Mixing up a Sunday breakfast smoothie, my wife Ellen clinks her spoon again and again against her glass. At first I think she's just stirring her drink, but the clinking goes on until I look up. "Thought you'd never notice," she says with a sly smile.
Our cat Bobbie stalks out of the bedroom and glares at me, meowing in an agrieved tone. Obediently I arrange the bed pillows the way she likes them; she climbs up and promptly goes to sleep.
On the way to the park we pass a newsstand. "SUPREME COURT OKAYS OBAMACARE," shouts a headline. We pass friends and neighbors; some we nod to, some we wave at, and with a few we stop and chat. A man strides along the sidewalk whistling "Oh Susanna."
In the park sparrows cheep and flutter their feathers in a puddle. A starling lands among them and makes theatening motions with its beak; the sparrows fly away. In the dog run, a black and brown spotted mutt picks up his ball, carries it to its mistress, drops it, then looks up hoping she'll throw it for him to chase. She's talking on her cell phone, so the dog wanders off. Seeing a handsome golden retriever, he runs over, woofs cheerfully, then crouches down, forepaws extended, in an invitation to play. The golden accepts the proffer of friendship, and in moments the two are tussling in mock combat.
We find a shady spot on a semi-circle of benches. A songbird hidden in a tree warbles a liquid melody. Beside us an elderly couple talk softly in Chinese. Teenaged boys and girls laugh and flirt. A woman by herself reads a book; another writes in her journal. A young man wears a t-shirt with a picture on John Lennon on the front; on the back tall letters spell "IMAGINE." A little girl whines at her big brother, "Lemme use the skateboard." He pointedly ignores her. She sticks out her tongue. He shrugs and skates away with a "Ha ha on you!" flourish. Ellen and I look at each other and laugh. On nearby benches a band of Spanish men with congas, claves, and cowbells play salsa rhythms that float seductively through the summer air.
What do all these daily sights and sounds have in common? They're all attempts to communicate.
We sentient beings, including the cat and birds and dogs in my little word picture, try to communicate because:
We're each unique.
We look out at the world from inside ourselves.
We find it hard to describe the experience of being ourselves.
We find it hard to understand what others experience inside themselves.
"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face," complains King Duncan in Macbeth. From our own insides, we know how many random hopes and fears flit through us and disappear, thoughts which we seldom tell each other, partly because this multi-threaded mental flow is not easily put into words — though James Joyce gave it the old college try!
To survive we must in a rough-and-ready way connect with other people, but it's hard to know whom to trust. Lies may be told so well and the truth so badly that the law relies on juries of twelve people in hope that a dozen guesses will approximate the truth. Lovers read each other's hearts, and gamblers study an opponent's tics to tell how many aces he's holding, but still: when we observe someone with a bland expression on his or her face, we cannot know for certain what he or she is thinking, and anyone staring at our blank mugs could say the same about us.
Communication — from the Latin "cum unio," union with — is the big answer humans and many animals have come up with to break us out of lifelong solitary confinement and link us up with other beings. Communication's content, the specific information sent or received, can be of life-or-death importance, but beneath the content, there's the bond, the union with, that communication creates, whether the content is "I love you" or "I hate you."
Communication includes every language and every means we use to show other sentient beings what we are thinking and feeling inside, every attempt we make to put our minds' construction into our faces and voices and eyes and hands and bodies and clothes and pens and brushes and chisels and cameras, so that other beings can get a glimmering of what we're experiencing.
The vital need for communication hit me first at Yale when, in a freshman introductory philosophy course, Professor John Smith led us through Way to Wisdom by Karl Jaspers. Some called Jaspers (1883-1969) "the founder of German existentialism," but the bleak title doesn't convey the warmth of Jaspers modest, determined prose.
Humans live "scared and alone," Jaspers writes. They try to connect with other humans, "yet often do not understand each other...they meet and scatter...indifferent to one another." Tribes and faiths war with other tribes and faiths; people kill people to gain power; at times there seems to be "nothing but battle without hope of unity."
One light alone brightens this dark landscape: "communication" — Jaspers' italics. Communication cures loneliness, gives humans the chance to join with others "mind to mind...existence to existence." Reaching and being reached by other humans turns "merely living" into a "fulfilling life." writes Jaspers, makes possible "the loving contest which profoundly unites self and self."
Jaspers wouldn't mind living alone if he could find his way to wisdom alone, but he can't: he needs other people to become himself:
I am only in conjunction with others; alone I am nothing.
For Jaspers, philosophy is more than the love of truth; it's the love of telling the truth, putting all we learn about life into forms that other humans can understand. A few words may pop into a genius' head as he sits alone in his midnight study — "I think therefore I am" — but the notion is half-born until the genius speaks the words to a friend or writes them down with a pen and paper so they can move freely, quickly, and understandably between humans.
On page 71 Jaspers lays all his cards on the table — trumpets and a drum roll, please!
Man's supreme achievement in this world is communication from personality to personality.
What? Me knowing you is the "supreme achievement" of the human race? Greater than the Seven Wonders of the World? Greater than music, art, and science? Greater than Chartres cathedral, the plays of Shakespeare, the Great Wall of China? Yes! When I read that sentence in college, I underlined it and put a star in the margin; recently I added another underline and three exclamation marks. Jaspers, I believe, hit the nail on the head: I can know you and you can know me: yes, that is the supreme achievement of man, the richest blessing of life.
Not that communication is greater than music, art, and science; rather, communication is the goal of music, art, and science. Me and you uniting with each other through this essay — that's the pearl of great price that makes the work of writing worthwhile. If art couldn't connect us with other people, libraries, museums, theaters, and concert halls would echo emptily all year long. If when reading Tolstoy we could not cry and laugh with Tolstoy, why would we read War and Peace and Anna Karenina?
Yet like great artists in every medium, Tolstoy communicates! As we read his books, we can read Tolstoy's mind, and, guided by him, we can read the very souls of his immortal, imaginary beings. Every scrap of dialogue he reports, every drawing room he describes, every woman's heart he enters: every word Tolstoy (and Homer, Cervantes, Shakspeare, Balzac, Trollope…) writes communicates to us something of his own personality and something of the hopeful, fearful, poetic, practical, and endlessly quirky personalities of ourselves and our fellow human beings.