The world beyond speech
In his review of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, Kevin Rabelais refers to DeLillo’s ‘utterly American’ voice, and to the way
… his measured reflections … search for something deeper than language, for what Herman Broch calls the word beyond speech.
In Point Omega, De Lillo writes:
The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.
The insight takes me in two directions, to three related insights. The first has to do with something Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started.
DeLillo has reached the point Eliot reached, the realisation that the search for meaning is ongoing.
The second insight has to do with the inadequacies of language. It takes us back to Sweeney’s exasperated cry: ‘I’ve gotta use words’. In Little Giddings, in the Rose Garden , Eliot is aware of something beyond language, something unsayable and unwritable – the true life that is not reducible to words.
Roman Romanyshyn explores similar territory in The Wounded Researcher. His interest is in human research and with phenomenology.
Green! I used the word earlier to describe where I am – but it is a lie. This valley is not green. Green is only a word that declares the blindness at the heart of my vision and the poverty of my words. Green! A word that insults the richness that surrounds me, a word that I give to, that I impose upon, this effulgent landscape.
Romanyshyn makes mention of Wallace Stevens’ poem …
[He] … has told us there are thirteen ways – at least – of looking at a blackbird… In each stanza of the poem he tells us what the blackbird is, and in each stanza implies that it is not that.
Romanyshyn concludes that what matters
… is the difference between the fullness of an experience and the failure of language to say it, and the sweetly bitter sense of this knowledge.
Romanyshyn is very good on this stuff; he writes:
In the gap between the saying and what slips away there is a sense of sadness, a feeling of mourning… to write down the soul … is to attend to its “ greening”, to its motion and movement, to its elusive quality, which resists our efforts to enunciate it.
Words can’t do the job; but I’ve got to use words, because they are the best I have available.
As I write, another great passage of literature springs into my consciousness … emerges from the darkness into focus. This time, it’s Dickens, and the famous scene in which the teacher, Gradgrind, demands that Sissy Jupe define a horse.
Sissy Jupes’ father deals in horses and breaks them for the ring. Sissy has grown up with horses. But she is thrown into alarm by Gradgrind’s demand that she define a horse because she knows that she lacks the ‘book learning’ that would allow her to meet Gradgrind’s high standards. She is humiliated before the class; she is reduced to silence.
Gradgrind shifts his focus to one of the boys: ‘Some boy – Bitzer.’
Bitzer knows wants his teacher wants: “Quadruped. Gramnivorous. In spring sheds coat; … in winter sheds hooves as well … thus, and much more, Bitzer.’
“There Girl 20,” says Mr Gradgrind triumphantly to Sissy. “Now you know what a horse is!”
And yet we all know that that is precisely what a horse is not. A horse is not a thing of words.
The third insight relates to the notion of our experience of time, of moments. Years ago, when I read David Ireland’s book, Archimedes and the Seagle, I was taken by a passage in the opening chapter:
We live our lives in moments, in little crevices in time … and the more I thought about it the more i think that we can spend an extraordinary amount of time exploring the contents of even a single moment.
Our notion and sense of time is of a smooth surface, of time that moves at a uniform rate. But our experience of time does not possess the same uniformity. Times races by, time drags by, time seems to stand still, time can seem timeless.
DeLillo puts it this way:
There is a level to our existence, to our minute-by-minute existence that we don’t grasp very readily but which is, in fact, the centre of our identity. It’s who we are at a level that’s just trembling on the edge of speech, and I think people feel it all the time but don’t absorb it, don’t quite recognise it as being a significant part of themselves.
What are these moments?
These moments have fascinated the American psychotherapist Stern for years; for him, we do indeed live our lives in moments.
Stern regards these moments as the “ordinary … stuff of low-level everyday drama”; they constitute “the archipeligo of islands of consciousness…. These islands are the psychological foreground, the primary reality of experience. The present and consciousness are the centers of gravity, not the past and the unconscious”
The time span of present moments, which are analogous to musical phrases, is between 1 and 10 seconds. They are like William James’s description of consciousness in motion: “‘Like a bird’s life, [the stream of consciousness] seems to be made [up] of an alternation of fights and perchings'” (p. 43). Present moments make up the building blocks of our subjective experience. Present moments contain, potentially, an affect-laden lived story or a pre-told emotional narrative. Intersubjective contact is created when we share our lived story with another person, when we participate in another person’s lived story, or when we co-create a mutually lived story together, where larger narratives are made up of smaller narratives.
For Stern, these moments are full of ‘ideas’: Ideas are like galaxies of little intuitions, a confused thing … which is continually changing … they are beautiful. But they are a mess … in their pure state they are a marvelous mess. They are provisional apparitions of infinity…. As long as you limit yourself to thinking it, the idea can remain a marvelous mess that it is. But when you decide to express it (in words) you begin to discard one thing, to summarize something else, to simplify this and cut that, to put it in order by imposing a certain logic: you work on it a bit, and in the end you have something that people can understand. (pp. 117-118)
It’s a theme that others have explored. Romanyshyn sees what he comes to call ‘a green valley’ but in putting it into words he does it no justice. ‘Putting ideas into words’ is the ultimate reductionism, the seemingly unavoidable reductionism: the rich texture and color and tenor and complexity and depth and infinite possibility of each moment is reduced to a summarising word (!)
Years ago I wrote a poem about testing in schools, a crie de couer about the scientism involved in school examinations; I think what distressed me most was the pretence of exactitude. In the poem I borrowed some lines from Shakespeare. The original of that poem is lost among mountains of paper, the flotsam and jetsam of a life of teaching, writing and hoarding. But it went something like this:
What a piece of work is man.
How noble in reason.
How infinite in faculties.
