Eating Peas with Honey
More or less lucid, more or less outspoken, we are creatures of language
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