When I was small, I lived inside my books. And the books I loved the most created imaginary worlds made of beautiful and sculpted words. The language that was used in the books that moved me most deeply didn’t bow to children — it stood tall as a Douglas Fir, not easy to climb, but once we made our way to the top, we could see for miles and miles.
In the books of my childhood, books from the 1960’s and before, the sentence structure was complex, and the authors were permitted time to breathe, which has gone out of style almost completely. I noticed this when I tried to read Ginger Pye (winner of the Newbery Prize in 1951), by Eleanor Estes, to my child. I had loved it, but the complexity of the language and the slow revelation of the characters’ internal worlds left him bored and restless:
The children had read for a long time, but then it had grown dark. Now they were just sitting quietly, thinking, and watching the bats and bugs hurl themselves against the tall streetlamp which had suddenly come on and was casting a purple glow. Jerry was getting ready to bring up the matter of the dog to discuss with his sister Rachel, but first he liked to sit and dream about the wonderful idea that it was.
(Eleanor Estes, Ginger Pye)
The complexity of language can invite us into an understanding of interrelatedness of elements of a landscape and how people are interwoven into it. Without the beauty of E.B. White:
In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.
(E.B.White, Stuart Little)
how will we read Faulkner and fully appreciate our own depth and unwinding, no matter what class or background we are from?
It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds. The air, inbreathed, is like spring water. He breathes deep and slow, feeling with each breath himself diffuse in the natural grayness, becoming one with loneliness and quiet that has never known fury or despair. “That was all I wanted,” he thinks, in a quiet and slow amazement. “That was all, for thirty years. That didn’t seem to be a whole lot to ask in thirty years.”
(William Faulkner, Light in August)
I’ve often written about how warm and resonant language structures the right hemisphere and leads to well-being, but I’ve never before written about complexity of grammar and its gifts to our thinking. The way words are used tell us about the brains using these words. Complex sentence structure gives us complex thought; if more than one difficult thing cannot be true at the same time, if nuanced connections and comparisons cannot be drawn, we do not get to manifest our full humanity. Without Eleanor Estes, how do we grow up to love Virginia Woolf and self-discovery?
For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.
(Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse)
A part of complex language is the use of metaphor. When we allow ourselves to give and receive metaphor, it awakens new parts of our brains, by most accounts right hemisphere parts, that let us weave new things together:
… understanding the figurative meaning of a metaphor requires mental linkage of different [brain] category domains normally not related to each other.1
If we don’t get to start with the metaphors in The Wind in the Willows:
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
(Kenneth Graehme, the Wind in the Willows)
how can we ever get lost in Dostoevsky and contemplate the meaning of life itself?
The centripetal force on our planet is still fearfully strong, Alyosha. I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is! Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach.
(Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
If we don’t get to live into worlds made by women’s magic, like The Witch Family, and the Dorrie series, how can we dream of women’s community and of women living in search of meaning instead of always being reduced to romance? Without exposure to the thoughtful language and characters of whimsy, how will readers get from the Moomintrolls to Jorge Luis Borges? Without The Once and Future King or Howard Pyle and the Knights of the Round Table, how will we have dreams of justice and equality?
I have often spoken about the importance of the right hemisphere in resonant language, language that allows human experience to be named in ways that awaken fluidity and the creation of a coherent sense of self. We need to be accustomed to complexity to know that we really exist. Here is a quote from a 2004 article that gives us an expanded sense of the importance of the right hemisphere in constructing a complex understanding of self in the world:
…right hemisphere involvement in language comprehension is not restricted to metaphoric language, but comes into play whenever more complex language … is required.2
At the time that I was trying to learn to write, I, like so many others, was seduced by the clarity and simplicity of Hemingway’s language. It tore the cobwebs away from clunky, mildewed tradition. It allowed a fresh breeze to blow through story, making understatement king. However, in my worship of simplicity, I stripped my stories of complex language to the point that meaning disappeared, and readers lost track of any narrative. (Oh, if only I had held on to my semi-colons, I might have spent my life writing instead of starting being published at 55!)
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)
And if we don’t get to start being present to at least two true things at the same time when we are small, how will we ever be able to absorb James Baldwin and step fully into the complexity of racism?
The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence.
(James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son)
How can we think about our humanness in relationship to the non-Caucasian experience in North America and Europe without semi-colons, without punctuation that conveys complexity? How can we hold the nuances to which Baldwin invites us? How can we understand that we are both part of a larger system, wherein we are simultaneously our personal selves, full of worth and individuality, and a cog in a system of continuing economic race-based enslavement?
But despite my nostalgia for the books I began with, we haven’t lost complexity. At the present time Joy Harjo and Claudia Rankine are celebrated for their poetry; Yoyo Ma is supporting the synthesis of various instruments from the Silk Road region, bringing together genres to make timeless music; Ken Burns’ interlayers documentaries about Vietnam, about jazz, about the Civil War; sports writer Dave Zinn captures the political fractal of our worlds of football, soccer and basketball; more and more sports figures follow Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling in acknowledgment of a world not yet changed; even as something as commercial as Guy Ritchie’s cinematography presents us with plans, angles and possibilities in quick succession to replicate human thought, we continue to be satisfied by depth and meaning. The popularity of these actions and works show us that complex thought is still ours. Each of us can still reach out for layers of meaning. Our sentences are our birthright, ours to be savored, given to us so that we, too can describe the difficult things that are all true at once.
1Neural correlates of metaphor processing Cognitive Brain Research · September 2004 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2004.03.017 · Source: PubMed
For a guide on semi colons: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon
Sarah Peyton, communication and neuroscience educator, teaches how our language changes the way we think about and respond to the world. She works with audiences internationally to create a compassionate understanding of the effects of relational trauma on the brain. Her first book, “Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain’s Capacity for Healing,” was published by Norton Publishing internationally in autumn 2017.