I haven't reported on the progress of "Rainbow" since my mid-May Martinmania. I can briefly summarize what has happened since then:
May 19: I started reading The Bluebird of Happiness, both to complete my editing of the manuscript and to conduct research for "Rainbow".
May 27: I finished reading/editing Bluebird. Forgive the shameless self-promotion for my debut novel, but I have to say it was a bit of a downer. I found myself lingering in a state of melancholy, unable to get in the mood to start work on "Rainbow".
June 8: After a bout of depression, I had recovered enough to begin work on my second novel, "Rainbow". I made a strong start, had an especially productive day of writing on June 9, and wrote about the first 5,000 words that weekend.
In mid-June I fell back into depression, at times rather deep and almost debilitating (certainly in terms of being able to do any writing). I once more recovered and resumed writing on June 30.
The new start didn't go very far though, not due to depression but because I simply didn't feel the same inspiration and passion that I had previously experienced.
During July I revisited my notes for the novel and reviewed what I had already written, both of which helped me to regain some of my excitement about the story. Finally, on July 24, I once again returned to my writing, and since then I have been working on it slowly but steadily.
So the upshot is that, yes, "Rainbow" is still alive (and still does not have a proper title, although I have lived with the working title for so long now that I'm becoming open to the idea of just letting it become the official title if another one does not strongly assert itself).
As of today, the manuscript stands at just about 7,000 words, so it is already at about 1/7 the standard minimum length for a novel, and about 1/14 the length of Bluebird. The story is only just getting started, so I have no concern about having enough material (especially when reviewing my copious notes, which remind me what a vast, rich, and complex tale this is).
Back in May, when I was soaring on enthusiasm and excitement about the new novel, it was easy to believe that I might yet again experience a burst of feverish inspiration such as drove me to pour out Bluebird's 100,000 words in six weeks last summer. It is evident now, of course, that the writing of "Rainbow" is taking a different path toward its completion, but that is okay because each story has its own story, as it were, and its own process of unfolding.
Anyway, the supernova of creativity that was the writing of Bluebird is far from the whole story of that novel's evolution. As I have described before, Bluebird traveled a long, winding, torturous road for 13 years prior to its final glorious appearing.
Each story must work itself out in its own way. I cannot expect every novel I write to happen in the same way, nor would I want that to be the case.
So, for now at least, my inspiration and passion are relatively sedate and subdued, but they are still there, and I am still genuinely excited about "Rainbow". In May, under the influence of my exploding inspiration and vision, I had the feeling that "Rainbow", like Bluebird, was going to be something big (not necessarily, and probably not, in commercial terms, but at least in artistic terms).
For much of the last two months, through all the darkness and getting lost in the woods, I have maintained this belief, often as a matter of blind faith. I did not always feel it, but I remembered the fact that I once did, and I trusted that the glorious vision I had glimpsed of "Rainbow", this marvelous tale of the "one true Martin", was still out there somewhere, only waiting for me to find it.
It is becoming easier to see and to feel it again, but, as with any project of this sort, it still requires faith until its completion. Ever since the first faint glimmerings of the story back in February, I have had this sense, more intuition than proven fact, that "Rainbow" will be something big, a grand and powerful story, something (as a close friend of mine called it) monstrous and majestic.
It is hard to explain what the story is about, even to myself, but that is part of its strange power. I think that many of the most effective works of art are difficult to explain, but we still feel their magic work on us at a deep unconscious level. Of course I am not speaking of my actual novel, which I have only begun to write, but (as I spoke of Bluebird) only of the story's effect on me as I conceive it and imagine it.
I have said before that "Rainbow" is neither a sequel nor a prequel to Bluebird. It overlaps in time and extends much further into Bluebird's past and future. But apart from that, it is simply a different story, with a different mood and feel, a different narrative voice (or rather, set of voices), and a different vision. It is a different myth using many of the same characters.
One thing that is becoming interesting to me about the new narrative is that the characters who also appeared in Bluebird, though largely and basically the same as before, also seem somehow, subtly, different. It may just be that I am seeing and therefore revealing further aspects and facets of these people, more of their human depth and complexity.
