The methods we use to express ourselves are as evocative as what it is we are trying to say. Doubtless, there is some mystery as to why some people ‘have’ to paint or write, and doubtless there are certain ideas that pertain better to various art forms.
As society’s ideas have progressed, so have many of the methods we use to express them; often these methods have become so accepted that we barely notice their implication.
Take recorded music: it is undeniable that the experience of listening to music being played by a person sitting in front of you is different from putting on a record – a definitive and finite version of song – and listening to it. When you play records, are you actually listening to music? You say you are, but what you are actually doing is listening to a recording of music. A ‘here is one I made earlier’. This disconnection does a lot of things, but to sum up over a century of its use, it basically makes pop stars. This may or may not be a bad thing – I could debate it either way. What I am making blind stabs in the dark at is the invisibility of this relatively new medium. Music is so much a part of our lives, yet the principal way in which we engage with it is removed from the thing itself.
When records were on vinyl they were an art form in themselves; one which utilised another art form to validate its existence. The vinyl and sleeves packaged and promoted the music so it could be distributed. But this was only the beginning. As recorded music has ‘progressed’ onto CD, then mp3, the actual physical thing that carries the music has all but disappeared from our consciousness. What is the difference between ridges on vinyl and a computer file? Or, more importantly, what does this difference mean?
The earliest form of writing, dating from about 9,000 years ago from the famous Mesopotatoeheads was in the form of carving. The content – as has been drummed into me by Radio 4 – was NOT poetry. It was about money and ownership (little change there then). But it is not primarily the content I am concerned with here.
In those early days of self-expression, in order to make a mark the writer negotiated with something that already existed. This initial act of writing was carving, a method that consisted in the removal of something from something else. Similar to sculpture, where a piece of stone can be said to ‘reveal’ the Madonna within it, early writing engaged with the world by manipulating objects.
Consider the actual physical act of carving and what it is expressive of: it is making an impact upon something else. Today, according to various psychologists, carving is associated with depression, but that is not really what I am getting at. Carving requires exertion, a physical effort, and surely the human instinct it reveals is one of struggle and enterprise. It is an interaction with the world in order to make sense.
Anyone who has ever done any painting will know that it is not the brushstrokes you make, but the brushes you leave out, which make an image. When you are making a painting, it is not the outlines of shapes that make the image make sense, but the space in between the objects and how they relate to each other that create the ‘truth’ of a picture.
This was evidently once true of writing, but not so any longer. Now when we write, we are adding to things. Sure, it is still the same contrast that allows a reader to make sense, but the writer is no longer writing into something, but writing onto it. Now we cover something up, in order to make a mark. I don’t think I need an extra metaphor to get across the intrinsic difference in intention that this reveals.
So what is the actual difference between the content and method of early writing – making an impact upon a surface to signify ownership and authority, and modern day writing – leisurely passing a pen over paper in order to find beauty and truth, or just making a shopping list? It is hard to tell, and as writing is now so widespread, no doubt in many circumstances it barely matters. Perhaps the only people it matters to are writers – once the most powerful people in a society and now a set of largely ignored and unsuccessful types. To consider argument, plot and execution for a writer is important, but perhaps more so is thinking about what exactly it is you are doing when you tap away at a keyboard and little black lines form at your will on the constant light of your Apple Mac.
P.S. I don’t want to let you leave with the impression that the content of early writing was in any way superior to what we do today. In fact, most of the oldest surviving texts concern the celebration of booze.
P. P.S. The Iron Age Celts didn’t ever write things down but passed on their knowledge, stories and poems by word of mouth. They were a highly sophisticated society and knew about the existence of writing, but preferred to learn everything by heart. I am not asserting the significance of this, only drawing a comparison with the method of learning used in British schools up until recently – parrot-style regurgitation. This method has largely been abandoned, but why? There is something to be said for knowing something off by heart, so that 70 years later you can still recite it word for word. Does this prompt a better understanding of the material? Or is it merely a glib ownership of the surface of something? Who knows.