Julian Jaynes on consciousness and language: Part 1

Every once in a while, a genuine breakthrough in science remains unnoticed (or almost unnoticed) and unabsorbed in the relevant domain of knowledge for a long time. The history of science knows many such episodes — but, of course, only those that were “found” and appreciated later on, when the domain was ready, or the intellectual climate has changed. There might have been more — either still waiting to be found, or forgotten forever, or otherwise rediscovered afresh by someone else.

August Rodin. The thinker
August Rodin. The thinker

I’ve come to believe Julian Jaynes’s “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” (1976) may be such a breakthrough — if not exactly unnoticed, but certainly underappreciated and unabsorbed by the domains of knowledge which his theory might potentially change. There are many of them — from psychiatry to archeology; the book is refreshingly cross-disciplinary in our age of increasingly stifling specialisation. There might not be a single scholar active in the world today who would be competent enough to evaluate the theory in all its details. As for me, I can only speak for linguistics — the only domain I used to work in — and I truly wish I knew about this book when I did; in fact, I wish it were (formally or informally) part of required reading for all linguists.

Not because Jaynes was necessarily right in all details and nuances of his theory (he probably wasn’t), but because the book questions some very fundamental, core assumptions of the domain — and when they are challenged, it turns out that they aren’t really justified by much more than “common beliefs” and overall intellectual climate of the age. Personally, one of the most life-consuming projects of my years in linguistics both originated and, ultimately, failed, because of my own unquestioned belief in these received assumptions (this research project is way too technical to discuss in the context of this site — and, as I said, it was a failure anyway — but, come to think of it, this work had probably prepared my mind for Jaynes’s book. It may also be, of course, that this is just how my consciousness prefers to build my personal narrative, my own story of my life — just because it would be too hard to accept all those years as total waste).   

Luckily for us all, Jaynes was also an excellent writer, and his book is written as though for an intellectually curious layman (rather than just for peers, as scholarly books usually are). Given the cross-disciplinary scope of the book, he probably had no other choice: a peer in one domain is inevitably a layman in another. I may be better versed in general linguistics than he was, but I am certainly nothing but a curious layman in all other domains he touches upon; but even in linguistics, although I do find some details of the theory doubtful (and certainly often speculative), yet it is still an enlightening, even eye-opening read overall.

Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911
Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911

More importantly still, it was a mind-opener on a more personal level. It has changed the way I see other people, and the world, and my own place in it. In particular, it changed — for me — the historical and intellectual context of this project, Sonnets in Colour, so I will certainly write about it more here in the future. But the book should certainly be read in its mind-boggling entirety — it is really a brilliant book: I am not at all surprised that it is still in print, after nearly forty years since it was first published.        

One of the key points of Jaynes’s theory is that consciousness, the subjective human mind as we experience it, could emerge only at a certain, and relatively recent, stage of language evolution. To put it even more strongly, consciousness is generated by language, and lots of things must have happened in the evolution of language from its humble beginnings as rudimentary communication system before such a thing as modern consciousness could become possible.  

But what is consciousness? It is simultaneously most self-evident and most elusive thing in the world. Most self-evident because it is our immediate experience of the world (as we know it, or, more precisely — as we know that we know it). Most elusive because we tend to understand things by way of comparing them with something more familiar, more evident, more directly accessible to our outward-directed senses — in short, by finding an appropriate metaphor from the “real world”. But, as Jaynes writes:    

“If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.”

Incidentally, as far as I could gather, much of the controversy around Jaynes’s theory when it was first published was generated by huge differences in how the very word, “consciousness”, was understood (and a range of derivative words, corresponding to — supposedly — different types of consciousnesses, have been introduced since then, which didn’t make things much clearer). It was not, I believe, because of Jaynes’s failure to define what he is talking about, nor of his readers’ failure to understand his definition. It might just be in the nature of consciousness to hide from itself, to resist observation and analysis: turning consciousness upon itself makes one quite giddy and all but makes the concept itself dissolve into thin air.

And it’s also in consciousness’s nature to present itself as a much deeper, larger, essential part of our mental life than it really is. However it is defined, it is clear that a lot happens in our minds without us being conscious of it at all. Jaynes himself uses the metaphor of flashlight:

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

I’ve used the word “metaphor” twice in this post so far, but there are hundreds of metaphors in it already. Just for instance, I called consciousness a thing a couple of paragraphs above, just because it easier to talk about things; that’s how nouns of our languages work, even though we routinely use them to point to things which aren’t things at all (like consciousness, for example). And just now, I said that nouns “work”, implicitly drawing in the metaphor of language as some sort of machine. That’s the way we talk, mostly without noticing it and, as a matter of habit, using metaphors that are already deeply embedded in our languages. But the way we talk is, more or less, the way we think, at least consciously — and this understanding is at the core of Jaynes’s argument.

