Wander casually into "Talk's Body" or its predecessor, "Ways of the Hand," and for a moment you may have the uncomfortable feeling that you have surprised Narcissus at his devotions. There is an intense concentration on the self that can make the reader feel like an intruder, even though this is a book -- published, obviously, for the purpose of finding and affecting as many readers, or understanders, as possible.
The dominating figure in the book is David Sudnow, "between two keyboards" -- one hand on the piano, the other on the typewriter, watching intensely what happens and setting it all down in loving detail, preserving even his typing errors for posterity:
"This last essay I improvised from start to finish, writing not now at a very rapid pace, without going back and without r correcting errors, and trying to find something to say in the course of the production of the typing and now i am typing along at a very rapid rate and I used to do this in front of a video camera with the ce camera focused right on the words coming up so that the wor words came out and up and then wend went off to the side and it was like talking to the reader in real time, making writing into a performance like speee speaking and you can try to gl read this as I'm produr rp producing it and i will try to talk about it as we sh good go on. . ."
That's enough. The sentence wanders on for about three pages, preserving the false starts and finger-slips of the original typing and chattering away like a quote from Gertrude Stein, not because the author thinks that even his mistakes are precious, but because he is trying to prove a point -- several points.
For example, that we speak not merely with our brains and lungs and vocal chords but with our whole bodies, and that speech is a matter matter not so much of words and gestures as of getting from one place to another (or several others). And that the hand has reasons of its own that the reason hardly understands. It is probably easier to demonstrate some of these things sitting at the other keyboard, the piano, and talking as the hand wanders, watching the hand intently and analyzing what it is doing. Given the limitations of a book, Sudnow does the best he can -- and the fact that he makes the reader work hard is partly deliverate, partly a result of what he is trying to do.
He takes the reader backstage, behind the public, edited version of our thinking and being that we prefer to present to the world, and explores (as best he can in the rather dim light) the ropes and gears and wires that produce and direct the external actions -- how they take the forms they do and how the behind-the-scenes reality with its creaks and bumps and false starts differs from the smooth illusion out front.
His vocabulary is often strange, because he believes that the traditional vocabulary we use, even when it is trying to get behind the scenes, still has in it too much of the illusion, too little of the reality: "We have nouns, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, for instance. Parts of speech. Nonsense. They are parts of sights. . . The whole construction is nothing but a sheer invention of the language, which invention seeks to analyze itself while staying immune from itself. The theories that result become embarrassing at just that point where the need is encountered to patch up the connection between product and process, to contrive a complete theory from start to finish."
Sudnow does not have a complete theory, at least not yet; he is a guerrilla psychologist, sniping from the jungle at accepted theories of how the mind acts through the body and offering fragmentary hints of another view of this complex reality. He refers to thoughts as "sounding movements" and tries to flee abstraction like a jungle beast -- though, conditioned by our traditions and communicating via a book, he wanders necessarily back to it: "Describing my experiences at typewriter and piano, I find no good use for an analytic conception of 'the thought'. . . there is only process -- thinking, not thoughts; melodying, not melodies."
"Process" is, of course, the kind of sounding movement our tradition (our tribe) had developed to communicate via paper. A paragraph of typing errors does it more powerfully but with less clarity. To balance the abstractions he cannot avoid, he leaps into a kind of poetry -- rhythmic, impassioned writing in jagged lines:
"all language is activities
if they are movements, then the syntax of thoughts is a syntax of moves
the syntax is like a choreography"
But there is the abstraction again; he is often a prisoner of the accepted modes of discourse, struggling to escape. Once in a while, he manages it in a brief flash: "the thought 'c major' is in the hands' way of shaping," but the chief impact of the book is in the sense of struggle it conveys -- for example, through the creative use of typographical errors.
At its best, it attempts to be not a book but an experience. It invites -- forces -- the reader to share that experience, to see how the neat theories of grammar and psychology are overlooking huge, important chunks of reality in their picture of how the mind functions. It is difficult reading but, for the person who wants to go backstage in the processes of the mind, curiously exciting.