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JAMES BERGER Testing Literature: Helen Keller and Richard Powers' Implementation H[elen] EiNGS without language continually speak to us. Infants ' and animals, the retarded, autistic, the victims of trauma, and the neurologically damaged, telepathic aliens, artificial intelligences, even the dead—in fiction and science fiction, scientific reports, and religious and philosophical speculations, we have tried to converse with these entities, whose modes of consciousness and experiences of being present in the wotld must be so different from ours. For our experiences and the sense we have of our selves have been shaped by our coming into language. Whether human consciousness and selfhood are primarily constructions of language remains a topic of research and debate among numerous branches of science and philosophy.1 But even neurologist Antonio Damasio, who describes a fundamental bodily, non-linguistic basis of consciousness, makes language the crucial factor in what he calls "extended" or autobiographical consciousness—that fully human consciousness that gives our lives a story. Since the beginnings of narrative , we have regarded this narrative shaping as the distinctively human form of understanding personal and social existence, and have seen language and stotytelling as what sets us apart from those othet beings —the ones without language. How do we interpret this continuing dialogue with those who can't speak? In part, we speakers of language seem always to have felt an affinity with some imagined non-linguistic core—a selfhood based in feeling not in thought, with origins in infancy or physiology, from which Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 3, Autumn 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1 6 10 James Berger knowledge and language have alienated us. When Gilgamesh's companion Enkidu learns language, he is no longer able to run with the animals . Over the past twenty years, Oliver Sacks' wonderfully evocative case studies have tried to give readers a sense of what it is like to live in a consciousness not oriented through language, showing, certainly, what is lost, but also what is gained. Out imagined dialogues with those who can't speak hint at a temporary liberation from the structures of language, a renewed or new sense of the senses, an imagined opening towatd the pte-history or perhaps the aftermath of the current human situation. Part of their appeal is a suggestion of ecstasy. But the encounter with those who can't speak also arouses empathy and identification . The encounter, from this other angle, is ethical, for those without language have, nevertheless, voices, gestures, faces, emotions, in which we see our emotional lives reflected, perhaps in purer forms. Thus, the beings without language show not only some primal boundary of the human and nonhuman, but also an essential humanity that demands recognition. This, ulrimately, is the direction Oliver Sacks' work takes—as does, in another key, the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas , which calls for an ethical response to the siient apparition of the face of the other. In some cases though, both in fictions and in reality, someone initially without language will attain language. Such an individual will, necessarily, be transformed, for learning language is not simply the acquisition of a useful skill; it matks the full entry into the social, human world. Naturally, we all undergo this process, moving from infancy to childhood and maturity. But this general process is random, uncontrolled , and its lessons are innumerable, yet unclear. It is the special cases that seem most absorbing and illustrative. For the Enlightenment, for example, the notion of feral or "wild" children was particularly evocative. These children seemed to represent the exact point of transition between nature and civilization, and so fueled an enormous range of speculation regarding what human qualities are innate and what socialized, and whether socialization is an ennobling or corrupting process. Scholars, as Philippe Pinel wrote in 1800, "were delighted at the possibility of studying the rudimentary character of man and of finding out the nexus of ideas and moral sentiments which are independent of socialization" (Lane 58). The wild child provided an appar- Testing Literature ent test of human nature, though with ambiguous results. The affectionate and generous Kaspar Hauser seemed to confirm a Rousseauean view of natural goodness—"a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 109-137
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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