“I’d like to sit down on a wooden chair,” she continued. “Not a concrete one or a metal one.”
“You can sit down on whatever kind of chair you like,” I said.
“I already have the chair in mind,” she said, “and I’m already sitting in it. It’s a wooden bench. You have a seat, too.”
“Alright,” I said.
As we walked, we sat on the wooden bench that we had imagined…. As she walked, she leaned back. “I’m leaning against the back of the bench,” she said.
—Yu Hua, Seventh Day.
On graduating from USM this past May, I found myself inundated with the typical questions of “what’s next?” “What are your job prospects?” “What are you doing with your degree?” Having graduated with a degree in English Literature, I settled on a self-effacing but truly avoidant response: “I’m now reading books!” Unfortunately, having invested such time, money, and commitment into learning how to read, I can’t seem to pick up a book without thinking “what, really, is the value of this book?” Or, more precisely, “why is the energy of this writer worth more to me than the movie I could watch, the play I could see, the painting I could look at, or the political rally I could attend?” The answer to these questions came, almost perfectly, in the passage above.
The scene takes place in Chinese author Yu Hua’s ( 余华) surreal landscape of the afterlife, or rather “the land of the unburied,” a threshold to eternal rest. In this place, not everything obeys the same laws that govern the living: faces can be rearranged, food can be tasted in the air (an homage, undoubtedly, to Neverland). Yet this moment in particular stood out to me because of the strange rebellion that it causes in my mind, each time I read it.
I want you to try something. Choose an object, a mug or book or laptop, and stare at it. Now, with your eyes still on it, imagine that it is not there. Does it disappear? No. Can you really see the space without the object? Not really. Yet, can you conceive of it not being there, even as it is there? Sure.
This is, simplified, the complicated task of the imagination we must complete in order to conceive of what happens in Hua’s passage. We cannot visualize the occurrence, because such an image cannot be captured by the visual, or any other, sense. I can’t even properly define what I believe is happening, but for the sake of this article, I’ll call it simultaneity. The characters exist in simultaneous events, both completely plausible and everyday, but both completely paradoxical and impossible when argued to happen at the same time.
I have wracked my brain, and I cannot think of a single movie, painting, or other medium that is capable of capturing simultaneity. When film attempts it, it usually takes the form of a cue for our own brains to revert to our imagination in order for the trick to work. But in the written word, simultaneity is easy to convey, as simple as inserting the phrase “at the same time.” Watch: “As Martin stared at his computer screen, the letters appeared to exist both in English script and Chinese characters at the same time.” Did you get that? (I’m interested in seeing if this concept is so easily communicated in the book’s original Chinese script, a hieroglyphic, and therefore, more image-oriented, text than English).
Hua highlights the importance of this notion being strictly language oriented, as he both describes it with his text (“as we walked we sat on the wooden bench”), and through vocalization (” ‘I’m already sitting on it,’ she said”). Derrida distinguishes these two modes, describing how “it seems as though the concept of writing… is beginning to go beyond the extension of language.” That is, that a profound difference between the uttered word and the written text exists (although precisely how that difference operates remains beyond me; tune in for my blog post about On Grammatology, coming when I’m smart enough to comprehend it!). However, where Derrida sees a Marxist hierarchical structure in the dominion of one mode of language over the other, I see only the strength and weaknesses of three variable forms of expression: the seen, the spoken, and the written. That is, I do not argue that text can adequately express all that voice can (and here I think of tonality, singing, accent), nor can it achieve all that the visual forms do (those emotions which cannot be verbalized). However, as we tentatively step into a world where the written word is no longer the primary communicator of complex creative ideas, I worry that we ignore those aspects of writing unique to the medium, at our own grave peril.
Simultaneity is not the only idea unique to language. Terry Tempest Williams beautifully describes how she is “liminal. A threshold. My body between worlds. This word returns me to my original state. ‘I am water, I am water.’ I am sea evolving to a consciousness that has pulled me upright.” Due to communicated, scientific knowledge, we know that on some level, what Williams is saying is literally true. She is made of water, even when she doesn’t appear to be. Try visualizing this idea, and you come up with some figurative or categorized image. The description allows the conceptual to exist without the visual cue. This sameness and difference is the basis of one of the most world-changing disputes in European memory. The Protestant Reformation is a split from the Catholic dogma on the basis of, among other things, the disagreement with the idea of transubstantiation, that the celebrated communion is somehow changed in its substance to something else. The dispute is largely a linguistic one; it debates over the quality of metaphor versus simile, of Jesus proclaiming the bread to be his body, rather than being like his body. Transubstantiation cannot be seen, or captured by any sense–except, perhaps, whatever type of sense you may call religious conviction.
Poetry seems to come more easily than prose to the dramatic impossibilities that words can convey. Perhaps it is because poetry is usually free–of plot, of conflict, of characters–that exploration of other domains in language is possible. In “Diving Into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich‘s narrator is “the mermaid whose dark hair/streams black, the merman in his armored body… I am she: I am he.” This is not necessarily an act of transvestism, or gender fluidity This is the dual gender of the Id, the animus and anima, the Janus figure, woman on one side, man on the other. This is pure concept, realized textually in a figure that cannot exist in the real world. Ruth Stone argues that “Words make the thoughts,” and these words are “A mirror of the mirror.” Frederick Seidel writes “I think I know you. I don’t think so,” and we all nod our heads, because we are not computer systems, we are humans, and contradiction is a product of our being just that. To Louise Gluck, poetry’s “fidelity is not to the world: it need not provide a replica of the outward, or of social relations.” In some sense, poetry is required, by its commitment to symbol, to metaphor, to gesture, to relation, to pay attention more so to what is only possible in language itself.
Finally, is this fascination of mine merely a semantic one, or does it have some real world value? I must, almost by default, argue the latter, though my inner voice is saying I have no proper answer. It has always been important for us to engage with the impossible, because it is precisely this that makes the impossible possible. It is simultaneity that drives “other worlds” theory in astrophysics. It was the impossible thought of a round earth that came before any human circumnavigated the world. Now, our existence is rife with contradictions, impossibilities, a galaxy of information that is meaningless when attempted to make sense of all at once. Maddee Terry wonders, in discussing the internet, “how do you touch a thought/how can you hold a memory?” Judge John Woolsey, in determining the censorship trial over James Joyce’s Ulysses, wrote about its capacity to capture the “ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions” of the conscious mind. Anthony Doerr, in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel All The Light We Cannot See, describes how a girl gone blind imagines the colors of all the people around her growing brighter, more extravagant, more vivid, more unchecked. It seems that every person in some way, regardless of politics, creed, education, or religion, wrestles ith the question of why we exist as humans. Isn’t the fundamental answer to explore the possibilities of a vast, near-infinite consciousness? Maybe that’s just one of many monumental tasks. Maybe another, as Anne Carson asks, is to swim in every ocean, “one by one or all at once, geographically or conceptually.” Go on. Imagine that. Conceptually swim in all oceans, at once. Tell me how it feels for you.