Wednesday, November 23, 2005

speechless vocabularies

The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people's hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists. The gestures were complex and subtle, involving a delicacy of motion that has since been lost completely.

During the Age of Silence, people communicated more, not less. Basic survival demanded that the hands were almost never still, and so it was only during sleep (and sometimes not even then) that people were not saying something or other. No distinction was made between the gestures of language and the gestures of life. The labor of building a house, say, or preparing a meal was no less an expression than making the sign for I love you or I feel serious. When a hand was used to shield one's face when frightened by a loud noise something was being said, and when fingers were used to pick up what someone had dropped something was being said; and even when the hands were at rest, that, too, was saying something. Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one's lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen, because they didn't go around with the illusion that they understood perfectly the things other people said, they were used to interrupting each other to ask if they'd understood correctly. Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I've always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me. [...]

If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms -- if you find yourself at a loss for what to do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body -- it's because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what's inside and what's outside, was so much less. It's not that we've forgotten the language of gestures entirely. The habit of moving our hands while we speak is left over from it. Clapping, pointing, giving the thumbs-up: all artifacts of ancient gestures. Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together. And at night, when it's too dark to see, we find it necessary to gesture on each other's bodies to make ourselves understood.

- from The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, p. 72-74
I love Nicole Krauss' idea of an "Age of Silence," perhaps because I so frequently find myself struggling to make myself understood, to put a gesture into words. I was reminded of this passage recently while reading a wonderful article by Oliver Sacks on aphasia, nicely summarized in a recent post on Lydia's blog Veritas. I'll quote a bit of Sacks' article here as well:
Mimesis, the deliberate and conscious representation of scenes, thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc., by mime and action, seems to be a specifically human achievement, like language (and perhaps music). Apes, which are able to "ape," or imitate, have little power to create conscious and deliberate mimetic representations.

In "Origins of the Modern Mind," the psychologist Merlin Donald suggests that a "mimetic culture" may have been a crucial intermediate stage in human evolution between the "episodic" culture of apes and the "theoretic" culture of modern man. Mimesis has a much larger and more robust cerebral representation than language, and this may explain why it is so often preserved in patients who have lost language. It is this preservation which can make remarkably rich communication possible for people with aphasia, especially if it can be elaborated and heightened and combined...with a lexicon.

- Oliver Sacks, "Recalled to Life," The New Yorker of Oct. 31, 2005, p. 52
So perhaps there was an Age of Silence after all. Certainly our pre-linguistic faculties are still very much a part of human life and communication, and not just at those awkward parties Krauss describes. One of my most fascinating experiences was working with the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, who speaks almost no English, and yet can tell an orchestra exactly what he wants. He will simply wave his hands to cut off the orchestra, then show us the phrase with his gestures - more eloquent than any words - and then start again, perfectly understood.

Apparently even with Russian orchestras, Maestro Temirkanov prefers to rehearse mimetically rather than verbally, and his style does seem to bring a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the group. Rather than saying mid-rehearsal, "Okay, time for a break," he will pick up an imaginary cigarette and mime bringing it to his lips, then walk off stage. I like to imagine the orchestra continuing in that eloquent silence during the break, carrying on intense discussions about today's rehearsal or last night's drinking entirely through complex, subtle gestures.

Yesterday evening I had the chance to watch a very talented actor, Alan Alda, make an appearance to promote his recently published memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I was expecting something a little bit drab and dull, listening to some guy read from his book, but it turned out to be a very fun evening, thanks to Mr. Alda's lively and charismatic stage presence. For one thing, he didn't read from his book, but from himself, telling several stories about his recent near-death experience in Chile, his childhood with a touring burlesque troop, and the lessons and surprises of an actor's life. I don't know his work that well, but the audience seemed to adore him, and watching his engaging and amusing way of answering their questions, I could easily see why.

I think part of what makes an author's words leap off the page is the ability to communicate a gesture, an expression beyond words - a skilled actor can capture that gesture, transcend the words' specific meanings, and bring the expression to life. Mr. Alda talked about developing his ability to observe and read people, growing up with a mentally ill parent. He learned to rely on the subtler signals of his mother's behavior, beyond the words she spoke - not unlike Sacks' aphasic patient whose gestures elucidate the meanings of her gibberish speech. When we find someone fluent in those subtle gestures we can become entranced; it is like hearing someone recite poetry in a language we faintly remember knowing. Though we may have forgotten the grammar and syntax, we still understand and long to express ourselves in those silent motions.

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