Of the Spoken and the Unspeakable

Photo credits go to Anupam Nath of the Associated Press. Source.

‘The wind and the wilderness have had their way with the roads and fields, making them indistinguishable from each other. The one thing that remains is the waterfall, throwing up a sound, a word that is ungraspable and constant.’ (Pariat, 22)

I have recently become fascinated with mythology and the metaphysical. Don’t blame me, I’m just a potato in a cape. I am expected to subscribe to a discount grail quest.

But this is a serious obsession. It’s a yearning that I feel in the starchy marrow of my very bones. It is a calling that has no voice or name.

I think that all of us have experienced it, in different ways.

Indian author Janice Pariat has written a short story called “A Waterfall of Horses”. It makes for great reading (you can find the review here), but chiefly functions as an exploration into the gradual death of the oral tradition, and the difficulties that come with linguistic expression. It features beautiful descriptions of rural mountain life, some Indo-British friction relevant to the period setting, and a ton of magic.

The short story begins with a paragraph on how words lose their power when written down. Pariat writes, ‘Once printed, the word is feeble and carries little power. It wrestles with ink and typography and margins, struggling to be what it always was. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the hearth, and fall as rain.’ (Pariat, 9)

Critics would usually pigeonhole Pariat’s story as magical realism and slather on the postmodern criticism of how she brings in magical elements to decolonize Indian history and reclaim cultural heritage. Academics have been flagellating that dead horse with specific relish.

But I am not an academic, and I can choose the lens through which I wish to interpret and analyze Pariat’s work.

No, I’d rather give the author better credit for concepts and take a different route. Let’s get up to our knees in what Pariat has to offer: a window into our larger stories and our deeper nature, connections between all of us that sleep just below the surface of the page scratched by quills, pens, printers. A medium that predates language, primal and constant.

Old as fire.

A Waterfall of Horses makes us consider two very intriguing things: the magic of language – specifically oral tradition – and its subversion in its pre-linguistic origin. The aspect of the essay that most excites me is the latter – the gap between language and our ability to express ourselves, especially our deeper emotions and reality.

Hang on a bit and I’ll explain what I mean by that.

As the story begins to draw to its conclusion, we witness Sahib Sam, one of the kinder British soldiers that the story follows, walk up to the edge of the waterfall with the narrator close in tow. Sam asks the boy, our narrator of the story, if they have a word for the inexplicable urge to leap off a height, to which our narrator replies that he doesn’t think so. We then hear Sam reply ruefully, ‘It’s strange, all the things that language cannot say.’

The sentiment has been used far too often by lovelorn folks and as a result has been cast by the wayside. We have the bleeding hearts club to thank for that. But if you look at what is being conveyed within the context of the story, it leads us to consider that beneath even the words – ka ktien in the story – there is something that cannot quite be controlled, manipulated or even understood by human beings. This would explain how the black magic used in the story brought repercussions to the people who wielded it.

For instance, we can describe an object or scene simply and objectively enough. But we can’t describe certain kinds of emotions or experiences all that well. Words, as they say, aren’t enough. It’s the difference between talking about death and actually experiencing it’s crushing presence when someone you love passes away. Words dry up, and our tears, or silence, are all we have to express ourselves.

What Sahib Sam’s character speaks of in that one scene is known as the call of the void (l’appel du vide in French) – the stomach-dropping, what-happens-if-I-jump feeling that we experience when we look off a ledge at a height. There aren’t a lot of words for it, and not many people know why it occurs in humans. It’s not a feeling that one can easily explain in words, and an even more difficult one to understand. Even French, for all it’s claim to linguistic grandeur and emotion, cannot quite capture the feeling. Vide, or void, is far too cold a word for that urgent an impulse.

No, there are some things language is powerless over. This is perhaps for the best in the case of the hearing-impaired. Or people with a language-related aphasia (a condition that results from brain damage). Else, not being able to grasp language would mean these two demographics would be mindless drones with impaired cognition. However, we know from science that this clearly isn’t the case.

We do have a rough idea of how people who don’t have a basic grasp of written language function. There still exist tribal societies in far-flung regions of the world who don’t have a system of writing. One thing they do have, however, is a strong oral tradition and, as a result, a robust practice of myths and storytelling. Oral traditions explain how culture was passed down through the years, and probably also was the chief medium for the propagation of the cultural mythology and folklore. It is in this age of mythology, of the spoken word, that we also encounter the most potent symbolic patterns hidden in the stories that were being told.

In the very first of his biblical series talks, Introduction to the Idea of God, psychologist-turned-culture-warrior (because there really is no better way to describe him) Jordan Peterson brings up a sculptor friend of his belonging to the Kwakwaka’wakw nation who, while illiterate, is immensely artistically gifted. Peterson explains that his friend’s pre-literacy state has very likely led the latter to become deeply immersed in the cultural mythos of his people – leaving him able to think very differently from literate people. As a result, he dreams in the symbols that he uses in his art, and his ancestors make regular appearances in his dreams.

