Eat­ing Peas with Honey

More or less lu­cid, more or less out­spo­ken, we are crea­tures of lan­guage

Geist - - Features - Al­berto Manguel

Some­time in the thir­teenth cen­tury, some­where in the first book of his vast Summa The­o­log­ica, Thomas Aquinas noted that the lim­i­ta­tions of hu­man law are such that vir­tu­ous acts can­not be de­manded of a cit­i­zen ex­cept in a very su­per­fi­cial way, and that to in­sist on in­trin­sic con­di­tions of virtue is be­yond the power of civil­ian rulers. Ac­cord­ing to Aquinas, so­ci­ety func­tions ac­cord­ing to its found­ing leg­is­la­tion and, while it can de­mand a cer­tain vir­tu­ous so­cial con­duct from its cit­i­zens, and must pun­ish them in case of them dis­obey­ing this de­mand, it can­not oblige them to be vir­tu­ous, in any pro­found sense of the word. Within the defin­ing walls of our so­ci­ety, we re­late to one an­other con­strained by rules and reg­u­la­tions, but no rule and no reg­u­la­tion can make us more generous, more mer­ci­ful, more friendly, more help­ful. Such virtues de­pend on other things.

So­ci­ety, like ev­ery­thing else cre­ated by hu­man be­ings, is a prod­uct of the imag­i­na­tion, the ma­te­rial re­al­iza­tion of some­thing that comes into con­cep­tual be­ing as a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to the ques­tion of how to live to­gether. We imag­ine the world in or­der to ex­pe­ri­ence it in the mind be­fore we ex­pe­ri­ence it in the flesh; we imag­ine a sys­tem of com­mu­nal liv­ing be­fore we set up gov­ern­ments and de­fine fron­tiers. These ac­tiv­i­ties are in con­stant fluc­tu­a­tion: at the same time that we build what we have imag­ined, we imag­ine al­ter­ations to those build­ings that in turn must be re-imag­ined. If a gov­ern­ment, for in­stance, im­poses cen­sor­ship on what we read, we lobby for a law that will

grant us the right to free speech. If free speech is abused, for in­stance in or­der to in­cite racial or sex­ist vi­o­lence, we put for­ward reg­u­la­tions that re­fine the mean­ing of “free speech.” If those reg­u­la­tions are used to cur­tail crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ment poli­cies, we find means of de­bat­ing the fair use of such reg­u­la­tions. And so on. We ex­ist as a so­ci­ety in the ten­sion be­tween obli­ga­tions and choice, be­tween lim­i­ta­tions and rights, be­tween what we must do and what we can do and can’t do.

In French there is a word, imag­i­naire, that de­fines the vo­cab­u­lary of im­ages, sym­bols and dreams through which a per­son, or a group of peo­ple, reads the world. Laws and no­tions of free­dom, mytho­log­i­cal and lit­er­ary im­agery, mem­o­ries of mi­gra­tions and set­tle­ments through space and time, sym­bols and em­blems, make up the patch­work of our imag­i­naires, but in or­der for these to serve as con­struc­tive el­e­ments, they re­quire a ver­bal trans­la­tion, from imag­i­na­tive and ma­te­rial shards into ver­bal frag­ments. This trans­la­tion (be­cause it is a trans­la­tion, the act of car­ry­ing some­thing from one place to an­other) lies at the very com­mence­ment of ev­ery one of our en­ter­prises. More or less lu­cid, more or less out­spo­ken, we are crea­tures of lan­guage, read­ing an­i­mals that mir­ror in our per­ceived kalei­do­scopic iden­ti­ties, what­ever our be­lief, the open­ing in­junc­tion of the Gospel of John. In all our be­gin­nings are words. I have said “in all our be­gin­nings.” But in fact, our many plu­rals are ul­ti­mately sin­gu­lar. What is it then that drives us from the fortress of our self to seek the com­pany and con­ver­sa­tion of other be­ings who roam about in the strange world we live in? Why do we have so­ci­eties at all?

Plato in­vented the myth about the orig­i­nal hu­mans hav­ing a dou­ble na­ture that was later di­vided in two by the gods, a myth that ex­plains up to a point our search: we are wist­fully look­ing for our lost half. And yet, em­braces and de­bates, as­sem­blies and con­tact sports are never enough to break through our con­vic­tion of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Our bod­ies are like burkas shield­ing us from the rest of hu­mankind, and there is no need for the her­mit Simeon Stylites to climb to the top of a col­umn in a desert in or­der to find him­self iso­lated from his fel­lows. We are con­demned to sin­gu­lar­ity.

