On Writing

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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  Bronze of Frank's writing hand by Mark Rossi

 

                 WORDS
 
               by
 
                  Frank Waters
 

        When Dr. J. Golden Taylor informed me that the Governing Board of the Western Literature Association wished to appoint me as an Honorary Life Member in the Association, I was beset with some qualms.  If I now accept this honor, more gratefully than gracefully I'm afraid, it is because it has forced me to attempt to account for my reservations.

        For after having been a professional writer for many years, I'm just beginning to realize what a dangerous game I have been so inadequately playing in writing words, and more words about words, and still more words about words written by others about words.  I question my own assent to becoming a life member in a literary association unless I realign my sights on what must surely be the common aim of us all.

        This writing, criticizing, reviewing, lecturing -- this hawking of words, to put it crudely -- is more than a craft whose products occasionally achieve the dimensions of art.  It is a magic, as often black as white.  And so I feel like a sorcerer's apprentice who, after mastering a few little tricks, views with trepidation his initiation into the esoteric mysteries of the trade.

        To the black race of Africa the word was a sacred and powerful magic.  Janheinz Jahn defines it by the Bantu word Nommo as the vital force that gave life to everything through the power of the word.  The Bantus believed that conception and birth were not sufficient to produce a human being, a Muntu.  The new-born child remained simply a "thing", a Kintu like animals, plants, and stones, until he was designated with a name.  So too the life-forces in all things were freed only through the power of the word which could be conjured by man.  No crops would grow, no wood-carving could take proper shape, unless called forth by the word.

        Black Africa below the Sahara, about which we yet know so little, did not develop a written language.  It relied upon the audible language of the drum, a communication medium subtle, swift, and far-carrying.  This was expressed not by a Morse code of sorts as we commonly suppose, but by a complex system of pitch, tonality, modulation, and rhythm.  The "Divine Drummer" was trained from childhood on the specially prepared drums, and was accorded the highest privileges of tribal rank.  He possessed the magic power of the word.

        The brown and yellow races of Asia believed, as did the black race of Africa, that the whole universe was penetrated by a common and unlimited life force.  Out of this emerged those limited individual entities of our temporal world when given form, Rupa, and defined by name or word, Nama.  The word was a Mantra, a "tool for thinking"; its sound called forth its content into a state of reality.  Hence there developed in India a system of Mantra Yoga; and in Tibet not only the word but every letter in the alphabet was a sacred symbol.
 
        This impersonal spirit of life the red race of the Americas called by various tribal names such as Orenda by the Iroquois, Wakan by the Sioux, and Huaca by the Incas.  From its revelations through dreams and visions, warriors, mountains, and rivers derived their ceremonial names.  The words imbued power, and were seldom spoken.

        "In the Beginning was the Word."  So begins the Gospel of St. John in the Judaic-Christian Bible of the white race.  The Word with which all Became.  Whatever it expressed came to pass:  deeds, acts, worlds.  The birth of language was the birth of humanity.

        We explain this in our scientific terminology as the transition of percepts, or registrations of bodily sense impressions, into generalized or common recepts as mankind emerged into simple consciousness.  Then the work of accumulation began on a higher plane.  Hundreds of recepts were combined into a composite concept, a word, a name, which like an algebraic sign stood for the thing itself.  Henceforth self-conscious man took possession of the world with the word.

        Indo-European dominance of the world in modern times is of course a remarkable phenomenon.  Its languages, particularly English, reflect our materialistic ideology.  The early reverence for the sacred magic of the word gave way to the compulsion to practical economics.

        The French ethnographer Levi Strauss asserts that the rise of handwriting was immediately related to the establishment of cities and empires, the organization of men into political systems, and the formation of classes and castes.  Its main function was to make possible the enslavement of man rather than the enlightenment of man.

        In Africa, European colonialism took over, beginning the exportation of up to a million slaves a year.  The acoustical phonetic language of the drum was abolished by law and replaced with a foreign optical script, rupturing traditional thought-forms.

        European domination of America followed the same procedure.  The usurpation of lands from American Indians and the virtual extermination of tribe after tribe was largely accomplished with the use of the word as an economic weapon.  So-called "Treaty Chiefs" or "Whiskey Chiefs" appointed by government land commissioners were induced with whiskey to sign treaties giving up their tribal lands.  Yet even then the government's word in treaties drawn for "as long as the grass shall grow" was violated as a matter of economic expediency so that the pitiful remnants of the great tribes could be deported and dispossessed again and again -- as was the Delaware tribe, five times.

