I’ve recently become friends with a guy who is a literary anthropologist. Let’s call him Ben, for argument’s sake; although that does also happen to be his name, coincidentally enough. And anyway, as you do, I have decided to have a go at reading his doctoral thesis, in my abundant spare time, as it were.
So, having survived the learning curve of reading the 36-page introduction to his thesis proper (and I only just survived, at that, believe me), I feel I’m now in a position to share some of what I have since learnt.
To begin with, it would seem the whole subject of literary anthropology is vexed by the paradoxical nature of its dependence on deferring to language to explain the origins of language itself. A fact that makes for a whole lot of self-reflexive logic loops along the lines of the Internet meme that asks, “If two mind readers read each other’s minds, would they just be reading their own mind?”
However, be that as it may, once this fundamental paradox is understood as a given, many other deeply intriguing ideas and theoretical concepts soon come to light. Ideas that are of deep interest, I would argue, to those of us who identify ourselves as writers and therefore as the frontline upholders and protectors of language, especially the written word.
Following on from this, the most fascinating concept I have yet met with in my reading is that of the “originary event”. And in my own words (later ratified by Ben himself) this idea can be explained thus: The originary event is not only when language first emerged (out of a kind of singularity-type event), but also when we first became human.
Simply put, we became human at the same moment language discovered us or vice versa. Words make us human. There is no understanding the human animal without language. The two are one.
And that’s what I love about being a writer, ultimately. I love that as writers we have made a craft out of the very thing that makes us human. We are true humanists in the most profoundest sense.
Sure, less romantic types might cite opposable thumbs as the great distinguishing attribute of our species, but, then, such people couldn’t make their point without the use of language, could they?
You see, in theory, most primates can use their thumbs to tap out a random tweet on a smartphone, but it takes the rare genius of a writer to fit the following into 140 characters or less
“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
QED. Have a banana, science nerds!