Words are all we have.
-- Samuel Beckett THE MECHANICS of reading follow roughly along these lines: The cones and rods of the eye are struck by photons of light reflected off the words on the page. This activity, transmitted by way of the optic nerve, is received as a hail of electrical blips somewhere in the lobes of the brain. A neural string of cells explodes, registering and triggering a response. Somehow, understanding, or cognition, results.
That, of course, is an approximate rendering of the process. Very little about it is actually understood.
The event that set me thinking along these lines occurred over a leisurely breakfast recently. It was one of those rare mornings when the children were quietly occupied elsewhere and the coffee in my cup was still warm. My wife sat reading across from me. I heard a sniffle, and, not moving my head, I looked up to see a tear rolling down her cheek. In a moment she was up and searching for a tissue, while I sat pondering the silent triggering of a tear duct.
My wife was reading the popular autobiography of Lewis Puller Jr., "Fortunate Son." Puller returned from Vietnam without his legs, his buttocks and parts of both hands. That's enough to make one cry. But his account does more than simply rouse the reader to sympathy. It is artistic beyond imagery. Puller's is a voice both lyrical and humane, a voice speaking to what is best in us all, and to what is not best. That is why my wife cried. That is one of the things good writing does; it affects us.
Music can be just as potent. It is said the young Beethoven could easily discern what it would take to reduce his parlor audience to tears and then proceed to do just that. Afterward, he would mock those in the audience, calling them spoiled children and fools. I suspect he found their response to his music superficial, working as he did at a level of unfathomable artistic understanding.
Later, the Romantics exploited music's emotive quality. One critic stopped calling it music altogether. It is all emotion now, he claimed.
The written word, however, is more directly related to the intellectual process of the human species than is music. Most of us do not think in musical terms. We think in words. (Fine musicians do both, I am told.) Most of us think in a type of linear verbal progression, almost from left to right. Stop reading this now and try to think in any other way.
It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; and the well-written word is altogether different again.
Historically, civilizations arose when organized knowledge encountered adequate methods of writing. This first occurred in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, where business transactions required documentation. Archaeology has discovered the records of ancient traders, but it is not the stuff that stirs the emotions or provokes the intellect. I have heard it debated among reasonable and educated adults that civilization, by definition, is not civilization until the poets arrive.
In the beginning was the Word. Scholars debate the intent of the gospel writer in this passage and wonder over the influences at work here. But I venture that the poets understand the meaning. Any of us alive enough as to be provoked by the written word knows the wonderful and mysterious tapestry that is one human spirit alighting on another. That is the core of the artistic experience and is the beginning of everything we value about ourselves as humans. It is rejuvenating to think that with the word we ceased being beasts and became human.
Ernest Hemingway, in a cogent moment, observed that long after the temples have decayed, the written word will survive, even flourish. This is not the word of the daily transaction. He was referring to the word that sparks the neural cells and makes one rise in search of a tissue, the word that sends the telltale tingle down the spine, as Vladimir Nabokov noted.
It would be a shame if the biologists were ever to explain the process.
Douglas P. Bruns writes from Catonsville.