Departments

Fable of the Whale and the Dolphin

It happened in a cold sea that a dolphin and a whale became friends. In the shallows they would breach and rise into sunlight together; and the whale would admire the dolphin’s burnished, piercing swiftness, and regret his fell bulk. In the deep they would talk of deep things together; and the dolphin would admire the plangent voice of the whale and the patient subtlety of whale-speech, and regret the flightiness of the skipping, glittering speech of dolphins.

Now, once when both were near the surface, there rose a great storm, and each had to flee to their own shelter – the whale to his deep and the dolphin to his cove – without the chance to appoint another meeting. After the storm had passed, the whale sang a summoning song that carried in resonant echoes of sound deep through every sea to the ends of the world; and the dolphin appointed to all his dolphin-fellows to search the whole surface of the sea. But the dolphin did not hear the whale, and news of the whale did not reach the dolphin. So after a time, when the dolphin grew annoyed with the sleepless restlesssness of his kind and the whale impatient with the memorious melancholy of his kind, they set out in search of one another.

The dolphin stretched his lungs as far as he could and dove straight down to seek the utter deep where the whales slide and the water rings forever with the thunder of their voices. He had sought that deep before, with his friend the whale. He had learned from the whale how to fill his lungs farther than he had thought possible, how to brace himself to bear the pressure of mountains on his every side. These terrors of the deep he knew; but he had never known how his great friend’s nearness, how the heat of his blood, had sheltered him from the last terror of the deep – from its cold. Cold pierced him from every side; first he was full of needles, then hollow. Realizing his mistake, he tried to turn and rise, but the cold had locked his muscles. He floated for a time until his air was spent, then drifted down dead through the substance of darkness to the snaky floor of the deep.

The whale sought out the cove where he knew his friend would hide. There were no dolphins in it he could see from without, but he thought that his friend might be waiting for him within. The dolphin had warned him against the cove, but the whale saw that there was plenty of water. He entered the cove and searched and searched it, examining every crevice with great eyes which were not used to such prolonged brightness. Then he turned to go, but found that now the cove was cut off from the sea. This was the tide he had been warned against and forgotten – but he did not fear, even as his slick heaving side was dried out by the declining sun, for he knew the tide would come back.

But the moon was waning, and the tides were low. Through weeks the whale lay on his side heaving for breath, feeling the ungracious carrion birds that would not wait for his death. Hope became courage, courage gave way to despair, and the great heart, defeated without and within, burst and stilled.

Moral: The Wise and the Happy mix at mutual Peril.

The Rich and the Healthy

The rich and the healthy misunderstand poverty and sickness. They see only a line to be crossed between too little and enough, between sickness and health. But there is poverty without imminent starvation, and sickness not prey for cancer or infection. The fear of death is easy to sympathize with; but the rich and the healthy never understand what it means to have to choose.

Torture is not about pain; it is about humiliation and violation. Those who succumb to torture do not succumb because of the pain, but because of the horror, because such things can really happen. Your mother never taught you that someday you might be given over naked and helpless into the hands of your enemies and left to their devices. Subject to torture, you cannot believe what is happening to you. It is never your will that breaks; it is always your mind.

Poverty also warps the mind. The lives of the rich and healthy branch out like trees or deltas. The world lies before them like a menu, where they choose not just what to do, but who to be. They are free to indulge or abstain. The poor and sick run on rails, along routes chosen by others. Where they are going depends on nothing but where they came from.

The old company store model is the extreme. But what is better about wages so low that you can survive only by shopping for food that destroys your health as it prolongs your life? To be poor, if not starving, is still to have to make such unbelievable choices: food or health, a safe home or crushing debts, enough hours for a decent wage or knowing your children on sight; and when you go to a doctor, or the hospital, or to beg from your insurer – your money or your life.

There is a syndrome of poverty that results from walking such mazes, like the inanition of an animal punished repeatedly and capriciously. Hope is the leaven every mind requires to imagine, to try, to dare, to build; but it does not take very much poverty to crush hope out of a person. This living with eyes taped open, in vigilance as unsleeping as it is certain to be unavailing, in awaiting the disaster you know is coming but cannot stop, is known in the poor as laziness.

