Inner speech is not a universal trait of humanity, according to Russell T. Hurlburt. That is unsurprising. Others go much further in arguing that inner speech was once non-existent for entire civilizations.
My favorite version of this argument being that of Julian Jayne’s theory of the bicameral mind. It was noted by Jaynes how bicameralism can be used as an interpretative frame to understand many of the psychological oddities still found in modern society. His theory goes a long way in explaining hypnosis, for instance. From that perspective, I’ve long suspected that post-bicameral consciousness isn’t as well established as is generally assumed. David Abrahms observes (see at end of post for full context):
“It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between the words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sentence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered).”
Internal experience took a long time to take hold. During the Enlightenment, there was still contentious debate about whether or not all humans shared a common capacity for inner experience — that is, did peasants, slaves and savages (and women) have minds basically the same as rich white men, presumably as rational actors with independent-mindedness and abstract thought. The rigid boundaries of the hyper-individualistic ego-mind required millennia to be built up within the human psyche, initially considered the sole province of the educated elite that, from Plato onward, was portrayed as a patriarchal and paternalistic enlightened aristocracy.
The greatest of radical ideals was to challenge this self-serving claim of the privileged mind by demanding that all be treated as equals before God and government, in that through the ability to read all could have a personal relationship with God and through natural rights all could self-govern. Maybe it wasn’t merely a change in the perception of common humanity but a change within common humanity itself. As modernity came into dominance, the inner sense of self with the accompanying inner speech became an evermore prevalent experience. Something rare among the elite not too many centuries earlier had suddenly become common among the commoners.
With minds of their own, quite literally, the rabble became rabblerousers who no longer mindlessly bowed down to their betters. The external commands and demands of the ancien regime lost their grip as individuality became the norm. What replaced it was what Jaynes referred to as self-authorization, very much dependent on an inner voice. But it is interesting to speculate that it might have required such a long incubation period considering this new mindset had first taken root back in the Axial Age. It sometimes can be a slow process for new memes to filter across vast geographic populations and seep down into the masses.
So what might the premodern mentality have been like? At Hurlburt’s piece, I noticed some comments about personal experience. One anonymous person mentioned, after brain trauma, “LOSING my inner voice. It is a totally different sensation/experience of reality. […] It is totally unlike anything I had ever known, I felt “simple” my day to day routines where driven only by images related to my goals (example: seeing Toothbrush and knowing my goals is to brush my teeth) and whenever I needed to recite something or create thoughts for communication, it seemed I could only conjure up the first thoughts to come to my mind without any sort of filter. And I would mumble and whisper to myself in Lue of the inner voice. But even when mumbling and whispering there was NO VOICE in my head. Images, occasionally. Other than that I found myself being almost hyper-aware of my surroundings with my incoming visual stimuli as the primary focus throughout my day.”
This person said a close comparison was being in the zone, sometimes referred to as runner’s high. That got me thinking about various factors that can shut down the normal functioning of the egoic mind. Extreme physical activity forces the mind into a mode that isn’t experienced that often and extensively by people in the modern world, a state of mind combining exhaustion, endorphins, and ketosis — a state of mind, on the other hand, that would have been far from uncommon before modernity with some arguing ketosis was once the normal mode of neurocogntivie functioning. Related to this, it has been argued that the abstractions of Enlightenment thought was fueled by the imperial sugar trade, maybe the first time a permanent non-ketogenic mindset was possible in the Western world. What sugar (i.e., glucose), especially when mixed with the other popular trade items of tea and coffee, makes possible is thinking and reading (i.e., inner experience) for long periods of time without mental tiredness. During the Enlightenment, the modern mind was borne out of a drugged-up buzz. That is one interpretation. Whatever the cause, something changed.
