Imagine a world in which human beings communicated solely by telepathy, transferring thoughts directly from one person to another. Would this be a world in which writers were defunct? Because surely as a writer, what you are trying to do is to move what is in your mind and heart across to another’s mind and heart?
I’m not so sure. Take this passage from Salam Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children:
Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country.
Is it possible — or even desirable — to try to reduce this passage to a single cohesive thought for telepathic transmission? The author’s colloquial repetition, designed to make the passage more approachable (‘Oh, spell it out, spell it out’); the birth as a tumbling ‘out into the void’ with its hint of comic pretentiousness; the clocks don’t just tick, they are ‘blandly saluting’; the narrator isn’t just born, he is ‘mysteriously handcuffed to history’. All of this can hardly be summed up in a way other than through the words of this paragraph — and so it is with innumerable passages of prose and poetry, which serve to pack in subtleties that would defy a mere ‘transference of thought’. Unless human beings learn a strange new telepathic language, they would lose something by not using words, even when the words, at first glance, seem to be striving towards the simplicity of telepathy.
So if pure telepathy is a step too far, and yet words are reaching towards it, what exactly is a writer trying to do?
One way of looking at this is to see the writer as both reaching towards an unalloyed communication, while at the same time holding back from it — like holding a magnet closer and closer to another magnet until one senses the first sign of the magnetism between them, and then moving no closer. This is the writer’s ‘zone’: near enough to a reader’s mind and heart to create an effect, but far enough away to allow freedom of movement and interpretation. Any closer and the magnets snap together, with the attractiveness nulled or cancelled out; any further away and there is no effect created at all.
Viewed using a different image, words and sentences are like miniature dams, holding back the forces of thoughts behind them and allowing, when used well, just enough flow through to the reader to permit some level of understanding. A telepathic language would surely need a similar kind of structure: an equivalent to a word and some kind of syntactic sequence. Or it would just be a rush, a tsunami of concepts, flooding the other’s mind without regard for comprehension.
As Markus Zusak says in The Book Thief:
The words were on their way, and when they arrived, she would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain.