In ancient Greek legend, the cave-dwelling Cumaean Sibyl, a famous prophetess, wrote the future on a series of oak leaves. However, every time supplicants came to ask of their fortunes, they would open the door to the cave and the West Wind would blow in, scattering the leaves. Thus was the future known yet not known.
Much could be read of this frustration, of how we never know where we will end, of whether our efforts are worthwhile or will be doomed to failure—that we can hope for little more than failed communication.
The poet Shelley, too, lamented the problem of communication, suggesting in his “Ode to the West Wind” that tumultuous forces prevent our communication:
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being—
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, (1-3)
Shelley’s ability to write, to reveal his experience, flees beyond his control. However, I prefer the story of the Aeneid where, in seeking the Sibyl’s advice, the hero Aeneas has a simple solution:
Chant the sacred verses
With your own lips; do not trust them to the leaves,
The mockery of the rushing wind’s disorder (6:83-85).
Our lives are rushed, the pile of “To Do” items scattered, and it seems just when we get a handle on where we wish to go, the wind catches us. But Aeneas reminds us that solutions abound; all we have to do is ask.
Too simple, perhaps. But this much is certain: the more we remain silent, the more failure we must inevitably encounter. Our futures are produced by words, by language, broken or no. Every moment we choose to avoid the discussion is another futured moment lost and a scattered present lived, often in anxiety.
In discussion, in dialogue, we produce meaning, create new opportunities, learn the world.
The Romans understood. The Cumaean Sibyl offered King Tarquin nine books of prophecies, but her price was too high and he refused. So the Sibyl destroyed three of the books and offered him six. Again he refused so she burned three more. Finally, he understood and bought what was left. Seize language.
To do so is frightening. With language comes responsibility for its use: it’s easier for us sometimes to abdicate control or power over our present. To talk is to confront it, to make active our place in the world. Who else can we blame when our own words are cast before us?
But this much seems certain: in language lies consequence, our wills, our selves.
The same can be said of our writing, of course. But not just any writing. The school assignment is merely that, a designed exercise trapped in a closed cave. It pretends to be assertion, but until the door is opened to the world, private writing protects itself from examination, from dialogue. This is why the most powerful and important writing is that which readers encounter and to which they respond.
Down with readers of television who passively absorb! And down with mere consumers of text who do not engage it with their own words.
Worst of all fall those writers and speakers who language recklessly, without critical responsibility for their words. “What does it matter? It’s just words.” “It’s just my opinion.” “It doesn’t mean anything.” The ethos of any writer stems from her consciousness of the responsibility for the words. Ethos is character, is ethics. Ethos is writing and speaking for truth.
King Tarquin is a fool. Shelley begs for power against the chaos. Aeneas heroically demands the dialogue. And another writer will be forever unknown because he chooses not to write.