Lecture delivered in Melbourne in 2005

I have chosen to talk today about the relationship between language and thought, but I must warn you at the outset that I am neither a linguist nor a philosopher, so what follows is perforce impressionistic – my personal take, if you like, on the matter, arising from my experiences as a practitioner of science and also of creative writing – two careers that that I have been lucky enough to be able to pursue simultaneously, and that have demanded – in my case at least – the use of very different languages.

So how does language shape thought?

One fairly obvious way is by conditioning experience – most of us will have an intuitive feel at least for the truth of this – it is after all the basis of poetry. At a more fundamental level, however, they are the very words that we attach to objects and actions and concepts that affect our perception of them. There is a whole branch of linguistics devoted to the study of this (someone yesterday very kindly offered me its name, but it escapes me now) – but very generally we know that an apple pie can taste rather different if it is called a pudding rather than dessert. Perhaps the earliest clue that words themselves can at least subtly alter experience comes from learning a second language and appreciating that the same object can be represented by a completely different string of syllables that actually brings out a different quality of it. The word 'rain' for example is 'brishti' in my mother tongue Bengali – and to my ear all the drama of a tropical storm is present within the word 'brishti' and not so much of it in the somewhat curt 'rain'.

My exposure to a second language occured at a very early age – almost as I was learning to speak – for I was just over a year old when my parents moved to Ethiopia from Calcutta - which is where I was born, and still, in most senses, belong to. The Ethiopians were, and I am sure still are, a very proud people, and foreigners had no option but to learn their language Amharic (which has the same roots as Hebrew) if they were to survive there. This my parents did most willingly, as it was their interest in other cultures and languages that had brought them there in the first place. I, of course, acquired it naturally and spoke it alongside my mother tongue with ease – as most bilingual children clearly do. Thus, language was never a monolithic construct for me, and I was sensitized to the distance between a word and its referrent almost as I became conscious. I am not aware that being exposed this early to two languages had any particular consequences for my personal development, and Amharic is now completely lost to me, or if not lurks so deep in the recesses of my mind that it may as well not be there. In some ways, I was not even conscious of navigating between two languages, and so did not learn one of the most valuable lessons from the process of unglueing word from object – which to my mind is tolerance. Indeed, when we moved to Zambia when I was four, and I was suddenly surrounded by English speaking children, I reacted with anger rather than bewilderment – how dare they speak in a language I do not understand! – I remember thinking. Soon of course I was speaking English fluently myself, and it has occupied a prominent position in my life ever since, although I still refuse to grant it – quite irrationally of course - the same seat in my heart as my mother tongue.

So, just to summarise where I have got to so far in terms of the relationship between language and thought by indulging in my own early experiences – the demolition of a one to one correspondence between word and object is the simplest useful byproduct of learning more than one language – and in my view this is a critical step towards truly internalising the concept of tolerance, the acceptance of different styles and faiths. And although an early exposure to more than one language may have benefits with regard to fluency in both tongues, I think that too early an exposure actually detracts from the perception of the relationship between word and object as not being fixed and absolute.

Also, it is not absolutely necessary to have a knowledge of more than one language to achieve this realisation – after all, most languages contain words that are promiscuous in meaning (for example ‘train’) as well as many words that attach to the same object or concept – consider the words ‘start’ and ‘commence’, not to mention ‘begin’. In the latter case, the subtle differences between these words serve the additional purpose of taking us towards the somewhat more advanced notion that language conditions experience.

For me however, it was not so much that the same object could be represented by an entirely different set of sounds as the fact that certain words in a particular language had no equivalent in others, that concretised for me the notion the language conditions experience. My father always told me (with a certain smugness) that certain Bengali words had no English equivalent – words such as abhiman which describes a sort of gentle tremulous reproachfulness or biraha which means separation from a lover, but also contains the sublime anguish of such a condition. Biraha is a beautiful word, and of extreme poetic convenience, but I wonder whether packing the complex pain of separation into one word does not actually confine us in some ways – channel us inevitably towards a state of intense heartache. Perhaps a more fluid alliance of words and concepts, even though it may be more cumbersome, grants more freedom to the individual.

I have offered here a very impressionistic, and not at all erudite discussion of how language can condition experience, or more properly how I became aware of this, partly through my exposure to a number of languages, partly through delving into the meanings of particular words. By the time I was in my early teens, this realisation was firmly in place within me, but it was about this time that I became aware of another language that would change my life. This was the language of mathematics, and I fell in love with it for two reasons. One was its inherent beauty – a beauty that stemmed from its economy and lack of ambiguity – the very tight association between symbol and meaning, the knife-edged clarity of each statement, the leanness of its form. The other reason I became enchanted with the language of mathematics was because of what you could do with it – how you could use it to make sense of our physical universe. I devoured books on classical physics with the same emotional energy as I consumed poetry and fiction, and to this day I maintain that science and art are fuelled by the same fire – that passionate urge to understand. There is a beautiful line in a picturebook called The Sea of Tranquility by Mark Haddon (whom many of you will know as the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) – which is about a young boy obsessed with the moonlanding, and is set appropriately in 1969. The line is this: ‘He got an atlas of the moon for Christmas and he read it like a storybook’, and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Because the atlas of the moon is a storybook to those who are passionate about the landscape of the moon, and Maxwell’s equations are to me as poetry, and did haunt me once as deeply as a good poem. I am often asked whether I feel divided between my scientific persona and literary persona, and the answer is a resolute ‘no’, and I think I have just explained why. Science and writing are indeed different adventures, but behind them both is the same need – the need to comprehend a little further, a little better the world within us as well as the world without.

