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Nurturing the language instinct, further west back to where you once belonged

NYC—Nov. 13, 2012

It's 3:30 a.m. & i'm wide awake in America. 'I'm not sleeping, oh no.' (it's called jetlag, Bono). Typing this on my duct-taped-together laptop in the bathroom of a hotel on 96th & Broadway. Sitting on the toilet, with the lid up because it's cheap plastic that slips & slides & feels like it might break if i sit on it.

We are back in New York, sort of .. 'a sort of homecoming,' you could say .... not sure why lyrics from The Unforgettable Fire keep popping in my head. Or from this other U2 song which i don't like nearly as much: 'We touched the ground at JFK, snow was melting on the ground,' .. & indeed there was some leftover snow melting in a big pile at the airport upon arrival .... but more significantly, signs of flood damage leftover from Sandy (the A train from the airport still not running so we settled for the E to B). .. & here we are now, close to Harlem, though far from angels .... & word is now it's flooding in our x-home of Italy. A day after i gave up waiting for a flood.

When i woke up on our last morning in Rome, it was this dialogue from A Few Good Men running through my head:

«... he was asleep in his bed at midnight, and according to you he was getting on a plane in six hours, yet everything he owned was hanging neatly in his closet and folded neatly in his footlocker. You were leaving for one day and you packed a bag and made three phone calls. Santiago was leaving for the rest of his life, and he hadn't called a soul and he hadn't packed a thing...»

Again, i'm not sure why. Or why the words «Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona» keep running through my head (except that Tucson is where we spent the decade before a decade in NYC). But i didn't intend this post to be about Jojo or Bono or Tom Cruise or New York, or our homecoming even. I intend this post to be more about the other, western edge of America & what's beyond that edge. And as always, language. About some things i have been thinking about in the writing of West of Kingdom Come & reading Steven Pinker.

Then again, these posts always end up being about something other than what i set out to write about in the first place, which is sort of the point. In this case to be hijacked by associative lyrics that form the soundtracks of our lives.

To ground it chronologically, for the record, after Palermo, we returned back to Rome. Or at least i returned to Rome. J was with me as far as Fiumicino airport & then she boarded another plane back south to Ethiopia. I spent 5 days or so by myself in an orange-walled apartment in the hilly Monteverde area of Rome, mostly working on West of Kingdom Come on a sunny balcony & eating faro & lentils. J came back & then a filmographer, L, from Paris came & made this short film about j, which i'll show or link to in the next post. Suffice to say, L walked around filming us as we showed him all our old food-related haunts in Rome & interviewed j's friends & colleagues .... an interesting way to spend our last 2 days there.

Meanwhile, our worldly possessions were taken to port & the word received today is that they are in transit aboard this very ship, the CSAV Brasilia:

CSAV Brasilia

Ark in which our in-animate possessions are being shipped


And yesterday we flew FCO to JFK. On the plane i read The Language Instinctlanguage instinct by Steve Pinker. For the most part i dug it, but it's fairly academic & dry.... not that it's a tedious textbook-ish grammar book about how language works (which actually, for the most part that's what it is) .. but academic in all the pompous polemics surrounding linguists & professors. The bulk of the book consists of all these case studies & numerous lengthy quoted passages, which although for the most part were interesting, i'm not sure what Pinker brings to the table. I felt the same way about The Information by James Gleick (which i talked about in the post before last), but with Gleick it's more forgivable since he is more of an all-purpose non-fiction science writer, whereas Pinker is too self-absorbed in his linguist role to see the big picture .... stuck as he is under the tyrannical wing of Chomsky.
Steven Pinker: Language Instinct

In any case, i am always interested in reading about language & it's a good enough survey, chocked full of fascinating examples & food for thought. And Pinker seems more grounded & down-to-earth to me than the last-word-freak Chomsky. I think i decided to read Pinker because in a book i read last year in Kenya (The First Word by Christine Keneally), he seemed to be the linguist i could most relate to all of the ones Keneally mentions. Though what rubbed me wrong about The First Word still also rubbed me wrong about The Language Instinct .. in the parts where Pinker talks about other animals learning language .. how myopic & anthropomorphic linguists can be, revering «language» as some holy thing that only we humans have. I still cringed when Pinker talks as such, but the way he puts it seems a little more agreeable in the sense that the way humans use grammar & syntax is what is unique to us .. specifically in regards to our brand of language, that apparently is baked into our genes. Even through all this research & study of this past century, though, i think it was Darwin who put it best. 

«Darwin concluded that language ability is "an instinctive tendency to acquire an art," a design that is not peculiar to humans but see in other species such as song-learning birds.»

