Kathleen Ann Goonan
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"(Stanislaw) Lem suggests that it is within such realms of storiness that we live out individual and collective lives, using words to create reality as we go along . . . . there seems to be no escape from storiness. Telling/writing and hearing/reading tales seem to give us ourselves and guarantee that we exist." [1]


Language, Consciousness, and Literature

Language and its more permanent sister, literature, attest to the existence of that which we call consciousness in ourselves and in others. Literature springs from that ability which most defines us as humans:   language. Language could be said to be the truest indication and reflection of consciousness, since consciousness is shot through with and almost indivisible from language. Our innermost thoughts reverberate with unsaid words, fleeting fragments of supposition, memories, plans. Literature is consciousness rendered portable and transferable, a potent key to the nature of consciousness, its fellow traveler since the dawn of recorded thought. The origins of language, the use of symbols, and the flourishing of literature are intertwined in a single braid.

We are a communicative species. The very basis of our form of consciousness, our awareness of our own existence in time, is posited on feedback. For virtually all of us, much feedback is in the form of language, and we have developed ways to use even touch to decipher it.  

We are also storytellers. Our feedback is not limited to information about our immediate environment, like the biological feedback of microbes, bees, or even other mammals. Instead, our stories can be as precise and limited as records of crops harvested and taxed, or as emotionally complicated as a Shakespeare play. We all shape reality through narrative. The schoolchild tells her father what happened in kindergarten, fashioning a story, re-membering it, re-animating it, casting what may have been pure motion and pure thought into words, and at the same time finding out that her report becomes, in some measure, what actually happened--because what really happened is gone. Many stories are necessary to survival, as we are communal animals: it is important that we coordinate our efforts, and try to avoid coming to blows and sapping the resources of the community with physical recovery or with permanent loss of vital skills. Human history, and present-day politics, is a grievous record of what happens when speech fails, or when our stories are not rendered in a persuasive fashion. By externalizing our stories and recording them, we have been able to accumulate vast stores of information crucial to our survival as a species, and have virtually taken over the earth and its resources for our own use.  

Through sharing a system of meaning-packed symbols, humans have created cultures, civilizations, and sciences far too complex for any single one of us to remember or use in its entirety.

Once we acquired a certain facility with language, and particularly in creating a record of language, our rootedness and isolation in time was banished, or at least tremendously modified. Chunks of time--subjective time, at least, which Einstein showed is really the only kind of time--can be moved from mind to mind. We transform what is fleeting--verbalized thought--into a concrete object to which we can return again and again without loss or degradation of the original information, thereby making it possible to record edifices of complex reasoning. Moreover, we are able to combine these elements in an infinitely variable manner. It is this ability to signify, to modify the signals, to delight in their plasticity and rhythmic beauty, and to record them that sets us apart from the rest of the living world.  

Literature, though, is more self-aware than mere storytelling. It is a deliberate placing of word against word until there is an edifice of thought, an exercise almost impossible unless one has not only a symbolic system, but also the means to re-create and preserve symbols. Literature--from the Latin for "letter"--is external, communal consciousness, loosed from dependence on one frail biological entity and from that person's limited lifespan. It is representative of time lived--real or fictional--and has the power to free both the writer and the reader, if not from time itself, then from a limited sense of time. Memory--accessed by an object, a vision, a flavor--is explored, recast as empowering myth, a warning fable, a rich expansion of our own time to include a fictional other's sense of life; another's consciousness. We can invent as many new conjunctions of event and emotion as there are moments of awareness. This exploration of temporality--and our conquering of it, at least in some measure--is one of the most important aspects of literature. Utterly dependent upon time, we are biological orchestrations that fall apart when any one of billions of exquisitely timed biochemical interactions is disrupted. Our seeming freedom from this dependency when we use language to go forward, backwards, and sideways in the strange medium of time, space, and biology from which we spring, is the heart of literature's power. Literature is the conscious manipulation of metanarratives, and is arguably the art form closest to consciousness itself, as authors concern themselves with trying to represent the thoughts of their characters.

The sense of self is a sense of movement, a constant calculus, as Buckminster Fuller proclaimed when he stated, "I am a verb." Even when we do not move, as in sleep, we dream motion. Literature is like a dream in that the motion therein is also purely cerebral, and invites us into, and infuses us with, the temporal dreams of others. Some dreams we find so real, so compelling, so truthful, that we revere the dream and the dreamer, the book and the author, the tribal tale and the bard. In dreams, we live outside of time; the stuff of our lives is compressed, rearranged, by a facility which we do not seem to control. Literature gives us control of the image-and-thought-stream of life and our representations of life, our stories.

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1 Everman, Welch. "The Paper World: Science Fiction in the Postmodern Era." Postmodern Fiction, Larry McCaffrey, Editor. New York: Dial Press, 1969. 41.