And yet, we con­stantly try to come to­gether to join forces, to find ways of be­ing with one an­other. Ev­ery new tech­nol­ogy of­fers a new hope of re­union. Cave mu­rals gath­ered our an­ces­tors to dis­cuss col­lec­tive mam­moth hunts, clay tablets and pa­pyrus rolls al­lowed their de­scen­dants to con­verse about build­ing cities and mov­ing armies with the dis­tant and the dead. Guten­berg’s print­ing press cre­ated the il­lu­sion that we are not unique, and that in the read­ing com­mu­nity ev­ery copy of the Quixote is the same as ev­ery other copy—a trick that has never quite con­vinced most read­ers, who be­lieve that their in­di­vid­ual copy in which they read a book for the first time is as sin­gu­lar as the Phoenix.

Even the sin­gu­lar­i­ties of our con­vo­luted his­to­ries be­come com­mu­nal. Hud­dled all to­gether in front of our tele­vi­sion sets, my gen­er­a­tion wit­nessed Arm­strong’s first step in outer space; hud­dled all to­gether in front of a com­puter screen, my chil­dren’s gen­er­a­tion wit­nessed the dis­cov­ery of the Higgs par­ti­cle in the re­mark­able doc­u­men­tary Par­ti­cle Fever. Not con­tent with be­ing part of that count­less con­tem­pla­tive crowd, we have dreamt up elec­tronic de­vices that cre­ate and col­lect imag­i­nary friends to whom we con­fide our most dan­ger­ous se­crets and for whom we post our most in­ti­mate por­traits.

The con­se­quence of this anx­i­ety to over­come our in­di­vid­ual feel­ings of iso­la­tion is that at no mo­ment of day or night are we in­ac­ces­si­ble. We have made our­selves avail­able to oth­ers in our sleep, at meal­times, dur­ing travel, on the toi­let, while mak­ing love when the tremor of plea­sure is con­fused with the puls­ing of our iphone. We have rein­vented the all-see­ing eye of God. The silent friend­ship of the moon is no longer ours, as it was for Vir­gil, and we have dis­missed the ses­sions of sweet silent thought that Shake­speare en­joyed. Only through old ac­quain­tances pop­ping up on the Web do we now sum­mon re­mem­brance of things past. Lovers can no longer be for­ever ab­sent, or friends long gone: at the flick of a fin­ger we can reach them, and they can reach us. We suf­fer from the con­trary of ago­ra­pho­bia: we fear not be­ing sur­rounded by crowds. We have be­come haunted by a con­stant presence: ev­ery­one is al­ways there.

I find this a disqui­et­ing thought. The search for oth­ers—to play with, to text, to email, to phone, to Skype—es­tab­lishes our own iden­ti­ties. We are, or we be­come who we are, be­cause some­one ac­knowl­edges our presence. The motto of the elec­tronic age is Bishop Berkeley’s, who in the eigh­teenth cen­tury fa­mously de­clared: “To be is to be per­ceived.”

But this search, like all hu­man en­deav­ours, has its lim­its. The fifth edi­tion of the DSM (Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders) pub­lished in 2013 by the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion, lists In­ter­net Gam­ing Dis­or­der as a pathol­ogy that leads to “clin­i­cal sig­nif­i­cant im­pair­ment or dis­tress.” What Pe­trarch would have called melan­choly, and Goethe’s Dr. Faust “the with­er­ing of the heart,” the DSM calls de­pres­sion as­so­ci­ated to with­drawal (when the tech­nol­ogy breaks down) and a sense of un­ful­fill­ment (when it fails to de­liver). The end re­sult is the same.

How­ever hard we try, all our ef­forts to be with oth­ers, to be un­der­stood and rec­og­nized by oth­ers—fully, ab­so­lutely, hap­pily—ul­ti­mately fail. “We live to­gether, we act on, and re­act to, one an­other,” wrote Al­dous Hux­ley in The Doors of Per­cep­tion, “but al­ways and in all cir­cum­stances we are by our­selves. The mar­tyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are cru­ci­fied alone.

Em­braced, the lovers des­per­ately try to fuse their in­su­lated ec­stasies into a sin­gle self-tran­scen­dence; in vain. By its very na­ture ev­ery em­bod­ied spirit is doomed to suf­fer and en­joy in soli­tude.” The crowds of friends promised by Face­book, the mul­ti­tudes of cor­re­spon­dents want­ing to link across cy­berspace, the mer­chants of prom­ise that of­fer for­tunes in for­eign lands, part­ners in vir­tual or­gies, pe­nis and breast en­large­ments, sweeter dreams and bet­ter lives, can­not rem­edy the es­sen­tial melan­choly about which Plato imag­ined his story.

But per­haps we sim­ply imag­ine that we are alone. Per­haps we feel alone be­cause we know that, how­ever hard we try, we can’t trans­mit our thoughts and ideas to con­vey their full mean­ing, we don’t make our­selves un­der­stood clearly and ex­actly. Words fail us. Al­ways, on ev­ery oc­ca­sion, words fail us. Ev­ery time we con­clude “You know what I’m say­ing,” ev­ery time we ask “Don’t you see what I mean?” we are ac­knowl­edg­ing the fail­ure of lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate.

