Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Aniconic Nature of Speech

Sorry, I'm going to nerd out on you just a little...

Many writers connect with the idea of a *muse*, whether it's an evil, sadistic mistress who whips the writer into shape, or a laid-back couch-potato who laughs hysterically and says completely random things that end up linking together in the end. Some profess their muse will talk to them and keep them up at night with whispered stories, others say they wake up and write down their dreams, for that is their muse's chosen vehicle of inspiration.

I'm not one of those people. My characters don't talk to me either or tell me their favourite colour, the name of their childhood imaginary friend, or answer questions like in an interview.

...this is going somewhere, I swear.

When I returned to university in January, 2007, I was going for a number of reasons, but the primary one was to prove that I could do it. I have always struggled with dyslexia. Though I put on the facade of being a lazy/uncaring student in high-school, the truth is that I easily worked twice as hard as my classmates to get depressingly average grades, and dismally low grades in math and French. I was incapable of writing notes during class, so I would take in as much information as I could simply by listening and memorizing. Yup, I was that kid in the back row who never had a pen, never opened my notebook and appeared to be more interested in what was going on outside the window than the lecture... but I was desperately trying my best to absorb the material.

Each word I heard became essential. As I got better at it, I could replay snippets of lectures in my head during exams. Training my ears and my memory was really the only reason I got through high-school.

In my final year of university, I ended up writing a paper on Vac, the Indian goddess of Speech or Voice. If I truly believed in a muse, this is who it would be.

Vac is one of the first Indian goddesses. She appears in the Rg Veda, the oldest of the Vedic texts which dates to around 1500 BCE. To give some perspective, this is before Buddhism or even the earliest Hindu texts. In Sanskrit, vac is the word for speech, voice and the name of the goddess. Collectively, the Vedic scripts are referred to as Shruti, which means "what is heard", again stressing the importance of an outward expression of vocalization, or vac.

Vac is not only the personification of speech, she is the vehicle of knowledge for the creator god as well as his consort. She is the outward manifestation of the laws that govern the cosmos. Pretty important, eh? Now, here's where it gets interesting. While she is specified as a highly important individual in the earlier verses, in later texts, she disappears, becomes overlapped and absorbed by other goddesses, primarily Sarasvati.

Because of the way I trained myself to learn, I was instantly drawn to this figure and couldn't help asking, why did Vac disappear?

...and I literally exhausted every known English translated resource I could get my paws on to answer this question, 'cause, y'know, I might be a little obsessive...

(To this day, I think the library ladies were plotting to kill me if I asked them to bring in any more books or journals through inter-library-loan)

So what did I find out?

It's common knowledge that there are like a million Indian gods and goddesses. I think it's also safe to say that when people think of Indian gods/goddesses, they immediately think of the physical form (statues) which house the god/goddess so humans can connect to them.

Vac is unique in that she doesn't have a physical form, and (according to my thesis) this is why:

“The Veda, as is well known, should not be written down; when written down, a mantra is truly a ‘dead letter’; it should only be imparted by word of mouth during initiation.”
Padoux, AndrĂ©, “Introduction”, Vac: The Concept of the Word In Selected Hindu Tantras, Jacques Gontier, trans., (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990) p xiv

Vac's earthly form is the Veda which, according to the quoted (yes, yes, and footnoted...) text, is transmitted verbally. In the paper I wrote, I argued that, in the same way writing down a sacred mantra strips the life from the letters, so creating an image of Vac would similarly remove her life.

But without an image, a way to tie the goddess into a recognizable form (iconography), Vac is easily forgotten.

So, why am I talking about Vac and muses?

Because words on a page are a wonderful thing, but it's not a full experience... there is so much more to them when you fit them together in your mouth and vocalize them, the cadence of sentences, or paragraphs, the natural pauses or rapid flow as the text becomes more exciting and the desire to know what happens increases. Words are beautiful, not only their shape and meaning, but especially their sound.

Read aloud to a four year old child in a monotone and see how long they'll sit still... I'm thinking maybe 10-20 seconds if you're lucky. Try reading a Dr. Seuss book without falling into the rhythm of the rhymes. So much expression can go into each word, and that changes the entire experience, gives it layers of depth and emotion far beyond the simple *meaning* of the sentences.

Think about how you write. Don't stop at choosing the correct word from your thesaurus/dictionary. Feel the words on your tongue, taste them on their own and with the surrounding words. Like seasonings in cooking, there has to be a proper balance.

If I could choose my own muse, it would be Vac, because I know the power of the spoken word.

So read aloud, not to a four year old child, but to yourself. Take that perfect paragraph you've just written and try it out.

How's the flavour?


This is what it ends up being when you don't listen to the sound of the words you are using... even though the words are 100% correct/precise.


  1. I really enjoyed this on so many levels. My adopted son also has to listen and not read for his classes at university.

    And oh yeah, I picked up the muse thing from some poets I know

    but I swear it's gotta be my muse who told me to write about my six characters.

  2. by the way I did a drabble for my bloggy :D

  3. Hahaha! Blame it on the muse, that's another way to do it ;)

    ohh! I will have to pop over and read it!


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)