I think that there will be no glaring inconsistencies or continuity gaps between the two novels, but in some sense they can be seen as two independent narratives that may seem to bear an ambiguous and mysterious relationship to each other, one that would be difficult to fully map out and chart.
In any case, we are underway. Like Martin, I am stumbling my way toward my own personal Oz.
Monday, July 29, 2013
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Eventually the Kennedy twins faded from the public eye and were largely forgotten. There is not much information about what their lives were like after Jean-Pierre Gorin's film Poto and Cabengo was released in 1980. I wonder how they got along in school, both in terms of learning and in terms of friendships? I wonder what their adult lives have been like?
The only clue is from a show about twins that aired on TLC around 2000, which reported that Virginia and Grace were still developmentally disabled. We are told this:
One wonders what Grace and Virginia might have been capable of had their parents not mistakenly assumed that their daughters suffered from mental retardation, and if the girls had received proper attention and a healthy degree of social and emotional nurturing during their earliest, most formative years.Now approaching 30, the twins continue to experience speech problems and mental delays. Grace, who has achieved a higher level of functioning than her sister, works at a McDonald's cleaning tables and mopping. Virginia works at a job-training center and performs assembly-line work.
Many who write about the Kennedy twins accept the common assessment of their private language as manifesting nothing more than a lack of proper linguistic development. But this evaluation of the twins' speech, though it may be true as far as it goes, only tells part of the story.
The other, and more significant, side of the story is that Grace and Virginia Kennedy largely taught themselves how to speak. The fact that it was not the "official" language is beside the point. Of course they could not have been expected to master the Queen's English given their limited and oblique exposure to it.
Children's acquisition of language is always a wonder to behold. I experience this miracle on a daily basis with my own daughter. But what the Kennedy twins did is perhaps even more amazing. They took the meager scraps of English and German which fell their way and crafted them into a working and, to them, meaningful and comprehensible language. They taught themselves how to communicate, how to give voice and concrete form to the thoughts and ideas and feelings inside them, using those curious patterns of oral noise that we call words. They simply came up with their own set of linguistic tools, largely improvised from the scattered remnants of the official tongue, like children inventing a civilization out of the charred ruins of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
In so doing, Grace and Virginia Kennedy showed themselves to be incredibly resourceful, creative, and inventive, and their accomplishment will always stand as testimony to their high intelligence, asserting itself despite the tragically stunting conditions in which they had to spend their early childhood. Given their circumstances and what they had to work with, comparing their linguistic development to everyone else is not only utterly unfair, but entirely unreasonable, blindly expressing a bias for the validity of only "official" speech, and disregarding the myriad accidental ways that new forms of language can emerge from old ones.
Recently the New York Times reported that the younger generation in a certain remote and isolated village in Australia has developed a new language, adapted from English and the traditional tongue of the villagers. The Kennedy girls, I think, did something very similar, though on a much smaller scale. (It was the Times article, in fact, that made me remember them.) They didn't do it to be clever. They probably had no idea there was anything strange or unusual about it. They were just trying their best to talk, to use words, and to communicate. And if you ask me, they did a mighty remarkable job.
Grace and Virginia, wherever you are now, I wish you well, and I hope your lives are happy. I hope that you still talk to each other, in whatever language, and I hope you have others to talk to as well, friends with whom you can share the beauty that is inside you, through the vehicle of words.
What you made was not a mistake. The grown-ups in your life made the mistakes. What you made was a beautiful and amazing invention. It was a way of speaking that no one else had ever made before, and that no one else will ever make again. It was unique and unrepeatable because so are you. It only sounded strange to other ears because it was different, but it was perfectly natural to you. Like the drawings and crafts and stories that children make, it should not be dismissed as unaccomplished, but admired as the rare and wondrous expression of tender and precious minds--minds that, despite being considered hopelessly crippled, had something to say.
I for one will always admire what you did. I will say to your younger selves as I do to my daughter when she figures out, in her cleverness, how to do something new: "Good job!"