Also, in the comment section of that article, I came across a perfect description of self-authorization. Carla said that, “There are almost always words inside my head. In fact, I’ve asked people I live with to not turn on the radio in the morning. When they asked why, they thought my answer was weird: because it’s louder than the voice in my head and I can’t perform my morning routine without that voice.” We are all like that to some extent. But for most of us, self-authorization has become so natural as to largely go unnoticed. Unlike Carla, the average person learns to hear their own inner voice despite external sounds. I’m willing to bet that, if tested, Carla would show results of having thin mental boundaries and probably an accordingly weaker egoic will to force her self-authorization onto situations. Some turn to sugar and caffeine (or else nicotine and other drugs) to help shore up rigid thick boundaries and maintain focus in this modern world filled with distractions — likely a contributing factor to drug addiction.
In Abrams’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous, he emphasizes the connection between sight and sound. By way of reading, seeing words becomes hearing words in one’s own mind. This is made possible by the perceptual tendency to associate sight and sound, the two main indicators of movement, with a living other such as an animal moving through the underbrush. Maybe this is what creates the sense of a living other within, a Jaynesian consciousness as interiorized metaphorical space. The magic of hearing words inside puts a spell on the mind, invoking a sense of inner being separate from the outer world. This is how reading can conjure forth an entire visuospatial experience of narratized world, sometimes as compellingly real or moreso than our mundane lives. To hear and see, even if only imagined inwardly, is to make real.
Yet many lose the ability to visualize as they age. I wonder if that has to do with how the modern world until recently has been almost exclusively focused on text. It’s only now that a new generation has been so fully raised on the visual potency of 24/7 cable and the online world, and unlike past generations they might remain more visually-oriented into old age. The loss of visual imagination might have been more of a quirk of printed text, the visual not so much disappearing as being subverted into sound as the ego’s own voice became insular. But even when we are unaware of it, maybe the visual remains as the light in the background that makes interior space visible like a lamp in a sonorous cave, the lamp barely offering enough light to allow us follow the sound further into the darkness. Bertrand Russell went so far as to “argues that mental imagery is the essence of the meaning of words in most cases” (Bertrand Russell: Unconscious Terrors; Murder, Rage and Mental Imagery.). It is the visual that makes the aural come alive with meaning — as Russell put it:
“it is nevertheless the possibility of a memory image in the child and an imagination image in the hearer that makes the essence of the ‘meaning’ of the words. In so far as this is absent, the words are mere counters, capable of meaning, but not at the moment possessing it.”
Jaynes resolves the seeming dilemma by proposing the visuospatial as a metaphorical frame in which the mind operates, rather than itself being the direct focus of thought. And to combine this with Russell’s view, as the visual recedes from awareness, abstract thought recedes from the visceral sense of meaning of the outer world. This is how modern humanity, ever more lost in thought, has lost contact with the larger world of nature and universe, a shrinking number of people who still regularly experience a wilderness vista or the full starry sky. Our entire world turns inward and loses its vividness, becomes smaller, the boundaries dividing thicker. Our minds become ruled by Russell’s counters of meaning (i.e., symbolic proxies), rather than meaning directly. That may be changing, though, in this new era of visually-saturated media. Even books, as audiobooks, can now be heard outwardly in the voice of another. The rigid walls of the ego, so carefully constructed over centuries, are being cracked open again. If so, we might see a merging back together again of the separated senses, which could manifest as a return of synaesthesia as a common experience and with it a resurgence of metaphorical thought that hews close to the sensory world, the fertile ground of meaning. About a talk by Vilanayur S. Ramachandran, Maureen Seaberg writes (The Sea of Similitude):
“The refined son of an Indian diplomat explains that synesthesia was discovered by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, and that its name is derived from the Greek words for joined sensations. Next, he says something that really gets me to thinking – that there is greater cross wiring in the brains of synesthetes. This has enormous implications. “Now, if you assume that this greater cross wiring and concepts are also in different parts of the brain [than just where the synesthesia occurs], then it’s going to create a greater propensity towards metaphorical thinking and creativity in people with synesthesia. And, hence, the eight times more common incidence of synesthesia among poets, artists and novelists,” he says.
