. The Divine Comedy, an audacious journey, a quest for personal salvation taken by Dante himself through the many circles of Hell, through Purgatory and on to a vision of Paradise. Dante bends the doctrinal account to a personal vision of Heaven and Hell created by his powerful imagination. It’s an arbitrary creation in which enemies and rivals are assigned their places in the Inferno… pre-Christians like Seneca or Heraclitus to its outer rim…and where his temporary guide is the poet Virgil, assigned the task by Dante’s apotheosis, the divine Beatrice, who seeks Dante’s salvation but who, herself, was created by him. In Canto 2 of The Inferno, Virgil recounts his mission to Dante.
‘That from this terror thou mayst free thyself,
I will instruct thee why I came, and what
I heard in that same instant, when for thee
Grief touch’d me first. I was among the tribe,
Who rest suspended, when a dame, so blest
And lovely, I besought her to command,
Call’d me; her eyes were brighter than the star
Of day; and she with gentle voice and soft
Angelically tun’d her speech address’d:
“O courteous shade of Mantua! Thou whose fame
Yet lives, and shall live long as nature lasts!
A friend, not of my fortune but myself,
On the wide desert in his road has met
Hindrance so great, that he through fear has turn’d.
Now much I dread lest he past help have strayed
And I be ris’n too late for his relief,
From what in heaven of him I heard. Speed now,
And by thy eloquent persuasive tongue,
And by all means for his deliverance meet,
\Assist him. So to me will comfort spring.
I who now bid thee on this error forth
Prideful poet, Dante Alighieri, imposing his own vision of Eternity purporting to be doctrinal truth, orchestrating his own salvation, wow!
More strangeness from The Bard. No need to say his name…everyone in the west knows who he is, so central to the western canon is he by power of his figurative language and depiction of human nature in all its dissimlitudes.
Here is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, (Act 3,) invoking the night and indirectly placing himself with the creatures of the night as he prepares to murder his friend Banquo and also murder Banquo’s son.
And the crow makes wing to the rocky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
While night’s black agents their preys do rouse.’
The exceptional voice of the Shakespearean hero encompasses self reflection, thinking aloud…Shakespeare’s strangeness, a strangeness assimilated and adopted into our own behaviour. We take the reflective state of mind for granted but we don’t see it in earlier writing. Although Socrates is purported to have said that an unexamined life is a life not lived, you don’t get self reflection in the Greek tragedies. The tragedy for the hero is that learning your tragic flaw comes at the end of the drama, and the Greek chorus is not much help either, nothing like the introspective Hamlet or coldly calculating Edmund in ‘King Lear.’
Harold Bloom describes a moment in King Lear, an example of this reflective process invoking change in Edmund, the most intelligent of Shakespeare’s villains, overhearing himself and electing to change. Edmund, as a sophisticated consciousness, runs rings around anyone else on the stage in King Lear, he is so foul that only Goneril and Regan can relate to him. He’s received his death wound from his brother on the battlefield and word comes that Goneril and Regan are dead, the one slew the other and then committed suicide for his sake. Edmund broods out loud and says, “Yet Edmund was belov’d.” As soon as he says this, he starts to ponder out loud. What are the implications that although they were two monsters of the deep, the two loved him so much that “The one the other poison’d for my sake/ And after slew herself.” And then he suddenly says, “I pant for life,” and amazingly, “Some good I mean to do/ despite of my own nature.” And he gasps out, having given the order for Lear and Cordelia to be killed, “Send in time,’ a message to stop it. But too late, Cordelia has already been murdered. And then Edmund dies. But that was an astonishing change that came about when Edmund hears himself say in real astonishment, “Yet Edmund was beloved.” Had he not said that, he would not have changed. As Harold Bloom notes, there is nothing like this representation of inwardness prior to Shakespeare.
So let’s examine more strangeness in the western canon concerning the writer Cervantes and his comic hero, Don Quixote. There’s double strangeness here, first strangeness involving conscious intent. Cervantes, down on his luck, if he ever had any, having been wounded at the Battle of Lepanto was captured by pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. After many years in captivity he returns to Spain, destitute and resolving to make some money by writing a burlesque about a comic character who decides to become an olden day knight errant.
Cervantes sets out this basic premise in the first chapter of Don Quixote:
‘The gentleman in the times when he had nothing to do –as was the case for most of the year- gave himself to the reading of books of knight-errantcy, which he loved and enjoyed so much that he almost forgot the care of his estate. So odd and foolish did he grow on this subject that he sold many acres of cor nland to buy more of these books of chivalry…(In the end), he so buried himself in his books that he spent the nights reading from twilight till daybreak; and so, from little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up and he lost his wits.’ …‘Having thus lost his understanding, he unluckily stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered into a madman’s brain; for now he thought it convenient and necessary, as well for the increase of his own honour, as the service of the public, to turn knight-errant and roam through the whole world cap-a-pie.’
Strange the difference between the conscious intention and the act, that a masterpiece of the Western Canon can emerge from so limited an intent by an author. Ironic, also, that a masterpiece of the Western Canon was intended as a send-up of the written word. Double strangeness that Cervantes’ comic hero became a character so complex that like the various interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, no two readers ever seem to read the book, even critics failing to agree on its most fundamental aspects, comic or tragic, the madness or the saneness of the Don.
As you read on, following the stated premise, yr likely to experience some surprise, Don Quixote serving his apprenticeship as a knight errant becomes an individual much more profound than a character merely indulging in a game of self deception.
There’s a reality to Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza that transcend the tilting windmills and attacks on puppets because of the characters they represent. Don Quixote becomes so real to us that he seems to take on a life independent of his creator and some readers have expressed resentment at the harsh treatment that Cervantes metes out on Don Quixote. Felt this myself when I first read Don Quixote, forgetting that the more we blame the author, the more we believe in the world he created and its hero.
Much of this feeling comes from the irascible but affectionate communication between the Don and Sancho Panza. Unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who changes by hearing himself thinking aloud, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza change over time as they have long conversations where they listen to each other so that in the end the sceptical Sancho has becomes an enthusiast of the venture and Don Quixote has become what he wishes to be, Don Quixote has become a knight.
So there it is. Let’s hear it for words, and in particular, let’s have it in writing. Ecshew controls on free speech, eschew censorship in all its forms, eschew yr Orwellian newspeak limiting what may be thought…Listen up Google, listen up Facebook, listen up Guvuhmint.
… And let the last word to us citizens be from George Orwell:
‘ Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it?’