Many of us have heard some version of the famous story at the start of Stephen Hawking’ Brief History of Time:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Science is different from the humanities. Science has objective truth, a point where things just are provable, like prime numbers, or the speed of light. But humanities just has more turtles. It took me a long time to get this.
I grew up in South Africa, but in a Western household. So all the books, movies and television shows presented to me as good and authentic had either come from Europe or America. My grandmother used to send my parents the English Sunday papers now and again, and my brother and I used to get British comics like the Beano and the Dandy. Of course, these comics presented a way of life that we found totally alien, and sometimes difficult to understand. Reading them now, the world of the Beano is as invented and unreal as the world of P. G. Wodehouse, but I couldn’t have understood that. I really thought that British kids were rewarded for good deeds by being given enormous Five Pound notes, which they then immediately spent on a slap-up feed of bangers and mash.
I didn’t know what mash was and had no idea why British kids were always hungry. Were they so poor that their parents couldn’t feed them? Did all the teachers really have mortar boards? Apparently not, but why show them then? I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.
Mad Magazine came a bit later, and featured parodies of TV shows and films I had never seen. These also underwent forensic examination. I got really good at teasing out cross-references, and spotting cast members who popped up in other contexts.
There are still movies where I am not sure if I have ever really seen them: perhaps I just read the parody so many times that I think I have. I thought that Star Wars was a musical, because Mad Magazine had the characters singing silly songs. I sometimes meet American people who are surprised to meet a Brit who can talk about Welcome Back Kotter and Laverne & Shirley without ever having seen them.
Eventually, we got an Encyclopaedia Britannica, and I started working through subjects. But, again, I was frustrated. Where to start? All the entries pre-supposed knowledge of other areas. I worked studiously through as much of the Propaedia (“The core of the Propædia is its Outline of Knowledge, which seeks to provide a logical framework for all human knowledge”) as I could. Still, everything stood on top of something else.
Even The Iliad, which was meant to be the last turtle in Western Literature, starts in the middle of a ten year war. How to go back to the original source of the Trojan War? It seems there is no original source.
Then, a bombshell. I saw a film called ‘Quest for Fire’ and my mind was expanded. It tells the story of a group of early humans who lose their fire. They do not have the technology to make their own, so go in search of a source, and have adventures. Simple enough. Except, when they spoke, there were no subtitles. They used a language created especially for the film by Anthony Burgess. And, as you watched, you worked out what they were talking about. You gradually absorbed their vocabulary. And, at the end, when the hero gives a brief speech, you understand him.
Surely there was something in this. Had we reached the end of the turtles?
Perhaps language was the answer. Even the words we speak have no meaning in and of themselves: they are derived from other words, words in older, more authentic languages. Perhaps if I learned Latin, or Ancient Greek, everything would become clearer – I would have foundation to build on. So I did learn Ancient Greek, and found that it also sat on top of older, completely forgotten, languages. And far from being simpler and more direct, was staggeringly complex and oblique.
So, it finally became clear that, culturally, at least, nothing has any meaning on its own. It only makes sense in the context of everything else. You need a dictionary to read a dictionary. There is no beginning to the story. Even one’s one birth is halfway through somebody else’s story. It’s turtles all the way down.