language is your medium

March 7, 2020

Any writer who tries to press against the limits of prose, who’s trying to write something genuinely different from what’s come before, is constantly aware of these paradoxes about language’s power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we’re manipulated by words—and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us. Orwell dealt with all this in 1984 much better than I’ve been able to when he said, in effect: Let me control the language and I will control peoples’ thoughts. Back in the 1930s the Japanese used to have actual “Thought Police,” who would come around and say to people, “What do you think about our expedition to China?” or something like that. And if they didn’t like what you replied, they’d put you under arrest. What Orwell was driving at, though, goes beyond that kind of obvious control mechanism; he was implying that if he could control the language, then he could make it so that you couldn’t even think about anything he didn’t want you to think about. My view is that this isn’t wholly true. One of the dumber things you see in the comic books occasionally is where, say, Spider Man falls off a building, looks down and sees a flag pole, and thinks to himself, “If I can just grab that flagpole, I’ll be okay.” Now nobody in those circumstances would actually be doing that—if you’re falling off a building, you don’t put that kind of thought into words, even though you’re somehow consciously aware of needing to grab that flagpole. You are thinking below the threshold of language, which suggests there is a pre verbal, sub level of thinking taking place without words. Orwell didn’t deal with this sub level of thinking, but the accuracy of his insights about the way authorities can manipulate people through words is evident in the world around us.

Gene Wolfe
Interview with Larry McCaffery, November 1988