The enduring miracle of Grace and Virginia Kennedy is that these two lost little girls, without much help from grown-ups, somehow found their own way to give shape to their world through language. They found a way to give shape to themselves, to give themselves identities, and their own names. They found their own way to communicate, to share the thoughts and feelings they had inside, to express themselves. Although left outside of it, they found a way to be in the world, using the marvelous gift of speech.
FOR POTO AND CABENGO
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
"What are they saying?" Perhaps things quite ordinary, only uttered in a strange and unknown tongue. Things like:
"Pinit, putahtraletungay." (Finish, potato salad hungry)
"Nis, Poto?" (This, Poto?)
"Liba Cabingoat, it." (Dear Cabengo, eat)
"La moa, Poto?" (Here more, Poto?)
They had no less than sixteen different ways to say "potato":
1. poo day dooz
2. puh da tut
3. buh da duh
4. puh tay toe sa led
5. po ta too
6. puh day too tah
7. po da tuht
8. po da too
9. po day tah ta led
10. puh tah ta let
11. boo day poo tile
12. buh da too
13. puh tay toe ta led
14. puh ted ta led
15. puh tay to tah
16. puh toe toe
And those are just the ones that were documented.
This is Jean-Pierre, the friendly filmmaker who wanted to tell the story of these two bright and charming girls:
It is an understandable sentiment. What if the Kennedy girls had been whisked away to a place where they were allowed to continue speaking their own rare and marvelous language, where they could describe the world to us as only they could see it? Perhaps they could have been bilingual, fluent in the language of the land, but also carrying on their own mysterious native speech.
They may have stopped speaking it on their own after awhile. But perhaps that should have been their decision, made in their own time.
Dear Poto and Cabengo, what things did you say, and what things did you know?
You had a word, liba, obviously based on the German word for love. Did you learn this from your grandmother, not only the word, but also what it meant? I like to think it is true.
You knew about potatoes and potato salad, of this we are certain.
I am glad that Jean-Pierre took you to the zoo, to see the many wondrous creatures of the earth. I often take my daughter there, and I know it is a joy for little girls.
If you ever see them, tell them that they are remembered, and that they taught us something special.
Tell them that their secret and precious words, though no longer heard on this earth, still exist somewhere in the universe, still carrying the secret and precious thoughts that emerged from lonely children's hearts.
If you ever see them, tell them that I love them, and that they are beautiful.
Liba Poto, Liba Cabengo.
Monday, July 22, 2013
Language is, in a very real sense, one of the primary means, perhaps the primary means, by which we human beings create the world in which we live. I don't mean of course the actual physical world--although language does enable us to alter and change our physical surroundings by way of technology, which is one of the most fundamental products of language. Some have said that language is itself the most fundamental form of technology, the most elemental means by which we modify and shape the world, and change it from what is given to something of our own creation.
Each language creates its own "world", its own culture and way of knowing. The Kennedy girls, not having been adequately exposed to the English-speaking world of the U.S., built their own world. Their language bore a genetic resemblance both to English and to German, the two languages to which they had been at least minimally exposed, but it was of course unintelligible to speakers of either language, which made it a new and distinct language. The differences between languages exist on a spectrum, ranging from dialects and accents to related languages in the same family to entirely unrelated tongues, but the general boundary between languages is lack of mutual comprehension and therefore inability to communicate; when two speakers find themselves unable to understand each other, they are essentially living in two different social and cultural worlds.
As Gorin, the filmmaker, observed, the Kennedy twins' speech seemed to function as a subversive embarrassment to the authority of the official language, exposing the various grown-up discourses around them as arbitrary--that is, just as arbitrary as the language invented by the girls. It is as though the girls' speech stood as evidence that all language is made up, and that the officially approved way of speaking was not in fact the only possible way of speaking, and therefore not the only possible way of thinking about or looking at the world, and its culture not the only way of being in the world.
"You can only be a foreigner in a language other than your own," says Gorin, implying that the girls who called themselves Poto and Cabengo were in some sense "foreigners" in their native country... until they became "naturalized" by being taught "proper" English.
