Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Hinterland

How do you write the history of something whose very nature consists of being unrecorded? How do you describe the pool of the unknown out of which the known is born?

"Once there are names, know that it is time to stop." — Lao Tzu

Every language, every utterance of our ancestors ten thousand years ago has been irretrievably lost. We can't even classify the languages they spoke, except to give them vague, conjectural, labels like "Proto-Nostratic." Nevertheless, every language we speak today is a direct lineal descendent of those lost systems of meaning.

"Mallarmé said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph" (Susan Sontag). In fact, we could equally well now say that everything, including every book and every photograph, exists in order to inhabit cyberspace. (How quickly the phrase "World Wide Web" has come to seem so limiting, so inadequate.) But what happens when signal becomes noise? Or is noise itself now the only signal?

What happens when texture is reduced to surface? Where is the unknown that we don't know is unknown? What sherds are we ploughing under?

According to one theory (Barry B. Powell), the Greek alphabet was invented, or rather adapted from its Semitic ancestor, precisely in order to record the Homeric epics. This is probably a minority view, but if not for that reason, then why? Why go to such trouble to invent something so sophisticated, just in order to scrawl graffiti and settle a few accounts?

The Mycenaeans had already developed at least one writing system (Linear B), but by Homer's time it had been forgotten, left for Ventris and Chadwick to decipher in the twentieth century. Nothing is more perishable than meaning. We congratulate ourselves for recovering the Epic of Gilgamesh from the sands of Mesopotamia, when in fact what we really have, as priceless as it is, is nothing but a husk.

Yet out of husks, strange transmutations are sometimes possible.

"Pienso en esos objetos, esas cajas, esos utensilios que aparecen a veces en graneros, cocinas y escondrijos, y cuyo uso ya nadie es capaz de explicar. Vanidad de creer que comprendemos las obras del tiempo: él entierra sus muertos y guarda las llaves. Sólo en sueños, en la poesía, en el juego ... nos asomamos a veces a lo que fuimos antes de ser esto que vaya a saber si somos." — Julio Cortázar, Rayuela


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