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Language in Thought and Action

Below is a verbatim excerpt from Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa (fifth ed., 1990, Harcourt Brace & Company, NY, NY).  This excerpt is the last several paragraphs of chapter 8, titled "The Language of Affective Communication."

Hayakawa begins here by comparing the languages of literature, science, and poetry, and you should read it whether you like it or not.


Literature is the most exact expression of feelings, while science is the most exact kind of reporting.  Poetry, which condenses the affective resources of language into patterns of infinite rhythmical subtlety, may be said to be the language of expression at its highest degree of efficiency.

Symbolic Experience

In a very real sense, then, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read.  To read Gulliver’s Travels is to have the experience, with Jonathan Swift, of turning sick at one’s stomach at the conduct of the human race; to read Huckleberry Finn is to feel what it is like to drift down the Mississippi River on a raft; to read Byron is to suffer with him his rebellions and neuroses and to enjoy with him his nose-thumbing at society; to read Native Son is to know how it feels to be frustrated in the particular way in which many blacks in Chicago have been frustrated.  This is the great task that affective communication performs: it enables us to feel how others felt about life, even if they lived thousands of miles away and centuries ago.  It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.

Here, the reader may object by asking, are we not twisting language somewhat to talk about "living" other lives than one's own?  In one sense, the objection is correct; two different meanings of the word "live" are involved in the expressions "living one's own life" and "living other people's lives in books."  Human life, however, is "lived" at more than one level; we inhabit both the extensional world and the world of words (and other symbols).  "Living other people's lives in books" means, as we shall use the expression here, symbolic experience -- sometimes called "vicarious experience."

In the enjoyment and contemplation of a work of literary or dramatic art -- a novel, a play, a moving picture -- we find our deepest enjoyment when the leading characters in the story to some degree symbolize ourselves.  Watching Meryl Streep venturing out into the veldt in Out of Africa, Jennifer Smith's pulse quickens, as if she herself were living an adventure -- and symbolically, she is.  In other words, she identifies herself with Meryl Streep and her role in the story.  Sylvester Stallone fighting a villain is watched by thousands of fans who clench their fists as if they were doing the fighting -- which they are, symbolically.  As we identify ourselves with the people in the story, the dramatist or the novelist puts us through organized sequences of symbolic experiences.

The differences between actual and symbolic experiences are great -- one is not scarred by watching a motion-picture battle, nor is one nourished by watching people in a play having dinner.  Furthermore, actual experiences come to us in highly disorganized fashion: meals, arguments with the landlady, visits to the doctor about one's fallen arches, and so on, interrupt the splendid course of romance.  The novelist, however, abstracts only the events relevant to the story and then organizes them into a meaningful sequence.  This business of abstracting (selecting) events and organizing them so that they bear some meaningful relationship to each other and to the central theme of a novel or play constitutes the storyteller's art.  Plot construction, development of character, narrative structure, climax, denouement, and all the other things one talks about in technical literary criticism have reference to this organizing of symbolic experiences so that the whole complex of symbolic experiences (that is, the finished story or play) will have the desired impact on the reader.

All literary and dramatic enjoyment, whether of nursery tales, of films, or of "great literature," appears to involve to some degree the reader's imaginative identification of himself with the roles portrayed and his projection of himself into the situations described in the story.*  Whether a reader is able to identify himself with the characters of a story depends both on the maturity of the story and the maturity of the reader.  If a mature reader finds difficulty identifying himself with the hero of a cowboy story, it may be because he finds the hero too simple-minded a character to serve as an acceptable symbol for himself, and the villains and the events too improbable to serve as symbols for his own enemies and his own problems.

*At what age does the capacity for imaginative identification of oneself with the roles portrayed in a story begin?  I would suggest, on the basis of very limited observation, that it begins around age two or earlier.  An interesting test case is to read the story of the Three Bears to a very small child to see when he or she begins to identify with Baby Bear or with Goldilocks.

However, the simple-mindedness of the people and the improbability of the events of cowboy or detective movies contribute much to their popularity on television.  We live in a complex civilization, in which the vast majority of us lead peaceful, unaggressive lives.  When we are troubled by problems -- when sales fall off or profits decline or our jobs are threatened or shipments do not arrive on time or customers complain -- many, many things may be to blame: manufacturers, wholesalers, the stock market, the labor unions, high taxes, high rentals, the railroads, the government, local zoning regulations, or the problems of communication inevitable in large and complex societies.  As a rule, there is no single villain or group of villains, no one agency, that can be the object of our wrath when things go wrong.  Hence, the world of the television drama is comforting to come home to when the day's work is done: the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are clearly distinguishable, and all troubles are dissolved in a happy ending when the "bad guys" are defeated or dead after a heroic gunfight or car chase.

One reason for calling some people immature is that they are incapable of confronting defeat, tragedy, or unpleasantness of any kind.  Such persons usually cannot endure an "unhappy ending" even in a set of symbolic experiences.  Hence the widespread passion for happy endings in popular literature, so that even stories about unhappy events have to be made, in the end, to come out all right.  The immature constantly need to be reassured that everything will always come out all right.

Readers who mature as they grow older, however, steadily increase the depth and range and subtlety of their symbolic experiences.  Under the guidance of skilled writers who have accurately observed the world and have been able to organize their observations in significant ways, the mature reader may symbolically experience murder, guilt, religious exaltation, bankruptcy, the loss of friends, the discovery of gold mines or new philosophical principles, or the sense of desolation following a locust invasion in North Dakota.  Each new symbolic experience means the enrichment of the reader's insight into people and events.

As we progress in our reading, our consciousness widens.  Gradually, the "maps" which we have inside our heads become fuller, more accurate pictures of the actual "territories" of human character and behavior under many different conditions and in many different times.  Gradually, too, our increased insight gives us sympathy with our fellow human beings everywhere.  The pharaohs of Egypt, the Tibetan priest behind his ceremonial mask, the Roman political exile, and the embittered inner-city youth are presented to us by the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, at levels of vivid and intimate description, so that we learn how they lived, what they worried about, and how they felt.  When the lives of other people, of whatever time and place, are examined in this way, we discover to our amazement that they are all people.  This discovery is the basis of all civilized human relationships.  If we remain uncivilized -- whether in community, industrial, national, or international relationships -- it is largely because most of us have not yet made this discovery.  Literature is one of the most important instruments to that end.

Science and Literature

By means of scientific communication, with its international system of weights and measures, international systems of botanical and zoological nomenclature, international mathematical symbols, we are enabled to exchange information with each other, pool our observations, and acquire collective control over our environment.  By means of affective communication -- by conversation and gesture when we can see each other, but by literature and other arts when we cannot --   we come to understand each other, to cease being brutishly suspicious of each other, and gradually to realize the profound community that exists between us and our fellow human beings. Science, in short, makes us able to cooperate; the arts enlarge our sympathies so that we become willing to cooperate.



Language in Thought and Action is a book I think you should read.  As I type these words, in January of 1999, I myself am going through it from start to finish for the third time, which works out to roughly once every decade, which seems about right.  When are you going to get started?

Update of October 2009: I found this book hiding in my closet and am now reading it a fourth time, so I'm on schedule.  It's available on AMAZON, and you can read my 1998 review therefor HERE.

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Buy Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa from Amazon HERE.  Read my review HERE.

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