At the end of my last post, I referenced George Orwell’s argument in 1984 that speech controls thought. I used it to bolster my argument that we should watch what we say and write to ensure that all people are included and so that we see all people, since we are all humans and deserving of the same dignity. In this post, though, I want to push back on Orwell a bit. Words and language say a lot about how a culture thinks and operates, who is included and who isn’t, what people feel and what they don’t, what is believed and is what not, even what is possible and what is not, etc., but language does not control thought entirely.
Even in Orwell’s masterpiece he suggests, albeit dimly, that the imagination can surpass language. The main characters in the novel are people who seek out illegal activities that the world of Big Brother had eliminated from the language (instituting Newspeak) and, thus, eliminated from thought. Yet they think it anyway. Of course, Winston Smith, the main character, loses his little rebellion and is reintegrated into proper citizenship, so Orwell’s ending implies that one can only go beyond language and the thought police for a limited period of time before collapsing back in. Winston, who had been working in the Ministry of Truth to rewrite history so that it fit with Big Brother’s current ideals and schemes, sometimes erasing the very names of rebels from existence and therefore from thought, is plagued at the end by memories that, because of his reintegration and the lack of corroborating proof (history is rewritten), he is convinced to be false. Orwell does open the door for imagination to leap beyond language and what’s written but then slams the door shut.
My professor in the class on utopian and dystopian literature posed the question to me, when I challenged the premise of 1984 and other dystopias with similar arguments like We, if I have ever thought of anything that didn’t require words. And if not, then how can I say that imagination can surpass language?
I didn’t have a good answer at the time (I mean, c'mon. We were advanced English students in a class that was invite-by-professor only. OF COURSE we all think in words) but now I do. Just because I think in words doesn’t mean that others don’t think in pictures. For instance, in We, there is a wall that keeps everyone in. There are no words for “the outside” and so no one thinks of the outside. Yet, my question is, certainly someone can picture in their heads climbing the wall and looking out, even if they don’t have words for such an activity. It might be hard to describe or to talk about climbing the wall and looking out, or even escaping entirely, but that doesn’t mean a person can’t think it.
I mean, if we are to say that language controls thought, then we also say that the original homo sapiens, with nearly if not the exact same level of intelligence and imagination as we have, were unable to think. No one can convince me of that argument. That’s how language is created and developed: with imagination and thought first. The first people weren’t inhibited to build fires because they didn’t have a word for fire. The word for fire followed the invention. The first people thought to themselves, without the words, “Boy, I wish I could communicate that I want a fire with that other person who doesn’t know any words.” The words come after the thought. When I watch my cats or, as a pastor, watch for bodily clues with my parishioners that might tell me what they are really thinking or feeling, I can empathize and intuitively understand what’s going on even if I don’t have the words. Ask me to write a reflection on a conversation I have and what the person was feeling the whole time and I wouldn’t have the words. I don’t have a large vocabulary—as a writer, this would seem to be a professional flaw and, to some extent, it is, but I a) spend time with dictionaries and thesauruses and, b) am trying to communicate with other people without good vocabularies anyway. The point is, my mind understands but my language does not. My language follows my understanding when I seek out a dictionary or thesaurus and find the right words.
Language and the written word may control our communication with one another, and it may mess with our heads if, like Winston Smith, we think to ourselves, “I remember Freddy who was born in London on 5 October 1999,” but then no written record of Freddy is found anywhere, or something like that, but we still remember Freddy. The historical narrative now is that the Roman/Western world is and was very advanced and the western natives are given no credit whatsoever. Since that is what our writing and language tell us, it’s hard to think differently; yet the evidence and possibility to think differently, to see that the Incas were not many years behind in technological progression (why is technological progression the only measurement of civilization, anyway?) is still out there. So as much as language and the written may mess with our heads and hinder communication, we are not limited by them. Thought and imagination, no matter what Orwell and others may say, no matter what governments may try to tell us and spoon-feed us, no matter how willing we may be to accept what we’re told and what we read—thought and imagination can still conquer language and the written word because thought and imagination exist prior to language and writing. Indeed, Truth exists prior to language and writing.
So my message to all writers everywhere, in case you ever read this, is to beware what you write, for what you say and write can and will have a significant impact on readers; yet at the same time, don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy the sounds of the words that you squeeze together harmoniously or cacophonously in the same line, tell good stories, tell the truth and not vagaries, but in all of it know that what you do is not a final say. If you try to limit someone else’s ability to think or imagine, your work will crumble sometime. So take joy in your own thought and imagination, foster them, so that you can productively provoke others to also think and imagine, to discover the possibilities of life rather than be controlled in any way.