An invitation to consider the place and power of language, and particularly literature, in our understanding of reality. Before we can act intentionally and create a changed reality, we must think. Before influencing others with our thinking, we must translate it into language. And the more dramatic and lyrical that language is, the more significant the impact.
Reading Time in Minutes
- Words inspire action that creates a new reality
- Words give us a new perspective on reality
- Words create a new inclusive worldview out of two opposing realities
- Language forms a bridge between our inner and outer realities
About Anne Tannam:
Anne is a creative coach and poet. And, as you may have guessed, always has her head stuck in a book! For more on Anne’s coaching, visit www.creativecoaching.ie For more on her poetry, visit www.annetannampoetry.ie
Contacting Anne Tannam:
By Anne Tannam
In thirteen years, Alexander the Great created one of the world’s largest empires that stretched from Greece to northwestern India. The story goes that throughout his military campaign, the youthful general slept with a box under his pillow. In the box was the dagger of his vanquished enemy, Darius, and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. At the beginning of his campaign, he even takes the same route to battle as Achilles in Homer’s epic poem. Inspired by another’s stirring words, Alexander shaped a new geographical and political reality that formed the basis of our modern Western culture. Because of the words of an 8th-century poet and his influence on a 3rd-century general, the 21st-century culture that shapes our Western reality exists.
Of course, this is provocatively simple, and it’s not meant to be an argument but rather an invitation to consider the place and power of language, and particularly literature, in our understanding of reality. Before we can act intentionally and create a changed reality, we must think. Before influencing others with our thinking, we must translate it into language. And the more dramatic and lyrical that language is, the more significant the impact. It’s why presidents employ poets to recite at their inaugurations, and politicians pepper their speeches with lines from literature. Words have always mattered. Empires and nations have risen and fallen because of words. New realities are born and die because of stories.
‘If he made a good recovery, Boxer might expect to live another three years,
and he looked forward to the peaceful days that he would spend in the corner
of the big pasture. It would be the first time that he had had leisure to study
and improve his mind. He intended, he said, to devote the rest of his life to
learning the remaining twenty-two letters of the alphabet.’
It’s years since I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but even now, when I think of Boxer, the hardworking and loyal farm horse, being driven away in a van with the words’ Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon.’ (which, tragically, Boxer and many of the other animals couldn’t read), I feel viscerally the cruelty and mercilessness of the Russian Revolution under Stalin. I can’t imagine what the book’s impact was for those living with the aftermath of that reality. Fiction can give us a new perspective on reality, allow us to see the bigger picture, connect the dots of cause and effect, and, hopefully, give us a blueprint of how to design a new, better reality.
This leads me to the world’s first known author, Enheduanna, born in ancient Mesopotamia, around the 23rd century BC, 1,500 years before Homer. The daughter of King Sargon the Great, the first empire builder who conquered the independent city-states of Mesopotamia under a unified banner. He spoke Akkadian, and the cities in the south, who spoke Sumerian, viewed him as a foreign invader and revolted. To bridge the gap between the two cultures, he set up his only daughter, Enheduanna, as high priestess in the city of Ur’s most important temple. A brilliant strategist and writer, she set about writing in Akkadian and Sumerian forty-two religious hymns that combined both culture’s deities and mythologies into a unified cosmic reality. What had previously been experienced as two distinct and opposing realities, through the power of words, became a prosperous and inclusive new reality.
Words allow humans to express what’s happening internally and thus influence what is happening in the external world. In Jungian thinking, much of how we experience reality comes from projecting earlier realities onto our current situations. As the diarist and essayist Anais Nin says, ‘we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.’ This isn’t to say that there is no objective reality. Still, our experience of reality is constructed from both what is objectively real and how we subjectively experience it. One of the properties and powers of literature is to provide a bridge between the outer and inner world of reality and a way of navigating the relationship between both. As readers and writers, books can help us to embrace the complexity of our lived reality and to find innovative ways to shape new realities.
What are the books or stories that have helped shape your reality?