Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On Books. On Language. On Words.

Language is fundamental to our humanity. Words have developed as an integral part of our understanding of language. The little post-structuralists in one corner may well argue that language has an unstable base, is fluid and intangible but they still use language to communicate their arguments. Even as they feel the world is disintegrating they are clinging on desperately to the very thing they are claiming is the root cause of the instability. We seek to understand, to label, to comprehend, to create and words give us a medium for doing just that. In the other corner sit the little structuralists with a set of building blocks who would argue semiotics are the foundation for all understanding of the world. Those from one corner disrupt the other and the building blocks are knocked across the room. With the coloured cubes in a delightful sprawl across the floor, there is both structure and anarchy to the pattern. The little structuralists and the little post-structuralists survey the scene and identical smiles of realisation dawn on their faces. For balance of course here is the key, language once developed has a delicious habit of escaping definition and leading it's users into new histories. Language and Words are at once, our past, present and future.

Words are spoken, they are ritualised, sung, performed and written. Words are heard, digested, comprehended and read. They are to be treasured, understood and cared for because sometimes they are all we have to understand the world and sometimes they help us say that we cannot understand the world. We can hear words used to incite violence and we can hear words lull a baby to sleep. We can read those words again to analyse the hatred and to pass on the gift of sleep to another's child.

Collective and cultural memory is more unstable than language has ever been or will be. Whilst words might have slippage, become twisted and contorted to a limited degree, on the page they are recorded in their movements. There is a reason why books are burnt. History, culture, memory, stories, language and words are destroyed. To write is to establish the past, present and future. Without these records, we are not who we are and we are what others want us to be.

"What is history? History is women following along behind with the bucket" so spits out Mrs. Lintott in The History Boys, her boys are bemused and her male colleagues embarrassed. But in her words there is great understanding of history. The very fact there is so few historical records of women highlights that without words, people have no voice. To write and to speak in cases such as this is to reclaim, to rebuild a past and ensure a future. It also preserves the reality of the inequality in what has come before. Post-colonial narratives and theory are in parallel to this trajectory, for those peoples' oral traditions were lost under oppression. Again here words have power, for it was with mastering the colonial language that the colonised have reclaimed their separate self. How tightly traditional language and culture is held onto now there is so little. It is written down, recorded, read so that it cannot be lost. Words have become a way of preserving culture. All books are made of words.

Why should it be that any book, one story, one language, one word is valued more than another? Today I love Virginia Woolfe, tomorrow I read Jackie Collins and yesterday I would only read fantasy. We can argue the merit of Literature but really it is all subjective and in the mind of the reader, anyway. As much as we like to we cannot completely control language. Yet people live their lives by books. By what is written before and they write further to help determine what is to come. There are issues here when one book, one word, one piece of writing, one language is elevated to such a status. The problem is not in sanctifying a particular book, the problem is that it is not yet recognised that all books have the potential to be as great, wonderful, fantastic and amazing as each other. True Twilight worth is perhaps an interesting comparison to James Joyce, but work with me here. To me all books have intrinsic value. In their pages, in their stories, in their words, in their language. I bet now that those little structuralists and little post-structuralists are oscillating between order and chaos but they are playing quite nicely together.

Language is fundamental to our humanity and books are fundamental to mine.