Likewise, the Nong Knia in A Waterfall of Horses is pre-literate as well. Of him, we learn from the narrator’s mother that ‘He is the bearer of the Word. The one who performs our rituals and communicates with the gods’. And interestingly, she adds ‘The memsahib says she would like to teach me to read and write, with something called “alphabet” that her husband has invented for our language. I explained to her that we have no need for these things—books, and letters, and writing—and that everything we know about the world is in the sound of our words, ki ktien’. (Pariat,16)

Whether 1850, when the story is set, or present day, oral traditions have always been more amorphous, far more fluid and symbolic. Possibly, far more esoteric.

Or perhaps just primal. How different is the primal from the metaphysical? Are we hubristic enough to say that one is above or exclusive from the other? After all, stories we find in oral traditions are both cryptic, mystical and ancient. Old as fire, as Pariat writes.

But let us come back to the beyond. Beyond oral tradition, beyond complex language.

Art seems to eliminate the necessity for language entirely – or maybe more accurately, it seems to embody its own form of language. Music, dance and painting requires no linguistic ability in the conventional sense to understand. We know that people with aphasia can still compose music, meaning that our phonemic (linguistic) abilities are independent of our prosodic (melody, patterns of stress, intonation, rhyme and metre) abilities. In other words, a person with aphasia can’t sing along, but they can recognise and compose music. They may not be able to tell you what they think a painting represents, but they can paint just as well as a neuro-typical individual. An important question in anthropology is whether the cave paintings were done before language came about. After all, they seem to be symbolic in nature and represent things that ancient man witnessed and hunted.

Visual art, it can be argued, can be interpreted (interpreted, and not understood) seemingly without the need for language. You don’t need a set of words to feel the underlying dread in Edward Munch’s The Scream or to infer the brutal dynamism of Peter Paul Reuben’s The Massacre of the Innocents, or to appreciate the feeling of strife that Christina’s World brings up in us, or the feeling of peace that Water Lillies brings.

These paintings are evocative on a level that leaves the world of words far behind. Abstract art and other schools like cubism and dadaism are a harder sell, but even with them, there is leeway for interpretation and they are in no way boring to look at. It is perhaps for this reason that the final image in the story that we are left with is in fact only an image and not an explanation: of the sheer drop of the waterfall – a gaping mouth uttering only what cannot be explained.

How far back before language do the arts – dancing, painting and music – go? Would this be a language for pre-linguistic man, essentially, for the ‘languageless’?

We may be able to find some solid, first hand answers in Susan Schaller’s book Man Without Words.

Idefonso, around whom the book chiefly is written, is a young Mexican man who, at the time of meeting Schaller, was all of twenty seven years with his whole life ahead of him. Except for one fact: Ildefonso was deaf, and didn’t know sign language, or any other kind of language. Like many hearing-impaired children brought up in families that cannot provide them the necessary education, or do not possess the resources to be able to learn sign language themselves, Ildefonso here grew up languageless. Languageless, but not without social interactions. This is an important distinction.

Anyway, Ildefonso was 27 when he wandered into a reading skills class that Schaller, then working as a sign interpreter, was helping conduct. Ildefonso stood out to Schaller simply because he was standing in a corner, clearly frightened. He seemed to be studying everybody’s mouths as they formed words and watching their behaviour, trying to make out what was going on. Schaller went up to him and when she signed ‘Hello, my name is Susan’, he merely imitated her ‘words’ back at her, and not very well at that. Schaller knew that that wasn’t what he would be doing if he had known Mexican sign language, and realised that she might be dealing with a man who didn’t speak a language at all. She claims that she was ‘faced with how to communicate the idea of language to someone without language’.

Eventually, she did manage to get the concept across, and Ildefonso, quite understandably, had something of a breakdown when he understood that things had words associated with them.

The immensity of this realization is lost on us. As children, we were taught language from a young age – were surrounded by it and immersed in it – the lesson being made easier by the privilege of hearing and sight. We take for granted that things have names. The scary part we don’t think about, however, is whether, within our minds, we don’t see the thing we are referring to – the signified – anymore. Whether we just see the label, or the signifier.

Why is this scary? Because in Ildefonso’s case, learning this simple concept didn’t just change the way he viewed and interacted with the world, it changed the very way he thought.

Take this example. Ildefonso is the poster boy for languageless thought. He had made it into his late twenties, after all – found his way into the U.S., worked, avoided getting run over by traffic, maneuvered his way around the country and hadn’t starved to death. He was clearly thinking, we just don’t know how. Even more surprisingly, he and other languageless individuals had found a way to communicate without the use of a shared language. And this is where things get truly strange: Ildefonso couldn’t communicate with his other languageless friends after. He used to be able to talk to them. He told Schaller, ‘I think differently. I can’t remember how I thought.’

It’s almost as if learning a language interfered with or broke down those older channels of communication that he had used, whatever they may have been. We have no idea if it was as advanced as language based thought – although we do know that it far more than just childlike play or imitation. After all, these languageless individuals were a group of adults who had survived in a new country, and moving around adeptly requires a significant amount of maturity.

How was he communicating? Through facial expressions of emotion? Through simple hand gestures? This one still blows my mind and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been any more research on the subject.

