Raymond Roussel’s poem New Impressions of Africa (Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique) is famous for its composition in an elaborate parentheses inside parentheses structure, even extending into the footnotes, which exceeds the capabilities of normal human comprehension to hold on to that many parallel layers at once. In a process that seemed to almost emulate the structure of the work itself, it took him 12 years to complete, starting in 1915 and submitting it for publication in 1927. Another five years of revisions followed after that, reportedly driving his typesetter to the edge of despair, before the poem was published in 1932.
I didn’t know how to start this. I was asked if I wanted to write a column, and I did. I was asked if I wanted to write about books, and I did. What I did not know, was how to decide about which book, or books, to write and what relevancy this choice would have. I looked around from where I was sitting, which is what I tend to do when I don’t know how to continue with what I am doing, and on my desk was an old English class school paper of mine that I found only last month in the attic at my mom’s place. I wrote it in 1985, when I was 13, and it is called A Life: Boy George. I’ll admit that for a variety of reasons I was very moved reading this text by my younger self, but that’s for another time. However, one thing I liked and couldn’t help thinking about was the first sentence.
“I have chosen to write about Boy George because I think it’s interesting.”
This is, 30 years later, still the best reason that I can think of, so on that note, I have chosen to write about The Embedding by Ian Watson because I think it’s interesting.
I came across this book only recently yet I cannot remember how or where. I don’t remember knowing Ian Watson before, but I must have read about him somewhere. The Embedding is his first book, written in 1973.
From the outset we are introduced to the linguist Chris Sole and the anthropologist Pierre Darriand. They have previously spent time together working in Tanzania where they shared an obsession with Raymond Roussel’s poem New Impressions of Africa. Fascinated yet deeply frustrated by the impossibility of understanding the poem, its “aristocratic” lack of practical application to poverty or colonialism angers the marxist Darriand. Yet he cannot let go and as it turns out the poem ends up defining the subsequent work of both men, and ultimately Ian Watson’s book.
It’s the first science fiction novel based on a poem by Raymond Roussel that I have read, but considering how the early science fiction of Jules Verne was a major influence on Roussel I feel there is something fitting and rather fantastic about finding him here in this context. The book also, to a smaller degree, references the work of Noam Chomsky and … Jefferson Airplane. Though for a science fiction novel from the 70s this is perhaps not that surprising.
Of course here I feel tempted to briefly note how Jefferson Airplane later evolved into Jefferson Starship before they after a lawsuit, in 1985, the year where I wrote A Life, mutated into simply Starship.
But in The Embedding Raymond Roussel is the star.
The book has three main storylines. One revolves around Chris Sole, now working in a hospital for brain damaged children in the UK, beneath which are three hidden “worlds.”
There Sole and his co-workers experiment with isolating children, orphans from wars and disasters but otherwise healthy, before they have developed any language and raising them to speak specifically designed languages. The forbidden dream of the linguist. Each world investigates the link between its environment and language.
The “Logic world” aims to test whether our idea of logic is realistic or inversely whether reality is logical. In the “Alien world” perception is being warped by an Escher-like environment where anyone unaccustomed to it lose their bearings, and quite literally lose their balance. And finally the “Embedded world,” Sole’s world, in which the children are given brain enhancing drugs to deal with a surplus of information and are subjected to embedded language, a language he calls Roussel speak. It is, unsurprisingly, a recursive language of familiar words structurally reformatted by a computer with add ons on add ons, so that, as in the poem, there is in a sense parentheses inserted in parentheses which go on and on, to see how many embeddings the mind will accept and where it will take it.
The basis of these experiments are Chomsky’s linguistic theories arguing that all languages share the same principles underlying their structure, biologically determined in the human mind.
Sole is looking for a “universal grammar,” a defining basic structure shared by all languages. The idea is that human thought is determined by language, and that each language has an individual outlook on reality. Superimpose all possible languages onto each other and you’ll work out the universal grammar rules, as well as a map of the entire possible territory of human thought. As all possible languages are not known, some are extinct, and some are not yet in existence, Sole is creating an artificial language to probe the borders, pushing the mind to its very limits.
The second story line is first in-troduced through a letter from Pierre Darriand to Sole. This finds Darriand now living with a tribe, the Xemahoa, in the Brazilian Amazon. Large parts of the Amazon have been mortgaged by a Brazilian military dictatorship to US companies that are building dams in order to flood the forest and build power turbines, and at the same time to impose order on the natural landscape.
Ian Watson’s early stories were published in New Worlds, the legendary British science fiction magazine that among many others also had published the work of J.G. Ballard, and it is hard not to think of similarities to Ballard in Watson’s description of the Amazon as a sort of subconscious landscape of dreams and fantasies. A geography under threat from civilisation and capitalisation.
