We don’t just speak with our mouths. We also speak with our bodies, our hands, our faces, our eyes, our respiratory systems, our lips, our tongues, our mouths, our brains. Various sayings emphasize the importance of these body parts in the production of language. Making faces. Her eyes spoke volumes. Hot air. Words dripped from her lips like honey. Mother tongue (implying that the language gives birth to the person). Mouthing off. Getting something off your mind. We used to talk about venting the spleen, letting out our angry feelings, but the truth is we don’t use the spleen. Speaking involves only certain parts of the body, so “I” tends to represent those parts.
You’re crazy! By that, I mean you cannot easily distinguish fiction from reality, and you let delusions brought on by narrative influence your perception and behavior. Like Don Quixote, you wander lost through clouds of story. The madness, however, is generative because narrative language is the principle means by which humans understand and reshape ourselves and our world.
All names are fictions, including the one that is closest to myself, that intimate name of names, my name for myself. For even the precious word “I” – which rises like a monolith above my head, promising singularity and unity – is an invented word, not a natural concept.
“I” is not a person. “I” is a letter. “I” is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time, in the shapes of the letters and the derivations of the words. Our letter comes from the Egyptian pictogram of an arm, representing the long-”A” sound, later incorporated into the proto-Semitic language because their word for arm started with that sound (as ours does). Perhaps we can read a connection here between self and action. A derivation of the letter can be found in most Semitic alphabets. The letter Yud – Yodh, Yod, Ye or Jodh – is the tenth letter in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian and Arabic. In Hebrew, two Yud in a row represent Adonai, a name of God. Mystical significance is attached to this divine name because it is formed from the smallest letter.
At the beginning of the last century, Ferdinand de Saussure severed language from reality. In his Course in General Linguistics, he explained that a sign is made up of two parts: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is a word, a set of sounds, sometimes represented by letters. The signified is what the signifier arbitrarily refers to. Unfortunately for those who want language to be a transparent window on the world, the signified is not an external object, but a subjective concept.
Who is I? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “I” is “used by the speaker or writer to refer to himself or herself.” Simple enough, but let’s think this out. The dictionary says that “I” is “used by the speaker or writer,” implying that “I” and “the speaker or writer” are not the same. How can this be? Well, one is a word and the other is a person. That “I” appears in the dictionary proves that “I” is a written or spoken symbol. Okay, so? The problem is that we confuse ourselves with that symbol. I think I am the “I.”
What is I? I is a letter. I is a word. Letters and words carry with them traces of their history, tracks that lead back in time.