Jayary Newsletter # 97

Idea Two: Writing

Speech flows out of our mouths like a river but there's no ocean for it to flow into. It's as if all those words are consigned to the flames the minute we walk away from the conversation.

That's a real problem, for how do we keep people to their promises? How do we record the happenings of our world for future generations?

There are several solutions. The one we are most familiar with is: writing. The written word helps us record transactions, sign contracts and own property.

The written word creates a written world. Writing is so pervasive that even when we are talking, we are often writing. Consider the bride and the groom who seal their wedding with an "I do." You would think that's a purely oral speech act.

Of course not.

While the bride and the groom and their witnesses (the priest and the audience) hear the oral testimony, it's the recording of that "I do" in the books that makes it a contract. Even if just the utterance "I do" is legally binding, it's only so because of the background of a written world in which most contracts are written.

Oral texts rarely have a "standard" version but once a text is written, we can ask about the critical version, variants and corruptions. The critical version of the Mahabharata is an example of written thinking applied to the oral world. That desire to recover the original text is deeply embedded in the task of writing, which is why written culture spawns fundamentalism. There's a strong impulse to return back to the original text, whether that text is the Bible or the laws of nature.

Idea Three: Itihasm

Speech is unstable; if it's not recorded it vanishes, causing problems for all concerned. Writing solves the problem of instability by freezing the oral world. It's a bit like turning a gas into a solid.

There's another solution: turn the gas into a liquid instead. Not that I need to tell you, but liquids are more stable than gases, but they are more fluid than solids. That's a valuable feature for many purposes.

For one, the liquid can be stored just like solids: just let the liquid flow into an ocean if you want a massive store. At the same time, the liquid circulates better: it can be easily turned into vapour and it has much internal movement as well.

That's what the Jaya does by creating a collective ocean of oral understanding and a stock of stories that can be used and reused by everyone. That also explains why some common tropes in the liquid world of reusable stories are anathema in the solid world of standalone texts. Both Jaratkaru and Agastya have the same encounter with their ancestors and that's perfectly fine in a liquid text. A modern writer would be condemned for writing such a book: she would be condemned for her lack of creativity, or worse, accused of plagiarism.

I have been using the term itihasm to suggest that such an ocean of understanding is both desirable and worth creating for many purposes.

Idea Four: Fragility

I have been talking about how speech is fragile, for it's here now and gone the next second, but that's not a property of speech alone. For one, speech is a special case of sound and sound is generally fragile. Thunderclaps are as evanescent as promises. Fragility isn't always a liability; it can be haunting too. Isn't that the secret to the siren's seductive powers?

What about touch? Once your hand leaves a surface the feeling of texture and volume is gone. You probably remember your grandmother's face. Can you tell me what it's like to touch her hands?

Smell and taste: even more so. All our senses - excepting vision - are treacherous. I will come to vision later.

The fragility of our senses reinforces the fragility of our world. Jaratkaru and Agastya's are reminders of that fragility - they know that our senses are failing from the moment we're born; without children, it doesn't matter what we do in this world. Darwin - and Dawkins - would be pleased at their insight.

Plato had a different insight into fragility. He didn't trust this world at all, preferring to sing the praises of the world of pure ideas. Ideas, along with vision, have been the metaphors for eternal reality for a long time. Writing makes those metaphors real.

Idea Five: Stability

Vision is the only human sense - and touch to a lesser extent - that lends stability to our world. If I take my eyes off the computer screen in front of me, I know that it will be right there when I refocus my eyes.

No such guarantees about sounds, smells and tastes. It's not a coincidence that sound and smell and taste are temporal senses while vision is primarily a spatial sense; even motion is seen against a background.

Touch is a little different: it's got both space and time in it. The keyboard beneath my fingers does feel about the same when I touch it every time. I can also run my fingers over the keyboard and experience a temporal event via touch. Touch is universal that way.

But touch's scope is limited, which vision has a much wider field. Of course, without touch we have no sense of real reality, but that's a different question from stability. Vision helps us have a stable illusion while touch has the best access to an extra-mental reality.

I know, I know: no mention of the Jaya in this discussion of stability, but it's intimately related to the previous idea about fragility. Together, they are at the core of deshakala, and what is the Jaya if not a chronicle of the human (and more than human) condition?