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It's an odd thing for a poet to say, but I think literary theorists put too much emphasis on language. Axioms of post-modernism —for instance, that there is no one human arc of progress, no one human story; that literature is a set of interactive texts experienced differently by different people —well, I know they were a necessary corrective to various lines of imperialist and modernist thought, but for me they have outlived their usefulness.

"Language" in the more extreme theories becomes a huge transmission grid that exists independently of any individual user. The writer puts something in —a poem, a story. Someone else takes something out. There's no strong, necessary correlation between the two.

Except that's not how we experience a conversation or a poem. The communications is felt to be necessary and impossible to avoid. Just as it is impossible to wilfully misunderstand a sentence in a familiar language, a reader can't help but feel there is something the writer intends her to understand, something that the reader wants to understand. Whatever in the way of time or space stands between reader and writer, and whatever media we use to encode the language, we persist in feeling that language occurs between two willing individuals.


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I suspect literary theory owes more than we realize to out-of-date brain science. It was an axiom of behaviourism in the mid-20th century that the brain was a 'black box.' Something (stimulus) goes in, something (response) comes out, but there is no way of knowing what happens inside. The processing is unique to each individual.

Cognitive science in the past two decades has refuted this picture. It is increasingly apparent that human brains are very similar, and that very specific circuits inside them are needed. The tasks we are fitted to perform well —such as recognizing patterns and perhaps finding more pattern than actually exists in the world —are those that were needed for our species to survive.

Consciousness is not the pinnacle of evolution, say cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio; it's a basic platform we share with fellow humans. Not only that, but consciousness also exists along a continuum that links us to other creatures. It's not sentimental anthropomorphism that makes us insist that the dog is a conscious being.

And language is not the whole of thought. A great deal goes on in our brains that never takes the shape of language, hard as that nattering faculty is to get away from. I have some intuition of what these other modes are when I'm watching a baby watch a mobile over its crib, or fleetingly when I'm staring at the new green of leaves.

For a poet, why should this matter? After all, my art form only exists in language. I spend my time studying the quality of words —their sounds and the subtle echoing of their footsteps. However, although poetry takes place in language, it is based on the vast urge to empathy between humans —an empathy that provides the basic impetus for all art forms. Without this empathy that exists before and below art, we wouldn't even want to write poems. Understanding this capacity (and its limitations) is essential for me if I'm to understand what the heck I'm trying to do.


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Writers are always going on about the difficulty of putting the wordless into words, the limitations of language to express the ineffable. So what is this 'ineffable'stuff anyway? A poet like Jack Spicer would call it something the Martians are sending him, that the translations into verbal form happen "simply because the poem wants them to happen."

I think we are struggling to express deep, non-verbal, layers of the brain. It doesn't come from Martians, from the utterly foreign. And because these deep layers are remarkably stable across the human population, translations of perception and pattern into language are possible.


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Here's my just-so story about empathy…

Mammals learned to make crying noises when infants were separated from mothers —not an issue for fish or turtles, but a matter of life and death for a baby rabbit. Somewhere in the course of human development, we added the liquid novelty of tears, for reasons still unclear. Our tears of grief are chemically different from the normal tears that bathe our eyes and keep them functional.

As part of the evolution into primates and early hominids, crying became an activity for the whole community. We retained the baby's expression of fear and discomfort into adulthood; it became a powerful signal to others of a distressed state of mind, and continued to demand that others do something in response —that they find us in our loneliness.

That call-and-response became something new, a kind of resonance; the emotional state of the crying one sets up a similar state in the listener. This is communication. But not 'communication' as it would eventually come to be understood, something that happens in language and is primarily an exchange of information: "The pain is on my leg just above the knee.

It's more how a participant in a mass is a communicant —an absorbed relationship, an intermingling of states.

Somehow, this intimate response to tears has adaptive value for the group as a whole. That's a whole subject for stories in itself.

Meanwhile ... or before, or after ... the capacity for language is evolving. And with it, the capacity for putting narrative into words. This happened, then this..."

And in this plastic, rapidly developing brain the two become fused —the tendency towards emotional resonance and the capacity to narrate stories. "This happened, then this, and oh, woe!" And all the tribe is weeping.


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Now is this all a powerful illusion, this assumption that communication is possible? We're into the vexed question of 'qualia' here —how can you ever be sure that your experience of red or the death of a father is like anyone else's? But fundamentally I believe we do experience, as humans, in much the same way.

The danger is that the sense of deep understanding possible in a small tribe, whose experiences and language are much the same, does not necessarily extrapolate to a diffuse and diverse humanity speaking the world's many languages. So there can be an illusion of understanding more than we actually do.

There's also the danger of feeling that we've shared the weeping and have therefore resolved the situation, because that's what emotional sharing does when it happens in a small group. It binds individuals, it reconnects the lost and lonely ones.

But crying over the horrors on the television news is a one-way street. It achieves no such connection, because it has moved from one kind of story to another. It goes from the real and unique story of events —"this happened and oh, woe!" to 'a' story —the fictionalized narrative that we learned to enjoy because it seemed to give us that sense of emotional connection, even as we recognized with pleasure that it wasn't real. It plugs into the neural systems for empathy, but disconnects them from reality. We don't have to do anything in response.

I think this is the brain circuitry that underlies our aesthetic response to tragedy.

"When, how, can human misery be beautiful? Seeing it as beautiful is what we do when we enjoy great tragedy," asks Iris Murdoch in Metaphysics as a guide to Morals. We are satisfied by tragedy in art because we need to empathize with other people. We are evolved to do that; we survived because of our ability to resonate, and story is the bow we draw across the strings.


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There's something else I've been thinking of with respect to empathy: how deeply metaphorical it is. When we empathize with another human being, we feel "this is what it was like when my husband left me" or "that's how I'd feel if my mother died." We make these metaphorical leaps, not so much consciously in language but unconsciously, pre-language. And once again, the danger is that it's not really 'like that' Watching your child starve in a famine is not exactly like losing a child to leukemia. More trivially, not being able to afford food is not the same as not being able to afford a new dress for the prom.

We construct empathy out of shreds and metaphorical leaps. Sometimes we're only fooling ourselves, working from insufficient experience and overconfidence. But sometimes we're very, very close —communications is possible.


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Excerpted from a series of essays in progress about the interplay between poetry and science.


Alice Major's works copyright © to the author.


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