“In The Beginning Was The Word”

Exploring the profound and mysterious connection between language and our identity as human beings.

The author of John’s gospel happily conflates language with God and divinity. Today, the proposal that language is divine and preceded both the existence of humans and human comprehension seems somewhat ludicrous. Language is generally accepted as one of the most robust and elegant inventions of the human mind. How could it exist without us?

The supremacy of human agency is implicitly denied if we assume that we had no part in consciously creating language. But if we could momentarily resist the desire to take control of language and imagine that perhaps, before the existence of human consciousness, before the notion of ourselves as privileged creatures endowed with the power of creativity, before everything — was the Word, then we might begin to come closer to the real mystery of language.

The author of that ancient phrase implies that language is not merely a clever by-product of our humanity, but fundamentally responsible for it. If we believe that the Word came first, as I am inclined to believe, then we believe that without language we cease to exist as fully human. If the Word came first then it was only through the ability to interpret, formulate, share and transform the very sensation of being alive with language that we became human.

I often wonder about my own relationship to language and this wondering always fizzles down into the same conclusion; it is impossible for me to decipher which comes first, me or my words. I can’t find the point at which I exist without language. I can’t find the point where I end and where my words begin. My language facilitates, reveals, transforms, and defines who I am. We are inseparable. I am my words.

And yet, occasionally I experience that electric sense of friction where language falls away and I almost fall away completely. In these moments I am something deeper, something far more essential and immutable than me, right here and right now. I am love, I am alive, I am at one with everyone else. In these brief encounters with the transcendent, if we can call them that, I am aware that I am not my thoughts or my words or my family of origin or my memories or my preferences. I am all life and all time and I am beyond all life and all time. Many people actively search for these egoless experiences by meditating, praying, taking hallucinogenics, exercising and many other activities, but they can happen just as easily and inexplicably while you’re taking the train to work. It’s in moments like these, however and wherever they happen, I realise that while I live safe inside a cocoon of words, I am not just my words.

I, along with all the other writers out there could wax lyrical about the conscious struggle I embark on every day in the hope of fitting and distilling my various thoughts and ideas into a skin of words. While at other times, written and spoken words summon an expressive power beyond my conscious mind and make clear what was previously a swamp of uncharted information and disconnected synapses. These words have the ability to spill out onto the page easily; they mould fuzzy ideas and lace the hairy threads of thought wafting through my mind into something solid and presentable without much effort on my part at all.

Usually, the process of writing is a ceaseless dance of pushing and then being pulled by language. But the quiet exhilaration of successfully clarifying and capturing an idea, a sensation, a memory or a feeling, provides me with one of the most effervescent feelings of creative agency.

The more deeply I consider my own efforts within the long reel of human existence, the more I commit myself to the world of words and seek to contribute in some way to the stockpile of writing which will continue to travel forward on its unfinished journey into places I can only imagine.

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