A Separate Word

Hector:  May I make a suggestion? Why can they not all just tell the truth?
Irwin:  It’s worth trying, provided, of course, you can make it seem like you’re telling the truth.
-Alan Bennett, The History Boys (83)

IMG_1272It seems an obvious point to say that plays are meant to be seen, not read, but we don’t always have the luxury. A woman I met recently suggested that I might like the play, (but not the film) The History Boys. It took me most of the first act to get my eyes to work with my brain so that I could put the scene together in my head. I kept forgetting to READ who was speaking.

Timms:  I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.


Hector:  But it will Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys (30).

I recently read an excerpt of the book Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger and I believe it relates to my problem:

Research indicates that English-speaking subjects also have discrete systems within the brain for the aural understanding and the silent visual understanding of language (3). 

The Latin word “to read,” I learned at a lecture in the fall, actually has two root meanings: to read, yes, obviously, but also “to choose.” Ancient languages did not separate words, so one had “to choose” one’s words. According to Saenger, it was Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who had shaky comprehension of Latin that began to add spaces. This addition is what gave our brains the ability to read silently: without mouthing or voicing the words. Silent reading makes it possible to read at theretofore unknown speed. A child learning to read, (or me trying to read Italian or French) must mouth or say the words, in fact children’s initial writing usually does not have spaces as that is not how they hear it. But once we make the jump (elegantly moving over the spaces) – the literary world is our oyster. With silent reading, we no longer even read strictly right to left, or all the words contained within a sentence, for that matter.

Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process  of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the Medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance (13).

I’m deeply indebted to the Irish monk’s sub par linguistic skill. That being said, I had to get a little remedial in order to “read” something that should really be seen and heard. I was forced to slow down and hear it.

Dakin:  Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings virtually on a daily basis.
Are we scarred for life, do you think?

Sripps:  We must hope so.
Perhaps it will turn me into Proust (77).

Once my brain cooperated, the life of the play came to be. The stupidity of hypocrisy and academic hollowness, sad fumblings,  defensive cynicism, and disappointed ambitions, live right alongside satisfaction in the small moments of human affection, understanding and connection. The History Boys is poignant, clever, and cautionary.

The words matter. The mental prowess displayed in The History Boys is fun, acerbic, and invigorating, but as Bennett elucidates so smartly, intellect for intellect’s sake is a pyrrhic victory. The war of meaning is won in the spaces and silences.

It ought to renew…the young mind; warm, eager, trusting; instead comes…a kind of coarsening. You start to clown. Plus a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference (95). 

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4 responses to “A Separate Word

  1. The space between the words is more than this. It signalled a change from memorising words aurally, so needing letters only as an aide memoire, to having text as the primary source of information. It is like the obelisk in Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssy. It signalled that the Latin world had expanded to the point where it was no longer the realm of natives, and also that information was no longer primarily an oral process.

  2. The most poetic rationale I have read for homeschooling.

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