The lovely davidbdale whose 299 word novels provide exquisite templates of how flash fiction ought to be, was kind enough to forward to me an Oliver Sacks essay he thought I might appreciate. And what a cracker the essay is: in it Sacks describes how a speech by Ronald Regan was met with gales of laughter and derision by a group of especially insightful mental patients. These patients were suffering from a condition called aphasia, a disorder of the nervous system that renders words meaningless. However, in this condition, Sacks describes how the sufferers find their comprehension oddly compensated by an increased sensitivity to all the tonal, emphatic, suggestive qualities in a speaker’s voice. In consequence, aphasiacs understand so well what is being said to them that Sacks suggests it is impossible to lie to one successfully, and that their abilities have been likened to the innate primal insightfulness of dogs. Hence their immediate response to Ronald Regan’s speech is an inability to take him seriously. But this does make their condition a somewhat paradoxical one and Sacks describes how,
‘to demonstrate their aphasia, one has to go to extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extraverbal cues – tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture) : one had to remove all of this (which might involve total concealment of one’s person, and total depersonalisation of one’s voice, even to using a computerised voice synthesizer) in order to reduce speech to pure words’.
What an intriguing perspective on language and its relationship to our identity and our modes of self-expression! The two layers of language that Sacks is pointing to instantly made me think of the distinction Julia Kristeva (a French psychoanalyst) draws between the semiotic and the symbolic. The symbolic refers to the ‘pure words’ that Sacks talks about, language as a straightforward vehicle for communication. The semiotic, however, is where all the interest lies, and where I think I can see the level of language to which Sack’s aphasiacs respond. The semiotic refers to the musicality of language, its rhythm and rhyme and onomatopoeia, its lyrical, ambiguous, poetic qualities that seem to insist on being meaningful whilst failing to refer to anything specific. Poetry, and some experimental fiction for example, is understood to have a high semiotic content.
Now for Kristeva, the semiotic and the symbolic are mutually essential if language is going to work. She traces the semiotic back to the baby’s earliest experiences of language, and the universe of sound sensations in which it lives; its mother’s cooing and babbling, her heartbeat, the flow of sound in which words cannot be distinguished (rather in the way you or I might hear an unknown foreign language). In this semiotic world everything is potentially full of meaning for the baby that has yet to learn to speak, but whose noises represent an overflowing of something – joy, sadness, anger, need – that bubbles up out of it into the world along with wind and regurgitated milk. Our earliest experiences of language, the ones we have before we have anything specific to say, are of a pleasurable means of getting rid of an inner excess. We are compelled to language, driven to it by our bodies, every bit as much as we are intellectually engaged with it in our minds. Once we learn to speak, the semiotic is never truly eradicated from language, instead it remains as a kind of internal melting point, where emotions, sensations, feelings might seep and surge over the barrier of communication, making language say at once less and more than it was intended to.
Now Kristeva is interested in the link between the semiotic and the symbolic in relation to another disorder: depression and melancholia. As she understands it, the depressive’s wall of silence is a result of that upsurging, overflowing semiotic falling away from the words that could express it. Language feels meaningless and pointless; it just doesn’t scratch the right spot. However, the fact that a surprisingly large percentage of great authors were melancholics indicates an alternative relationship to that troubling semiotic. For some authors, their life work (according to Kristeva) was in searching and searching for the right words to embody their sensations, questing for the most powerful forms of expression they could find to finally reunite the two layers of language – words and the sense of their having a certain fullness of meaning – in a satisfying way. Kristeva doesn’t believe that artists have ever cured themselves by writing, but she regularly suggests that it is a relatively successful way of holding the madness and the despair at bay.
Now, where this all takes me is to pinpoint the layer of language that Sacks’ aphasiacs tune into and Kristeva partially identifies as the semiotic, to understand why Ronald Regan’s speech lies, and why great fiction tells the truth. In the former, the two levels move away from one another; Regan’s words are undermined by the subtext that says something quite different. In the latter, however, the two layers of language come together in a mutually enhancing way. Great writers know how to tap into and express the semiotic in their works, and so what they say speaks to us at a profound level. I like to think of this layer of other meaning, beyond and within communication, as the defining characteristic of the literary. And our ability, from birth, to hear and express it, to tap into it and to play with it, is what makes us all fundamentally literary creatures, in a basic instinctual way.