Reading silently – stories, histories, explanations – we learn to move in a separate system. The habit is congenial, compulsive. The words speed up. The eye streaks ahead. The page turns while our sense of what came before is still falling into place. Other perceptions – a distant lawnmower, a smell of pastry – are crowded out. Soon the solid world is left behind. A spinning word machine has lifted off from the heavy surfaces of soil, cement and skin. Mind and body part company.
The damage begins.
"Creativity" is an accomplice. If everything we see in the world has its word, its name, we can also invent words for things we can't see: angels, souls, spirits, ghosts, God, paradise. This other realm exists, in words.
One of the words we invented was "self".
Using the words we know, insistently, in our heads, we create an entity and call it "self"; a creature with a past and a future, in much the same way that the sentences and stories we read have a beginning and an end. To reassure ourselves that it is really there we invented another word, identity. And another, character. And another, personality. The more words, the more it exists.
Self is a story existing in a web of words spun out of the mind.
Some people exploit this state of affairs to invent stories, writing down thousands on thousands of soundless signs, mimicking the way people construct their lives. Written narrative is intimately connected with the reader's mental construction of self. The more we think of life as narrative the more we dig our own plot. Narrative is self regarding...
...Foreign languages are unsettling. They remind us how arbitrary the mental world we live in is. Silence is worse. When we try to imagine consciousness without words, when we think of a day, even an hour, without any words in the head, we are overcome by a kind of vertigo. As when we think of death.
A chatter of books is an excellent thing. It reinforces the self, which is bound for the paradise we have invented for it, with words...
But inevitably, from time to time, it happens: some spoilsport grows dissatisfied with words. Words won't say what at some wordless level he feels. Words don't correspond to reality, for him. A writer who finds himself in this distress starts to interrupt the sacred sequences on which our language depends.
"Geb nodrap" apologises Beckett's Watt. "Nodrap, geb nodrap."
It is dangerous to do this kind of thing. Suddenly we see how precarious our world view is. We had been progressing nicely inside our word map; but the map wasn't the territory.
Why do writers do such antisocial things? Don't they have an investment in keeping the word machine in the air?
It can be a question of health. Using words so much, the writer begins to find them oppressive; not any word in particular, but the compulsive onward movement of words in the mind. He begins to fear that for all his ability, he is not in control.
Off it goes on, says the Unnameable.
...In 2005, I ran into a health problem that seemed to be walling me in for a life sentence of chronic pain. It took me two years to realise that at the heart of it, behind all the symptoms and treatments, was a collision between word and world. Now, like a fool, I've returned to my old word habit and told the story.
- Read an excerpt from Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks
- Robert Pinksy's review of the book from The New York Times, June 24, 2011