“In 2005, Dr. Ramachandran and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego identified where metaphors are likely generated in the brain by studying people who could no longer understand metaphor because of brain damage. Proving once again the maxim that nature speaks through exceptions, they tested four patients who had experienced injuries to the left angular gyrus region. In May 2005, Scientific American reported on this and pointed out that although the subjects were bright and good communicators, when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and “reaching for the stars,” the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all the time. Their metaphor centers – now identified – had been compromised by the damage and the people just didn’t get the symbolism. Interestingly, synesthesia has also been found to occur mostly in the fusiform and angular gyrus – it’s in the same neighborhood. […]
“Facility with metaphor is a “thing” in synesthesia. Not only do Rama’s brain studies prove it, but I’ve noticed synesthetes seldom choose the expected, clichéd options when forming the figures of speech that describe a thing in a way that is symbolic to explain an idea or make comparisons. It would be more enviable were it not completely involuntary and automatic. In our brains without borders, it just works that way. Our neuronal nets are more interwoven”
The meeting of synaesthesia and metaphor opens up to our greater, if largely forgotten, humanity. As Jaynes and many others have made clear, those in the distant past and those still living in isolated tribes, such people experience the world far differently than us. This can be seen in odd use of language in ancient texts, which we may take as odd turns of phrase, as mere metaphor. But what if these people so foreign to us took their own metaphors quite literally, so to speak. In another post by Maureen Seaberg (The Shamanic Synesthesia of the Kalahari Bushmen), there are clear examples of this:
“The oldest cultures found that ecstatic experience expands our awareness and in its most special form, the world is experienced through more sensory involvement and presence, he says. “The shaman’s transition into ecstasy brought about what we call synesthesia today. But there was more involved than just passively experiencing it. The ecstatic shaman also performed sound, movement, and made reference to vision, smell, and taste in ways that helped evoke extraordinary experiences in others. They were both recipients and performers of multi-sensory theatres. Of course this is nothing like the weekend workshop shamans of the new age who are day dreaming rather than shaking wildly…. Rhythm, especially syncopated African drumming, excites the whole body to feel more intensely. Hence, it is valued as a means of ‘getting there’. A shaman (an ecstatic performer) played all the senses.” If this seems far afield from Western experience, consider that in Exodus 20:18, as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to retrieve the tablets, the people present were said to have experienced synesthesia. “And all the people saw the voices” of heaven, it says. And we know synesthesia happens even in non-synesthetes during meditation — a heightened state.” “
The metaphorical ground of synaesthesia is immersive and participatory. It is a world alive with meaning. It was a costly trade in sacrificing this in creating our separate and sensory-deprived egoic consciousness, despite all that we gained in wielding power over the world. During the Bronze Age when written language still had metaphorical mud on its living roots, what Jaynes calls the bicameral mind would have been closer to this animistic mindset. A metaphor in that experiential reality was far more than what we now know of as metaphor. The world was alive with beings and voices. This isn’t only the origins of our humanity for it remains the very ground of our being, the source of what we have become — language most of all (“First came the temple, then the city.”):
“Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.
“This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.”
We remain haunted by the past (“Beyond that, there is only awe.”):
“Through authority and authorization, immense power and persuasion can be wielded. Jaynes argues that it is central to the human mind, but that in developing consciousness we learned how to partly internalize the process. Even so, Jaynesian self-consciousness is never a permanent, continuous state and the power of individual self-authorization easily morphs back into external forms. This is far from idle speculation, considering authoritarianism still haunts the modern mind. I might add that the ultimate power of authoritarianism, as Jaynes makes clear, isn’t overt force and brute violence. Outward forms of power are only necessary to the degree that external authorization is relatively weak, as is typically the case in modern societies.“
If you are one of those who clearly hears a voice in your head, appreciate all that went into creating and constructing it. This is an achievement of our entire civilization. But also realize how precarious is this modern mind. It’s a strange thing to contemplate. What is that voice that speaks? And who is it that is listening? Now imagine what it would be like if, as with the bicameral gods going silent, your own god-like ego went silent. And imagine this silence spreading across all of society, an entire people suddenly having lost their self-authorization to act, their very sense of identity and social reality. Don’t take for granted that voice within.
