Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Deer Park

This is the legendary poem Deer Park (Wang Wei):

鹿柴 (王维)





It was written during the Tang Dynasty by a poet who is often referred to as Poetry Buddha.

Here is one translation into English:

On this lonely mountain I see no one,
Yet I hear the echo of voices.
Rays of sunlight enter into the deep forest,
Shining once more upon green moss.

There are, however, many other translations, some that seem to convey completely different, even contradictory meanings. I'm thinking of this poem this morning because among my holiday gifts is a book entitled Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger. It is a look at this ancient poem from nineteen different perspectives, although as the author points out in the introduction there are an infinite number of ways to interpret the poem. These are simply the ones that fit this particular book.

I'm excited to read the book because it is, in part, about the challenge of "translating" a poem that was written using a pictographic alphabet into a phonetic one. There is no word-for-word translation possible because phonetic symbols are visual representations of sounds, whereas pictographic symbols represent ideas, concepts and object. This means that each symbol is open to interpretation. Our English language alphabet is comprised of a meager 26 letters. It's impossible to know exactly how many "letters" make up the ancient Chinese alphabet, although scholars place it as over 50,000 and probably more than 100,000. 

Scientists tell us that new technologies re-wire our brains, which has caused a great deal of hand wringing over how things like computers and smartphones are rewiring our children, but no technology has rewired humans more than the phonetic alphabet. It's hard not to reflect on everything we lose when reducing human experience to a small collection of sounds. It's hard not to reflect on how much richer our understanding of the world would be if we had stuck with pictographs. The phonetic alphabet is an attempt to create a narrow, if not singular, perspective, whereas pictographs seek to create an infinitely wide and inclusive perspective, one that is open to multiple, even infinite, interpretations. A phonetic alphabet is about conveying information as concretely and unambiguously as possible, whereas a pictographic alphabet seeks to create the whole picture, contradictions and all.

I wonder if the exploding use of emojis and stylized selfies in social media and elsewhere doesn't represent a deep desire to create a new, more inclusive way of communicating that acknowledges there is always more than one way to understand our world. A smiley face, after all, says so much more than the word "smile." I wonder if our phonetic alphabet induced prejudice in favor of precision and explicitness, blinding us to the true wonder of experience. I wonder if our reliance on a phonetic alphabet hasn't rewired us in ways that make us believe, falsely, in absolute truth, in right and wrong answers, in my-way-or-the highway.

As an early childhood educator, I've spent my career working amongst humans we label as "pre-literate." In other words, these are humans who have not been rewired by the technology of the phonetic alphabet. All of them begin interpreting images and making meaningful marks long before they can even conceive of what we call reading or writing. When we bend over them with our questions of "What is it?" or "What does it mean?" we are revealing our phonetic alphabet prejudiced brains and the limits of our own understanding, not to mention confusing the children. This is part of how the phonetic alphabet rewires us.

The older I get, the more aware I've become of how literacy, as we currently define it, limits my understanding. This is why, I believe, we must learn to actively seek out perspectives other than our own, and especially look for perspectives that add to, alter, or even contradict what we think we understand. At least this is what we must do if we are truth seekers. Ambiguity is truth and certainty is most certainly a lie.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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