Friday, February 15, 2008

Words as power (Books - The Stuff of Thought and The Go-Between)

Psychologist Steven Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought and L. P. Hartley's 1952 novel The Go-Between many seem unlikely bedfellows but not only are they perfectly happy together in my bed, they share a common theme - the power of language.

Steven Pinker's latest appears to be the coming-together of two series of books he has written, one on language the other on the mechanisms behind human behavior in general. His first chapter begins with a discussion of the ways in which semantics seems to construe reality itself. But language is an interwoven and self-referential web of symbols, he cautions those who crave certainty through language, don't expect too much of names. He best illustrates his point, as he often does, by making a joke:

endless loop, n. See loop, endless.
loop, endeless, n. See endless loop.

Finally, a riff on the relationship between words and emotions, particularly as used in profanity.

It is a real puzzle for the science of mind why, when an unpleasant event befalls us - we slice our thumb along with the bagel, or knock a glass of beer into our lap - the topic of our conversation turns abruptly to sexuality, excretion, or religion. It is also a strange feature of our makeup that when an adversary infringes on our rights - say, by slipping into a parking space we have been waiting for, or firing up a leaf blower at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning - we are apt to extend him advice in the manner of Woody Allen, who recounted "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words."

Indeed, the first chapter heralds this book as one of relationships between words and worlds: words and reality, words and community, words and emotions, words and social relations. Pinker doesn't stint on the complexity of his subject but manages to convey his ideas in accessible prose with an easy narrative flow, illustrated with contemporary and humorous examples. His work can be a great introduction to the rigors of the science of language and thought. I'm really looking forward to it. If you have never heard him speak, here is one of his talks - they can be a lot of fun.

The Go-Between, a recommendation from Matt, is by a 20th century English writer I had never heard of - L. P. Hartley. He is a contemporary of E. M. Forster and this is his most well-known novel, although it hadn't been to me. A sensitive English boy of a bourgeois family attending public school comes of age at the home of a wealthy school friend by becoming the messenger between lovers. Much of his education in this vacation is about losing his innocence about the mysteries of the adult world and to try to figure out where in it he might belong.

I was aware of something stable in his nature. He gave me a feeling of security, as if nothing that I said or did would change his opinion of me. I never found his pleasantries irksome, partly, no doubt, because he was a Viscount, but partly, too, because I respected his self-discipline. He had very little to laugh about, I thought, and yet he laughed. His gaiety had a background of the hospital and the battlefield. I felt he had some inner reserve of strength which no reverse, however serious, would break down.

All the same, driving back on the one unoccupied box seat (the footman had the other), I was aware (though I did not admit it to myself) that I found the coachman's factual conversation more satisfying than the trifling, purposeless, unanchored talk that I had been listening to before I fell asleep. I liked giving and receiving information and he supplied it just as did the signposts and the milestones - to the appearance of which, as every few minutes they hove in sight, I eagerly looked forward. Sometimes he couldn't answer my questions. "Why are there so many by-roads in Norfolk?" I asked. "There aren't any where I live." He didn't know, but generally he did, and with him I felt I was getting somewhere. With them there was nothing to catch hold of: gossamer threads that broke against my mind and tired it. The conversation of the gods! - I didn't resent or feel aggrieved because I couldn't understand it. I was smallest of the planets, and if I carried messages between them and I couldn't always understand, that was in order too: they were something in a foreign language - star-talk.

I guess Leo, our narrator, is one of those people Pinker writes about, who craves certainty in language. I won't hold it against him. I find Hartley's prose really captures the innocent boy's train of logic without being condescending by rendering it childish. The flow of his language really moves this story along. I just barely started it and am already half-way through.

There is a wonderful sequence at the beginning of the novel that made me think of it as the companion piece to Pinker's book, not merely because I am reading them at the same time. Leo is a delicate and not altogether popular boy at his school. He keeps a diary to which he confides his thoughts and tries to work out his identity. He confides to his diary his feelings about a match in which the rivalry between his school and another is settled - "Vanquished!" he writes. He is mercilessly mocked by two older schoolmates and decides to gain control over the situation by writing a series of curses in his diary that will befall any illicit readers. The two bullies read the diary again and promptly both take damaging falls from the roof, giving them concussions and broken bones. Immediately Leo's currency rises at school. He gains fame as a magician whose very words have the power to maim and to cause sudden school holidays. This story is told through the veil of another layer. The narrator is the grown up Leo fifty years later. He finds this magic diary and pieces together from the book in which he created his identity through words years before, how he became who he is today:

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: "Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people's books instead of writing your own? What has become of the Ram, the Bull, and the Lion, the examples I gave you to emulate? Where above all is the Virgin, with her shining face and long curling tresses, whom I entrusted to you" - what should I say?

I should have an answer ready. "Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tall you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me."

As a school-aged boy, I too remember feeling an outcast and trying to conjure up spells to lend me power, to vanquish my rivals. I found that power in theater rather than writing - another ritual of creating identity through words. I am finding this story very close to home. Hartley writes perceptively, and reading as its companion piece a story about language and its interactions with thought feels, well, almost magical.

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