After it became evident that the girls could in fact be taught to speak English, their father forbade them to use their invented language. He told Time magazine, "They don't want to be associated as dummies. You live in a society, you got to speak the language."
When someone asked the girls if they remembered their language, they said yes, but their father scolded them for "lying". Evidently he did not see any positive value in the secret language they had created, but only saw it in negative terms, as a lack of "real" language, culture, and intelligence.
But what if the Kennedy girls' language was just as real as any other human language? What if it evidenced the creation of their own childlike "culture"? What if it was in fact a wondrous display of their natural intelligence?
I wonder if Grace and Virginia, now 42 or 43, remember any of their childhood language? I like to think so, but I think it sadly likely that they do not, that it has become a dim and faded memory, only vaguely and spottily recalled if at all. If so--if the language of Poto and Cabengo has disappeared from memory--then so has the culture, and the world, that it expressed. It was a world that existed only briefly on the earth, and that was only known to two small and lonely girls, but it was their world. It was a society of two--two little children who found themselves largely abandoned and alone in the world, who were left out of the world. They at least had each other, and together they crafted their own means of thought and communication, and thereby found a way to make a world for themselves.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
As I alluded to before, Grace and Virginia Kennedy did not of course create their private language out of whole cloth. Feral children, those rare "wild children" who spend their earliest years separated from all human contact, do not use language. They behave pretty much as nonhuman animals. Their sad example underscores the fact that human beings are, as Aristotle said, social animals. This does not mean merely that we like to hang out together and chat; to be a social animal is something far more profound than that.
To be a social animal is to be a creature whose very nature depends on its sociality. In other words, a human being in complete and utter isolation is hardly even a human being. Perhaps more accurately, he is a human being who is greatly crippled, whose potential as a human being is not made actual, whose horizons and powers are severely limited and blocked. A human being living in complete isolation is not truly free, because he is not able to use his full human powers nor realize his full potential as a human being. Those accomplishments require society and culture, which by definition entail relationship with other human beings.
The Kennedy girls, despite their relative social isolation, were not of course feral children. They existed on the margins of human society, but still had some contact with it. In this way they were exposed to the phenomenon of language itself, and to at least snatches of the specific languages of English and German.
Language is one of the defining features of society. Even when people are physically proximate, if they do not communicate with each other they are hardly being social. It is interesting, and not coincidental, that the word "commune" is at the heart of the word "communication", as it is in the words "community" and "communion". Communication, or language in its broadest sense, is the glue that binds us together and that makes a society out of individual human beings; and the ideas and information expressed by that language constitute that society's culture, its ability to think and act above the level of mere natural instinct and mindless bodily impulse. It is what makes us civilized; it is, to a large degree, what makes us human.
We will never know the exact process by which Grace and Virginia created their peculiar form of speech. It would of course be entirely out of the question morally to subject children to such an "experiment" so that we might observe how such a process of language acquisition under those conditions unfolds, so we must go on inference and speculation. No doubt the girls heard their parents and grandmother speak; perhaps they heard the radio or watched television; in any case, we can only assume that they combined imitation of what they heard with their own imagination.
Imitation and imagination are both entirely natural and wondrously powerful capabilities of children, and both are essential to learning. One thing that seems clear to me is that, for the Kennedy girls, imagination played a far more prominent role in their language acquisition process, relative to imitation, than it does for most children. To me, this is the truly fascinating aspect of their feat: whereas for most children, the acquisition of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar is by way of imitation and an intuitive understanding of that which is imitated, Virginia and Grace had to rely to a very large extent on their own native imagination and creativity.
The girls were forced to rely upon the resources of their own minds, those minds having been shaped only vaguely by the larger human world. Yet the fact that they produced a complex language containing unique vocabulary and grammatical features illustrates the marvelous capacity for language that is inherent in the human mind. Like imitation, imagination too must rely upon experience, but it transforms that experience into something new by way of a mysterious and deeply intuitive process of creation. Whereas most children rely primarily on imitation to learn language, which ensures that the mother tongue is faithfully reproduced in the next generation, the Kennedy girls, having relatively little linguistic experience to imitate, had to fill in the gaps with their own fancy.
