The Tremendous Necessity of Words

In her book The Magician’s Book, Laura Miller writes,

One of the first stories I found both true and terribly sad is a chapter that comes in the middle of P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins, an interlude devoted to the infant twins, John and Barbara Banks, in their nursery. (Jane and Michael, the older and better-known Banks siblings, have gone off to a party.) The twins can understand the language of the sunlight, the wind, and a cheeky starling who perches on the windowsill, but they are horrified when the bird informs them they will soon forget all of this. “There was never any human being that remembered after the age of one—at the very latest—except, of course, Her.” (This “Great Exception,” as the starling calls her, is Mary Poppins, of course.) “You’ll hear all right,” Mary Poppins tells John and Barbara, “but you won’t understand.”

This makes the babies cry, which brings their mother bustling into the nursery; she blames the fuss on teething. When she tries to soothe John and Barbara by saying that everything will be all right after their teeth come in, they only cry harder. “It won’t be all right, it will be all wrong,” Barbara protests. “I don’t want teeth!” screams John. But, of course, their mother can’t understand them any better than she can understand the wind or the starling. (p. 26)

There is in this passage a wonderful romance containing knowledge within innocence, universal communion. (I ought not to insult Ms. Travers’ genius with a reference to Baby Geniuses.) Before we become encumbered with concerns, according to Travers, over cars and jobs, money and products in need of purchase, we are free to commune freely not only with one another but with the birds and animals, the rocks and trees. We posses the joyful idleness requisite for conversation with all the things around and about us.

Yet this fantasy is woefully incongruous with reality. Without language, verbal or signatory, there is no exchange of ideas, sorrows, joys. Without words we are trapped in our own worlds of limited cognition, stymied by our own inability to communicate. It is only through words that we are able to share things of beauty and ugliness, goodness and evilness.

Think, without the Word, there would be no Francis, Anthony or Bede*.

*Though I can’t find it, I’ve heard, I think, that St Bede endeavored to preach the Gospel to his fellow-men, who would not listen. The stones of the earth, on the other hand, turned to the Venerable man and were attentive to the message of their Creator and Savior.
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