A friend recently read the new FAQ articles at Not Two, and offered this with his feedback:
“As much as you claim syntax and vernacular is a hindrance, I think you really, really LOVE language.”
It made me think…it’s definitely not untrue, but it’s a love-hate relationship that’s had many distinct phases, and anything but a clean, kiss-and-make-up resolution.
I was hyperlexic as a very young child, reading independently before I turned 3. I had a voracious appetite for the written word across all subjects. This was made all the more implausible by the fact that I had to battle through a lazy left eye and far-sightedness, which was detected because I was squinting at the words on the pages in my determination to read them. I’ve heard of children that age who have a magnetic attraction to certain musical instruments or sports equipment, and develop into prodigies in their fields –apparently I was like that with books.
But that started to change in first grade at my small, rural public school where most of my classmates were just learning the alphabet, a few even coming from French-speaking families learning English as a second language. The school’s plan for challenging me was giving me more of the same level of work, and having me sit at the front of the class and read to the other students. I learned to resent the way this isolated me from my peers when teachers put me on a pedestal for using language so well. My motivation became a desire to hide my gift and be “normal” so I could come down off the pedestal.
Later in childhood, this feeling was juxtaposed with the realization that my written language skills did not translate into ease with the spoken language. I never had much of a gift for gab, and I’ve always had some degree of trouble either listening or hearing people clearly when they speak. Whatever it is that produces the eloquence of a daft conversationalist or public speaker, I was lacking it in any comparable proportion to how I could write, as though they were completely unrelated skills drawing from different reservoirs of thought. The result was even more self-consciousness, this time for feeling dumb and clunky with the spoken word in contrast to the Boy Genius reputation I still carried.
By the time I reached the upperclass grades of high school in a different town, the pedestal was long gone, and my love of language all but dead. I never read nor wrote outside of school assignments. None of the sci-fi and fantasy staples of a budding intellectual life interested me at all. An entire formative phase of adolescent and young adult literature passed me by unnoticed, years of imaginative stimulation I can never get back.
Fitting in with the crowd was all that mattered, but in a cruel twist, the more I tried to define myself as something I wasn’t, the more isolated from the crowd I felt. It was around this time that I first remember the feeling of hating the sound of my own voice. But it really never was the voice itself; it was the constricted feeling of trying to use verbal language for self-expression. So I learned to hate language even more as I realized I couldn’t authentically reach or feel anything outside myself.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect, I consider what happened to me a pinpoint example of hyperindividualism (explored in detail in this series of articles at Not Two). A hard shell of self-conscious ego had grown around me, a prison made of words —definitions of the self that isolated me from what I wasn’t.
I got the sense that I wasn’t alone in being alone, that this was a cultural phenomenon and not just a personal defect, though my case may have been extreme. I recognized it, for instance, in the lyrics of Fugazi’s song “Styrofoam,” depicting a post-apocalyptic wasteland where all that seems to exist is the poison of hatred over our differences:
“There are no more races to be run.
There are no numbers left to be won
Everybody’s down, we pulled each other down
There never was a truth to be found
There are no more cultures left to slide
There are no more people to be tried
We’re in our minds, five billion pieces so defined
Read it in a book, it was underlined
We are all bigots so full of hatred
We release our poisons like styrofoam”
I credit two progressive-thinking English teachers in high school for planting the seed in me that would turn my life around and bring me back to my first love. The first, who I only remember as Mr. Wylie, assigned Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” to my junior year class; and as a senior, I had a Mr. Mulvey who introduced us to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” They were similar novels: dystopian in setting, with rich layers of allegory and a dark gallows’ humor. I remember a lot of gears turning as I read them, creaking back to life. I wanted more.
It was during my two years of college and the subsequent years after dropping out that I got back into the autodidactic groove of early childhood. Nothing I was assigned in college had a bit of impact, in fact my self-propelled studies began in spite of my assignments as an escape from them and the futility of learning anything useful from them.
Three authors, who all in their own way introduced new spiritual themes I’d never considered, stand out from this period: Robert Pirsig and his very familiar, triumphant roadtrip tale of overcoming a schizoid separation from his authentic self in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance;” Jack Kerouac, with the jazz-soaked anarchism of his experimental prose style in books like “On The Road” and “Visions of Cody,” and my introduction to Buddhism via “Dharma Bums;” and perhaps most significantly, J.D. Salinger, whose first-person prose style I imprinted more than anyone’s, who absolutely captivated my imagination in “Franny and Zooey” with his adept fusion of Christianity with the Eastern philosophies, particularly Advaita Vedanta.
What I learned to love from these writers was the quest for poetry —not rhyme and meter necessarily, but what Emily Dickinson meant when she said, “If I feel physically as though the top of my head were removed, I know it is poetry.” I associate it now with a kind of crown chakra-stimulating jnana yogic activity of the mind, in which metaphor is employed as a lever and the words activate something that points so far beyond the words themselves that it is almost literally mind-blowing. (“The Even Better News: An Avant-God Manifesto” includes more detail about this and the role of poetry in achieving it.)
With that hole blown open in the roof of the prison, so to speak, there is a place to escape, and look back at the shell as a place that is no longer confining; maybe a nice place to nestle when I need to, but I can always get out. That feeling used to be a rare treat, but now it’s a daily occurrence. So I’m grateful for that, and I have a deep abiding love for the language of poetry that makes it possible.
Ultimately of course, we will all have to leave that shell behind and never return. The prison of words will dissipate into the ethers of Consciousness when the body it gathered around does the same into the physical elements. I’m at peace with that now in a way that I never was before in my hyperindividualism, because it is a feeling I can simulate at any time. For there is another level of poetry (also detailed at “Even Better News”) that pulls us above the crown chakra into what the archangel Gabriel, in my novelette “The Continuing Story of Ananias and Sapphira,” called the “ultraviolet halo.” Here is the last step from the finite self into the Infinite. As “Even Better News” says,
“In the words of J.D. Salinger, a superlative poem may take us within an inch of our lives. We may be forever changed by the words, but we will live to tell the tale. The avant-God are aiming for another class of poetry that attempts to do the same, and then go the final inch. The aim is to snap the reader’s mind out of its finite, temporal confines and into awareness of the Infinite and Eternal. It aims for a sweet spot on the lever by which it can permanently dismantle any notion that we are separate from anyone or anything in the universe.”
That’s another story for another time. I just wanted to show that there is an “n-th level” to where even the finite meaning of language and words can take us.
So yes, I love language, but not entirely for its own sake, and maybe that’s why I’ve never been motivated to write commercially for the sake of being a writer. I have things to say that point way beyond the things I say, so I can’t be bothered to say things just for the sake of entertainment and perhaps a piddly side income. To accomplish what I want to do with writing, I have to go for broke.
I suppose I love language in the same way that an arsonist loves fire. It is his mode of expression, but not his motivation. He doesn’t use it for its own sake —he wants to see something burn. I want to fight fire with fire. I want to use language to burn down the prison of words we call selfhood.