* * *
Below is a passage from a book I read long ago, maybe back when it was first published in 1996. The description of cognitive change almost could have been lifted straight out of Julian Jaynes book from twenty years earlier (e.g., the observation of the gods becoming silent). Abrams doesn’t mention Jaynes and it’s possible he was unfamiliar with it, whether or not there was an indirect influence. The kinds of ideas Jaynes was entertaining had been floating around for a long while before him as well. The unique angle that Abrams brings in this passage is framing it all within synaesthesia.
The Spell of the Sensuous
by David Abrams
Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synaesthesia”—the overlap and blending of the senses—as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience, as Merleau-Ponty makes evident, is inherently synaesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience (and hence from our primordial contact with the entities and elements that surround us):
…Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel. 20
It is remarkable that none of the major twentieth-century scholars who have directed their attention to the changes wrought by literacy have seriously considered the impact of writing—and, in particular, phonetic writing—upon the human experience of the wider natural world. Their focus has generally centered upon the influence of phonetic writing on the structure and deployment of human language, 53 on patterns of cognition and thought, 54 or upon the internal organization of human societies. 55 Most of the major research, in other words, has focused upon the alphabet’s impact on processes either internal to human society or presumably “internal” to the human mind. Yet the limitation of such research—its restriction within the bounds of human social interaction and personal interiority—itself reflects an anthropocentric bias wholly endemic to alphabetic culture. In the absence of phonetic literacy, neither society, nor language, nor even the experience of “thought” or consciousness, can be pondered in isolation from the multiple nonhuman shapes and powers that lend their influence to all our activities (we need think only of our ceaseless involvement with the ground underfoot, with the air that swirls around us, with the plants and animals that we consume, with the daily warmth of the sun and the cyclic pull of the moon). Indeed, in the absence of formal writing systems, human communities come to know themselves primarily as they are reflected back by the animals and the animate landscapes with which they are directly engaged. This epistemological dependence is readily evidenced, on every continent, by the diverse modes of identification commonly categorized under the single term “totemism.”
It is exceedingly difficult for us literates to experience anything approaching the vividness and intensity with which surrounding nature spontaneously presents itself to the members of an indigenous, oral community. Yet as we saw in the previous chapters, Merleau-Ponty’s careful phenomenology of perceptual experience had begun to disclose, underneath all of our literate abstractions, a deeply participatory relation to things and to the earth, a felt reciprocity curiously analogous to the animistic awareness of indigenous, oral persons. If we wish to better comprehend the remarkable shift in the human experience of nature that was occasioned by the advent and spread of phonetic literacy, we would do well to return to the intimate analysis of sensory perception inaugurated by Merleau-Ponty. For without a clear awareness of what reading and writing amounts to when considered at the level of our most immediate, bodily experience, any “theory” regarding the impact of literacy can only be provisional and speculative.
Although Merleau-Ponty himself never attempted a phenomenology of reading or writing, his recognition of the importance of synaesthesia—the overlap and intertwining of the senses—resulted in a number of experiential analyses directly pertinent to the phenomenon of reading. For reading, as soon as we attend to its sensorial texture, discloses itself as a profoundly synaesthetic encounter. Our eyes converge upon a visible mark, or a series of marks, yet what they find there is a sequence not of images but of sounds, something heard; the visible letters, as we have said, trade our eyes for our ears. Or, rather, the eye and the ear are brought together at the surface of the text—a new linkage has been forged between seeing and hearing which ensures that a phenomenon apprehended by one sense is instantly transposed into the other. Further, we should note that this sensory transposition is mediated by the human mouth and tongue; it is not just any kind of sound that is experienced in the act of reading, but specifically human, vocal sounds—those which issue from the human mouth. It is important to realize that the now common experience of “silent” reading is a late development in the story of the alphabet, emerging only during the Middle Ages, when spaces were first inserted between the words in a written manuscript (along with various forms of punctuation), enabling readers to distinguish the words of a written sentence without necessarily sounding them out audibly. Before this innovation, to read was necessarily to read aloud, or at the very least to mumble quietly; after the twelfth century it became increasingly possible to internalize the sounds, to listen inwardly to phantom words (or the inward echo of words once uttered). 56
Alphabetic reading, then, proceeds by way of a new synaesthetic collaboration between the eye and the ear, between seeing and hearing. To discern the consequences of this new synaesthesia, we need to examine the centrality of synaesthesia in our perception of others and of the earth.
