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Peeks and Piques!

In the Beginning


ART TIMES April, 2005

WE’VE BEEN DUPED. Of course we’ve brought it on ourselves — there’s no getting around that. We’ve just fallen in love with our own invention. I’m speaking about language — our discovery way back when that we could make sounds that could ‘stand for’ real things — further, that they could even represent actions. We could now say, “Saber tooth!” (to denote a noun) quickly followed by, “Run!” (a verb). Oh, we were so proud of ourselves. We invented speech! We invented words! How long before we would learn how to make alphabets that ‘stood for’ the sounds that ‘stood for’ the actual thing or event — and we could say that we invented writing? Oh, yes — we really did ourselves up proud when we stumbled onto this little trick. The thing is, though, that we’ve somehow fallen for the idea that not only are words neat, but that they have also always been around. Well, guess what? They haven’t, folks. Not by a long shot. In the scheme of things, verbal language was a long time coming, and the truth is that mankind had to do without it for who knows how long? Now just how did they do that? Any archaeologist could tell you; they used gestures and later, symbols — abstract images and wavy lines and pictographs and who knows what else to convey a sense of a ‘world’ that both surrounded and transcended the one they lived in – the one with saber tooth tigers and trees and rocks and water and the one they could only sense was "out there". We are still unearthing these pre-historic (pre-verbal) markings in caves and on tombstones and on cliff faces around the world. We may not know what kind of grunts and squeaks our early ancestors made, but we do know that they made images — and lots of ‘em. To put it another way, we began as artists and not as poets and novelists. To put it even clearer — and in spite of what scripture tells us — in the beginning was the image — largely a right-brain activity — not the word — a left-brain function, by the way. In the beginning was the image — the Bible notwithstanding. It’s only our conceit that has brought about the misconception. Like I’ve said, we’ve fallen in love with our own invention and have only duped ourselves. It’s not like we haven’t been told about this. Philosophers, sages — thinking people of all stripes — have warned us about taking our invention too seriously. Martin Buber’s I and Thou, for example, pointedly showed how “naming things” can (and does) lead us astray from the essence of things. Tell a child that the living phenomena of a tree is called, first, “tree” and then, later, “oak tree.” Once the child has the left-brain handle of a label, he or she need never again “see” — or deal with — the phenomenon of a living tree. He happily marches off thinking he now knows what a tree is — and continues on marching until, as an adult, he can perhaps become a member of the U.N. where he can further deal with such labels as “Arab”, “Israeli”, “Frenchman”, “Somalian”, “Sri Lankan”, etc. etc., instead of the human being in front of him. In Buber’s terms, the child sees a tree (or another) as an “It” rather than as a “Thou” — i.e., not as another existing phenomenon created by God, but rather as a labeled and abstract thing — the child (and, eventually, the man) sees it as a word. Who needs to understand people — or trees — if we have labels to identify them? What else is there to know? After all, “In the beginning was the Word” — says so, in the Bible. All else is history.

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