And there is an important historical dimension to it, because metaphors that are now so deeply embedded in languages that we don’t even recognise them as such were once quite fresh and new — like, for example, Jaynes’s metaphor of consciousness as flashlight above. And before they were new, they didn’t exist at all — it took a long, long time to extend language’s capacity to its current familiar state, and for all this time consciousness as we know it couldn’t exist.

Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924
Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924

I will return to the topic of metaphors and Jaynes’s idea of their consciousness-generating potential next week. For now, let me introduce one essential example of metaphor: the mind-space, that inner space into which one can go to think, to ask oneself questions, to recall one’s memories or to imagine the future, where one can see solutions and grasp complex ideas — in other words, the space where consciousness “takes place”. Jaynes writes:

“<…>when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least ‘look’ in different directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterise this space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.”

Not only do we “have” this space within our heads, but we also assume it in others, even though

“we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. <…> It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own and other people’s heads, knowing perfectly well that they don’t exist anatomically; and the location of these ‘spaces’ is indeed quite arbitrary. The Aristotelian writings, for example, located consciousness or the abode of thought in and just above the heart, believing the brain to be a mere cooling organ since it was insensitive to touch or injury.”

Wherever it is located, this illusionary inner space seems absolutely essential to the very existence of conscious thought, and it is implied in a whole range of everyday words and expressions. But where does it come from, and when did it originate?

I’ll be back with Jaynes’s answer to this question next week — please stay tuned!

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These present-absent with swift motion slide: On painting sonnet 45

Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013


The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 45


This is the second painting of the diptych for two sonnets, forty fourth and forty fifth; in a sense, another essay on the same question: the source of landscapes’ power to touch our emotions, to express a state of mind.

The first painting explores one answer, suggested by the theory of four elements: looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being because they are composed of the same fundamental elements. Another answer — or maybe just another version of the same answer, I am not sure — has to do with the way our brains create what we see from the input of our senses.   

What one sees, and how one sees it, is not just “what is there”. The image is modulated by the beholder’s state of mind. The brain doesn’t just perceive what’s presented to the eyes; it creates an image based both on the sensory information and on its own state —  it’s not for nothing that “rose-coloured glasses” became an idiom. And a painted landscape — in contrast to a natural one — contains as it were both the view and a pair of mind-altering glasses created by the painter: as the beholders share in the way the artist re-created the view, so they share in the state of mind intrinsic to this recreation.

Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.
Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that the state of mind perceived by the beholder is identical to the state of mind consciously intended (or unconsciously channelled) by the artist; nor that you and I will have the same emotional reaction while looking at the same painting. Obviously, each viewer adds their own “inner glasses”, tinted by their own mood and life experiences, and their brain recreates the image once again (by the way, looking at a painting together with friends opens this quite unique channel of communication — an opportunity to compare your ways of seeing the world).

Even if the viewers’ perceptions will inevitably vary, and the artist knows that, a landscape usually represents a unified, harmonious image: in a sense, one state of mind, one mood. But this conventional approach wouldn’t do for painting the forty fifth sonnet, where the mood changes back and forth quickly, as though something happens within the time frame of writing the sonnet, even but now:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

 Some commentators believe that these assurances of fair health must come from a letter (arriving just as the poet is pouring his depression into the sonnet).

I don’t think so. The whole point of the sonnet is in this incredible swiftness with which one’s thoughts and desires move (sliding from here to there and back):

The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

I believe it has nothing to do with letters, and everything to do with the very nature of our thought processes, and the barely controllable rapidity of their unpredictable jumps from place to place, from subject to subject, from memory to imagination. Our thoughts don’t need letters (or any other external stimuli) to change from moment to moment; they change all the time as it is (unless one happens to be fully immersed in something truly challenging and/or exciting — but more about this later).

In my experience, there are people who know this about themselves, and those who don’t. Maybe there are even some sages who are exempt (from what I’ve read, a lifetime of meditation practice can probably do that to a person), and it’s never a good idea to generalise too broadly from one’s own experience — people, I am finding, may differ from one another more than we (or I, at least) tend to assume. Still, I believe that some people are unaware of this swift motion within themselves simply because consciousness does its best to conceal it from us and present itself as a more consistent and reliable guide to reality than it is. As Tor Norretranders writes in his book on consciousness, it is a very good liar. But these lies can be unmasked with a smallest attempt at introspection: just close your eyes, wait for the first thought to occur and make your best effort to keep it there, in the focus of your conscious attention, unchanged.