But what really bothered (or bored me) about Pinker is that he has no balls. He doesn't take a stand on anything .. he just seems like another hen-pecked linguist in Chomsky's coop, rehashing all the same old stories (there was also some overlap with The Information). And the language & style in which Pinker writes is dry & ball-less. And when he does take a stand, he often sounds like a pompous ignoramus. Like when he makes this declaration (in talking about children raised by wild animals):

«In a Darwinian animal kingdom it would be a spectacularly stupid bear that when faced with the good fortune of a baby in its lair would rear it rather than eat it. Though some species can be fooled by foster offspring, like birds by cuckoos, bears and wolves are predators of young mammals and are unlikely to be so gullible.»

I may be just as ignorant as Pinker in calling him an ignoramus without knowing what i'm talking about, but it seems he is the one that is "spectacularly stupid" to make such vague generalizations. Dogs are wolves & there are plenty of cases of dogs adopting ducks & other animals, which i'm sure you've seen on cute overload. And to call all bears predators of young mammals seems a stupid thing to say .. considering bears are for the most part vegetarian. Draw your own conclusions from these clips of animal behavior in the wild (& there's loads more we've all seen in captivity, of tigers raising pigs, cats raising squirrels, etc), but it seems to me babies are babies & sometimes the instinct to nurture is stronger than the instinct to kill—enough so that the cases of feral humans raised by animals doesn't seem so far-fetched.


NYC—Nov. 16, 2012

I've been sending out some excerpts from West of Kingdom Come to various places (the first of which was published in the final elimae) & i've been including this verbiage to explain what it is:

West of Kingdom Come is a sort of steam-punk retelling of the Remus & Romulus myth, set on the Oregon coast. Instead of two brothers, the she-wolf delivers a mixed liter of mongrel children & dogs, fathered by a rogue member of the Lewis & Clark expedition. The mixed liter are abandoned, left to their own devices to make sense of the cold world they inherit in the name of manifest destiny. More than anything though, it is about the language.

This is the thinking anyway, the mindset i assume in imagining what language might come to feral children & dogs whose only exposure to language are a few books & journals left by their drunk father. I've been reading the journals of Lewis & Clark (which University of Nebraska has kindly posted in their entirety) for inspiration & part of what makes it interesting is how spectacularly 'bad' the writing is, unevolved, rife with spelling errors & inconsistencies. The language of WoKC is derived from this in part & also mixes in elements of Chinook jargon (the pidgin barter language used by natives & fur-traders in them parts).

My fascination with Lewis & Clark probably has to do with my being born in Oregon. We spent many a weekend at the beach near Astoria (the end of the road for Lewis & Clark) & also exploring legs of the Oregon trail (which Lewis & Clark paved the way for). My father, who's father & his fathers were from them parts, was obsessed with such things. You can't help but wonder if the people from those parts, derived as they are from such a driving sense of westward expansion, are genetically different than, those that stayed in the original 13 states, or those that didn't bother to come to America in the first place. The west coast of America was the final frontier & it was our fathers' duties (for better or worse) to populate it, by the doctrine of manifest destiny. This is the legacy i've inherited, like it or not. You can roam the world all you want & live where you want to live, but you can't change where you are from.

This is some of the thinking behind West of Kingdom Come, in my mind anyway. What it means to others might be a different story depending on where you're coming from.

Last night we saw Sharon Van Etten. Before seeing her live, i liked her music. Now i'm not sure i can stomach listening to her anymore. She is boring live & seems full of her self. The same song after the same song (even she made a joke about that, amongst the many 'facts about me' she revealed) .. & New Yorkers continue to applaud such mediocrity (one of my pet peeves about the big apple before leaving). It's one thing to have a good voice & it's another what you do with it. The singer from Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner (who in my opinion is doing much more with her voice than Van Etten), was there & Thurston Moore also showed up with his band & the dude from the Antlers. The guitar player from The National also played with her, though i'm not sure what he brang except half-strumming the same chords as her in the background. At one point there were 5 celebrity guest musicians with guitars all strumming the same monotonous chord & crooning babbling lyrics that don't mean anything. She seemed to just want to surround herself with famous musicians & all hug each other, as if she had already had a long & illustrious career & now was dying of cancer & this was her farewell tribute concert or something. 'Serpents' is one hell of a song though, i'll give her that much.

And to think i missed Miranda Mellis reading at McNally Jackson to see the show .. though i did meet her for an enchilada & beer before. She has two new books out that i'm looking forward to reading (more on that in a subsequent post). Caught part of another event at McNally a few days ago for the Dorothy Project, a project started by Danielle Dutton that also has some interesting books to look forward to. Anyway, this is what i've been doing mostly these past few days in Gotham, besides running, writing & filling my belly full of non-Italian food. In a few days we leave far east to destination unknown ....


 >> next: Spanish inquest I: a gaudy & quixotic unravelogue

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