The poor must make do, when they can get them, with damaged or dying machines: old cars that fume and guzzle, a dishwasher that uses so much electricity you can only run it once a week, a chainsaw that spits chips and stutters, but whose blade you cannot afford to replace or have sharpened.

The same is true of their bodies. Even in the most enlightened societies it is the right of the poor, not to be healthy, but to be healthy enough for work, or at least not to draw attention. Even when medicine can do nothing for them, the rich and the sick may enjoy an excusing diagnosis, even if just a syndrome without treatment; they have idiopathic as a marker for the diseases we recognize but do not understand. But for the poor, what the first test does not show, does not exist. There are no follow-ups, no referrals. They cannot fight. It is in the autopsies of the rich and vocal in their sufferings that new diseases are discovered; it is therefore strange, but likely true, to think that there are afflictions only of the poor stemming from malnutrition, stress, or hard labor, which have never been and never will be named, for they silence their victims.

This is the way of the world; the alternatives known so far are worse. The disappearance of visible poverty from parts of the first world is partly the result of fitted blinders – not just a cowardly unwillingness to see the problem – the visibility of the poor only discourages investment, and worsens their plight – and partly the result of globalization, which segregates classes in their own countries.

My interest here is sociological, because all civilizations have the poor in common, and the poor of all civilizations are alike. Details of costume, language, and climate aside, all hovels are really one hovel, and all unskilled labor is really one vast project, now building a pyramid, now digging a canal; now sewing shirtwaists, now sewing jeans. In thinly populated hunter-gatherer societies, or in civilizations with money to hand, there is room for culture, room to work out what it means to be human; but the poor are always and everywhere worn down to the same nub: what we all are in the end, at the last, at the core.

So Many Books

We remember what we learn more by the incidents of its acquisition than by its place in a scheme of knowledge. The voice of your teacher, the table where you studied, the stage of you life when you learned them – these are thinge things that make memories stick. A book, as an artifact, is full of such adhesive incidents: binding, paper, cover and fonts; the author’s style and voice; its weight on or in your hand; how you marked it or took pains not to mark or mar it; who gave to you or where you bought it or took it out; who recommended it to you; how old it is – new, secondhand, antique.

A book is as mnemonically individual as a teacher and has the advantages of cheapness, reliable supply, permanence, and retainability – you cannot put a teacher on a shelf. Precisely because it is fixed and set, a book is not just a medium through which an item of data crosses from mind to mind; it is a thing in itself, fraught and sensuous, whose circumstances receive and bind, like spiders’ silk, gossamer and flighty thought.

The ancients, who had only fragile scrolls, and the scholars and schoolmen of the Middle Ages, who owned few books, built dream palaces in their memories, labyrinthine, full of niches and ramifying halls and galleries mortared from shards of remembered or imagined buildings. These palaces were miscellaneous as pattern books, like the strange buildings which haunt Renaissance backgrounds, Dürer’s rambling castles or the scenes where Poliphilo wandered; and which came as ruins to dominate Romantic landscapes, senseless conjunctions of towers and walls and columns; Piranesi’s prisons, Death’s city in Poe, resembling nothing which is ours. These palaces housed only commodious niches, ranged along hall walls or between arcade columns, or grouped behind doors: and in each niche lived a vision, or a nightmare. Here is a fox-headed lady standing for a name beginning with V (vulpus); here is the goat with swollen testacles who was Cicero’s testator.

Why did the memory palace go out of fashion? Because of the library. Not because the sudden plenty of books made memory obsolete; but because the true palace of memory is the library, with wings of shelves, corridors of volumes, niches of pages where memory is ensnared.

So many counted light-years will not suffice to hold universe enough to justify, let alone satiate, the appetites and powers of the human mind; but books brought together do not add, but multiply; to be among books you know well is to be lifted out of mortal span and reach.

Dead Languages

Linguistics fascinates me, but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable: something that embarrasses me when linguists try to act as public intellectuals. It is the fence that linguistics draws around what count as linguistic phenomena. It seems to me that the distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism is untenable; prescription too is a phenomenon of language, and one of the things that any honest descriptivism must describe.

