Leave Shakespeare Alone

Leave Shakespeare Alone
Leave Shakespeare Alone

Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar has observed in his book The Limits of Science’ that ‘in terms of the fulfilment of declared intentions science is incomparably the most successful enterprise man has engaged upon’, e.g. landing on the moon, curing certain diseases, designing computers. He opines that science’s greatest glory is its unlimited power to answer questions of the kind it can answer. The emphasis is on ‘declared intentions’ and ‘the kind of questions science can answer’. Science cannot answer riddles of existence or about man’s task in the Universe, just as a car cannot fly, i.e. not perform a task for which it is not designed. Because of this limitation, it is to literature of philosophy that we must turn for answers to such questions.

About five decades ago it had been fashionable to interpret human behaviour in terms of psychology, thanks to Sigmund Freud and others. Writers like C.E.M. Joad had pointed out that the only mind to which a psychologist had access was his own. By introspection it was thought he could acquaint himself with its contents. But the mind he introspected was the same as the mind by means of which introspection was being performed, and so it was affected by the fact that it was being made the subject of inquiry. Neurophysiology should be having similar limita­tions though because of its knowledge of the brain’s anatomy and success in curing certain ailments, it is in a relatively superior position.

Let us now look at synkinesia (mimicking of action of one anatomical area of the face by another). According to some scientists a study of this phenomenon coupled with synaesthesia (perceiving numerals as having colours) would, lead to an understanding of the evolution of language. (Synaesthesia is an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Synesthetes hear colours feel sounds and taste shapes). A scientific study of the evolution of language would according to some scientists eventually lead to the understanding of the language of Shakespeare!

Such predictions are speculative. Obviously, the scientists are referring to English. Any photographer will ask you to say ‘Cheese’ to elicit a smile before clicking the camera. But then the manner in which the lips have to be stretched to do this may have a different connotation in other languages.

In New Guinea alone there are 700 languages, each as different from the other as Chinese is from English. The shape the lips have to assume to represent joy in English may indicate grief in one of those languages.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond says that Neo-Melanesian, a sort of lingua franca of New Guinea, is as strict in its grammatical rules as is English. The word We’ which in English is ‘I plus you to whom I am speaking’ is represented by Yumi and Mipela. When apologising to a woman in her husband’s presence for accidentally jostling her, he found to his embarrassment that in Neo-Melanesian the ‘Pushim’ does not mean push but means ‘have sexual intercourse with’. In Iyau, a single vowel has eight different meanings, including mother- in-law or beloved snake, depending on the pitch! It would be disastrous for a man to address his mother-in-law without this knowledge! Even distinguished linguists have not been able to fathom these pitch dis­tinctions for years which Iyau children utter effortlessly.

In Thailand the word ” ma” has several different meanings ranging from a “dog” to “come”. Thai children use this syllable correctly to suit the context whereas foreigners cannot unless they have lived in Thailand for many years.

In some languages (e.g., Hindi, French) some objects are masculine and some others feminine. The gender influences the usage of such words and the sentences in which such words occur. A child born in France or Hindi speaking north India makes no mistakes while using these sentences /words as he knows the sex of all objects. However people who are born elsewhere cannot speak these sentences correctly.

If man has evolved from animals lacking human speech, then our language must have evolved with time along with organs like the pelvis skull, etc. The intermediate language like stages, linking monkey grunts to advanced speech—is an enormous gulf which several Darwins and Newtons put together may find unbridgeable.

For all these reasons it would be ridiculous and even patronising for any scientist to even entertain a thought of analysing the brain of Shakespeare who excelled any other human being ever born, in the splendour of his imagination and the magnitude of his genius, by studying a phenomenon like synaesthesia, which is still not properly understood.

Let scientists leave Shakespeare alone and stick to less ambi­tious but noble tasks like treating diseases.


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