Saturday, June 09, 2007

Snow, Cement, and Ivory Young Towers (1)

Some eons ago mankind spoke one language. One may differ on which root language that was and whether the several “branch” languages were the result of geographic isolation after tribal migrations or the result of divine intervention into human hubris at—you guessed it—The Tower of Babel. It is interesting and instructive to note that modern linguistic science points rather decisively to a “Mother Tongue” for humanity and that a quorum of historical traditions and religions do so as well. So let us refer back, if we may, to our favorite Neolithic ancestor, Cousin Og. (2)

Good Cousin Og is sitting in his mud hut one day when the local leader walks up to him and says, “Hey buddy, can you make bricks?” Or one imagines such an exchange taking place (Cousin Og is a bit fuzzy on the conversation now, seeing as he is 10,000 years old and his memory is not quite what it used to be). The point being that by this time in human history, it seems we could all communicate with each other in one, unified language—Let’s call this language "Basic Rock." (3) Anyway, the request is made and appropriations allocated for another public works construction project.

So make bricks they do and up goes a tower. Now the story gets tangled a bit, but it appears their prehistoric intent was to (literally and metaphorically) build a tower so high that the locals could poke a stick into God’s eye. The Hucklebberry Legal Team tells me that I must warn you not to try this at home. Such impertinence is likely to anger deities from any and all religious traditions that I am aware of and—if you are an atheist—it makes you look like a jerk anyway.

You know how the story ends. Cut to the present day and we now have six-billion people in the world (more or less) who speak a couple-hundred different languages and one is left to wonder what could be accomplished if that were not the case.

Now, this author is a professional communicator by trade and I can assure you that I am the only one on the planet who speaks clearly, concisely, effectively, and correctly. If you do not understand me, then there is something wrong with you.

My point is that I would tend to argue that what we really have today are six-billion-odd humans speaking six-billion-odd dialects of a couple hundred languages. I speak, well, "Huckleberry English" and you speak "Whatever-English." Some words, concepts, inflections, and idiomatic expressions hold subtly different “meaning" for you than they do for me. I am reminded daily of the difficulties of being understood experienced by family members and close associates, let alone co-workers and complete strangers. Even people related by blood and raised in the same households come to each conversation with their own completely unique set of agendas, biases, conceptions, and linguistic relationships that compound the burden of clear intent. It is a wonder that we can understand each other at all. Communication is hard!

But did the pre-Babel folks have a more perfect system? Did they literally speak with the tongues of angels and understand each other perfectly? If so, I am jealous and would gladly trade my Ipod and plasma screen TV for a few happy days in mutual comprehensive bliss. That local leader who recruited Cousin Og to make bricks may have been able to communicate the request with a level of purpose, precision, and brevity that would astound us (please avoid the temptation at this point to contrast such linguistic efficiency with this blog entry). Imagine, a few words that not only communicated the desire to have bricks made, but detailed their composition, physical dimensions, method of construction, where they needed to go, and--perhaps--even their purpose and reason better than any set of architectural drawings. Cousin Og would have related to him the completeness of meaning distilled down to its most efficient form.

This idea of Babel and it's antecedent potentially "prefect" communication has stimulated many thoughts on my part and I have started referring to this concept as "singularity of meaning" (the irony of ‘Ol Huck venturing to coin a term in an attempt to define this is not lost on me). It is, if you will, the natural horizon of communications--the vanishing point at which the injection of one additional word, inflection, pause, or guttural sound would add nothing to the understanding. Conversely, the removal of any single element would bring loss. Unfortunately, this may be unattainable for us today. For us it is a mathematical limit--like the speed of light. With great effort and energy we can approach it ever closer, but we can never reach that pinnacle of meaning singularity. Ah, but the effort has given us some wonderful art, has it not?

On the more mushy side on the concept is the notion of the tortured artist--being so tortured by his or her inability to properly or fully express the desired "meaning." Just like an infant fusses at times due to his inability to communicate the specificity of his wants and needs, the artist storms about in frustration at the inadequacy of his medium, vocabulary, and talent to express the intended meaning. Thus art is often described as being "felt" and we defer to our "sense" of it.

Taken to its edges, one may find perfect communication--perfect language--to therefore define perfect art. But this is a bit of a digression. For the moment let's turn our attention to the concept of "
language as repression" and step in to gently correct Sigmund Freud by suggesting that language is better understood as not the point of repression, but rather the point of limitation (not the same thing). Repression may be thought of as the internalized result of our frustration at our limitations. Repression is the humanistic and flawed response of man (the spoiled and frustrated child) straining at his/her own limits. That which we cannot express en veritas toto we either repress, transfer, or act out upon unproductively.

Returning to the singularity of meaning, we discover then that there is one more example that begs our address--Epiphany. Epiphany is the rare moment when meaning crystallizes for us in a brilliant flash of comprehension. We rush about looking for a note pad because even the act of starting up our computer would take too long. The "meaning" and comprehension are flying by us and we get but a glimpse of it. We are then limited by our ability to record such moments effectively and, ultimately, some portion of each Epiphany is lost to us every time.

Who could communicate so quickly, beautifully, and with such full and complete meaning....standing, if you will, at the point of singularity the speed of light? It is only God who speaks in such ways and can do no less.

Be well,

(1) First line of the song “Tower of Babel” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, from the album “

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” 1975. This post has nothing to do with the religio-phobic and self-aggrandized homosexual diaspora intended by the song—but it is a solid cultural reference point for “Babel.”
(2) Yes, I know that I have referred to Cousin Og in previous posts as “Paleolithic.” He called me last week from his condo in South Boca to correct me and remind me that he is “not THAT old.”
(3) I stand on the shoulders of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks (
2000 Year Old Man)
* The graphic used in this post is that of a woodcut image by M. C. Esher titled “Tower of Babel

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