Wednesday, February 11, 2015

the spoken world

An ancient midrash holds that when God pronounced our world ‘good,’ this implied that God had created and destroyed prior worlds, because how can you decide anything’s good without something that came before to compare it to.

            Of the third creation much has been written. That’s only fitting since the experiment continues to this day and has become self-referential.
But the first two. Of these, little has been recorded. Not for want of trying, but because whatever evidence there is exists only as inference or judgment. To study the first two creations is to map cobwebs. The strands break as soon as we try to trace them.
And yet we are drawn to this unending task. For us, these bewildering attempts hold the key to the already lived in, hand-me-down quality that inhabits our world along with us.

The first creation didn't last long. In the blink of an eye it lasted two million years.
            It came from a dream.
This is only fitting: the act of creation was an inadvertent, casual, unconscious thing.
            And then, quite suddenly, there was a world. Thousands of species unknown to us today existed in the limbo of this un-lived world and were consumed when the dreamer awoke.
            Destruction, of course, can never be complete. There is always a residue, some resin, ash, slag, grease, some slight afterimage like the shadows of things incinerated by the A-bomb blast in Hiroshima.
            Snowflakes are the primary evidence of the first creation. They are crystallized time, condemned to exist for a brief moment and then disappear into drifts or melt on a child's tongue. Also, a reminder of the millions of snuffed out voices can be heard today in the surging and singing of high tension power lines. From these melancholy remnants, we receive the news that the creator was a killer.

            The second creation lived an interesting life. It existed, as it were, backwards. The fundamental principal of this world was disorder and people accepted it. Everyone was born in various different ways, repeatedly, and all animals could understand each other.
            Rats were treated as creatures of distinction. Cows slept on their backs with their feet in the air. Dogs had not yet discovered campfires. Rolling stones gathered moss.
            The earth was smaller then, and you could get places without moving at all. Barnacles grew everywhere, spontaneously, so there was no point in trying to travel anyway. Everything was crusted over, immobile. As a result, the world was a fully imagined place.
            In the second creation, people lived according to no set principles. Murphy's law was the norm. In fact, everything went wrong all the time. People never got anywhere they wanted to go when they wanted to be there. And they never ever got what they wanted. But they didn't care. They had a great time doing it.
            Their pleasure in this unruliness and disorder created a massive disharmonious energy disturbance. Today we call this the big bang.
This charged pulse was made up of billions of voices undertaking quixotic individual acts of desperation – sounds spoken out of nowhere, messages without sender or receiver, and, indeed, with no message.
            Meaning was irrelevant. The important thing was the word, the syllable, the individual atom. There were contests, of course. One eloquent, sonorous, properly-placed word could mean respect, riches, or nothing at all. Talking was a game of chance.
            Each word disappeared as soon as it was spoken, not to be used again. New words were invented every minute. They seemed inexhaustible as forest fires, and consumed themselves just as quickly. Speaking at all was an act of planned obsolescence. The words burned brightly for a brief span, but as soon as they were replaced by new words, they died.
            In this way, to use a word was to challenge God, to engage in a spontaneous act of creation, definition and destruction.
            So words became fetish objects. To have a word and hold onto it for more than a few seconds – this was truly to have lived. There was no Everest, no Kilamanjaro, to match that height.
            A market sprang up. People who needed words could go to the bazaar. It was a place much like Times Square of old – a wondrous cacophony of barkers hawking adverbs, whole department stores dedicated to nouns, attics of pronouns, basements of verbs, presided over by small gray-haired men who guarded their inventories with specially trained Dobermans. Sometimes the merchants even slept with the words, but thefts were still common. Some people became addicts – and they thought nothing of killing for a new word.
            Those who could not afford the market prices bartered. They kept lists of their old words and met once a week or once a month or whenever necessary in the market to find new ones. Sometimes it was a one-for-one exchange. But at times when people were desperate, they'd give two, three, even four of their old words for one new one. Thus words became a commodity.
            At some point, though, an unheralded group of savants discovered a revolutionary sound, unmistakable in its meaning yet always new. Laughter never sounds the same – always a different texture, a different feeling, a varied timbre. Laughter alone escaped the commodity fetish and became the quintessential sound of the second creation.
            In time, the authorities (for there always is some authority, no matter how negligible) taxed laughter and its use declined.

            Today, we can find muted notes of the second creation in the phrases we use to indicate the difficulty of making anything mean something:
            "Words fail me." What does this mean? How can a word not succeed? "Words cannot describe." If they cannot describe, what can?
Our obsession with meaning has contributed greatly to the decline of our planet. We want everything to make sense, but can't make sense of it all.
My words don't behave themselves. I want them to stand in size order and let me marshal facts. But they move, they cheat, they bob and sway. I have to prop them up. I build scaffolding. I haul out enormous I-beams. I create infrastructure and superstructure. Yet still my words are sinking.
This spoken world is a leaky boat. We bail but can never bail fast enough. At some point, we will be overrun and slip into the lagoon, and then words, like weeds, will expand through the polluted estuary and choke us out.