My guess is that you’ll find your thoughts flying somewhere else fairly quickly, within a minute; suddenly, you are somehow — you don’t know why and wherefore — thinking about something else entirely. If that’s the case, you are in good company, because this, I am sure, is what this sonnet is about.     

So am I trying to say that a human being is incapable of consistently focused thinking (not even Shakespeare)?

Of course not. The modern science seems to have discovered the neural underpinnings of two “modes”: one is a mind concentrated, immersed in something, “in the flow”, and the other is a mind left to its own devices, wandering, “absent” (they call the latter “default mode”). It’s in the “default” state that one’s thoughts and desires jump from “here and now” to other places (and moments in time) all the time.

My guess is that focusing on the very experience of one’s thoughts and desires being elsewhere — concentrating enough for the experience to emerge as a poem — would “switch” the brain’s mode to the state of complete immersion in the process. If so, then it is this immersion in creating a sonnet that brings the thoughts and desires (slight air and purging fire) back to the poet to restore life’s compositioneven but now — and then this meta-experience itself goes into the poem, too. But once it’s recognised for what it is, the thoughts and desires immediately go straight back to the original experience of separation and longing.

Where does this leave me as far as my painting “translation” is concerned?

The thing is, the painting process — at its best, at least — has the same effect; it vacillates between a state of mind (or an emotional state, if you wish) the painter brings to the view to begin with and the (completely different) state of focused interaction between the painter and the painting, the flow of painting — when life’s composition is restored. At a risk of oversimplification, there is a joy in a painting going well even if it expresses (or is intended to express) sadness. My challenge, then, was to express this meta-experience of swift vacillation in a single painting (while still holding the painting together as a unified visual impression).

To do so, I have made a compositionally risky decision to follow the sonnet in its reliance on the theory of four elements and four humours.

The view itself contains, of course, all four elements — earth, water, air and fire (if you accept the sun as a manifestation of fire). It is, originally, a real-life view from Anchor Bay in Northern California; the painting is based on this plein air study.

Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay.
Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay. 12″×16″. Oil on linen panel. 2013.

But the four elements also make their appearance as “states” of human mind, in the way — or, to be more precise, in the multiple ways — the view is re-created in the painting. The painting is structured as four overlapping squares — roughly corresponding to water, earth, fire and air if you look at the painting clock-wise beginning from the bottom left. I think of them as four semi-transparent slides, four pairs of “inner glasses” through which the inner state of mind modulates one’s way of seeing what’s presented to the senses.

In the centre of the painting, where all four squares overlap, all elements are united to recure life’s composition.

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On compassion as co-feeling

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. — Fyodor Tyutchev [/feature_headline]

In 1978 my father, Sergey Maslov, started a small underground (samizdat) magazine in St.Petersburg (then Leningrad), called ‘Summa’ (‘The Sum’). It was a really small affair: only eight copies ‘printed’ (meaning ‘typewritten’), four for Leningrad and four for Moscow.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death's eternal cold
Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas

Typewritten copies, sometimes barely readable: that’s the form our most interesting reading took in those days. That’s how I first read Orwell’s “1984”, and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and even something as seemingly apolitical and innocent as Nabokov’s “The Gift”. Since the copies were so scarce, one often had to read really fast (it wasn’t unusual to get a book for one night only). Both production and distribution of these uncensored texts were punishable offences, because they were deemed, by virtue of being uncensored, “anti-Soviet” (the reading of them, remarkably, wasn’t illegal).

My father started “The Sum” because he painfully felt the chasm between two schools of free (uncensored) political thought: atheist, Europe-oriented liberals and orthodox, conservative, anti-Western “Slavophils”. This chasm began when Peter the Great first tried to “westernise” his empire in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and then kept reemerging whenever a brief period of even limited political freedom occurred in the Russian history. As crippled as the freedom was in the seventies, it was still a freedom compared with Stalin’s times — and the chasm was there again. “The Sum” was an attempt to heal it, to inspire mutual understanding, and my father used the Russian word for compassion to describe the only path to it he saw.

