The Origins of Language

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Doren Robbins recently sent along a link to a half-hour television program entitled Descendants of the Imagination, produced and directed by his wife, Linda Janakos. This particular program features Stephen Kessler as well as Doren Robbins. The host of the program, Dennis Morton, has a voice with a timbre that mildly echoes Charley Rose and Bill Moyers, and he seems at ease in keeping the conversation moving along between readings of poems.

Morton asks them where they think poetry came from, and Kessler responds by quoting Merwin’s proposition that poetry started when humans acquired the ability to make use of consonants. The problem with Merwin’s conjecture is that it leaves out any sense of motive, either rational or irrational. If language is a form of displacement, it originates in the incredulity of dreams; specifically, the need to form consonants, as a modulating mechanism that could describe nocturnal consciousness, probably reached a crisis point when a woman encountered her dead mother in a dream, which was so palpably real that the only way to convey this knowledge to her companions was an utterance akin to lava pouring from a volcano: the living stuff of earth itself. When it cooled, we had vowels and consonants for the gardens of our languages.

Stephen Kessler’s comments on translation are particularly worth consideration. He argues that it’s a form of “impersonation” that involves a certain level of “forgery.” “I’m tricking the reader into believing it was originally written in English.” I suppose that one test of a translation would be to ask a fluent translator to look at a translated text and then without any reference to the original, translate it back into the original language. How close would the translator come in the reverse current?

At one point, Doren says that “When the cart stops, I am the man who whips the cart and not the ox.” Ah! A reversal that tricks me into believing it was originally thought of just now, for the first time, as indeed it was when he wrote those words. And yet there is something elusively timeless about that metaphor, as if it were the lesson that Job had learned after all of his suffering.