So, here we are. We’ve talked about languagelessness, symbolism, and even touched on dreams. Lots of good foreplay, if I may flatter myself. But it’s time to get down to it, now.

Time to get into the spooky stuff.

Can you dream without a language? If you’ve observed a sleeping animal before, this is a question that would have already been answered for you. Sure, Fifi or Rover aren’t dreaming with the same complexity as you and I, but they are dreaming. And nobody has been able to conclusively come down to a reason for it in the scientific community, yet.

A ton of psychologists and psychoanalysts have tried to decode dreams, and one of the foremost (and now considered problematic) amongst them was Carl Jung. There’s a lot of information on Jung out there so I won’t go into any introductions on him or how he differed from his contemporary and friend Sigmund Freud. What I do want to bring up is Jung’s concept of the unconscious – and further still, the collective unconscious.

We each wear a metaphorical mask. In public, with friends and sometimes even with ourselves. It conveys the identity we wish ourselves to portray. Think of this mask as the surface of our mind, our psyche. What’s under this veneer that we present to the public is the unconscious as Jung saw it.

If this doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea, it’s because it’s not. Freud’s conception of the unconscious was very much the same. However, Jung’s is deeper in the sense that mask wearing, too, can also be completely unconscious. You may not be aware that you behave a certain way in front of certain company, and you may not be aware on a deeper level that you’re lying to yourself that you are happy.

When we dream, we tap into these depths of the psyche that we call the unconscious. And we dream through symbols, patterns, allegorical narratives that our brains cook up for us as we sleep. The question, Jung asked, is where did our minds find these media – these symbols and allegories from? After all, some of the dreams that people have are strangely similar. We’ve all been chased by a monster, felt like we’re falling and/or drowning and – my personal favorite – watched our teeth fall out in our dreams. There has to be common source for common dreams.

Enter the collective unconscious.

Jung theorized that we draw from a common repository, if you will, of symbols to give a language to our unconscious and, in turn, to our dreams. It’s a source common to all of humanity – as pervasive as it is abstract. Our myths, our symbols, stories and rituals come from here, especially our archetypes. The collective unconscious functions as a kind of mental inheritance for human beings.

Needless to say, Jung has been criticized for this idea. As with many of the theories that arise from the field of psychoanalysis, it cannot be objectively proven to exist. But it shines out in places, much like a needle embedded in fabric.

For instance, archetypes exist throughout cultures with very little differences, such as the Nurturing Mother, the Trickster, and the Sage. A teenage boy in Africa and an old man in Denmark have all the linguistic and cultural differences between them but they would both understand the symbolism of archetypes. They surface in our dreams and in our stories, demonstrable by what Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey. These concepts are rather abstract, and are almost instinctually understood universally. We don’t know how this occurs, and can only put it down to dimly evolutionary underpinnings. And yet, it connects us on a level that complex language cannot. In Ildefonso’s case, he didn’t grasp the idea that things had associated labels, but understood what Schaller called ‘macho behavior’, or manliness, a seemingly complex, and yet primal, performative identity.

If this causes some amount of existential unease in you, that’s pretty normal. Do you now feel the strange presence of a world just adjacent to our own, one we could reach if we just poked our fingers through this separating membrane we call language? The idea of a shared culture for all humanity that is instinctual falls pretty close to the realm of hocus pocus. And yet, there’s a good amount of evidence that backs it up, though not scientifically measurable. Ildephonso’s case is just one of many.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. It seems that the more we learn, the more we become aware of what we do not know, and cannot know. We have no way of studying what languagelessness might be like, because while there may be a surprising amount of individuals who grow up without language like Ildefonso, the challenge we face is not just how to communicate with them to understand how they make sense of the world, but whether we should, considering the moral implications of not equipping them with a way of navigating the world easier.

We may also never really be able to find out about the existence of the collective unconscious. Psychoanalysis has been relegated to the dust of psychology departments and to the postmodern echo chamber that is literary studies today. There’s also the glaringly obvious fact that psychoanalytic concepts border on the metaphysical. There’s no way to empirically study them.

And here, we are able to come full circle to Pariat’s short story – the end in particular. If Jung’s right about the collective unconscious, the world in “A Waterfall of Horses” isn’t quite as different from our own. The oral tradition and what lies beneath it, unarticulated, have a certain power that we, even in our post-modern digital cocoons cannot shake off.

We can’t conjure animals or heal a wound or get horses to leap off a height lemming style, but we can understand each other on some deeper language regardless of race or culture.

Works Referenced:

Downey, G., “Life without Language”, Neuroanthropology. Jul. 21, 2010, https://neuroanthropology.net/2010/07/21/life-without-language/. Accessed May 23, 2021.

Pariat, J., Boats on Land, Random House India, 2012. Print.

Published by questingpotato

An incurable culture addict, I live inside my head most of the time and occasionally visit the internet for supplies, only to hunker down once again and think. The products of this cloistered calling include weekly reviews (on just about any media), half-decent articles when I wax philosophical, and many very spontaneous opinions, unsolicited and freely given, thank you. Occasionally I will rant.

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