Untitled (They Become Silent Again)

Leif Magne Tangen

Do so. Do it. Go in. Go on.
Go up. Go by us. If he be.
So we go. Am I to go? He is by me.
If we do so. Wo be to us. Lo! it’sup.

The First Reader,
author unknown.

The first question is: Who reads?

At a very young age, when children read cartoons, they might just as well be holding them upside down. The way they retrieve information makes no difference to them - no one has taught them right from wrong.

As we get older, we gain a sense of “how-to”. We start to understand the world in a coherent form of narrative grammar, with an identifiable subject in each sentence. Through this, we stimulate our own intelligence, creativity and critical thoughts, because we humans want to move beyond what is known to us (which could very well explain why the philosopher Arne Næss claims that it hurts to think[1] ).

However there are barriers which hinder us from succeeding in attaining the above. In order to break through these barriers, we need an input of sorts, something that makes us wake up and smell the coffee. This input can be physical (for instance, it was when Newton was resting underneath a tree that he was hit on the head by an apple, which inspired him to postulate his theory on universal gravity) or mental (psychoanalytic theory is rife with such examples). It can even be a discourse registered by any of the human senses. In the latter case, we note that the act of seeing is growing more prominent in today’s world. For instance, we are taught how to distinguish one colour from another at an early age. This applies as well in terms of our understanding of signs put together into a complex system.

Now, I know that not all of us are readers (you, my dear reader, are). There are those that only read letters that happen to arrive in their mailbox stating payment dues, or the subtitles of a film. These acts do not constitute reading. They just indicate a registration that has nothing to do with the world of reading. In other words, those who read are those that actually want something out of it, that are not afraid what the Zone might offer them (be it eternal life, happiness or otherwise) - because the Zone gives you what you really want, but which you are unaware of or do not want to admit to yourself. Readers are, in other words, dreamers who don’t know what they want.

The second question is: Who writes?

Who came first, the writer or the reader? I don’t know. What I do know is this: The human mind cannot rest; it cannot settle with being blissfully ignorant, with accepting the status quo. It needs to understand more all the time.

Reading, like writing, is a rather new way of learning. Prior to this, it was largely dependent on speaking. Speech is the base of all language based communication, so it must have preceded the written language. However, the question remains: was it the producer or the reader that wrote first? In order for successful technological development, it is not enough for someone to have a great idea. Rather, it is human relationships which drive us to struggle an implement a technique in our common system - even if it takes decades, sometimes centuries, to do so.

We all write, of course - letters, emails and text messages - but these do not constitute writing. A text is not a text until someone reads it. The act of writing is a solitary practice that never brings you closer to anyone or anything. Rather, it removes you from everything. Thinking removes you from wisdom and writing removes you from understanding. I believe the first reader must have been the first writer, simply because in order for such a technological development to take place, one must have the wish to use it in some way or another.

The third question is: Who speaks?

I come from a small group of islands out in the ocean, blessed with many fjords, but not that many roads. Before the ‘50s, there were no roads at all and even less people than today (now, there are 24,000 inhabitants; there might have been half this amount in earlier times). Back then, people lived isolated in different fjords or headlands; One family here, five or six families there. They all spoke the same language - Norwegian - but they developed different dialects. This division was more or less erased with the building of roads, and nowadays one can hardly separate one dialect from the other geographically. This is not strange because we all speak to one another and desire approval and comprehension; hence spoken language always precedes written language.

The exception is, of course, the case where the written language differs distinctly from the spoken one (i.e. parts of internet and short-message lingo). This will also happen more thoroughly and extensively in the decades to come. Parts of Europe that are non-English speaking will develop two languages: the Zu Hause language will be your mother tongue, whilst the working language will be English, in one variant or another. Will this weaken the language as such? I don’t know, but there will be a stronger influence on the Zu Hause language due to a high specialisation in the language you use at work - for instance, words will be invented as the techniques and systems they describe are developed. This is probably already very well known in parts of the world where masses of people are joined together in countries so large that the dialect of one person is not understood by another. It is like another language: vaguely familiar but not identifiable. In these cases, one isn’t able to differentiate words, and therefore unable to decode the message.

We all speak, in one way or another, just as babies strain themselves to understand and communicate with their surroundings. What does it mean to speak? Speaking has nothing to do with the mechanical movement of lips, tongue, teeth, hard and soft palates, uvula, larynx, lungs, and so on, in order to make sounds. One can even speak inside one’s own head. There is an element of truth in the saying that those who talk, those who form sentences that are meant to change the world, are the only ones who speak. All the others just float by in the current of daily life, without ever speaking. Maybe they do speak once in a while, in an attempt to unfurl the magnitude of something they have read, thought or experienced. Most will then notice that their words do not cover the ground that they want to cover, and they become silent again.

The fourth question is: Why write?

We all produce - that is the ghastly ordeal of being human. It’s an imperative that the human brain and body cannot escape. We have to learn, to wonder, to study, and to ask questions. Like sponges, we arrive in this world, and no matter where we are brought up, we soak up and learn the language or languages spoken to us. In his essay “Why I Write” , George Orwell claims that if one has to explain the way any person produces anything (and we all do), one must look into his or her emotional development.

