July 17, 2005

I cannot foresee another creative piece on the level of My Fair Lady (or its original, Pygmalion) becoming widely produced or even known any time soon. I do not say written: I myself add through this blog and other writings to the current ocean of torrential thought, but the thing about oceans is that it becomes very difficult to identify any single water droplet as in any way exceptional. Easier far to dip in a toe cautiously to determine in advance whether the current surroundings happen to be of a currently agreeable temperature, dance rapidly out of the way when they are not, and curse the vastness when it dares come across as even a little terrifying:

Water, water everywhere, / And all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.

To my eyes, the essential beauty of pieces such as these arises at least in part from a manipulation of language that suggests rather than tells; that is able to shape out hidden truths without having to explicitly describe them. We are assumed to have the capacity to understand that a single person's perspective might not contain all even of relevant information. We are assumed to be willing -- and able! -- to work a little to penetrate beyond the opaque barrier of what passes for communication, beyond the obliviousness of characters who are utterly unable to see that there might be relevancies, even to their own lives, outside their own narrow field of focus. (Our blind spots tell far more of who we are than any amount of self-description we could possibly give ... at least to those who have eyes to see us without preconception.) These are not pieces of writing where words can be taken at face value, or at least not without losing effectively the entire point.

Life does not come with annotations. Bernard Shaw saw no reason why it should, not when all we had to do was to open our eyes. Even in that most basic of relationships, predator/preyed upon: the successful predator learns and adapts to the behaviour of its prey; the successfully escaping prey similarly learning and adapting to the behaviour of those who attempt to prey upon it. The currency of survival is adaptation, learning, observation.

Yet the ability to read anything other than surface meaning into what passes for communication seems at some point to have become seriously amputated in our modern society. If it cannot be reduced into words, if it is not said directly: does it not then exist? And yet, an irony: we do not go around telling everyone directly what is of importance to us; and we frequently find it disturbing when we run into someone who does, that lack of self-censorship in adults being one of the most common expressions of cognitive impairment or delay. (It is not coincidental that the second thing our Galatea-Eliza is taught, after mastering the surface forms, is what not to say: but that only after their sculptors realise such a self-censorship is societally important ... for her, not them: her very survival depends on her understanding her societal environment, but the world bends around her sculptors sufficiently that they don't have to.) Yet we seem to assume that others should nevertheless be able to identify (and thus respect) these aspects in us ... at the same time as we see no necessity to stray in the slightest outside our own tight focus, our own private lens on the world, to wonder in the least about what others have left unsaid about themselves.

Come to think of it, the conflict in both My Fair Lady and Pygmalion (divided, interestingly, almost exactly along gender lines) can be reduced to who among the characters can successfully abrogate any responsibility, any requirement, to try to understand the others. The winners gain the world. The losers cede their soul to the image of that world.

We automatically expect to be understood, not to have to do the understanding. We talk at each others, it is for others to listen. We lecture. They learn.

(Oh, blogging irony. For what it worth, I don't think I have anything to teach -- though I might have something worth saying.)

But life does not come with annotations. It never has. At what point did we start thinking that it should?

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