        The helpless Indians observed simply, "White men speak from the head, not the heart."

        We too are aware of our own duplicity.  If any people have the gift of gab, it is we.  Our language reflects it.  We speak with split tongues; our tongues wag on both ends; we double-talk, smooth-talk, sweet-talk.

        And so today English-speaking America, the culminating apex of Indo-European civilization, dominates the world with the materialistic ideology reflected by its language.  There is no doubt as to the magic of its power.  But we must question whether it is a black magic we are practicing and perpetuating.

        Now I don't want to drum out too blatantly a theme obvious to us all.  Especially on this eve of national elections when every candidate poses as all things to all people.  Ben Jonson long ago expressed it succinctly:  "Language most shows a man; speak that I may know thee."

        We have only to read the advertisements which comprise sixty percent or more of the column-inches of every newspaper.  To listen to the radio and TV commercials, to the stock-market quotations which take up a third of all news reports for the simple reason we are not as interested in what is happening throughout the world as we are in how the events are influencing the New York Exchange.  The Village Crier, the Divine Drummer, has been replaced with the Madison Avenue spokesman for the nation.  How clever and omnipotent he is!  To a bar of soap he imputes emotional properties, our physical desires, sexual imagery.  And diplomatic gobbledygook seems dedicated to expanding our foreign markets for it.

        Little wonder that Semetic, Russian, Chinese, African, and other peoples are mystified by our view of the world as no more than a business arena.  Their own languages impose upon them far different views.  As Edward Sapir says:  "Human beings do not live in the objective world alone . . . but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society . . . .  The 'real world' is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group."

        That the picture of the universe differs in different languages, and that our very manner of thinking depends on language, Benjamin Lee Whorf called the principle of linguistic relativity.  "The linguistic system of each language is not merely a reproducing instrument for voicing ideas, but is itself a shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's thinking," he asserts.  "The concepts of time and matter aren't given in the same form by experience to all men, but depend upon the nature of the language through which they have been developed . . . .  Newtonian time and matter are no intuitions.  They are recepts from culture and language.  That is where Newton got them."

        The Word with which we Became.  We are not only saying what we are; we are what we are saying.

        Whorf, a great linguist, studied not only Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Russian.  His special field was the Amerindian languages:  Aztec, Mayan, Sawnee, and particularly Hopi.  He concluded that there are no "primitive"  languages; many of them so-called, functioned on a higher plane of rationality than those of civilized men, the African and American Indian languages far out-distancing the European languages in their logical discriminations of causation, dynamic quality, and directness of experience.

        Like most American Indian languages, Hopi sentences are not divided into subjects and predicates.  In English we say, "the light flashed."  "Light" is the subject, "flash" the predicate.  The Hopi says simply, "Rehpi" -- "flash" for the entire phenomenon.  For what is it but the light and the flash combined, synonymous subject and verb?  "English compared to Hopi", says Whorf, "is like a bludgeon compared to a rapier."

        The language of the Chichewa, related to that of the Zulu in Africa, has two past tenses:  one for past events influencing the present, and one for past events without present results.  A past objectively recorded in external situations, as distinguished from a past subjectively recorded only in the psyche.  This subtle difference, not made in English, presents a view of time different from ours.

        A far different view is seen by the Hopis in Arizona.  I have been particularly interested in this tribe, as you know, and have written at some length about its beliefs.  Hence I don't want to risk boring you with repetitious observations.  Let me recall to you only that the Hopi language does not have our three-tense system of past, present, future.  Time to the Hopis is not a flowing horizontal stream, but a deep still pool of duration holding all that has been and will be -- as does the unconscious.  So in Hopi there is no time and space, no velocity, no kinematic action; only intensity, a factor we do not include in English.

        Clyde Kluckhohn, the eminent anthropologist who studied the Navahos extensively, reached similar conclusions.  English and Navaho operate in different worlds.  One must know the Navaho linguistic structure to know the Navaho world view.

        If these Navaho, Hopi, and indeed all American Indian pictures of the universe seem to us abstract, metaphysical, and incomprehensible, how much more so are those of the great philosophical-religious systems of the Far East.

        There are no English equivalents for the Sanskrit words Sat, Chit, and Ananda, which can be roughly taken to mean "Being", "Consciousness", and "Bliss".  These are said to be the three predicables or attributes of the one infinite life-force and consciousness embodying to some degree all finite entities in nature, and which corresponds to the Nommo of the Bantu and the Orenda of the Iroquois.