The experiencing body (as we saw in Chapter 2) is not a self-enclosed object, but an open, incomplete entity. This openness is evident in the arrangement of the senses: I have these multiple ways of encountering and exploring the world—listening with my ears, touching with my skin, seeing with my eyes, tasting with my tongue, smelling with my nose—and all of these various powers or pathways continually open outward from the perceiving body, like different paths diverging from a forest. Yet my experience of the world is not fragmented; I do not commonly experience the visible appearance of the world as in any way separable from its audible aspect, or from the myriad textures that offer themselves to my touch. When the local tomcat comes to visit, I do not have distinctive experiences of a visible cat, an audible cat, and an olfactory cat; rather, the tomcat is precisely the place where these separate sensory modalities join and dissolve into one another, blending as well with a certain furry tactility. Thus, my divergent senses meet up with each other in the surrounding world, converging and commingling in the things I perceive. We may think of the sensing body as a kind of open circuit that completes itself only in things, and in the world. The differentiation of my senses, as well as their spontaneous convergence in the world at large, ensures that I am a being destined for relationship: it is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence. 57 […]
The diversity of my sensory systems, and their spontaneous convergence in the things that I encounter, ensures this interpenetration or interweaving between my body and other bodies—this magical participation that permits me, at times, to feel what others feel. The gestures of another being, the rhythm of its voice, and the stiffness or bounce in its spine all gradually draw my senses into a unique relation with one another, into a coherent, if shifting, organization. And the more I linger with this other entity, the more coherent the relation becomes, and hence the more completely I find myself face-to-face with another intelligence, another center of experience.
In the encounter with the cyclist, as in my experience of the blackbird, the visual focus induced and made possible the participation of the other senses. In different situations, other senses may initiate the synaesthesia: our ears, when we are at an orchestral concert; or our nostrils, when a faint whiff of burning leaves suddenly brings images of childhood autumns; our skin, when we are touching or being touched by a lover. Nonetheless, the dynamic conjunction of the eyes has a particularly ubiquitous magic, opening a quivering depth in whatever we focus upon, ceaselessly inviting the other senses into a concentrated exchange with stones, squirrels, parked cars, persons, snow-capped peaks, clouds, and termite-ridden logs. This power—the synaesthetic magnetism of the visual focus—will prove crucial for our understanding of literacy and its perceptual effects.
The most important chapter of Merleau-Ponty’s last, unfinished work is entitled “The Intertwining—The Chiasm.” The word “chiasm,” derived from an ancient Greek term meaning “crisscross,” is in common use today only in the field of neurobiology: the “optic chiasm” is that anatomical region, between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, where neuronal fibers from the right eye and the left eye cross and interweave. As there is a chiasm between the two eyes, whose different perspectives continually conjoin into a single vision, so—according to Merleau-Ponty—there is a chiasm between the various sense modalities, such that they continually couple and collaborate with one another. Finally, this interplay of the different senses is what enables the chiasm between the body and the earth, the reciprocal participation—between one’s own flesh and the encompassing flesh of the world—that we commonly call perception. 59
Phonetic reading, of course, makes use of a particular sensory conjunction—that between seeing and hearing. And indeed, among the various synaesthesias that are common to the human body, the confluence (or chiasm) between seeing and hearing is particularly acute. For vision and hearing are the two “distance” senses of the human organism. In contrast to touch and proprioception (inner-body sensations), and unlike the chemical senses of taste and smell, seeing and hearing regularly place us in contact with things and events unfolding at a substantial distance from our own visible, audible body.