This fail­ure is com­pounded by the in­stru­ments we use to con­vey our lan­guage. We are crea­tures of words, and we have imag­ined tools and meth­ods that al­low us to use them in what we be­lieve are more ef­fi­cient ways. But these meth­ods and tools in turn al­ter our per­cep­tions, set lim­its on what we can read and write, change the very na­ture of our mem­ory and thought.

As a kid, I learned by heart this an­cient poem:

I eat my peas with honey

I’ve done so all my life.

They taste a lit­tle funny

But it keeps them on my knife.

De­pend­ing on the oc­ca­sion, one tech­nol­ogy is bet­ter suited than an­other, and, like peas eaten with a knife, not ev­ery text is best served by the lat­est gad­get. Like suc­ces­sive hu­man gen­er­a­tions, gen­er­a­tions of tech­no­log­i­cal in­ven­tions learn from one an­other, not only for­ward but back­ward, not only from new pro­ce­dures but also from proven ways. Vast mer­can­tile ma­chiner­ies and a com­plex ad­ver­tis­ing ap­pa­ra­tus com­pel us to dis­card what is still prac­ti­cal and em­brace what may prove su­per­flu­ous at best and de­struc­tive at worst. We, all of us, have to be care­ful when mak­ing choices and re­mem­ber the very use­ful ques­tion asked in Ro­man law: Qui bono? Whom does this ben­e­fit? No tech­nol­ogy is in­no­cent, and we must have the in­tel­li­gence to rec­og­nize its vices and virtues, and in­sist on our right to choose.

Aquinas’s ob­ser­va­tion—that the lim­i­ta­tions of hu­man law are such that vir­tu­ous acts can­not be de­manded of a cit­i­zen—ap­plies above all to this last dog­matic con­di­tion. The lan­guage of the law (in­con­tro­vert­ible by def­i­ni­tion, though sub­ject to change within its own pa­ram­e­ters) is es­sen­tially to­tal­i­tar­ian: it de­mands blind sub­mis­sion, to be rec­og­nized ab­so­lutely, as an act of faith. The law (the ver­bal con­struct we call “the law”) claims for it­self both majesty and rigour, and does not al­low ig­no­rance as an ex­cuse for dis­obe­di­ence. Un­der such cir­cum­stances, the let­ter of the law can dic­tate a cer­tain vir­tu­ous so­cial be­hav­iour—“virtue,” “so­cial” and “be­hav­iour” be­ing terms de­fined by the law it­self, in a Hump­ty­dump­ty­ish at­ti­tude of sovereignty. What the law can­not do is shape or nur­ture in the cit­i­zen a con­di­tion of in­trin­sic virtue. Such un­der­stand­ing of who we are (and what we might be at our best and worst) can, how­ever, be learned by con­sid­er­ing the cre­ative un­cer­tainty of lan­guage it­self. In this ever-fluid lin­guis­tic realm (which is, of course, that of lit­er­a­ture), cit­i­zens as read­ers re­deem their ver­bal her­itage and cre­ate out of the open-ended sto­ries, es­says and po­ems of the univer­sal li­brary, and in spite of lan­guage’s in­trin­sic weak­ness, their own eth­i­cal and moral ex­pe­ri­ence.

We give our­selves names in or­der to rec­og­nize that we are here, upon this stage. We name the world and the things in it to be able to ap­pre­hend them in flight, to catch them in webs made of words. To know that we are, we must pro­nounce the sounds “I am,” echo­ing the mon­strous def­i­ni­tion of the god who con­fronted Moses in the burn­ing bush say­ing “I am what I am”—since even the god­head must de­fine it­self through words. In so­ci­eties of the book, we do this through books. Lit­er­a­ture is a long and la­bo­ri­ous way of con­ju­gat­ing the verb “to be.” A mi­cropho­tog­ra­phy of the com­pact bone struc­ture of the hu­man fe­mur re­veals what ap­pears to the in­no­cent eye as a pile of old books, their pages yel­lowed and worn: sym­bol­i­cally, the im­age im­plies that we carry, in our very mar­row, the univer­sal li­brary, that we are lit­er­ally made of words.

This sug­gests that we in­habit lan­guage but that we are also in­hab­ited by lan­guage, en­gaged in a di­a­logue in which those who ut­ter words and those who de­ci­pher words be­come al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able in an end­less process of mu­tual elu­ci­da­tion and re­con­struc­tion, mak­ing ges­tures that de­note drown­ing but are un­der­stood as wav­ing, and ges­tures that de­note wav­ing but are un­der­stood as drown­ing. And some­times, if we are care­ful and lucky, what we mean to say and what we are seen to say will co­in­cide. For Aquinas, this search, this on­go­ing at­tempt at un­der­stand­ing, was the qual­ity that, out­side so­cial laws, elicited from our ex­pe­ri­ence of the world what he called “the ed­u­ca­tion of virtue.”

Re­con­struc­ción del muelle del Arenal tras la ri­ada de 1926

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