We are all of us products of our environment, physically, intellectually and spiritually; let’s get that front and centre, so we can anchor what’s to follow in something approaching the practical.
Our medieval forebears lived in a world where print was still something of a novelty and literacy a faculty of the elite. Books, in that day, rare and arcane as they were, commanded a strange and often magical aura to a degree which is likely lost to modern appreciation. Writing, also, was consequently a part-way otherworldly matter. Indeed, the word “spell”, as in magic, provides the root of the term “to spell”, to write out; language and magic were inherently intermixed. The scribe and the mystic thus shared curious affinities, building on the tradition of Antiquity’s itinerant holymen, whose recitals of sacred texts were themselves, of a fashion, consecrated. And these sacred texts, stories of gods and creation, of the first days of the world and the first men upon it, doubtless roll back far beyond the invention of writing, which has been with us for only five of the two-hundred-something thousand years since our species took its current form. The stories were kept alive in the oral tradition, incubated in the living lexicon, for who knows how many thousands of years – and spreading far afield thereby. Anyone who cares to look will see remarkable similarities between the numerous creation myths which sprung up in the Bronze Age Levant. We might, for instance, consider the Egyptian sun god Horace, who predates Jesus by three millennia. Horace was the son of god; born of a virgin named “Meri”; had a step-father named “Jo-Seph”; twelve disciples; was baptised aged thirty; performed miracles; was crucified and resurrected three days later. Other parallels abound and Horace is but one of many analogues. The point is that these narrative themes were well established in Antiquity and revered, having been custodianed by orators who consequently were history’s keepers, living books, so to speak, and esteemed for that reason. But human memory is unreliable. This archetypal creation myth, being filtered through the ages by word of mouth, came to acquire various incarnations, each teller offering his or her own inflections. With the advent of writing, however (in Mesopotamia as luck would have it), the inconsistencies of oral transmission could be surmounted and the word of god at last locked in place, thus setting the stage for the formation of the Abrahamic religions.
The relative fixity of the written word posed troublesome implications for oratory. Writing in effect usurped the orator’s role as the keeper of tradition. Recital by rote was no longer essential; hence oration itself was significantly deconsecrated (though not abnegated). Rather, now, it was the keepers of the books, the literate few, who enjoyed priority. In this manner, the written word began to assume a distinct elevation in the common psyche, lending the process and outcome of writing in itself an element of the divine. At the same time, the relative permanence of manuscript brought alternate cosmologies into unprecedented conflict: because these books were durable, could be transported great distances and so held in direct comparison. With similar but competing renditions of the same myth now being in locked in ink, who was to say which was the true, authoritative message? Preachers arrived at a bold solution to this ambiguity: a claim to finality. In reviewing biblical works, time and again we read that this is the last, final, conclusive prophecy; such and such, the final revelation, last prophet, and so on. This ploy against usurpation also goes a good way to explaining the preoccupation with end times, which are always, always imminent. Marking a line in the sand of time and announcing that apocalypse is nigh, makes one’s finality more final: in much the same way that retailers will announce the imminent closure of a store in order to peddle more wares, or a band will declare a coming gig to be the last. Finality and exclusivity ossify one’s stature, thus asserting priority. In this way, holymen were able to regain some of the profound exclusivity that recitation once held – while at the same time profiting on the reach and intellectual cohering effect books afforded. The strange power of the spoken word, its magical import, was thus in the process of being transferred into a new medium.
Books, as mass media, could not of course hold claim to the same as uniqueness as spoken utterance, whose production and consumption is coterminous and bound in time to a singular verbal moment, investing it with that peculiar value which is intrinsic in all things rare – stones, coins, moments. If books themselves could not, in form, replicate the rarefied qualities of recitation – and the currency it implied – their keepers sought rather to ensure exclusivity by content. Exclusivity was finality, of content, and vice versa. But distinction of this sort, where a given prophet’s message supposedly concludes the heavenly dispatch, necessarily meant that interpretive digressions, which might after all sully the good word, threatened a new mode of ambiguity. If the “last word” could be creatively interpreted as meaning something quite apart from what was generally understood, then it opened the way for multiple and perhaps radical re-readings. This was no great threat in previous eras when hardly anybody could read, but as literacy began to kindle toward the late Middle Age, the potential for fresh interpretation reared its head. Early translations of the Bible into the “common tongue” were accordingly unwelcome by the clerical elite. William Tyndale, pioneering translator, was hunted down and brutally murdered for his rendering of the Bible into English. Control over scriptural interpretation – the keeping of books and tradition – was evidently no joke.
We review these items of history not simply for their insight on mythic narrative – which, it will be seen, is paramount to current concerns – but for what they tell us about the historical development of the human psyche in relation to words. We cannot doubt that the written word possessed special importance for our ancestors – bibliolatrous – who guarded it so fiercely, who killed for it and were killed. Writing shaped the way they thought and that shaped everything else – knowledge, history, truth. The logic of the written word was the primary optic for understanding reality. Nor did this primacy conclude very long ago. Numerous transcriptions of public debates from the nineteenth century widely evidence a very literary mode of discourse of a kind which would sound very strange in mouths of modern intellectuals; of that kind which persisted steadily into the twentieth century, lingering even until the 1970s, found extant in the archaic tones of the BBC World Service. Only in the age of the screen, the twentieth century, was the written word finally subjugated; and this was a process which took some maturing. Print media still had a semblance of durability in the 1980s but who would wager their survival, three decades hence? Today, the screen dominates; it is the dominant interpretive framework through which thought becomes manifest, truth verified and authority ratified. Bibliolatry, the worship of a particular book or the description of a deity found within a particular book, is at best a dying observance. Books are becoming mute to the modern mind. We find no divinity in them, literal or tacit. Now, today, the screen is god.
It is the difference between the above two paradigms of thought – shaped by the book/shaped by the screen – that we must explore if the modern mind is to be comprehended, or at least a particular iteration thereof. Truth, previously, was the word and the word was truth: a notion which still has some reach in clerical circles of the current day. Truth was important and its medium was language. Today, this is not so. Truth is the image and what is said need not be accurate. For today’s truth has nothing to do with facts or empirical evidence; today’s truth is entirely a matter of image and effect. It is true if it feels true, because the screen’s truth is entirely emotive and utterly insubstantive. It concerns outcome not process, impression not understanding: pure effect.