Attitude: Could do better.
As Dickens said: ‘And now, Girl 20, you know what a horse is!’
But to return to the moment. DeLillo again:
To see what’s here, finally to look and know what you’re looking at, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion … It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you.
DeLillo’s character in his novel 24 Hour Psycho becomes
… mesmerised by … the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of seeing.
There are strong echoes of Eliot … We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ will be to return to where we started/And know the place for the first time.
In 1997 I began to examine the role that meditative techniques might play in the writing process; my topic was ‘the pedagogy of silence’. I see now that I was attracted to the ‘depths that were possible in the slowing of motion … the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of our seeing.’
I ran two courses entitled Relaxation, Meditation, Writing. Each course ran for ten sessions, and each session was four hours. The course was built around the keeping of an Intensive Journal – a concept developed by the American depth psychologist Ira Progoff. Each course attracted around 15 students, people enrolled in a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing, adults who volunteered to participate.
Each session followed the same general pattern. During the first hour I led a meditative activity – progressive relaxation which segued into meditation. As the group settled, I encouraged them to conduct an ‘audit’ – a personal reckoning:
- Take stock of your ‘body’. Are you feeling any discomforts? Are you experiencing pain or discomfort in any part of your body? ‘Scan’ your body, starting at your toes, your feet, moving up to your calves and knees … Are there any parts of your body where you are aware of tension – your jaw, your forehead, neck, shoulders, hands, legs …
- Take stock of your feelings. Is there one particular overriding emotion that you are aware of? What other emotions are there? If you are able, name the emotions you are most aware of. What feelings did you have as tonight’s session approached? Were they positive or negative emotions?
- Were you: Looking forward to tonight’s session? Apprehensive? Indifferent?
- Take stock of what your ‘mind’ is doing. Are your thoughts moving at a very slow rate, or is your mind jumping rapidly from idea to idea, image to image? Is your mind almost still, or are you experiencing ‘mad monkey mind’?
- Now look at the content of what you are thinking. What is in your mind at the moment? What thoughts are filling your mind? Are they things you have been ‘preparing’ to think about, or have they just popped into your mind? Are they ‘themes’ –patterns of thought that have been recurring for days or weeks now?
- Finally, take stock of what you expect from tonight’s session, and how ‘ready’ you are to participate. Are you keen to ‘get into it’ or do you feel some resistances? Focus for a moment on why you may be feeling eager, or indifferent or resistant to tonight’s session.
After his ‘auditing’ we would commence with Progressive Relaxation, starting at the toes and working up the body, first tensing and then relaxing each part in turn. Once people were fully relaxed, we’d move into the meditation segment. This lasted for 20 – 40 minutes, occasionally longer. It was followed by either a focussing or a visualisation activity. While participants were still in a deeply relaxed state, I would encourage them to ‘bring to mind’ memories of some aspect of their lives: their earliest childhood memories; images of their father or mother or siblings; memories of dreams they had experienced; a focus on their bodies and how their experience of their bodies changed over the years; a visualisation of their first classroom, their first house, times when they had been blissful, times they had been sad …
This relaxation/meditation/visualisation segment lasted for perhaps an hour or so. As they emerged from this tranquil state, they were encouraged to ‘start writing’ whenever they felt ready.
This slowing of motion seemed to enable the participants to see the depths of things easy to miss in the shallow habits of seeing. People rarely stopped writing in the first hour; most wrote for up to two hours – some even longer. At times the writing was feverish, as if there were limitless amounts of ‘stuff’ to be written down. People rarely looked up, rarely paused in their writing. Many found the depths of things moving, and often distressing.
There was no requirement that people share the content of what they had written. During the final 30 – 60 minutes we would discuss the process:
- how effective or disturbing the relaxation and meditation session had been
- how effective the focussing/visualisation segment had been
- how the writing had happened
People were often very affected by the experience.
In stillness we explored the depths of moments. Slowing the motion opened the space to allow us to look more closely and see more deeply into each moment.
[ As Ireland observed: The more I think about it, the more I think that an almost infinite amount of time could be spent exploring the contents of even a single moment.]
The left brain wants to reduce everything to algorithms. A horse is this; a child’s performance on a test shows that, and only that. Like Gradgrind, the left brain is only interested in facts. Facts! Facts! Facts!
Despite his serious doubts about the word, his recognition of its limitations, DeLillo continues to write. He concedes that much of what he does as a novelist remains a mystery.
Where an idea comes from, how characters develop, how sentences develop, how a conclusion is determined, how a writer finds a way to the end of his book. I always think that art tends to have a strong element of mystery. Whether it’s painting or music or filmmaking, one is in contact with levels of observation that are completely parallel to normal activities we engage in.
Perhaps it is the parallelism of our two brains – the left with its fascist reductionism, the right with its wild unruliness.
Or perhaps the parallelism is more multiple, arising from the fact that we are all what Bernie Neville called ‘five brained animals’. Borrowing from the insights of the 20th century thinker Jean Gebser, Bernie identifies five structures of consciousness, each emerging through the evolutionary process.
There is our archaic mind, that mind which we share with other primates, other animals. There is our magical mind, most evident in our childhood years, when the world seems to run on magic and to be peopled by strange gods who must be appeased. There is our mythical mind, deeply enmeshed with the ways we use language, and especially story and myth as ways of making sense of the world, of making our way in the world. For humans born in the 20th century, there is the rational mind. And for us, gathered here on the beach of the tumid river, in the 21st century, we have post-rationalism, post modernism: the recognition that what we see is determined by where we are standing, by what we expect to see, by what we have been taught to expect to see. There are multiple truths. And then, beyond these is integral consciousness.
But more of this – and of that – in a future blog.