Surrounded as I am by the written word, it’s difficult to suggest but that it has a great deal of power. But as with most forms of power, we tend to misconstrue it, and miss a lot of what is actually going on.
A counselor once told me, referring to my life, that
It’s like you’ve spent your whole life learning to be a wizard only to discover that there’s no such thing as magic.
She wasn’t being literal, of course. We were discussing how, growing up “gifted,” I’d always been given the idea that I could do anything I want. But what no one told me was how to figure out what that actually is. Thus the idea was that I was prepared to do this mythical “anything,” but when adult life actually came along, that thing did not exist.
It’s true enough. But I’ve recently come to see another meaning in the phrase.
See, I don’t really think magic exists, at least not like in fantasy novels or TV. But if we think of magic as, instead, words that have power to shape our reality, then it becomes much more plausible. After all, I think that anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to politics (which includes myself, despite my best efforts to the contrary) has seen how a certain stock phrase can take on a life of its own and begin to propagate, virus-like, throughout the population.
Written in the mid-1980s, the sci-fi novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson predicted many aspects of internet culture today. But there’s a question of to what extent it predicted them versus influenced them. After all, plenty of sci-fi geeks ended up being heavily involved in the development of things like the internet and digital culture more generally. So did he predict the use of “avatar” to refer to an online persona, or did that term come into use because the first people who created systems using avatars had read Snow Crash?
This gets even more interesting once we take into consideration the central conceit of the book. (Spoilers.) In the world of the book, the Sumerian language is actually the programming language for our brains (or at least can serve as one). The result is that certain “spells” in Sumerian can do things like shut down or kill the person who hears them. A Sumerian myth tells of this, indirectly, and it explains the Babel issue: we developed other languages so that the knowledge of Sumerian could be lost. Thus we have another instance here of words that directly shape reality.
Real life is, as always, more complicated. There was a theory some time ago, commonly called Sapir-Whorf, that posits that our language influences how we see the world. The reality is actually much more complicated. It can change emphases, perhaps, but there’s no real indication that, for example, there are concepts that cannot truly be explained in one language versus another. It may not be possible in a single word, but that’s not the same thing as being truly inexpressible. My personal view is that Sapir-Whorf wasn’t necessarily that far off, just in that our understanding of our own minds is so rudimentary I’m not sure we can reliably test for that kind of thing. So I see it as more of an open question than being truly debunked.
Sometimes language just gets skewed by mistake, but we all run with it. What is language, after all, but a “consensual hallucination” (as William Gibson describes the virtual reality internet called the Matrix in Neuromancer)? One of my favorite examples of this is the word nimrod, whose meaning was changed thanks to a case of collective ignorance. It wasn’t particularly common in day-to-day usage, but then it showed up in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in the 1950s, where Bugs refers to Elmer Fudd as a “nimrod.” Although most people apparently didn’t know what the word actually meant, they inferred from context that it meant “idiot,” and so that’s the meaning it took on. But in actuality, Nimrod was a masterful hunter in the Old Testament, and so Bugs was being ironic. But since not enough people understood the reference, that meaning was lost, and the word is well-known among English speakers as referring to someone dumb.
(As an aside, this is one of the few instances where we have a folk etymology that is actually true. As a general rule, though, if you find a fun story about how a word came to mean what it does, it’s almost certainly wrong.)
Returning to our concept of magic, it’s scary how powerful this stuff is. Someone who knows what they’re doing, like a sociopathic politician, really can warp reality just with words. We’ve all seen it; your political orientation probably affects who you think does it, not whether you think it was done. Or if it makes you feel better, there’s always the stories of how electrifying Hitler could be.
A common trope in fantasy works involving magic is that knowing something’s “true name” is enough to control it. In our reality, it’s usually the opposite: understanding the artifice is enough to break the spell. So for example, once you understand what “freedom” truly means, it stops being something to strive for, at least as it’s used in the present-day American political system. The true name lets us see something (or someone) closer to who they really are, for better or worse. And this does apply to people too, although there it’s usually more about the names we choose for ourselves, rather than the ones our parents give us. Most of us have online nicknames, e-mail addresses, gamer tags, or whatever, that describe if not ourselves then our aspirations. If you know where my choice of name comes from, a lot of what I write about will make more sense...
This dichotomy between words and reality is exemplified like few could hope to do in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Borges of course played with the idea of fictional realities and words plenty, with The Library of Babel being one of if not the most famous examples. Tlön has some similarities, but the themes overall are different, and the use of storytelling to reinforce the underlying ideas is nothing short of magisterial. I’ve provided an English translation for those who are interested in the story. If you speak Spanish, then I highly encourage you to track down the original (which is widely available online). It’s a level of thought that I can only hope to aspire to.
It will be interesting to see what the effects on me of being surrounded by writing prove to be. Since I can’t hope to read it all, my imagination is left to wander. I wonder then what stories it’ll fill in? More worrying, will I know when it’s done it?