Thursday, September 14, 2017

Mundane Psionics

Many characters in fantasy and science fiction possess psychic superpowers. They can read thoughts, view events at a distance or (maybe by touching an object) in the past, or see the spirits of the dead. In a sense, we don't have to fantasize about having such abilities, because we already do, sort of. Through writing, we can transmit our thoughts directly into the minds of other people we'll never meet face-to-face. While reading, we receive the thoughts of the writers, even if they died centuries ago. Film allows us to travel in time, in that it shows us scenes from the past. We can even see dead people in the prime of life. Through recording technology, we hear their voices.

Psychologist Steven Pinker, in "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" (a chapter in his book THE STUFF OF THOUGHT), speculates on why taboo words—profanity and obscenity—have been forbidden or restricted in most human cultures. Often against our will, "dirty" words force images into our minds that we may not want to entertain. Unlike eyes, ears don't have "earlids" to shut out objectionable sounds spoken by other people. Also, as he points out, "understanding the meaning of a word is automatic"; "once a word is seen or heard we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise but reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning." Language equals thought control. The official Newspeak dialect in Orwell's 1984 strives to make heretical thoughts literally "unthinkable"—at least as far as "thought is dependent on language."

Many fantasy novels postulate that magic depends on a special, often secret language. In one of my favorite series, Diane Duane's Young Wizards stories, learning wizardry consists mainly of mastering the Speech, the universal language of reality understood by all creatures, including those we ordinarily think of as inanimate. A wizard affects the world by using the Speech to persuade an object, creature, or system to change. However, some speech acts in the mundane world also alter reality. Enactive speech not only describes an event but makes it happen, e.g. taking an oath of office or uttering the words, "I now pronounce you husband and wife."

A prayer in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer titled "For Those Who Influence Public Opinion" makes this petition: "Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read, that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous." A heavy responsibility for authors, especially in this divisive, volatile era!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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