He also claims there are four reasons why someone writes:
IV Political purpose
III Historical impulse
II Aesthetic enthusiasm
I Sheer egoism

He might be right in claiming that there are different and even rebelling forces within his schematic, and he rightly corrects himself later, stating that these four categories are not sufficient. Orwell claims this is because we don’t know why someone writes, it’s an enigma.

I believe more in an explanation akin to Aphex Twin’s : he produces the type of music that he himself wants to hear. Writing happens to be the prominent way of producing anything, because it is the most precise method of documentation we have in today’s world that is accessible to all.

Lets do a Gedankenexperiment . Let’s say that there is a certain amount of knowledge in the universe or in the human mind. Nothing less, nothing more. (I do not believe that we ever will discover everything there is). Let’s say that we humans have to discover this knowledge, the same way that we have discovered all the blank spots on our map. What’s the best way of passing on our knowledge? By documenting them. And what is, almost always, the best way of doing this? Writing, in one form or another. If we did not write things down, they would not be accessible to others.

The fifth, and most important question is: Why read?

This is a rhetorical question. Like medical doctors, anthropologists, researchers and others, artists need to read, because they need ‘objects’ to study in order to advance. Currently, these ‘objects’ have a wide range of subjects, and I am not going to try to identify them here. I would rather point out that these are important. These do not need to be “written in blood” as Zarathustra spoke, but it should have a certain relevance to the reader as such. There needs to be a common interest besides a common language. Also, it has to give a small shock to the reader, a little resistance in order to make the reader go on (but then again, if the gap between the reader and writer is too big, the reader will cease to be a reader). We need input; creativity does not develop out of a void. Interests have to be looked after and nourished, otherwise they perish in time. In other words, we need input in order to produce, but as Paul Rea once said: “Reading is a practice in itself”. I have to concur, maybe with a small change: “Reading is a production in itself”.

Appendix I: What to read?

Let’s say there are a library and a reader. This reader wants to, in her autistic euphoria, read all the books and prints - everything ever published. Nothing less. This is, in the physical universe we occupy, normally not possible (given a huge amount of volumes to read within a rather limited time frame). So there has to be a radical selection process. This problem is not easy to overcome, because each book that you pick up relates to one or several other books, and they again to others, and they might all just be interesting. In order to help a reader in conflicts like this, there might be something close to a natural law that one can trust: As much as, say, 85% of everything made, even written material, is deceitful. The last 15% might just be good. Trust this lie, and it will be easier to understand everything. Furthermore, we would have been told another lie that in earlier times it was much easier to “know everything” – and that the mass of production within every field, together with the ever-growing number of fields, makes it impossible to do something like this now. The quantum physicist David Deutsch combats this very elegant in his book The Fabric of Reality . He discriminates the word “known” and turns it in to understanding everything that is known. This is possible, he claims, because understanding does not depend on facts, but rather on “right concepts, explanations and theories.” This might be true for readers as well.

However the problem at hand is: How does one get an understanding of books never read? Will you gain a deeper and more intuitive understanding of a book not read? No, every book that is to be “understood” must be read. If the understanding of the book relates solely on secondhand information, this is not enough to get a sense of the micro-narrative following the book, even though it might be enough to understand the grand narrative. Deutsch’s Theory of Everything does not apply to the written production of, let’s say, Raymond Carver’s short stories and poem.

So what is there to do?

Well, all we can do is to keep on reading.

foot notes:
1. Rothenberg, David, Is It Painful to Think?: Conversations With Arne Naess by David Rothenberg The University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
2. Stalker (Russian: Сталкер) is a 1979, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
3. i.e. mother tongue. I think the German expression Zu Hause, that means “at home”, or just “home”, is more precise. It can easily be used in combination with other words. I doubt that the term “mother tongue” would be correct in this usage as the way we understand it, since here, we are talking about the usage of this language only within the four walls of the home.
4. First published: Gangrel. London. , 1946.
— ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. —, 1953.
— ‘England Your England and Other Essays’. —, 1953.
— ‘The Orwell Reader, Fiction, Essays, and Reportage’ — ,1956.
— ‘Collected Essays’. — 1961.
— ‘Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays’. —, 1965.
— ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. —, 1968.
5. Aphex Twin (Richard David James, born August 18, 1971 in Limerick, Ireland), claimed this in an interview with one of his fans in 1999.
6. In English: Thought experiment. Used to set up a imaginary situation to go though every possible reactions to this. One bases the results and conclusion on reflection rather then observation and/or physical experiments.
7. Deutsch, David, The fabric of reality, Penguin Books, 1997
8. Explained in depths by Deutsch as a theory based on four strands:
— quantum physics
— epistemology
— the theory of computation
— the theory of evolution
In short one could say that instead believing the modern myth that we are moving away from the state where one could understand everything, we are moving towards it as we have more theories that are more to be understood together, not alone. One theory is always replaced by a new one that explain more, easier. This way Deutsch means that we gain depth. “Depth is winning” he claims.

Against the Day, Stopping the Process?, All Tomorrow's Parties, The Man in the High Castle

Stack of books and glasses, 2007

2007 © Heman Chong