Friday, September 23, 2016

Interpreting a narrative of waking with no language

Contributing Blogger 
Paul Melas
Hunter College, CUNY

What follows is a discussion prompted by a Radiolab podcast[1] concerning language and words, listened to for a graduate level Linguistics course.  The podcast includes the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a woman who suffered a stroke and found herself with “absolutely no language” and no memories.  All references to Taylor’s narrative are derived solely from its representation in this podcast.

For the purposes of this short discussion, a very limited definition of what Edward W. Said designates as Orientalism—or the Orient—will be necessary.  That is that Orientalism and, by extension, the Orient “has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”[2]  Moreover, it is that through which “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting it self off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.”[3]  In this discussion I hope to show the ways in which Jill Bolte Taylor’s dramatic narrative makes use of the Orientalist mechanisms and logics in order to delineate a very precise Orientalist process.  A process that includes initial—and intimate—contact with the mystical Orient, an immersive process of exposure and discovery, and an eventual rejuvenated return to the familiarity of the Occident (the West).  This blog is an examination of this subtext.

Keeping in line with Orientalism’s deep roots in Western European colonialism, any Orientalist endeavor ought to be thought of in terms of a journey.  The narrative action, in other words, is very much a peripatetic one.  Hence, the Orientalist narrative begins to resemble an inherently itinerant process, regardless of the stark reality from which the narrative derives inspiration.  Though Taylor did not physically travel great distances, her narrative nonetheless makes use of language that evokes travel, geography, and movement through space.  She note’s quite humorously of the morning following the burst of a blood vessel in her brain’s left hemisphere: “So it’s like okay I got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out. And I affectionately refer to this space as “La La Land” (emphasis added).  La La Land” as a land, is of course the narrative symbol for the Orient (moreover, it is interesting to note the patronizing tone that this specific name evokes, akin I believe to the opening “bar-bar” of the Greek barbarous).

Arrival into the Orient is something akin to a loss of one’s distinctly Occidental character.  For Taylor, the Occidental loss came in terms of her loss of language.  Not just spoken language, but language as a mechanism for organizing thought.  Commenting on the loss of her selfhood following her accident Taylor notes that “language is an ongoing information processing; it’s that constant reminder. I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I’m a single, I am a solid. I’m separate from you. This is my name…” The loss of the Occidental self as a result of the loss of language, in this case, happens, rather unsurprisingly, in Cartesian terms. The self that Taylor looses is that same self—that same “I”—which RenĂ© Descartes famously refers to in “cogito ergo sum”, “I think therefor I am.”  Taylor’s experience is in fact the logical extension of Descartes’s argument: “I think therefor I am” and so “I think not, therefor I am not.”[4] This self that Taylor looses is her Cartesian self, the quintessentially Western “I.” 

The loss of the Occidental self and the emergence of its Oriental counterpart, is evident through the nature of Taylor’s experience following her lapse into “La La Land.”  This is the point in the journey that is marked by exploration and discovery, and thus, much of what Taylor describes—her experience in “La La Land”, in the mysterious Orient—has a distinctly Oriental character.  Specifically, this leg of the journey is a survey of the Orient’s major religio-philosophical epistemes.  A pedestrian understanding of the predominant Asiatic religions,—in these, the western mind includes Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, and excludes, as one might expect, Islam—will suffice for making this quite apparent.

To begin, one of the radio commentators interviewing Taylor summarizes one interesting—and as it would seem to them, spectacularly novel—aspect of her “La La Land” experience: “and the other thing that she told us is that lying in that bed without words, she says she felt connected to things, to everything, in a way she never had before.”  And Taylor her self adds: “I lost all definition of my self in relationship to everything in the external world.”  Curiously enough, and as we might imagine to the great surprise of the two radio hosts, little originality actually exists here.  In fact, the experience is quite in sync with Hinduism’s ancient Vedic traditions and, more specifically, with their treatment of supreme reality, Brahman.  I present a short, yet representative, sample from the Upanishads to illustrate this point: “This immortal Brahman is before, this immortal Brahman is behind, this immortal Brahman extends to the right and to the left, above and below.  Verily, all is Brahman, and Brahman is supreme.”[5]  The interconnectedness that Taylor’s narrative describes is, it would seem, this acquisition of the knowledge of Brahman.  It is in this understanding of Brahman that the oneness of all reality becomes realized.

