In the passage, the protagonist, Edward Staunton, is discussing the reading of his father's will, particularly a small and simple line detailing what he is to receive from the estate. The line is entirely businesslike, with no apparent subtext, yet Edward reads great significance into its very simplicity, calling his father's terse word choice "his last word on the subject" and claiming that the dead man's unwritten words were: "[...] don't think of yourself as my son." (49)
It was not that the father had said more without words than with that sparked my imagination, but rather what the implications of such a communication might be. It stands to reason that the father believed his son would understand the unstated meaning. Edward says that the man would have chosen those words knowing that they would be read by many people, and that all would comprehend what was being said. In Edward's opinion, that was the thought that gave his father satisfaction. But for all the satisfaction this sort of thing may have given Boy Staunton, I doubt such a communication would carry much weight one hundred years in the future. I believe it safe to suppose that any clerk poring over Staunton's would remain ignorant to the nuance of the man's word choice, and more to the point, that clerk might even appreciate the judicious use of words.
Where did the meaning go? Well, first it went with the passing of Boy Staunton. As the originator of this symbolic sleight, it must have been freshest in his living mind. From there, Edward would likely become the most aware, though there would certainly be others. And as the decades passed, more of those possesing an awareness of the sort of man Boy had been would exit the scene, each taking with him the key to understanding the symbolism. In time, nobody would remain, not a single person who had once heard the old man laugh or helped him to draw a business brief. Th new lawyers, new accountants, new grandchildren, and new great-grandchildren would have no frame of reference for understanding what had not been said, and moreover, none would remember Edward in any way so real as to recognize the pain inflicted.
Perhaps Boy would have been better suited to address his feelings toward Edward in the form of a letter. Each paragraph a complete reference to some thing or another that struck him as dissatisfactory in his son's behavior. Then future generations might find some amusement at Edward's shortcomings, they might even seek to correct those that mirrored their own behavior for fear of upsetting some Boy Staunton in their own world. It is a worthy consideration, but what might be lost, even from the literal, with the progression to contemporary vernacular and mores? Perhaps scholars would retain the necessary social information to make valid judgments of Boy's words, but in time I imagine even they would lose interest in something so specific to his life.
The failure of Boy's message to survive the passage of time can be considered a problem of temporal symbolism. Words that draw their value through context and current social arrangements. As the times change, the strengths of those words become lost to a greater and greater mass of individuals. The preservation of these symbols becomes, not a case of preserving the document, but one of preserving the ideas contained in the document. I believe the problem that is to afflict Boy Staunton's message is one that will grip the whole of all written messages in time, and one that deserves a deeper investigation.
You see, it is my opinion that human language is only a first step toward a broadly more applicable form of communication. The problem with this belief is that it forces me to consider those things that would be affected by progression to that new form, namely literature. It occurs to me that most of what we call literature is more specifically the clever manipulation of common language to produce works of both concrete and symbolic value, such as Davies's novel. If this is the case then it is logical to believe that as we leave behind modern language as a means of communication, we must also leave behind the symbolic value we once drew from its arrangement on the page.
It's a devastating consideration, and in many ways that is why I believe our communication has failed to evolve on a more-than-semantic level thus far. We have too much invested in language, and it has become our legacy system, a tool too firmly rooted into our infrastructure to toss out, but one that has grown too old to advance our efforts to a higher level. Gysin and Burroughs saw the failure of language when they called for the destruction of the word. Burroughs took it deeper when he wondered at how words become symbols, not of the things they represent, but of the words themselves, and change the way we perceive the world. I think most saw this as a drug induced bit of nonsense, but there is more truth to those thoughts than they have been credited to have. After all, what do you see when you see a bird in a tree, if not "a bird" in "a tree?"
What happens, then, when we see the truth of a bird in a tree, and for once in the history of our communication, we are able to convey it to another person for everything that it is to us, not with adjectives or highly subjective symbolism, but with the raw value of a first impression, with the explosiveness of the countless systems that paint that moment into our mind? It seems to me that we would lose interest in the petty suspensions of modern language. We would no longer care what was being said, both literally and through interpretation, because all of it would suddenly seem quite arbitrary and unimportant. Such understanding would become almost exclusively the traffic of scholars intent to preserve the cultural heritage with which the texts are associated.
The motion picture industry is a suitable example of a migration from one level of communication to another. Few silent films remain in the libraries of the modern movie viewer, most of whom would be hard pressed to name a single title from the Golden Age. The classics remain available, but most would rather witness something in the contemporary style. Very early human communications (what I consider First Tier) have become so obscure in their symbolic value that a scientist might spend his entire life attempting to unravel the meaning of a single record. Worse yet, Base Level communications, those consisting of no more than physical gestures and subvocalizations , are lost completely to history, as their sole media for distribution has deteriorated into dust and fossilized bone.
Modern language is only a single form of human communication. Others, such as visual art, music, and dance -- all of which predate language -- never cease to evolve with the passage of time. Unfortunately, each of them lacks the subtlety and universality to underwrite a complex society. Each also fails to cross the cultural gaps created by sensory handicap and deterioration. But while contemporary language does manage this feat, it is limited by cultural boundaries, temporal expiration, and, perhaps worst of all, the need for a democratically approved library of accepted word symbols. (I will discuss the first and last of these three in a future installment.)
My belief is a simple one: this is not the best we can do. Our language is, by many standards, an antique. It is renovated, mended, refinished and overhauled regularly to maintain functionality, but in time, I think society will be in a position to move on. As such, it becomes important to examine ways of preserving our written legacy. There is something to be said for what has been done with what there is, and I fear for a day when someone finds a book like The Manticore and reads it with the cold sterility of the clerk examining Boy Staunton's will.
I do have much more to say on the subject of temporal symbolism, more still on language in general, but for now I'll call this a stopping point. Next time I think I'd like to consider what i believe to be the pinnacle of modern languages, Mathematics, but until then, thanks for reading.