Although I translated the Russian word he used (сочувствие) correctly just now, it has a broader semantic range than the English ‘compassion’. At one point in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera halts the story to make a similar linguistic point. Here is what he says:

“All languages that derive from Latin form the word ‘compassion’ by combining the prefix meaning ‘with’ (com-) and the root meaning ‘suffering’ (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance — this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means ‘feeling’ (Czech sou-cit, Polish współ-czucie, German Mit-gefühl, Swedish med-känsla). In languages that derive from Latin, ‘compassion’ means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathise with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, ‘pity’, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer (French, pitié; Italian, pieta; etc.). ‘To take pity on a woman’ means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word ‘compassion’ generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word ‘compassion’ not from the root ‘suffering’ but from the root for ‘feeling’, the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion — joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, Polish współczucie, German Mitgefühl, Swedish medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915.
Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915. 80.5×99.5 cm.

English, of course, doesn’t (strictly speaking) derive from Latin, but it has a long-standing habit of borrowing words without translating them part-by-part, and that’s how Middle English borrowed the word ‘compassion’ from Old French. Its inner structure has had no power over its meaning, since the word ‘suffer’, albeit also originally from Latin, had been borrowed even earlier, via the Anglo-Norman route. I suppose ‘compassion’ could have linked itself to the word ‘passion’ in the course of language evolution, but it didn’t — so for the sake of Kundera’s sweeping comparison, English belongs with French and Italian.

I am not completely sure Kundera is right about all languages that created this word by translating its components (as with-feeling, or co-feeling); the secret power of word’s inner structure doesn’t necessarily work in the same way even in similar circumstances. But, obviously, he is right about Czech — except he also felt the need to make this point within his novel, which, after all, was written in Czech. Come to think about it, one doesn’t go into lengthy linguistic asides for every word one uses in a novel, unless there is a certain semantic fluidity, maybe a not fully realised potential, some intrinsic variability in the word’s meaning (I wrote about this potential for instability in words describing inner experiences in an earlier post).

Or maybe this thought crossed my mind just because I feel this instability in Russian. Its word for ‘compassion’ has the same inner structure as in Czech or German, translated part-by-part from Greek, as co-feeling, so the structure exerts a similar pressure on its meaning. Since the structure is quite transparent, the word would connect itself — quite literally, on the neural level — to feeling with in each new brain where it is ‘replicated’ in childhood. My own version of this word is certainly inherited from my father, but I am not sure this particular ‘mutation’ of its meaning has ever been common among the speakers of Russian. I remember he used to separate the prefix from the root by a hyphen in writing, со-чувствие, as though he wanted to re-awaken this inner structure and its semantic potential in his readers’ minds.

Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628.
Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628. Oil on oak panel. 72×55 cm.

The meaning he had in mind was, I believe, close to Kundera’s ‘emotional telepathy’, but more intellectual than romantic: it was co-feeling as a path to understanding another’s thoughts, truly understanding them; a path that lies through feeling another’s feelings: the feelings that fuel thoughts, and the feelings invoked by thoughts. A synthesis between co-feeling and co-thinking. At least that’s how I understood him.

This variation on the theme of compassion can be traced back to a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, a nineteenth century Russian poet. He wrote: We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. Like the word ‘grace’ points to the experience of unity with the divine, so ‘compassion’, in this sense of co-feeling, points to the experience of unity with other human beings.

Both Kundera’s experience of the supreme form of romantic love, and my father’s experience of the supreme form of intellectual communion — both these experiences certainly exist, which is to say, they are possible. But I am afraid they don’t really have names, not even in Czech and Russian, respectively, because these meanings are hidden – drowned, as it were, in the semantic pond of compassion. In his linguistic aside, Kundera tells us that the words for co-feeling are used “in approximately the same way” as their French (and English) counterparts (and if they are used in approximately the same way, then, mutatis mutandis, they have approximately the same meaning).   

I am afraid these experiences belong to what Hannah Arendt calls, following René Char, “inheritance with no will-and-testament”, a treasure occasionally found by some, but lost again and again — because there is no name, no “tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is” (Hannah Arendt “Between Past and Future”). And that’s a pity, because these are glorious treasures, aren’t they?

But what can one do? No one can create a tradition by themselves (it requires a multitude by definition), but anyone can contribute. It’s always like this with languages: no single speaker can change a language, but everyone can add to a language change — just by talking in a certain way, and thereby influencing others. It’s a peculiar process, language change: with few exceptions, it’s impossible to pinpoint its beginning, because a novel usage would pop up here and there, sometimes for a long time, without any apparent long-term effect. And then, out of the blue, it takes off and spreads — and the change is complete in what seems like no time, as though it has always been that way.      