So where do they differ then? In language, of course. Which brings me to my second point – language affects not just experience, but also comprehension. In the case of science, this comprehension is advanced by the lack of ambiguity – whereas in literature, it is often ambiguity itself that enriches our understanding of the human condition. I fear I have witnessed a drive towards the opposite in the last few decades – with literature or at least what passes for modern fiction, being judged increasingly in terms of its clarity and ‘accessibility’, and certain types of ambiguity being tolerated within science – both, for me, symptomatic of a laziness with which society seems to be afflicted at the present time. I will give you examples of both.

First, science. Here, I shall restrict myself to my own specialised field, because as Peter Doherty mentioned in his excellent lecture on Tuesday which some of you may have attended – we are all novices in every field but our own. My love affair with mathematics never ended, and eventually I found myself engaged in the rather peculiar act of using mathematics to understand infectious disease. This is for me a very rewarding business (and also pays the mortgage and the school fees) particularly as it combines my interests in biology and mathematics. So how do you use mathematics to gain insight into infectious disease?

[Powerpoint presentation]

So I use mathematics to generate testable hypotheses about infectious disease systems, and consider it to be an indispensable tool in the both guiding experiments and making sense of them later – a process that often diverges in its purpose as Peter explained so wonderfully well in his lecture.

More recently, an industry has grown in using mathematics to predict the future, a phenomenon that is not restricted to infectious disease but stretches widely into areas such an economic forecasting and the like. I have argued before, and will argue again today that this is an extremely dangerous and highly seductive territory, where the apparent rigour of mathematics can appear to lend an illusion of certainty, an illusion even of control. There are certain situations where the level of information surrounding a particular crisis is sufficiently detailed and explicit that intelligent mathematical models can provide some insight into future, if not current, methods of control. However, many do not fall within that category. I believe it is the duty of a scientist to be explicit about the assumptions that go into a mathematical model, and even more so of the limitations of the exercise – otherwise it constitutes, to me, a frank abuse of a process that relies on the lack of ambiguity.

Having argued for the avoidance of ambiguity in science, it is only fitting that the rest of my energies should be devoted to advocating ambiguity in practice of literature. Much of the potential energy of literature lies unlocked in the gap between word and referent. This plasticity of meaning is still exploited quite explicitly in poetry, and certainly tolerated by most within this increasingly marginalised activity. Prose, however, appears these days to come under a different jurisdiction. I was happily not aware of this when I sat down, more than fifteen years ago to write my first novel – Memories of Rain. I had no preconceived desire to play with words or sentence structure, but what emerged was an English that was largely devoid of fullstops, and where clauses often belonged to both its flanking sides.

Unlike The Glassblower’s Breath, Memories of Rain received no severe criticism (first novels rarely do, if they are reviewed at all) but was definitely labelled avant-garde. This shocked me – coming as it did exactly seventy years after a work such as Ulysses was published! I am not for a moment suggesting that the richness of literature resides entirely in flouting convention. Many of my favourite authors write in perfectly grammatical sentences, using other devices such as narrative or imagery to create meaning. Indeed, I have a very high regard for prose whose complexity lies outside the structure of its sentences, but there is a certain tyranny in the expectation that we all write that way. It grieves me that the battles fought by so many writers to free us from such an expectation have not led to any sustained victory, for we all write from the heart, and if the heart eschews punctuation at that given moment, that is the only way to be true to oneself.

My reaction to punctuation is truly visceral. I physically abhor the repeated use of the full-stop. Interestingly called the 'period' by some, the full-stop to me is simply not the satisfactory musical interval between the statements or ideas that I wish to put forward. There is something too final about the full-stop – I am happy to use it judiciously, but mostly I rely on commas to separate interlinked ideas. Conversely, sometimes, the finality of a full-stop is not enough, and I need to employ paragraphs or even blank lines or a row of asterisks to create the correct pause between sections of prose. It is natural that a writer’s relationship with punctuation should be emotional. I was reading on the plane to Melbourne, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s excellent biography of Edmund Burke, and was delighted to note this phrase – 'the brackets are like handcuffs' – I may return to it later in the context of language and morality.