They surely did all of this in a largely unselfconscious way, almost as a form of play. "What is that?" my two-year-old daughter often asks me, wanting to know the word for something. With no adults around to tell them, Grace and Virginia had to make something up. Perhaps it was a misremembered word that they had heard a grown-up say, or that they had heard on TV. Or perhaps it was purely made up, a gibberish sound that became a meaningful word, because they assigned that sound a particular meaning.
In this way, the Kennedy girls' language became a real language. It was a mode of communication shared between two human beings, only "private" in a relative sense, but still a social and collaborative construction and tool for sharing ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Virginia and Grace understood each other. No one else did, but a language is made no less valid just because you cannot understand it or speak it. These words and sentences were meaningful and perfectly intelligible to Grace and Virginia Kennedy--or, as they chose to name and identify themselves, Poto and Cabengo.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
What the therapists soon realized was that the girls possessed at least normal intelligence, thereby disproving the belief that they suffered from mental retardation. Furthermore, the twins' odd speech, far from being mere gibberish, was discovered to be in fact its own complex language, an example of idioglossia--that is, an idiosyncratic language spoken by only one or a few people, often by twins (in which case it is also known as "twin speech").
The girls were taught to speak standard English (they apparently already understood it to a large degree, as well as some German, though they only spoke in their own made-up language) and eventually they were enrolled in elementary school (in separate classes). Thus their social, linguistic, and educational "mainstreaming" began.
Grace and Virginia Kennedy became famous for a time in the late 1970s, being written up in newspaper and magazine articles and earning a spot in that popular book of miscellanea, The People's Almanac. They even became the subject of a 1980 documentary film, titled Poto and Cabengo, made by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin.
In a 1988 interview, Gorin offered a glimpse into his thought process as he approached his unusual subject:
The film is about an unstructured discourse—the language of the twins—surrounded by structured discourses—the discourse of the family, the discourse of the media, the discourse of therapy, the discourse of documentary filmmaking. There are as well other structured discourses at work in the film: the discourses of science, capitalism, and education. They are each a method of using words that presumes a type of authority. Clearly the twins’ unstructured discourse challenges discursive authority: it erupts as a subversive act which has not been authorized by any social or ideological establishment. In a sense its special threat is that its “unauthorized” nature relativizes the arbitrary nature of those institutionalized discourses. The singsong of the twins reveals the shaky grounds of institutional power. It relativizes discursive authority from the family to the scientific community in their competitive and ineffectual attempts to “define” the twins who spontaneously flit about the screen exceeding any definition. In a fashion, I wanted the viewers to feel the twins made more “sense” than anybody around them. Or at least to perceive that the twins’ way to handle language offered a marker for the way people around them used language and were used by it, and were spoken through it.In this somewhat academic-sounding yet meaningful and fertile statement, Gorin outlines some of the complex philosophical issues that lie at the heart of any serious and thoughtful consideration of the Kennedy twins' linguistic accomplishment. There are other philosophical issues involved as well, but here Gorin gives us more than enough to start with.
Before we get into some of those heady discussions, however (which I will try to keep as simple as possible, while also balancing them with thoughts and reflections of a more personal and poetic nature), I will show you a clip from Gorin's film that is an example of the girls "spontaneously [flitting] about the screen", perhaps in a way that serves to illustrate their "wildness"--that is, as Gorin suggests above, their existence outside of normative civilization and its concepts.
There is an interesting exchange in the interview about this scene:
Interviewer: There is the scene, for instance, where you take the twins to the library. They are running around, grabbing books off the shelves at random and you are trying to follow them. There is something very sad and very funny simultaneously, something difficult to express in words.Here is the scene:
Gorin: It’s a key scene in the film for me. They are grabbing these books as if they were these talismans. There is an urgency, something both manic and poignantly relevant to their situation in the way they pile these books up in the hope of taking them home with them, as if these things were bound to secure their liberation, their passage into another world beyond the confines of their family.
