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THIS MESSAGE IS FOR YOU. MAYBE. by Joseph Agassi There is a mood often enough conjured in science fiction literature to be familiar to every fan, the mood of seemingly intentional yet probably remdom contact between two individuals across immense space-time expanses. The hero of a complicated chase story has lost contact with the mother planet, has long ago leuided on a strange pleuiet, emd there, right now, just walking across the plaza he sees a huge poster, with a piece of commercial advertisement or some similar message of purely local import printed on it. The poster is decorated with an arabesque which puzzles him, quickens his pulse, intrigues him, fascinates him — until it hits him insteinteuneously in full force: the arabesque is a message, written in his own native language, telling him how to reestablish contact. The story, as I say, has many veurietnts. And it has, it seems, a very widespread appeal. It is couched in terms of adventure stories, but its mood is not diat of adventure. The mood is more of die one associated with the idea of the eterned return, die idea of timelessness or of time standing still (and space vanishing), the idea the western philosophies usually associate with the ideas of Nicholas, the Renaissance mystic bishop ofCusa, though it is a recurrent idea in many cultures, of the identity of the vanishingly smedl and the infinitely large. Indeed, the meeting of the message and the recipient is symbolized by the meeting of the infinite line and the point of vanishing length. Whence this universality? I suppose it is a fact of biological nature. Think of the scent a living thing, be it a fish or em emtelope, leaves behind to contact a possible mate. It is a few complex molecules in a sea of molecules of astronomical numbers: just this room contains more molecules than you can imagine. And the animal follows a long tortuous path to find its mate. According to Willietm Craig and Konrad Lorenz, an animal does not have the slightest clue what it is after. Even while building a nest it has no complete 95 96Philosophy and Literature picture of its task. In each of its stages it goes after diverse kinds of things, yet it knows not which things, let alone their inborn rigidly fixed sequence. Yet the animal in charge of a tetsk, whether of finding a mate or of finding a twig for a nest, will be resdess — say Craig and Lorenz — and move about, and try to read the message in any piece of arabesque, until one day one piece of arabesque will med«: sense and enable its finder to complete die next step in the mysterious complex task and open up die search for the next message, the next step further along die unfolding series of preordained ordeals that life is strewn widi. Consider writing proper, like my writing this message for you right now. We do not know the background to literacy, much less its actual origins, except that these were far from unique: though many cultures eire illiterate or have acquired literacy from more evolved neighbors, mere eire many places on earth where literacy evolved independently. Yet even here we see a sequence: many independent ideographic scripts, some ofthem evolving into syllabic scripts and one or two of these evolving into an alphabet proper. How and why, we do not know. There is room for speculation, though. It is hard to imagine how the very first writer conceived of the very first message he wrote without consulting his recipient first. There are a few possible explemations here. First, that writer and recipient are one: writing was a form ofmemorizing, or ofconsigning matters to memory more stable than that of the human brain — the granite rock, for instance. The ancient Egyptian god of literacy was the god of memory. Primitive shepherds use knots in their rope and cuts on their sticks as aides memoire, as bookkeeping of sorts, and scholars consider these the origins of writings. This is evidenced by the runic writings of the Norse, whose letters are images of sticks with cuts on them. Yet runic writing is alphabetic and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 95-98
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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