For the moment though, I would still like to explore why we write in sentences. I was fortunate enough last Saturday to see after a very long time, my cousin Tista Bagchi who is a distinguished linguist at the University of Delhi and happens to be writing a book on what she rather beautifully described as the archeology of the sentence. According to her, the sentence arose in English out of the need for a language suited to legal needs, and in Greek was imposed by the Stoics out of a need for logic (they called them axioms). Thus the sentence was created out the need for unambiguity. Finally, it became clear to me why I had such a visceral dislike of short sentences containing one clear idea. Again, I will stress that 'sentences' as we normally recognise them can be, and have been, very productively employed by many writers of fiction, but to demand it of all prose smacks to me of a certain fundamentalism, or at the very least the misplaced importation of the concerns of mathematics, logic and law into an arena which thrives on ambiguity rather than precision.

These two types of thinking map in some ways to what the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling, designates as the 'vertical' and the 'horizontal' search. 'If you walk in the front door of a laboratory, you undertake the vertical you get deeper into the search, you unify. You understand more and more specimens by fewer and fewer formulae. There is the excitement. Of course you are always after the big one, the new key, the secret leverage point, and that is the best of it' is how he describes the former. He is less specific about the horizontal search, but it clear from the following excerpt which he prefers:
My aunt is convinced I have a 'flair for research.' This is not true. If I had a flair for research, I would be doing research...I tried research one summer. I got interested in the role of the acid-base balance in the formation of renal calculi; really, it's quite an interesting problem. I had a hunch you might get pigs to form oxalate stones by manipulating the pH of the blood, and maybe even dissolve them. A friend of mine, a boy from Pittsburg named Harry Stern, and I read up the literature and presented the problem to [Dr] Minor. He was enthusiastic, gave us everything we wanted and turned us loose for the summer. But then a peculiar thing happened. I became extraordinarily affected by the summer afternoons in the laboratory. The August sunlight came streaming across the room. The old building ticked and creaked in the heat. Outside we could hear the cries of summer students playing touch football. In the course of an afternoon the yellow sunlight moved across old group pictures of the biology faculty. I became bewitched by the presence of the building; for minutes at a stretch I sat on the floor and watched motes rise and fall in the sunlight. I called Harry's attention to the presence but he shrugged and went on with his work. He was absolutely unaffected by the singularities of time and place. His abode was anywhere. It was all the same to him whether he catheterized a pig at four o'clock in the afternoon in New Orleans or at midnight in Transylvania. He was actually like one of those scientists in the movies who don't care about anything but the problem in their heads.– now here is a fellow who does have a 'flair for research' and will be heard from. Yet I do not envy him. I would not change places with him if he discovered the cause and cure of cancer. For he is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in. He could do research for a thousand years and never have an inkling of it. By the middle of August I could not see what difference it made whether the pigs got kidney stones or not (they didn't incidentally), compared to the mystery of those summer afternoons. I asked Harry if he would excuse me. He was glad enough to, since I was not much use to him sitting on the floor. I moved down to the Quarter where I spent the rest of the vacation in quest of the spirit of summer and in the company of an attractive and confused girl from Bennington who fancied herself a poet.
An area that seems to me to be at the cross-roads of 'vertical' and 'horizontal' thought is history. The study of history no doubt demands some level of structured thought, but the role of the imagination is also absolutely critical. I will wheel out now a quote from Isiah Berlin that conveniently appears in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s book (I travel light): We call great historians only those who are not only are in full control of the factual evidence obtained by the use of the best critical methods available to them, but also possess the depths of imaginative insight that characterises gifted novelists. To my mind, the grammar of historiography derives as much from the arts as the sciences. Here is a quote from an essay on Walter Benjamin by Margaret Cohen which may give you some sense of what I mean: Benjamin, she says with reference to his wonderful Arcades Project, was particularly interested in the potential of montage, a technique made famous by the European avant-garde of his time. For Benjamin, montage was not only a style but a philosophy of history: it entailed focusing on discontinuities separating past and present, and emphasizing a utopian rather than progressive notion of historical transformation, as a way to preserve a reservoir of hope in otherwise damaged life.
The term ‘reservoir of hope’ is helpful to me here, for it brings me to my third and final point – that language conditions morality – for what is morality but the architecture of hope, hope for the future, hope for a better understanding of the past. What do I mean by the statement that language conditions morality? I have hinted at certain aspects already – the tolerance that is bred from the uncoupling of an object from a certain set of sounds – the fundamentalism that is manifest in the insistence on conventional grammar – the deviousness that is exhibited in the misuse of mathematics by soothsayers posing as scientists and economists. I know also what I do not mean by language conditioning morality – I do not mean political correctness – for that only relentlessly beats it into a shape that accommodates and validates society’s prevailing anxieties. What I do mean, I think – and I am very much in the process of exploring this – is that language, when misapplied, gives us ample scope for hiding from the truth. And yet, it is language, in its myriad forms, when used sincerely, and as appropriate to the question that we are asking, that ultimately saves us from despair.