Ginny and Gracie Go to the Library
What Gorin says above seems to me to capture a morally and intellectually complicated dilemma underlying the twins' mainstreaming: On the one hand, the process of integrating the girls into the mainstream of U.S. society and culture (or indeed, of any larger human society outside of themselves) seems inarguably desirable and necessary; on the other hand, while there can be no doubt that much is gained by this process, anyone who appreciates and admires the twins' achievement in creating their own language, while considering everything that language implies in terms of thinking, experiencing, and identity, cannot help but wonder what was lost in this process.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
"Snup-aduh ah-wee die-dipana, dihabana."
Can you understand the above sentences? Odds are you cannot, unless you happen to be one of the two girls pictured above, and who knows if even they can still remember what these cryptic utterances meant. They are the only two persons on Earth who ever spoke this mysterious language.
The two girls are named Poto and Cabengo. At least, those are the names they gave themselves. Their given English names are, respectively, Grace and Virginia Kennedy. When they were children in the 1970s, they became briefly famous for something wholly remarkable yet which came entirely naturally to them, given their circumstances: they invented their own language.
I first became intrigued by the Kennedy girls (identical twins) when I read about them in The People's Almanac in the late seventies. They were born in 1970, the same year as me, and in different circumstances, they could have been girls that I went to school with. For most of my life, they have lingered deep in my subconscious memory, a symbol of the mystery and wonder of childhood imagination and genius, and have given rise to at least one fictional story idea, yet to be written.
Now, with fuller knowledge of their remarkable history, I am fascinated and impressed more than ever by what these neglected little girls accomplished in creating a language for themselves. Their story is equal parts tragic and inspiring, and my purpose in this series is to give that story a new telling, and to meditate on the many philosophical questions and human meanings that the Kennedy girls' experience brings forth in my intellect, imagination, and heart.
Grace and Virginia Kennedy were born in Columbus, Georgia, and upon birth seemed quite normal. However, shortly after being born, they apparently suffered seizures of some sort. According to their father's account, a doctor informed him that the girls might possibly become mentally retarded (a medical term that was used at the time and in fact is still in official use today). Sadly, the parents interpreted this to mean that their daughters were in fact mentally retarded, and did not think it necessary to pay much attention to them other than ensuring that their physical needs were met.
Both parents worked and the girls were left in the care of their grandmother, who spoke only German. The grandmother, like the parents, did not pay much emotional attention to the girls, taking care of their physical well-being but not playing or interacting with them. The girls did not go outside much, and did not play with other children. In essence, they were socially and emotionally abandoned from an early age and left to grow up in a bubble of isolation, experiencing only minimal and peripheral contact with the larger human world.
These two lonely and neglected little girls were given deplorable circumstances in which to grow and develop as human beings, but they managed to do something incredible with those sorry circumstances. Without the full socialization of interactive and attentive adults or engagement with other children, the Kennedy girls figured out how to speak for themselves.
They didn't create their language out of thin air, although the above sample of their speech and others may sound, as some have put it, "like Martian". They used what little scraps of English and German to which they were exposed, and built upon that foundation with their own native intelligence and invention (for instance, they made up entirely new words and used some of their own unique grammatical and syntactical rules).
The process by which they accomplished this feat may always remain mysterious, but it at least demonstrates not only their own intelligence and marvelous linguistic capabilities, but also that which is natural to all children. Young children's acquisition of language is always a miraculous achievement, but the Kennedy twins' demonstration of this feat even in their socially isolated situation illustrates this miracle all the more clearly.
Some have tried to downplay the girls' achievement as a negative, a mere lack of proper mastery of English. But I think the truth is far more positive, and that is one concept I wish to explore in this series. Their experience brings up many questions about the nature of language and the way it makes us who and what we are, and how language determines the way we relate to other people and to the larger society. In a way, for human beings, to speak (whether with the mouth or the hands, or in writing or whatever other form of expression it may take) is to be, and more specifically is to be human. The wondrous and beautiful thing about Poto and Cabengo is that they rose above their social and emotional abandonment, their seemingly less-than-fully-human status, and taught themselves how to be, and how to be human.