        We do not admit the existence of such an infinite conscious power functioning in finite stones, trees, and animals, in ourselves.  Consciousness to us is only the wakeful consciousness of the individual human mind, whether it operates as a function of the physical organ of the brain, or independently.

        But to the peoples of India, Tibet, China, and Japan our consciousness is unconscious.  For consciousness is an observer, a cognizer, a knower of that beyond itself; it is a subject requiring an object to be known.  Within a greatly restricted finite field it so functions.  But as this field of perception necessarily expands, our limited personal consciousness becomes helpless.  Unable to know its limitations, or itself, it becomes the object of Chit, the one infinite consciousness which is the ultimate subject and supreme knower.

        From this original source derives the word, reflected in turn through mind and thought.  But with this we get into deep water far beyond the sounding of these casual comments.

        So there are great differences between the conceptions of the inner and the outer universe of man held by Western psychologists and Eastern metaphysicists.  We here do not seem too eager to reconcile them.  As Levi Strauss suggests, we are too engrossed in employing words for the purpose of economically enslaving rather than enlightening man.  The early reverence for the word as the focus of energy and embodiment of the spirit is forgotten.  And with the constant barrage of words indiscriminately hurled at the public through all possible mass media, Western culture and language has reached, in Whorf's opinion, a dead end whose name is Babel.

        Is it foreseeable that we will succeed in enforcing our language on all the rest of the world, and with it our limited, objective and economic view of nature and the universe?

        Or do we have a capacity for growth large enough to encompass the abstract and subjective views of the outer and inner universes of man as reflected by the languages of other peoples and cultures?

        Nebulous as these brief comments here may sound, I hope their intent at least may be pertinent to the members of a society whose stock in trade is words.  The function of the Western Literature Association is, I take it, to encourage the development of literature in and of the American West.  And literature, if we accept Webster's definition, is writings distinguished from works merely technical or erudite, and from journalistic and other ephemeral literary writings.

        This is a tall order for a comparatively new organization whose major sphere of interest is one section of the country.  Yet there is no cause for us to sit uneasy in the saddle.  Certainly this vast heartland of a continent can boast of a long tradition of Literature with a capital "L".  The ritual prayers, recitations, chants, songs, and poetry of the Navahos and Apaches, the Zunis, Hopis, and other Pueblo Indian tribes are belles lettres by the highest standards.  Even though they are now relegated to dusty shelves of Smithsonian reports, they still preserve the magic power of the word.

        More and more modern literature will come, is already coming, as we raise our sights to it.  But it will not be produced by a promulgation of concepts limited to our present, generally accepted view of the world.  We can no longer keep concocting mechanical tales of stereotyped Redskins, Cowboys, Bad Men, and Pioneers for the avid consumption of Eastern readers and Hollywood agents.  What excuse is there for seriously reviewing such books simply because they are new?  Nor can we afford the time to constantly rehash in academic treatises outworn historical documents, squabble about obscurely written paragraphs, append lengthy footnotes to chance phrases.  We have better work to do.

        The past and the future lie in the ever-living now.  Whatever there is anywhere, everywhere, is right here at our hand.  The immortal verities of time, space, and nature still assert themselves.  Even though the mighty waters of the Colorado and the Rio Grande no longer reach the sea, the flow of the spirit can never be damned.

        I have the distinctly uneasy feeling that the many uninformed pages of words I have written, and the brief words I am speaking now, may in some measure contribute more to our general confusion than to our enlightenment.  Yet I hope that I will not in the future sell short the golden coins of our realm.  I would like to bite them between the teeth, ring each one on the hard pavement of reality, and make sure that their exchange purchases to the last cent their ultimate worth.

        Words, words, words!  Each has shape and color, sound and fragrance, a music and a meaning, all its own.  How sharp and curt they are, how long and alliterative, how melodious and mysterious!  They roll like the drum-thunder of hoofs from off the horizon, they swoop down like hawks to rend with bared talons; they purr from firelit pages, smooth the wrinkles from sleepless nights.  But ever they speak as foci for unmeasured power with the mystery of their divine origin.

        The same old words but words which still can be conjured as vital expressions of universal human experience if we are magicians adept enough to recognize their original sacredness and potent energy.  Words whose power, by our more judicious use, can remake us into better images of what we really are.
 

*(This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Western Literature
   Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in October 1968.)

 

 

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