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“Inch worms across vast silences”

Anne Dalke's picture
For the past five years or so, I’ve been encouraging my students to make mistakes publicly, where they can be corrected, --a great method for learning new things.

Learning a new language here is a daily, concrete (and to me often excruciating—I do like being right!) application of this principle of the need to be—and usefulness of being--publicly, and repeatedly, wrong. I’m very slowly getting the hang of just saying what I know (always so limited, so inadequate for what I want to be saying…). I get great pleasure from taking the time to write out long stories (in fairly simple sentences!) about my experiences of visiting Lake Atitlan or climbing the Hill of the Cross; what’s far harder is engaging in on-the-spot dialogue, the give-and-take of wanting to say/not having the words to speak. One thing I’ve learned is how very much can be said without words; so much of our exchanges w/ one another can be conveyed by gestures, or involve the expected (“do you want a bag for that?”) that it doesn’t really matter @ all what is being said.

But then what is the point of all the words? (Here’s an amazing line from the Asturias collection of stories: “Words. Few. Very few. Inch worms across vast silences. After all that had happened.”)

In the Popul Vuh, one reason the gods keep trying out (and throwing out!) new versions of human beings is that they have a “desire for articulate human speech.…Not only that, but they want to hear their own names and praises.” So an early version of humans, which can only hum and rustle, is replaced by a later one, capable only of moans and cries. Eventually the gods are able to generate beings who can worship them. Is that what we are looking for, as we emerge into language? A means of praising/exchanging praise for one another?

I participated for several years in a Working Group on Language @ Bryn Mawr, and one of the key ideas I learned there was the notion that we use language, not to convey information, but to solicit feedback from others; not to tell them what we know, but to learn what we don’t. This notion evolves from the analysis of linguists that what we say is never heard transparently, but rather always as a poor translation of what we mean. The stages of transmission are many: from what we feel, to what we think, to what we say; from what we say, to what we are heard to be saying; from what is heard, to what is thought, to what is felt by the one w/ whom we are speaking….

So, in many ways, my writing exercises and speaking lessons here are metaphors for the larger process of our telling one another stories of our experiences, and never-never-never quite getting it….