by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 19, 2018
My obsession with memory is teaching me fascinating lessons. I realized something new today. I was trying to remember what my mental outlook was like in 1959 when I was seven. I barely remember the presidential election of 1960 and seeing Kennedy and Nixon on TV. But I have no memory of ever even noticing President Eisenhower before 1960. And I got to thinking about my essay “Counting the Components of My Consciousness” and realized how important languages are in understanding the world around us.
I see now we know many languages even when we think we only speak one.
In 1959 I had no language for politics, so politics was invisible to me. I didn’t understand words like mayor, governor, president, senator, congressman, etc. I didn’t know about local, state, and federal governments. I didn’t know about the three branches of the federal government. I didn’t know about constitutions or legal systems. The world of politics was invisible to me because I didn’t know the language of politics. At seven, I also didn’t know the language of religion, science, mathematics, or even grocery shopping.
My awareness of politics began on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. That’s because my family watched the news for several days straight, and that hooked me on watching the nightly news with Walter Cronkite. However, I still didn’t know the language well. In the 9th grade (1965-1966) I took a required civics class that taught me the basics, but I’ve been learning the nuances of the language of politics ever since, and still don’t speak it fluently. It has its own vocabulary and grammar.
This morning I was researching where I went to school in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964. I found a copy of an Aiken newspaper online. I was 12 at the time. All the stories about local politics and businesses were unfamiliar to me. Even the ads were unfamiliar to me. I didn’t shop for groceries or clothes at age 12, so I didn’t have the language to remember that part of Aiken, South Carolina. I realize now I could have read that paper at age 12, but didn’t. I doubt I could have understood most of it. I didn’t have the languages. And that’s why I don’t remember 99.99% of what life was like in Aiken, South Carolina in 1964.
I’ve often returned to the year 1959 over my lifetime. 1959 was an important year in jazz, but I didn’t know that until I began learning the language of jazz. And my ability to speak jazz is at a very rudimentary level. I’m much more conversant in the language of science fiction so I can comprehend 1959 in science fictional terms much more deeply.
This revelation about knowing multiple languages within English is giving me many insights this morning. It explains why so many people refuse to accept that climate change is happening to us right now. They don’t understand the language of science, so it’s invisible to them. This realization also explains our polarized politics. Conservatives only know the language of conservative politics, so they are blind to liberal politics. And liberals are blind to conservative politics because they don’t know that language.
Linda, the other member of my two-person book club, suggested we read a conservative book for our next discussion. We’re both extreme liberals and she thought it might be enlightening if we did. And it is. We picked Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake. I’ve only just begun but immediately realized Flake speaks a different political language than I do. His words have different meanings. His grammar is even different. His language references points to concepts and things in reality that I normally don’t see.
Liberals and conservatives are polarized because they aren’t speaking the same language even though they use the same words. In the essay, I mentioned above, I told about two experiences where I lost my ability to use words, and how reality looked when that happened. Without words, I didn’t know what things were. I could still see and hold them, but I could tell you what they were. Abstract concepts ceased to exist. Language is everything in understanding reality.
In 1959 I didn’t have the languages to understand most of what I saw and experienced. I’ve since learned a lot of new languages and can look back and see so many things that were invisible to me then. I’m obsessed with memory at this stage in my life, and I’m learning how important languages are to memories. I’m losing my memories, words, and languages. I struggle to keep them. One way of doing that is to look back over the years and study the languages that reveal what I saw.
We can’t trust our memories. One way to understand them is to struggle to remember what we saw. But another way is to study what we couldn’t see, and learn the language to reveal it.
I realize now I must study the languages I know more deeply to understand what I see now, and what my memories might have seen in the past. Here are the languages I partial know now but want to study deeper:
- Science Fiction
- Science and Nature
- Ethics and Philosophy
- Computers and Programming
- Myths and Religions