between our acting and our thinking

Think of the thousand nameless actions that fill the crevices of your day: modulating your voice to convey interest or disdain; tying your shoelaces; whipping up an omelette or flipping an accurate throw. These are the moves your body knows but would stumble over were you to try describing them. Yet it isn’t until these maneuvers make their way, however shyly, into speech that we can abstract from them and so bring them into the theater of thought.

Language falls between our acting and our thinking; but language itself has two layers, the spoken and the written. The permanence of writing has always made it the more valuable of the two for us, even at the cost of trading in slang for solemnity. Yet not quite always: the Greeks of that golden age had peculiar views, some of them based on the remarkable ability of their singers to know vast epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. Memory was often equated with knowledge, knowledge with wisdom — so that the external memory of texts (that repository of our culture, binding us to generations gone) must have been for them something like musical scores: you feel a bit let down when a concert pianist has to perform with one in front of him. Perhaps this was why Plato wrote dialogues: they were and were not to be taken at their word. Certainly he deliberately undermines his enterprise in one of them, for in the Phaedrus he has Socrates argue that writing will cause forgetfulness and give only the semblance of truth. This may also be why that earlier philosopher, Heraclitus, made his aphorisms short and perplexing, and why in fact the Greeks invented irony, where you mean only some of what you say but don’t say most of what you mean.

New words are always frisking about us like puppies — one month people go ‘ballistic’ and the next ‘postal’ — but few settle in companionably over the years and fewer still reach that venerable state where we can’t imagine never having been able to whistle them up, there at our bidding. And ideas, large and small: where was flower power fifty years ago — and where is it now? With what fear, fascination and loathing Freudian doctrine slowly took hold and became the canon — and how quickly it all fell apart: who now have complexes, or cathect their libidos onto father-figures?

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