My visual gaze explores the reflective surfaces of things, their outward color and contour. By following the play of light and shadow, the dance of colors, and the gradients of repetitive patterns, the eyes—themselves gleaming surfaces—keep me in contact with the multiple outward facets, or faces, of the things arrayed about me. The ears, meanwhile, are more inward organs; they emerge from the depths of my skull like blossoms or funnels, and their participation tells me less about the outer surface than the interior substance of things. For the audible resonance of beings varies with their material makeup, as the vocal calls of different animals vary with the size and shape of their interior cavities and hollows. I feel their expressive cries resound in my skull or my chest, echoing their sonorous qualities with my own materiality, and thus learn of their inward difference from myself. Looking and listening bring me into contact, respectively, with the outward surfaces and with the interior voluminosity of things, and hence where these senses come together, I experience, over there, the complex interplay of inside and outside that is characteristic of my own self-experience. It is thus at those junctures in the surrounding landscape where my eyes and my ears are drawn together that I most readily feel myself confronted by another power like myself, another life. […]
Yet our ears and our eyes are drawn together not only by animals, but by numerous other phenomena within the landscape. And, strangely, wherever these two senses converge, we may suddenly feel ourselves in relation with another expressive power, another center of experience. Trees, for instance, can seem to speak to us when they are jostled by the wind. Different forms of foliage lend each tree a distinctive voice, and a person who has lived among them will easily distinguish the various dialects of pine trees from the speech of spruce needles or Douglas fir. Anyone who has walked through cornfields knows the uncanny experience of being scrutinized and spoken to by whispering stalks. Certain rock faces and boulders request from us a kind of auditory attentiveness, and so draw our ears into relation with our eyes as we gaze at them, or with our hands as we touch them—for it is only through a mode of listening that we can begin to sense the interior voluminosity of the boulder, its particular density and depth. There is an expectancy to the ears, a kind of patient receptivity that they lend to the other senses whenever we place ourselves in a mode of listening—whether to a stone, or a river, or an abandoned house. That so many indigenous people allude to the articulate speech of trees or of mountains suggests the ease with which, in an oral culture, one’s auditory attention may be joined with the visual focus in order to enter into a living relation with the expressive character of things.
Far from presenting a distortion of their factual relation to the world, the animistic discourse of indigenous, oral peoples is an inevitable counterpart of their immediate, synaesthetic engagement with the land that they inhabit. The animistic proclivity to perceive the angular shape of a boulder (while shadows shift across its surface) as a kind of meaningful gesture, or to enter into felt conversations with clouds and owls—all of this could be brushed aside as imaginary distortion or hallucinatory fantasy if such active participation were not the very structure of perception, if the creative interplay of the senses in the things they encounter was not our sole way of linking ourselves to those things and letting the things weave themselves into our experience. Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies.
And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky. How is it that these phenomena no longer address us , no longer compel our involvement or reciprocate our attention? If participation is the very structure of perception, how could it ever have been brought to a halt? To freeze the ongoing animation, to block the wild exchange between the senses and the things that engage them, would be tantamount to freezing the body itself, stopping it short in its tracks. And yet our bodies still move, still live, still breathe. If we no longer experience the enveloping earth as expressive and alive, this can only mean that the animating interplay of the senses has been transferred to another medium, another locus of participation.
IT IS THE WRITTEN TEXT THAT PROVIDES THIS NEW LOCUS . FOR TO read is to enter into a profound participation, or chiasm, with the inked marks upon the page. In learning to read we must break the spontaneous participation of our eyes and our ears in the surrounding terrain (where they had ceaselessly converged in the synaesthetic encounter with animals, plants, and streams) in order to recouple those senses upon the flat surface of the page. As a Zuñi elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless—as mysterious as a talking stone.
And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb.
