“Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the magic of real human communication. “The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.” But what exactly is this act of telling that transfigures our isolation into communion — how, why, and what do we actually tell, and to whom do we tell it?
That’s what the poet Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) set out to explore half a century ago.
Eleven years after she composed her extraordinary letters of life-advice to an eight-year-old girl, Riding renounced her vocation, feeling that she had “reached poetry’s limit” as a means of probing human truth and that there existed “something better in our linguistic way of life than we have.” She fell in love with TIME magazine poetry critic Schuyler B. Jackson and became Laura (Riding) Jackson. The Jacksons went on to live a humble yet intensely intellectual life in Florida, working as citrus farmers to fund their work on an ambitious, unorthodox dictionary that distilled each word into a single definition.
But Jackson, animated by her intense love of language, remained restless about the problem of truth’s articulation. It took her a quarter century to formulate just why she had abandoned poetry and what greater frontiers of truth-telling there may be. Her formulation first appeared in the New York magazine Chelsea in 1967 and later became the small, immensely profound book The Telling (public library) — an unusual manifesto for the existential necessity of living for truth.
Jackson frames the promise of the book in a prefatory note:
Life of the human kind has been lived preponderantly so far according to the needs of the self as felt to be the possession of itself. This self-claiming self is a human-faced creature, existing in the multiple form of a loose number reckonable only as “the human aggregate.” The needs of this self issue from a diffuse greed, which is imparted from one to the other in garrulous sociality.
There is an alternative self, a human-faced soul-being, a self conscious of ourselves who bear in manifold individualness, each singly, the burden of the single sense of the manifold totality. This self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it. On what we each may thus say depends the happiness of the Whole, and our own (every happiness of other making being destined to disappear into the shades of the predetermined nothingness of the self-claiming self, which encircle it.)
The book is structured like Pascal’s Pensées and Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul — as a series of short meditations each presented in a numbered paragraph. In the first, Jackson considers our primal hunger for the telling of core human truths yet untold:
There is something to be told about us for the telling of which we all wait. In our unwilling ignorance we hurry to listen to stories of old human life, new human life, fancied human life, avid of something to while away the time of unanswered curiosity. Many of the lesser things concerning us have been told, but the greater things have not been told; and nothing can fill their place. Whatever we learn of what is not ourselves, but ours to know, being of our universal world, will likewise leave the emptiness an emptiness. Until the missing story of ourselves is told, nothing besides told can suffice us: we shall go on quietly craving it.
In the fourth fragment, she suggests that at the heart of the pervasive sense that our stories are unheard lies the fact that they are first and foremost untold:
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