By extension, the distinction between natural and artificial languages is also untenable. Literate languages are part natural and part artificial, in varying proportions. Latin has become more artificial than natural, but it is not a dead language; its artificiality sustains it. Sumerian is all natural and all dead; no one reads it except to translate from it. No one writes in Sumerian – and what you wrote in Sumerian, if you had that whim, would be philological caprice, not real Sumerian. But with diligence anyone can learn to write Latin; and what they write is real Latin, because Latin has been immortalized by the prescriptions of its grammarians, who parted their language from the Tiber by making it answerable only to written, explicit, portable, unowned rules.

The Latin model is not ideal for English. (It is not even ideal for Latin, whose grammar is modelled after Greek.) But our Latinate grammar is not a cage; it is a trellis. It supports the whole structure of English literature. It is not a limit on English, nor a smothering weight. It is, itself, the English language. It has not prevented English from fracturing into dialects, but it has preserved over and above those dialects a true, nuclear English. I dare call it true because English as we know it is not the product of any natural development. English is an artificial language; a consciously and self-consciously made hybrid of Englisc, French, and Latin. The great writers and translators into our English, Mallory, Browne, Bacon, Burton, Florio, North, Urquhart, Sidney, Spencer, Shakespeare, did not use the English they found: they created the English we know. I do not believe that anyone in their time, even they, spoke as they write. But we speak their language, not a descendant of the argot-pidgin-creole-cant-jargon-lingos (likely closer to Chaucer) that would have been heard in the London of their time.

How can a language be both artificial and natural? There is an English-language literature, not several streams of British and American and Commonwealth literature, and English is fit to be the universal auxiliary language of commerce and science, only because of its rules and its models. The English language is still vital, and thus changeful on the tongue, particulary in its vocabulary; but most new words will die, becoming quaint or obsolete. While they live, they may serve probation to become part of the language; but likelier, they will never be cut free from their contexts, and if they come to be written at all it will be only for color.

Here is one way that linguists make themselves obnoxious – when they condescendingly insist that vogue words, obviously destined for rapid obsolescence, halfway to quaint even before they are current, represent the future of the language. The fact that linguistics has no such category as fad is one of its deficiencies. The successions of fashion are unlike the forces determining national costume or native dress; likewise, the changes of of a written language belong not to the order of cultural change, but to the order of revolutions and discoveries – of change in worldview, where prescription is the necessary condition of consensus.

Dialects, whatever the charm they have to linguists, cannot be entered into by outsiders. They presume and enforce a shared background, a particular geographic, racial, cultural, and economic set of coordinates. Our dialects are all the seeds of potential languages, as the proto-Romance accents were to Latin. But they will not last. There will always be a new crop of dialects and jargons, a new harvest of what they have to offer English. But, once harvested, they wither to make way for the next crop.

Because English is immortal and universal as it is captured in books, English literature is being fed into by countries with nothing else but English in common, and by the best minds of these countries, who know that what they write in their mother languages is only for their brothers and sisters; but what they write in English is for the world and forever.

Latinizing missionaries who stretched native languages on the rack were able to give them Bibles in their own languages. Linguists produce accurate descriptive grammars which make beautiful epitaphs to those languages. Bahasa Indonesia has preserved Indonesian language at the cost of Indonesian languages; the French created France out of the possessions of the Bourbons by suppressing regional dialects; the Arabic world is a world only by its devotion to the language of the Koran.

All rules seem arbitrary until they are gone without; all systems of rules suffer rot, once useful provisions becoming shibboleths; but a language without rules is a house on fire. Fire is a kind of life, breathing and eating; but it is too much life, and it leaves only ashes. A language is not safe, not hospitable to literature, until it has been settled prescriptively, not by itself but by learning from the grammarians of, and translators from, older languages.

The great puzzle of linguistics – why are the oldest languages the most complex? Greek is more complex than Latin; Sanskrit is more complex than Greek. The great puzzle of prehistory – what were people doing in the millennia between the arrival of Homo sapiens and the dawn of civilization? If they had all the same impulses we do, for creation and invention, what did they create? What did they invent? These puzzles may be the same puzzle. Their inventions, their creations, were their languages, refined and restricted with the same joy in the possibilities of form that would later diversify poetry.