But let us be more precise, recalling the distinction between different forms of writing discussed at the start of this chapter. As we saw there, pictographic, ideographic, and even rebuslike writing still makes use of, or depends upon, our sensorial participation with the natural world. As the tracks of moose and bear refer beyond themselves to those entities of whom they are the trace, so the images in early writing systems draw their significance not just from ourselves but from sun, moon, vulture, jaguar, serpent, lightning—from all those sensorial, never strictly human powers, of which the written images were a kind of track or tracing. To be sure, these signs were now inscribed by human hands, not by the hooves of deer or the clawed paws of bear; yet as long as they presented images of paw prints and of clouds , of sun and of serpent , these characters still held us in relation to a more-than-human field of discourse. Only when the written characters lost all explicit reference to visible, natural phenomena did we move into a new order of participation. Only when those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human-made sounds, and even the names of the letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance, could speech or language come to be experienced as an exclusively human power. For only then did civilization enter into the wholly self-reflexive mode of animism, or magic, that still holds us in its spell:
We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has been only a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so that it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned all their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another. 60
THAT ALPHABETIC READING AND WRITING WAS ITSELF experienced as a form of magic is evident from the reactions of cultures suddenly coming into contact with phonetic writing. Anthropological accounts from entirely different continents report that members of indigenous, oral tribes, after seeing the European reading from a book or from his own notes, came to speak of the written pages as “talking leaves,” for the black marks on the flat, leaflike pages seemed to talk directly to the one who knew their secret.
The Hebrew scribes never lost this sense of the letters as living, animate powers. Much of the Kabbalah, the esoteric body of Jewish mysticism, is centered around the conviction that each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth is a magic gateway or guide into an entire sphere of existence. Indeed, according to some kabbalistic accounts, it was by combining the letters that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, created the ongoing universe. The Jewish kabbalists found that the letters, when meditated upon, would continually reveal new secrets; through the process of tzeru, the magical permutation of the letters, the Jewish scribe could bring himself into successively greater states of ecstatic union with the divine. Here, in other words, was an intensely concentrated form of animism—a participation conducted no longer with the sculpted idols and images worshiped by other tribes but solely with the visible letters of the aleph-beth.
Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word “spell.” As the roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word “spell,” which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on the new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that constitute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic formula or charm. Yet these two meanings were not nearly as distinct as they have come to seem to us today. For to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon it forth! To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell , to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled. Yet we can now realize that to learn to spell was also, and more profoundly, to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves, to cast a spell upon our own senses. It was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated and refined magic of the written word.
THE BULGARIAN SCHOLAR TZVETAN TODOROV HAS WRITTEN AN illuminating study of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, based on extensive study of documents from the first months and years of contact between European culture and the native cultures of the American continent. 61 The lightning-swift conquest of Mexico by Cortéz has remained a puzzle for historians, since Cortéz, leading only a few hundred men, managed to seize the entire kingdom of Montezuma, who commanded several hundred thousand . Todorov concludes that Cortéz’s astonishing and rapid success was largely a result of the discrepancy between the different forms of participation engaged in by the two societies. The Aztecs, whose writing was highly pictorial, necessarily felt themselves in direct communication with an animate, more-than-human environment. “Everything happens as if, for the Aztecs, [written] signs automatically and necessarily proceed from the world they designate…”; the Aztecs are unable to use their spoken words, or their written characters, to hide their true intentions, since these signs belong to the world around them as much as to themselves. 62 To be duplicitous with signs would be, for the Aztecs, to go against the order of nature, against the encompassing speech or logos of an animate world, in which their own tribal discourse was embedded.
The Spaniards, however, suffer no such limitation. Possessed of an alphabetic writing system, they experience themselves not in communication with the sensuous forms of the world, but solely with one another. The Aztecs must answer, in their actions as in their speech, to the whole sensuous, natural world that surrounds them; the Spanish need answer only to themselves.
In contact with this potent new magic, with these men who participate solely with their own self-generated signs, whose speech thus seems to float free of the surrounding landscape, and who could therefore be duplicitous and lie even in the presence of the sun, the moon, and the forest, the Indians felt their own rapport with those sensuous powers, or gods, beginning to falter:
The testimony of the Indian accounts, which is a description rather than an explanation, asserts that everything happened because the Mayas and the Aztecs lost control of communication. The language of the gods has become unintelligible, or else these gods fell silent. “Understanding is lost, wisdom is lost” [from the Mayan account of the Spanish invasion]….As for the Aztecs, they describe the beginning of their own end as a silence that falls: the gods no longer speak to them. 63
In the face of aggression from this new, entirely self-reflexive form of magic, the native peoples of the Americas—like those of Africa and, later, of Australia—felt their own magics wither and become useless, unable to protect them.