Tuesday, December 4, 2012


One day, way back in the mid-seventies, a self-styled linguist from abroad, whose hatred towards Noam Chomsky was incomprehensible to us to say the least, was giving us, graduate students of linguistics, what he called a critique of Chomsky’s linguistics. During the lecture, he spent some time telling us about how Chomsky was not paying income tax and how the clever man was gaining from this act in terms of bank balance and favourable public attention, both. No wonder, he said, that such a person was doing the kind of linguistics he was doing. We were unimpressed partly because we failed to see the connection, but far more because Chomsky’s income, income tax and bank account were of no interest to us in the first place.

The fact of the matter is this: discussing an issue on communication, Chomsky wrote in his Reflections on Language that there was a time he was not paying part of his income tax in protest against some policies of the US government (relating to the Vietnam War). And like some others too, he used to write a detailed and careful letter to the Bureau of internal Revenue every year justifying his non-payment of the same. He was aware that no one was going to read his note and that his income tax papers might simply be fed into a computer. Umberto Eco’s shopping list (the subject matter of an earlier post in this blog) and Chomsky’s letter to the Bureau are similar in that their respective authors believed that neither piece was going to be read by others, so neither had any intention to communicate while writing the same. However, differing from Eco and reflecting on his own experience, Chomsky observed that although sometimes an author may have no communicative intention while writing something, he would still writes with sincerity and care, and would not ignore clarity. It is a different matter that some people do indeed read such writing. In the context of the same discussion in his Reflections on Language, Chomsky said that he wrote The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory as a graduate student assuming that it would never be read by anyone or would ever be published. We know that it was published twenty years after it was written. As for its readers, the eminent linguist James D. McCawley told us in a lecture what was in circulation in the relevant quarters those days, namely that when it was first reviewed, even the reviewer of the book had not read it fully. We do not have to take him literally though. In any case, it is difficult to agree with Chomsky that when he was writing his lengthy manuscript he was very much aware that it would not be “read by anyone”; every graduate student writes his thesis for at least his examiners. We of course need not take his words too literally and interpret “anyone” as “anyone other than the thesis adviser and the examiners”, but then it makes the point he was making weak. 

An author may not have any particular individual or any group of persons in mind while writing, but to say that he writes knowing full well that no one would read his writing is difficult to swallow, when he does not make his writing completely inaccessible. There is of course a coherent answer to the question as to why at all, if one knows that no one is going to read his piece, one writes logically, clearly and in an intelligible manner. The answer is that it has to do with the personality of the author. If he is the sincere and responsible type, it would be reflected in his writing, if he is a bully or a confused person, it will also be reflected in his writing. It has thus nothing to do with his communicative intention or the absence of it.

One can never be sure that one’s writing will never be read by anyone, except when one destroys the same in time. The well known Indian author, Raja Rao, who wrote in English, left behind him much unpublished writing which during his life time he probably did not want to publish for some reason. Now it appears that those who have access are trying to have some of them published in some form. From the fact that Raja Rao did not publish them one cannot conclude that he did not want any one  to read them ever. If that were his resolve, then he should not have preserved his writing in the first place. The fact that he did would suggest that he had no problems if the same were read after his death. Similarly, from the very fact that Chomsky sent his letters to the Bureau of Internal Revenue one would think that he certainly would not have minded if someone there read them. One would never be persuaded to accept the claim that an author wrote for himself, for one’s own satisfaction or for the fulfilment of one’s creative urge, so long as he preserves his writing.

That is why the only stuff I believe  that are written without any communicative intention are the shy, self-conscious, conservative teen aged lover’s poems or billet doux, which readily end up, torn into tiny pieces, in the wastepaper basket.          

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