Last night I read the riveting essay, “The Interpreter” by John Colapinto from the new 2008 edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. I highly recommend buying the collection, but the link to the article takes you to the New Yorker where you can read it for free. This fine essay a about tiny tribe in the Amazon jungle, the Pirahã, who have a language and culture that confounds linguists and missionaries, and some scientists even suggests that their mind and grammar predate the structure of modern language. This tribe lives so totally in the moment that their language is completely literal, showing no long term memory of the past, where even missionaries can’t use Bible stories on them because fiction is invisible to their minds.
Inspired by Sapir’s cultural approach to language, he hypothesized that the tribe embodies a living-in-the-present ethos so powerful that it has affected every aspect of the people’s lives. Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions—and thus do not use color terms, quantifiers, numbers, or myths. Everett pointed to the word xibipío as a clue to how the Pirahã perceive reality solely according to what exists within the boundaries of their direct experience—which Everett defined as anything that they can see and hear, or that someone living has seen and heard. “When someone walks around a bend in the river, the Pirahã say that the person has not simply gone away but xibipío—‘gone out of experience,’ ” Everett said. “They use the same phrase when a candle flame flickers. The light ‘goes in and out of experience.’ ”
I’ve always been fascinated by thinking about what the world would be like without fiction. I define fiction as anything make believe that occupies our times, such as novels, television shows, movies, plays, comic books, poems, songs, idle fantasies, and so on. I have a life-long addiction to fiction, and I’ve often wondered what my life would be like without fiction. And for the purpose of writing here, I’m going to imagine what our world would be like without fiction. As I was reading “The Interpreter” last night I realized, the story of this tribe illustrated what a world without fiction would be like.
I can’t begin to understand or explain all the linguistic theory in this essay, but from what I can tell, most people on Earth use a language that reflects a universal grammar, and they can use and understand abstraction, including stories. This tribe does not. The Pirahã children will make models of airplanes that have landed, but when the plane goes away they quit playing with the models. The essay profiles Daniel L. Everett who has lived with the tribe off and on for years. Everett is very careful to point out that these people are not dumb or show any signs of mental retardation. They are very skilled hunters and gathers, they just don’t “get” make believe.
Everett started out as a missionary, but…
“After twenty years of living like a Pirahã, I’d had it with roughing it,” he said. He threw himself into missionary work, translating the Book of Luke into Pirahã and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced that the Pirahã assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either. He declared himself an atheist, and spent his time tending house and studying linguistics.
Had living with the tribe converted him to their state of consciousness? Does this tribe represent humans at a state of development before being able to comprehend religion? And is religion related to fiction somehow? He showed some of his jungle friends the new remake of King Kong,
If Fitch’s experiments were inconclusive on the subject of whether Chomsky’s universal grammar applied to the Pirahã, Jackson’s movie left no question about the universality of Hollywood film grammar. As Kong battled raptors and Watts dodged giant insects, the Pirahã offered a running commentary, which Everett translated: “Now he’s going to fall!” “He’s tired!” “She’s running!” “Look. A centipede!” Nor were the Pirahã in any doubt about what was being communicated in the long, lingering looks that passed between gorilla and girl. “She is his spouse,” one Pirahã said. Yet in their reaction to the movie Everett also saw proof of his theory about the tribe. “They’re not generalizing about the character of giant apes,” he pointed out. “They’re reacting to the immediate action on the screen with direct assertions about what they see.”
I’ve often wondered if I went cold turkey on fiction, how my mind and consciousness would change. Fiction plays with time. Fiction alters time. Fiction is a way to step out of our lives, and even out of our thoughts, and transport ourselves into a make-believe abstraction. When I was watching The Big Bang Theory last night, I stopped thinking about work, the pain in my back and hip, the financial collapse, Obama and McCain, global warming, and all the other abstractions I try to grasp when my mind isn’t occupied with a task at hand.
Except for the direct experience of pain, and creating web pages at work, all those other things are about imaginary abstractions that I don’t see in my day-to-day life. Who knows, maybe the purpose fiction is not to kill time, but to focus our minds. The funny nerds of the sitcom are not real, but my high-definition TV made them real enough.
If I wasn’t a fiction addict, I’d have a lot more time. And that might reflect something about me, maybe I have too much time. Might we all have too much time and need to fill it with fiction? If we lived in the jungle and had to hunt and gather all our food, and slept when it got dark, maybe we’d have just the right amount of time.
Even if I stopped pursuing fiction, my mind wouldn’t stop creating it. Every time I do anything, from writing this essay to going grocery shopping, I imagine what it will be like before I do it. I create a fictionalize version to map out my real actions. I don’t think the Pirahã do that. I’m not even sure they think about food before they see and eat it. Because of drugs or illness I have had a few moments in my life when language didn’t work. The very act of dredging up a name for an object made it feel like I had brought the object into being. During these moments there were no words without objects. I would not like to live in such a limited reality.
I just finished Clifford Simak’s Hugo award winning novel, Way Station, that came out in 1963. The novel is merely a succession of words strung together, but it decodes into images in my mind, and it’s chock full of fantastic ideas that my mind loved to entertain. I think the world is a much richer place because of this novel. I feel it has added much to my life, even though it’s all make-believe. But I have to wonder would the real world be far more vivid if my mind wasn’t distracted by fiction?
Do the Pirahã see the world more intently than we do? I love fiction, but I suppose a heroin addict loves his dope too. I should try and go a month without fiction and see what happens, but sadly, I know I can’t give up fiction for even a day. Do linguists take into account the role of fiction in our language and consciousness?
JWH – 10-7-8