Etymology and the Soul

On the evolving lives of minds and words, from Oliver Sacks to the Oxford English Dictionary to T. S. Eliot.

In a 1990 essay called “Neurology and the Soul,” a piece considering then-recent books on mind, memory, and consciousness, Oliver Sacks wrote with some excitement of Gerald M. Edelman’s concept of neural Darwinism, or neuronal group selection. Elucidating Edelman’s theory of the ongoing evolution within individuals of neuronal maps that shaped perception, Sacks explained:

In each human being, things are constantly shifting in their significance, as is the underlying neurophysiological response. Neuronal groups are organized into sheets of brain tissue, called maps, which respond to different kinds of external stimuli — auditory, visual, and tactile — as well as to one another. Every neuronal map, every part of the brain, is dynamically or, in Edelman’s term, “re-entrantly” connected with every other, evolving and integrating itself in continuous “cross-talk.” The groups within the maps “speak” back and forth to one another until a coherent response is established, creating categories of things and events, to build up a picture of the world, an “inner world,” at once generalized and completely individual.

First published in the New York Review of Books, and later appearing (in, to my knowledge, its only book publication), as the Epilogue to a volume of academic papers called The Enchanted Loom: Chapters in the History of Neuroscience, edited by Pietro Corsi, issued by Oxford University Press in 1991 as №4 in its History of Neuroscience series, the Sacks essay introduced me to Edelman and his ideas. After winning the 1972 Nobel Prize for his work in immunology, Edelman set out to discover how the phenomenon of mind emerges from the brain’s bundle of tissue. As I’ve written elsewhere (his 1992 book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind, is included in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die), the most interesting aspect of Edelman’s brain research is his application of the theory of natural selection to the problem of consciousness, painting a picture — rich with physiological detail and neurological complexity — of the adaptation of the individual nervous system as it reflects the life experience of each individual human being. As Sacks — a champion of Edelman’s ideas — suggests, such an approach to consciousness seems true to life; it incarnates scientifically the specter of individuality — of sensibility, will, identity — that always haunts us.

It may be the sign of a peculiar mind, or merely suggestive of the curious connections provoked by juxtaposed reading, that I recalled “Neurology and the Soul” while reading “The Invention of Language,” the sixth chapter of Hugh Kenner’s study of literary modernism, The Pound Era, where I came upon this sentence:

Words characterize languages; languages are discriminated phases of Language; Language is the total apprehension, in time and space, of the human mind, that labyrinthine marvel.

And then went back to re-read this one, a little further up the page:

For language creates characteristic force fields. A whole quality of apprehension inheres in its sounds and its little idioms.

I saw in these words, and in the surrounding illustrations that engendered the conclusions they declare, a rhyme of sorts between the histories — maps of articulated human experience, really — hidden in the etymologies of words and the individual perception and memory embedded, and under constant revision, in the networks of Edelman’s neuronal groups.

But, as I say, maybe it was just the proximity of The Enchanted Loom and The Pound Era on the two shelves in my study reserved for books of special import to me that created this echo in my thinking. Nevertheless, I suppose, the link is more than just coincidence, the distillation of more than fifty years of reading to a few feet of significant works evincing, if not in fact creating, its own network of ideas, predilections, and arcana, its own narrative of intellectual, maybe even spiritual, development.

Not far from those two shelves is another that’s dedicated to the thirteen imposing volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary; within arm’s reach of that shelf is a stand-alone cabinet, built in my desk, holding Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Weekley’s Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, the Oxford American Dictionary, Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and Walter W. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, which, Kenner tells us, Stephen Hero — surrogate of his creator, James Joyce — read by the hour, and which caught between its covers, when issued in four parts between 1879 and 1882, a relatively new conception of what it meant to be old:

Converging evidences, geological, archaeological, biological, had but lately accustomed men’s minds to a nearly immeasurable prehistory, wherein whole languages whose descendants we speak had perished. With room for the unrecorded, what was recorded grew intelligible, and the processes Skeat could document reflect not mysterious and arbitrary corruptions, but the migrations of peoples, and minds adopting new themes.

