A World Without Names

July 14, 2022

To pull the blinds of habit from the eyes, to see the world without names for the first time, to wonder at every age and stage, at one with it – to be alive.                 
                                                                                              -- Alastair Reid


The Lord is is in his holy temple, let all earth keep silence before him.(Habakkuk 2:20)

When I took early retirement some years ago, I decided to switch brains.  For 30 years, I had earned my living as a public affairs and government relations executive at a big insurance company in Hartford, jobs that called upon verbal and cognitive functions mostly domiciled in the left hemisphere of my brain. In retirement I became a fine arts photographer, drawing upon visual and creative functions originating in the brain’s right hemisphere.  

The notion of switching brains is a gross oversimplification, of course. We don’t normally operate with half a brain; indeed, I am a writer as well as a visual artist, which brings both hemispheres of the brain into play. Nevertheless, I find that when I look through the lens of a camera, my visual cortex predominates.  It is no longer a coherent world of objects in a particular time and place but nameless shapes, patterns, colors, the play of light and shadow on a wall.  “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” the poet Paul Valéry said. Once we put words to it, we are in the realm of thinking, not seeing. 

I have gotten particular insight into the interplay of left and right hemispheres from another writer and photographer, Quintan Ana Wikswo, who suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy as a result of a traumatic brain injury.  “I have synesthesia,” she explained.  “The two hemispheres are intimately linked, and I like to imagine the intricate fireworks in the cerebral cortex as the two chemically instigate perceptual miracles.”  She recalled one seizure when her language processing was shut down altogether for several months: “… within hours, my visual cortex had become tremendously amplified and colors, shapes, and patterns came alive with a ferocious intensity.”  She added, “I write stories when my visual processing is impaired, and make photographs when I lose the capacity for language.” 

Writing and photography are not an either/or proposition for me.  Nevertheless, I find it both useful and illuminating to be able on occasion to experience the world when it is unfettered by language.  Language turns the world into a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces carefully labeled.  Even if our left brains assemble the pieces into a coherent picture, it's not the underlying reality we see but a pattern of puzzle pieces.  As the philosopher Owen Barfield has expressed it, “The perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized.”  In effect, we have remade the world with our words and don’t even realize it.    

"The world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds -- and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds," wrote the linguist Benjamin Whorf.  "We cut nature up, organize it in this way, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way -- an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.”  Our most basic concepts about the world -- of time and space, self and other -- are learned at our mother's knee.  These are not phenomena of nature but constructs of the mind.

Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a massive stroke in 1996 that shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, much like what happened to Quintan Ana Wikswo when she experienced an epileptic seizure.  All interior chatter ceased, and Taylor lost any sense of bodily separation from her surroundings.  As a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, she understood exactly what had happened to her.   Yet she characterized her experience as a spiritual awakening, likening herself to “a genie liberated from its bottle.” Never very religious, Taylor did not suddenly get religion, at least not in any conventional sense.  As she put it, “Religion is a story that the left brain tells the right brain.” It is not a story that the right brain can express in words, nor is it a story that the left brain can understand except in words.  So where do the words of the story actually originate?

To answer that, we might look to our culture’s founding myth, the creation story in the Book of Genesis. In the beginning, so the story goes, there was not nothing at all but an earth that was “without form and void” — what Helen Keller once described as the “no world” of her original blind, deaf and dumb state, a world of sensation without meaning.  It is also a fair description of the world as it might appear to the right hemisphere of the brain, a world without names.  

Then sound emerges from silence. The first words are uttered: “Let there be light,”  and light emerges from darkness.  Each act of creation in the first chapter of Genesis begins with an utterance.  God’s words give shape to creation, separating light from darkness, firmament from waters and waters from dry land.  Stated another way: Before there are worlds there are words, everything literally called into being.  And last of all the man made from the dust of the ground in God’s image and given power to name all the other creatures.  You might say that the right hemisphere of God’s brain begets the left hemisphere. 

The creation story ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise for their disobedience.  An angel with a flaming sword is stationed at the gates of Eden, so there can no retracing one’s steps back to God.   We now experience the world predominantly through the left hemisphere of the brain, where we can know everything about God without really knowing God at all.  God has become mere religion, a story the left brain tells the right brain. We try to put names to the Nameless One and wonder why we can never quite get the puzzle pieces to fit. 

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