Writing is a form of thinking: I often don’t know what I think until I write it down – or, to put it another way, when I am writing I am thinking differently from when I am talking. The habit of literacy, the practice of writing sentences, writing prose and poetry shapes my thoughts as much as my thinking shapes what I write.
It isn’t so much a matter of where I get my ideas from, as where language takes my ideas. Ideas are inconceivable without language, but books to me are not so much about ideas as the medium of which they are made – language, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pauses, music, beginnings and endings, all these things.
Sometimes I re-read things I have written some time ago – especially longer and more complicated passages of non-fiction that involve argument and analysis of a growing number of ideas and positions – and I wonder how in the world I ever managed to come up with that. Writing, the act of writing, comes up with what we need when we do it.
In a very real sense, language precedes thinking, it is the mysterious system imparted to us from the beginning in a series of sounds our (hopefully) proud and doting parents and grandparents goo and gah over us, from that bloody and exhausting moment we emerge from our struggles to enter the world.
Of course, the last paragraph bears no relation to whatever the undifferentiated “I” was experiencing then and there as those sounds surrounded my bursting into the light. I was almost certainly bawling my own pre-verbal anger, rage and pain at the welcoming committee, who took this protest as a very encouraging sign of life.
The acquisition of language thereafter conferred upon me slowly over many years the gift I am exercising now, as I was initiated into the realm of literacy in the many schools I would enter on the road to adulthood. Whatever I thought of tracing rows of “o’s” and crossing “t’s” in my primary school years, the practice of writing has led me here.
This education was much more of course than just writing words: it was conferring on me the ability to shape my thoughts externally on paper and in the process, it changed my thinking about thinking, it changed my subjectivity. As I read more and more books and found certain of them appealed to me more than others, I developed as an individual in ways that are not possible to a person living in an entirely oral culture, dependent on the powers of memory to transmit knowledge: myth, religion, histories and ways of managing the material world.
The phenomenon of literacy changed the world of the medieval peasant in Western society from serf to citizen. The ability to read conferred by mass literacy – generated in the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages during the rise of Protestantism so that the individual could meet God in the Scriptures and not be chained to a Latin-chanting priesthood for God’s message – was the key to the later rise of secular education systems in the emerging nations of the nineteenth centuries, spawning the Industrial Revolution and its discontents.
From the seventeenth century onwards, Christian literacy was carried from the West to countries colonised by European powers; this happened partly as a result of Catholic evangelism and also religious revivals in England and the Continent. Reading and writing spread to many parts of the world where it was previously unknown.
This is not to justify or excuse the excesses and cruelties that went hand in hand with the conquest of those peoples in such territories, but it remains true that literacy changed their world and in the past 100 years has shown its continuing power, as they have “written back” and changed the story of the progress of empire.
The written word soon destabilises the spoken word of the chief and his priests. Once a tribe has books, their world expands and the intellectual universe changes. Increasingly for such colonised peoples, unless their languages are written down, their words begin to die as the colonising tongue takes over.
The agents of such translations are once again, the missionaries: with conversion as their aim, they work day and night to record the native tongue, creating orthographies and printing bibles for the mission schools. Every child that enters this new world is passing out of the pre-literate world of their ancestors – no matter how long the spoken language survives. Economic pressures in the societies created by colonial rulers transform power and prestige relationships.
The results of this are seen in many post-colonial realms today, where language revitalisation movements struggle to maintain indigenous languages almost extinguished by that of the historical coloniser. In other post-colonial realms (for example, India), a language such as English may remain embedded as the lingua franca amongst the diverse tongues of differing ethnic groups, and a link to the wider world for many of its citizens.
The common factor here is that literacy – both life giver and destroyer in this drama – changes not only the way we are, but the way we think. There is no way I could have said all this aloud, no way these thoughts could simply have emerged as speech. They are thinking as writing, writing as thinking.
You may not – you need not – agree with me, but shouting at the computer screen will have no effect whatsoever. You have to reply in writing, to which end a comments section is handily provided.
Ngahere School 1957, S2 to F2, I am in the second row up, second from left.