A lithe line drawing of a crouching panther by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska graces the cover of The Pound Era, and it reappears on the title page of each chapter, reminding me that the animating insight of Pound’s art, and therefore, as Kenner has it, of an entire generation of literary inventors, may have been best epitomized by Guy Davenport in an essay on a translation of Homer’s Odyssey: “. . . words are not numbers, nor even signs. They are animals, alive and with a will of their own.” To trace a word as it follows that will, to deploy it in recognition of its path from past to present so it can conjure future sense, is to charge sentences with a currency as networked as a neuronal group’s, each phenomenon wired to the making of meaning and evolving toward it.

In the New York Review version of “Neurology and the Soul,” Sacks writes:

It is characteristic of a creature, in contrast to a computer, that nothing is ever precisely repeated or reproduced; that there is, rather, a continual revision and reorganization of perception and memory, so that no two experiences (or their neural bases) are ever precisely the same. Experience is ever-changing, like Heraclitus’ stream. This streamlike quality of mind and perception, of consciousness and life, cannot be caught in any mechanical model — it is only possible in an evolving creature.

I can’t help but smile when I note that, in revising the essay for The Enchanted Loom, Sacks changed the words in the parentheses that follow “so that no two experiences” from or their neural bases to or their expression. It’s fitting that he concludes the essay by invoking Goethe:

In his last letter Goethe wrote, “The Ancients said that the animals are taught through their organs; let me add to this, so are men, but they have the advantage of teaching their organs in return.” Through experience, education, art, and life, we teach our brains to become unique. We learn to be individuals. This is a neurological learning as well as a spiritual learning, so that finally neurology and the soul do come together completely in a way which dignifies neurology, and which is no indignity to the soul.

In the nearly three decades since Sacks wrote that paragraph (thirty years that mark the prime of my adulthood), the souls of new machines have begun to rear their material heads, swallowing learning as well as everything else. While this development may complicate our notions of neurological and spiritual being, it does not necessarily compromise the distinctions of consciousness, nor, more tellingly in the long run, the resilience of its avatar, conscience.

One day soon, algorithms may assume more power than they already have in shaping our lives, abstracting data so completely from lived experience, from the grip and caress of time, that, while we’re not paying heed, learning will be reconfigured as utility in matters small and large, its ineluctable curriculum presented as inevitable. This may not be the advance its proponents believe it to be, but rather a retreat to an earlier mode of cultural organization that it took a long time to find our way out of, and from which the kind of learning Goethe and Sacks describe redeemed us. Algorithms are Old Testament gods: inscrutable, unforgiving, all-seeing except for the blind spots that, given the miracles enacted at their bidding, the faithful can opportunistically ignore, for what is bestowed upon the chosen are rewards for looking past the prejudice inherent in their choosing.

In “The Invention of Language,” Kenner delivers a concentrated lesson on the history of ideas about the nature of language and the character of words, illustrating how advances in linguistic research informed, broadly, the aesthetic of literary modernism, and, particularly, as in this passage, the inspirations of T. S. Eliot:

By 1788 the resemblances among Sanskrit, Greek and Latin had suggested to Sir William Jones the common source we now call Indo-European, to which is ascribed for instance the root lexicographers write *DA. In The Waste Land, whose author (1921) was less than ten years out of a Sanskrit classroom, DA is the voice of the god in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad speaking thrice out of thunder, as though dictating elements in Herder’s Dictionary of the Soul. DA becomes Datta, give, Dayadhvam, sympathize, Damyata, control: an etymology which makes sympathy and control not a sentiment and an interference but forms of giving. Primitive wisdom; and we can sense how Datta of the heavenly injunction has ravelled from language to language, culture to culture, by way of a Latin past participle to an English noun: the mere “data” beneath which minds perish. And by appending to the three Sanskrit thunderclaps a medley of the subsequent tongues of Europe, Eliot invokes some two centuries’ philological effort to recover the deepest memories of the tribe.

Magpieing among my books as I nurse pneumonia on my sixty-fifth birthday, I string my reading together for the pleasure of mapping my own network of intuitions, hoping I’ll find a soul in all these sentences, or at least feel it breathing between the lines. After all, what is the soul but a personal narrative, all the threads of our existence and attention — factual and fanciful, fateful and ephemeral, natural and artificial — woven into one unfinished tapestry whose figures and colors give shape to our being even as its image eludes us, for how can we step back far enough from our weaving to see its pattern and promise entire? So I put words together and then take them apart, remembering, as the reading I’ve plundered here has taught me, that ellipses are as crackling as synapses with meaning being made.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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