Human beings have been around a long time, depending on how you think about it. There’s no clear Start date, so how we got here is part of the mystery of our existence. But a long time. According to Wikipedia, which probably means according to someone who has studied this, we’ve been human for 50,000 years. So we have 50,000 years of telling stories about animals, passing on ways of cooking food, remembering conversations with our parents.
How long have human beings been writing? Writing has been invented four or five times, in various parts of the world, but the oldest writing originated in Mesopotamia (Iraq, for modern readers), around 5,000 years ago.
Let’s perform an act of imagination and join 45,000 years of humanity when writing did not exist, and see what it might be like to imagine it. Just for fun, let’s go to one of the earliest cities that existed, Çatalhöyük. A man and woman are talking, sitting alone on the roof of a house. He’s in love with her, but soon he’ll leave with his brother to go to a smaller village to get some cows. The man is sweet-talking the woman, asking her not to forget about him while he’s gone. She teases him, saying she might not remember everything he’s saying.
He can’t write her emails while he’s gone, or send her a letter, or even write love poems and leave them with her. Writing doesn’t exist. Language consists entirely of the vibration of the air. The moment someone quits speaking, it’s over, except in the memory of the speaker and listeners.
As it happens, the man and woman are eating roasted pistachios from a basket. Let’s sit beside them—you can have some pistachios if you want—and ask them to imagine that there is a way to take physical objects and arrange them in such a way that it’s possible to know what another person’s thought are, and to know those thoughts in great detail. In fact, we say, if you save those physical objects, you can know what the person was thinking the next day. The next week you can know what they were thinking.
The man laughs a little at our joke, at the idea of something so obviously impossible. The woman isn’t amused, and she frowns a bit, displeased that someone saying such crazy things, completely ridiculous things, is interrupting their conversation (because secretely she’s also in love with the man).
Here in the modern, rational, scientific year of 2011 it’s hard for us to imagine a world with no writing. We are utterly surrounded by it, filled with a consciousness of writing. Probably every person we see all day long has at the very minimum one letter of writing on their clothing, and usually more. The very trash on the ground is covered with writing. When I myself think about words, I almost can’t think of them without picturing how they’re spelled.
In a world of no writing, however, I believe that writing would be impossible to imagine, simply inconceivable. Yet human beings created writing in spite of that. The first writing, using the cuneiform system, consisted of a pointed stick and slabs of wet clay. As cumbersome as that sounds, it was used for a very long time, and many different languages used it. But before the slow process that led to this had happened, imagine handing someone a stick and a clump of wet clay, and saying, “When I come back a week from now, I’ll look at these to see what you’ve been thinking all week.”
Look at this sentence: “She was not ashamed to take him, she made herself naked and welcomed his eagerness; as he lay on her murmuring love she taught him the woman’s art.” Can you get some sense of being inside the writer’s mind, of knowing the writer’s thoughts? The sentence is from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, on clay tablets with sticks. The tablets were found buried in the ground in the 1800s.
And now writing fills our world up, almost like a kind of mental oxygen that surrounds everything. Here we are now thousands of years later with Dostoyevsky: “Can this be still a dream?” Raskolnikov thought once more.
As far as that goes, yes, it’s still a dream, but now we can write about it.