After I discovered the coyote track you see in the photo, just after an October dawn on a Lake Ontario beach, I was provoked to do the post I did then on this subject. But I think it’s time to look at this question again.
How do I know that’s a coyote track and not someone’s dog? Because rain had erased all distinct tracks or markings in the sand overnight. And nowadays in Toronto, sadly to my mind, you never see a dog alone. But there were no human footprints accompanying those tracks.
Whenever I see animal tracks – in the winter I spend a lot of time finding them and following them – I’m always reminded of this obvious truth: that reading and writing are older than speech.
Though you can find that idea in my books, you’ll have a hard time finding it anywhere else. But something like it is to be found in the 1993 book by psychologist James Hillman and journalist Michael Ventura – We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.
Hillman, a Jungian renegade who fought with the Jungian establishment for decades over the true nature of C. G. Jung’s thinking, argues that our culture’s growing appetite for talking at the expense of writing is degrading language. He thought psychotherapy was contributing to this. For example, he said:
The Jungians too …… have begun to distrust written material. …. Dreams are to be recounted on the spot rather than turned into texts to be read, and the therapeutic process has come more and more to mean what goes on between people rather than the spontaneous unfolding within the psyche …as presented in written dialogues and painted images. Talk rather than writing.
Later in the book he says:
Language has been reduced to the spoken word.
But, he emphasizes, language is very old:
I want to reach back to the Egyptians and their God Thoth, the primal baboon, God of written signs.
He quotes T.S. Eliot, who, referring to the tendency of talk to confuse, jumble and obfuscate – to evade the truth rather than search for it, wrote:
Is this confused reluctance, perhaps, the very source of writing? As if the soul needs to find a way out of its own inarticulate mass by means of the hand’s deft linear skill? Writing as a thread out of the labyrinth.
Okay – though Hillman and Eliot see writing as superior to talking (which would include the superiority of reading too) they are not actually saying what I say – that writing/reading came before speech. Here is why I say that.
Most linguists and anthropologists seem to agree that the earliest that complex speech arose was about 50,000 years ago. Yet it is well-established that we, homo sapiens, had our big brains by 200,000 years ago. If we weren’t talking then, what were we doing with those brains?
If nothing else, you can be sure that we were studying the tracks of other animals.
Hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari ‘bushmen’, many other African, Asian, Australian and North American native peoples, have always claimed to be able to read the minds of animals by examining tracks they leave behind.
We were “reading” in the sand, mud and earth of the world long before we were reading in books.
And that must have led us to writing with sticks or bone tools in the sand and mud, etc., to show each other what we had seen.
In other words, reading and writing must be much much be older than talking. It’s no wonder that some of us are happiest when we are reading a book.