Isn’t that what Milan Kundera was doing with his aside about a particular meaning of soucit — willing the experience into the future? And my father with his consistent use of сo-чувствие — both in “The Sum”, and in other writings, and in talking? It certainly feels like an inheritance, willed to me in the most primal sense — I’ve always known where this treasure is, and its worth (even if it took me some time to realise it). Finding it, though — ay, there is the rub.


On the miracle of mutual understanding

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. [/feature_headline]

Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.
Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.

Have you ever wondered what a miracle it is that we are able to understand one another at all, even if imperfectly, when we talk about inner, invisible things, about the contents of consciousness?
I used the word thing in the previous sentence, even though these inner states and events are not really things at all, and herein lies one aspect of this mystery. The words of our languages are well-adapted to point to something in the outer world (and, come to think about it, we ourselves are well-adapted to orient ourselves in this world). But when the mind turns upon itself, it all quickly grows increasingly confusing.

Consider how a child learns a word like table or tree. In understanding the meanings of these words, she is helped along by all the tables and trees she sees around her; she only has to understand that that is what the adults are “pointing to” with these particular words (and children are really good at it, that is how we are able to acquire our native languages so easily). And so these words are able to re-create themselves in newly arriving brains with a high degree of what geneticists call fidelity of replication: you can be fairly sure that the word table in your child’s brain is a good, faithful copy of the same word in your own brain.

But what about love, or shame, or courage? The faculty of language acquisition we are born with ensures that a child would guess that there is an inner state such a word must point to, and try to identify this hypothetical state with something she feels in herself. Nowadays, parents are often advised to try and understand what their child is feeling and name these feelings for them. I am not sure how many parents actually try to do that, and how accurately they are able to identify their child’s feeling even if they do. But it certainly wasn’t a common parenting practice over the course of our languages’ evolution; most children are, and have always been, on their own in this daunting task.

It doesn’t help that some states of mind are supposed to be experienced much later in life, when the normal age of language acquisition is long since over, and we have lost the childhood’s natural ability to acquire language as though by osmosis. How many times was a youngster’s question about love answered with something like “You’ll know it when it happens”? (And then, when she finally believes that she knows, she is quite likely to be told that what she feels cannot be “real love”…)

And languages differ wildly in what a child is supposed to be able to understand and experience. In Russian, for instance, the word for conscience was borrowed very long ago from Greek by translating its components, as co-knowledge (Russian, со-весть) and belongs by now to a very basic vocabulary: generally, a Russian child is supposed to infer, at a very early age, that she is expected to have something within that is able to tell right from wrong (and in exactly the same way, I might add, that it does within her parents, because, obviously, the word is most often mentioned when a child misbehaves in one way or another). And if she doesn’t feel that she has it? Well, it’s just too bad to even think about.

But there is more: the faculty of language acquisition works in such a way that a child must believe that different words must point to different things; it really helps in learning words like apple and pear; in the domain of mental states, this leads one to the unconscious assumption that there are as many distinct feelings, states of mind, mental faculties, etc. as there are words in one’s native language for them. Can this be true, in view of how widely languages vary even in size (let alone the details) of their mental and emotional vocabularies? Frankly, I am not sure.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that there is now a new word, alexithymia, for inability to name one’s own emotions — a personality trait supposed to characterise about ten percent of the general population (it would be interesting to learn whether this percentage depends on the native language). All in all, it seems stranger that most of us somehow succeed in this seemingly hopeless endeavour of establishing a correspondence between the words of our languages and our own states of mind, at least enough to go through life believing that we actually do have shared meanings for these words (in spite of constant misunderstandings and failures of communication).

But even if we do succeed, it seems clear that the fidelity of replication must be much, much lower for mental and emotional vocabulary: one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. I ran into this problem the other day, when I was trying to write about Titian’s “Man with a glove” (it was the original plan for this day’s post). I knew that the word compassion is a key to my relationship with this painting, but suddenly realised that I might have a completely idiosyncratic variant of this word living in my head.

It’s partly a matter of language interference (two languages coexisting in one brain make things even more complicated than they normally are), but not quite: at least as much, I believe, this particular mutation of meaning is part of my life’s story, and it may be more essential for the whole “Sonnets in colour” project than I understood before. And so I’ve decided to spend some time exploring the very concept of compassion, and my own mutated version of it.

I would so much like to know whether this means I also have a mutated experience of compassion, but that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We have very limited ability of comparing our experiences directly, without the mediation of words. Or art…