“… for comic effect he also drew on neglected Arabic words, including buldah, or ‘freedom from hair of the space between the eyebrows’, and bahsala, to ‘remove one’s clothes and gamble with them’.” — Christopher de Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern Struggle between Faith and Reason (2017), writing of the Lebanese Christian Maronite novelist Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1805-87) (ch. 5, Vortex, pg. 167)
“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).
The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.
And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.
Continuing reading The Power of Babel…