The narrative then traverses from one intellectual corpus of the Asiatic world to another.  Taylor makes note of another aspect of the experience of “La La Land” in the following way:  “You know, not that little voice that you know you wake up in the morning and the first thing your brain says is: Oh man the sun is shining. Well, imagine you don’t hear that little voice that says man the sun is shining, you just experience the sun and the shining.”  What she points to here, is the direct experience of reality without the mediation of language or thought.  It is the experience of reality as such, absent of the mechanisms of order and structure (primarily language) projected onto it by the mind.  Interestingly enough, Lao Tzu, the great Taoist philosopher and theologian seems to think along suspiciously similar lines.  The famous opening of the Tao Te Ching is quite recognizable: “TAO called TAO is not TAO. Names can name no lasting name.”[6]  Lao Tzu, like Taylor, sees the obstructive nature of language and naming and of the human process of organizing and differentiation.  Access to the mysterious Tao becomes inhibited by any attempt to impose language and though upon it.  Hence, reality, once free from the mind’s impositions, can be experienced fully for what it truly is.

As to Taylor’s “La La Land” process of “essentially [becoming] an infant,” little investigation need take place to find its equivalent in the Asian world.   Here is a brief description of the Buddhist concept of Shoshin or beginner’s mind, by the Zen Buddhist master Shunryu Suzuki:  The practice of Zen mind is beginner's mind. The innocence of the first inquiry—what am I ?—is needed throughout Zen practice.  The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept […]. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which […] can realize the original nature of everything.”[7]

As the Occidental self slowly begins to recede in favor of its Oriental half, there comes a distinct point of crisis in which the self must choose between the two.  In typical Oriental narratives, a survey of the Oriental “geography” is followed by a re-emergence of the self into its original Occidental (Western) state.   Rarely does the self fully embrace the Oriental spirit thus severing ties with the Occident.  This traumatic process is referred to as “going native.”  Taylor’s narrative illustrates the drama of this decision quite well.  The transcript from this part of the radio discussion is as follows:

“JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: […] So if somebody would ask me who's the president of the United States of America, this is a huge question. So for the next several hours I'd be pondering president. President. President What’s a president? President. And then I would get a picture in my mind of a president as a leader. 
JAD ABUMRAD: Was it a picture of a specific guy?
 JILL BOLTE TAYLOR: It's, it was, actually it's still flashes into my mind. It's, it's a picture of a silhouette of a male.
 ROBERT KRULWICH: A presidential profile.
 JAD ABUMRAD: Like maybe the idea of the president, basically.
 JAD ABUMRAD: So that was her president.”
The question Taylor asks as a means of testing the vitality of her Occidental self is telling.  The correct answer to it is the quintessentially Western human: male, white, and in a position of power.  The question then, is a choice between West and East, between the Western ideal embodied in the president, and the Orient.
Every Orientalist endeavor, like every Colonialist endeavor, is engaged with some sort of extraction, either it be treasure, spices or humans.  In this case, Taylor’s extraction is an intellectual one, an intellectual artifact that she brings back and integrates within her newly invigorated Western self: “I do believe that there are times when you need to let your brain chatter be quiet.” 

Addiss, Stephen, and Stanley Lombardo, trans. Tao Te Ching: Lao-Tzu. Indianapolis, IN.:  Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993.

Prabhavananda, Swami, and Frederick Manchester, trans. The Upanishads: Breadth of the   Eternal. Hollywood, CA.: Vedanta Press. 1975.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, Inc., 1979.

Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1995.

[1] Smullyan, Jacob. Words. Accessed September 14, 2016. (The website includes both audio and transcribed versions).
[2] Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Random House, Inc., 1979), 1-2.  Above, a 1886 map of the British Empire.
[3] Said, Orientalism, 3.
[4] I realize that this statement is paradoxical.  However, it expresses the intended point quite effectively.
[5] Prabhavananda, Swami, and Frederick Manchester, trans. The Upanishads: Breadth of the Eternal (Hollywood, CA.: Vedanta Press. 1975), 65 (emphasis added).
[6] Addiss, Stephen, and Stanley Lombardo, trans. Tao Te Ching: Lao-Tzu (Indianapolis, IN.: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993), 1.
[7] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1995), 13-14.