The Xemahoa have two languages, Darriand simply calls them A and B. Xemahoa A is the normal language while B is a drug induced trance language. It is another embedded language with individual elements of
parentheses within parentheses. When Darriand records Xemahoa A on a tape recorder and plays it back in endless cut up pieces he is told it becomes like Xemahoa B.
This sounds a bit like William Burroughs as accidental anthropologist, continuing hand in hand with Roussel.
The unaided mind has no hope of holding these cut up elements in their entirety. Like with Sole’s kids, drug fuelled mind expansion is necessary so that during the trance everything becomes present at once. It is the “truest” language because it is a total statement of their reality, yet it is crippling to the unaided mind’s logic. These trances are led by “Bruxo,” a shaman like figure, constantly high on a fungus powder that he sniffs to a degree where his nose has dissolved. During the trance the aim is a total statement of reality in an eternal presence. A state in which language, myths and physical surroundings are one. There is no division between language and the reality of their world, a world in acute danger of being flooded. Can the Bruxo change the actual world when he enters that state? This is the belief.
When Darriand is allowed to take part in the collective trance he finally understands Roussel’s poem, because he knows all the individual parts and he can hold them all present at once. Afterwards, thinking back, he cannot hold the experience in his “normal” mind—the greater cannot be held by the lesser. Ian Watson partly describes this experience as living in a flatland, where words constantly flow forward, while memories cannot possibly hold anything remotely like the full totality of what has happened. He compares the illusion of the present with being a single dot on a graph we cannot see in its entirety.
Though Watson doesn’t mention it explicitly anyone who has read Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott will recognise this. Published in 1884 Flatland is the story of the adventures of A. Square as he travels to Spaceland and Lineland. Or put another way, A. Square travels from his native two-dimensional world and marvels at the three-dimensional world he encounters and the limited one-dimensional Lineland. The book is part teaching of basic geometry, part satire of Victorian England. A mathematician’s Gulliver’s Travels.
The third story line is introduced when Thomas Zwingler of National Security Agency, NSA (yes indeed, they are here too!), turns up in England and wants Sole to come with him as an expert in extra-human languages. A US satellite dish has received signals from outer space.
Enter the “signal traders,” the Sp’thra, aliens that are also after a universal grammar and mapping of totality. Only their approach is to search for every possible way of thinking about reality in the entire universe. A single species map like the one Sole is working on they dismiss as a laughable solipsism. On a cosmic scale using only earth as basis for constructing a universal grammar is clearly naïve and misguided.
The Sp’thra are suffering from what they call “bereft love.” 13,000 years ago they were visited by the “change speakers,” beings not bound by the reality of our universe. The change speakers’ subsequent absence has left the Sp’thra with a profound feeling of loss ever since. The Sp’thra believe that only if they know reality in its entirety will they be able to know the “other.” They search for what they call Their-reality, Our-reality, Your-reality to be able to map This-reality. They need to hold the entirety of This-reality to know, and get to, Other-reality. Therefore they collect brains representative of major languages from all species in the universe to cover every possible way of comprehending it. Quite a project. 13,000 years and running. They trade technologies and information for brains and Sole tells them about the Xemahoa, a people seemingly able to hold a view of the totality of their reality in one eternal moment. So Sole and Zwingler of the NSA head to the Amazon to collect brains to trade and there Sole and Darriand are reunited.
This is where the three stories merge completely.
I will leave the remaining part of The Embedding to its own devices. As the story continues everything comes together in a search for that language which is a statement of totality in one moment. It is Sole’s aim to map the entire possible terrain of the human mind, and to find out what happens when you probe those borders. The Xemahoa aim to hold the totality of their world and believe this will enable them to control and change it, and save their world from flooding, while to the outsider it looks like they are quite simply off their head on drugs dancing around in water to their knees in total denial of reality. The Sp’thra, suffering from bereft love, believe in an Other-reality that to most humans seem like the impossibility of standing outside reality. Their eternal loss and longing looks like an “Our Saviour” myth, or an externalised mass-psychosis. Linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, Xemahoas and Sp’thras are, in different ways, all after the same and it’s some ride through politics of nations, capitalism, colonialism, marxist guerrillas, myths, reality, sanity and insanity, religion, aliens, nuclear power, ecology, language and much more, with Raymond Roussel as guiding principle.
In search of that statement of This-reality that the Xemahoa that the anthropologist that the linguist that the NSA that the Sp’thra trade with contacts knows encounters practise.