... but I stopped. Now I'm a dad, and may blog again...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

416: A Napple

Pomme de Terre; apple of the Earth. I have been racking my brains trying to find a starting point for a passage I want to write in my novel. One of the characters is a one-year old girl, and I want to explore the limitations of thought and language as experienced by a baby, i.e. someone with no (or very little language) and no understanding of what anything is or what it's for. A baby may have a vague concept of what its mother is, but is its definition based on the mother's direct functions? For example we understand the concept of mother to be related to caring for a child, but also having given birth to that child. How much of this would the baby understand? Would it define its mother as being warm milk-provider with appealing face? And then to extend that, how would it comprehend the concepts of warmth, milk, providing, appealing, and face.

Apple of the Earth is the first (and so-far only) example of the kind of language I am struggling to find. Using two already existing ideas to explain and name a new thing, the potato. There must be hundreds of other examples, tin birds or something... I'm not just talking about metaphor, although I suppose that is the essence. What I am really after is a more primitive way of naming now thoughts, objects and ideas. Imagine almost everything is new, including your undeveloped ability to think and make sounds. How would you name a car? Is it mother's car, are you inside it or outside, is it moving or still, is this the only one you've ever seen, have you seen them before but this is your first time inside, does it only ever convey you to one place or have you been to various places in it, do you sleep inside it? What a challenge this will be.

I bought a book four years ago called I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume. The start of the book tells of the cat's earliest experiences of life and of human activity. The cat has a limited knowledge and language and has to explain things using ideas it has understanding of. However this is done really badly; sorry to criticise one of Japan's most important novelists, but my first impressions were that it was shit. Obviously I only read the translation, and had I the ability to read the original Japanese I may think otherwise. The problem I have is that the new-born kitten doesn't know what humans are initially, yet it knows it is different to itself; it doesn't know what smoking is, but understands what tobacco and burning are; doesn't know that some humans have bald faces but does know what a kettle is; doesn't know what being picked up is, but does understand floating, air and palms... It also appears to understand concepts such as speed, mother, baskets, brothers, value, shelter, pain, theft, brightness, softness, prickliness and bamboo, to name only a few.

These myriad faults were too much for me and, disappointed, I gave up after only a few pages never to read on. I suspect I was being unfair on poor Soseki, but having recently read Yasunari Kawabata's unbelievably brilliant Palm-of-the-Hand Stories I was massively spoilt in my expectations of Japanese literature. Anyway, that's got nothing to do with what I was originally talking about. When I picked up I Am a Cat I was hoping for observations of cat and human life told using concepts that a cat might be familiar with, however I felt the cat was using way too many human ideas and points of reference.

Ah ha, I am getting somewhere in my brainstorming (that's what I'm trying to do here: brainstorm, so that I can start working on the baby's first person observations) – points, or frames, of reference is the idea I was grasping for. "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him," is the famous (much misunderstood by Karl Pilkington: "Even if he's English?") quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, meaning that its points of reference, its comprehension of the world would be so diverse from our own that even with a common language we could not communicate. What would be the points of reference be for a tiny little child. I don't know.

Plenty for me to think about there. If you have any thoughts, hints, tips, suggestions, reading lists, or owt like that, please comment. Particularly interested in any languages that use a lot of literal natural metaphor to describe new things the speakers encounter... Anyway, I'm for a long think.

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