Are words things?
There’s a line somewhere in The Corrections where a character, an older man losing control of his abilities, thinks to himself that he will “require some cooperation from the world of objects.” This line has been ringing in my head ever since, partly because I feel that way myself and partly because I spend a lot of time thinking about the materiality of writing. Like, if words are things, if they have weight. I don’t mean weight figuratively, or in the sense of the weight of the ink on the paper or the screen. If I write the word “table” it’s not the same as an actual table. But I think it’s more than a representation of a table, or the suggestion of a table.
My people have some things to say about the materiality of words – according to mystic Judaism, god created the entire world from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is the kind of idea that gives writers a boner, but it’s not just a metaphor, I think. Or it is a metaphor, if we assume that metaphors imply actual transformation and not just symbolic. So when Michael Ondaatje says “My father’s body was a town of fear” he doesn’t mean “My father’s body is like/similar to a town of fear” but actually for real my father’s body is a town of fear. What are we meant to do with that information? Can we envision a body that’s also a town? Maybe not with our visual imagination, but maybe with our literary imagination. This is another sense, a sixth or seventh or whatever you want – the sense that allows us to perceive metaphor.
Words are to an extent just recollections of things, but they are also those things themselves, in the sense that they call things into existence rather than suggest them. I can’t put a book on a written table, but then again – I just did. I put a book on the table. In your head, that’s what I just did. This is the same mode in which the world is actually created out of letters. Of course, in the Franzen quote, the world of things is distinct from the world of letters – it’s an unwieldy world, resistant, unfriendly, ultimately uncooperative. But also a world that seems to have its own will.
Sumerian cuneiform writing was done with pointed reeds in soft clay. The words were negative space – they held shadows instead of casting them. I like this. I wonder what it would mean to write this way. But ancient Sumerian was pictographic – according to the internet, it was easy to talk about a fish or a broom, but more difficult to describe abstract concepts ‘like liberty or justice.’ It’s almost like the negative space of the pictographs fits around the positive space of the world of things. But for a writing that deals with abstraction, we need positive-space letters – black on white, foregrounded.
Also it’s come to my attention that I need more gifs on this blog.