It’s another warm winter’s day that I ought to be enjoying, the balcony beckons to me most invitingly, but I am shivering inside a gelid bitterness that gnaws at my ears, as my too many thought fragments jam my cranium, giving me a feeling that my head will explode if I do not wrap it in a soft woolly beanie. Unfortunately, the sensation of that beanie clamped over my brain is also not one I can endure for long, so it’s a process of “put on and take off” for me. I am sitting at my desk, which is by the door to the balcony, settling for second-best from here, with a doggy heat pad being shifted from back, to lap, to feet and da capo, all over again. Lucy won’t mind sharing her heat pad, she loves her mumma (besides, I paid a lordly sum of $60 for this one, overcharged by the shop lady of course, and I cannot afford to buy another one just for me).
We had a surrealistically unpleasant night. I suffered from episodes of temperature-hypersensitivity, as did Lucy. A few times, we both woke up panting, myself bathed in a fizzy mist of perspiration, and her gasping for cool air. I removed the blanket that was wrapped around her, but I did not peel off her lightweight lilac jersey pyjamas. I didn’t want her to catch a chill when the temperature plummeted. True enough, it did. It was like a wildly undulating roller coaster with lavender scented, soft cushions stuffed with fine downy feathers. When it became very cold, she inexorably drew towards me, and we huddled together for warmth, separating again, panting, as the warmth became too cloying. No verbalising required. We just knew. It was symbiotic. Proprioceptive-sonic communication. Our bodies indicated our message, even in the dark, the sounds we made were the little coloraturas that enhanced the experience of our communion, interior decorations for our little intimate space.
I woke up reluctantly, so did she, although she performed her usual “Wake Up Mumma!” routine of nuzzling, snuggling and licking. We cuddled for awhile more in bed before bravely sallying forth into the tingling cold air. Miss Lucy needs to pee and poo, simple as that. She gets me up every morning, for this I have not ceased to be grateful. Well, we marched forth into the dark morning cavern in a rhythmic somnambulistic duet. As soon as I flopped the hood of my jacket over my frozen head, my brain buzzed into gear, and logged in to the leftover morsels from yesterday: Is Music a Language? Can it be a language? How so?
Humans have acquired the power of speech, of verbal textual communication, of rich and complex semantic vocabulary and grammatical structures, upon which we now rely heavily in almost all aspects of our existence. The didactic has become so important to us that we even base our measurements of ability upon the function of speech and understanding verbal transmission. This over reliance is very pronounced in the way the majority minded world approaches autism – in day to day life, in the wider social context, and even in the realm of science. The latter seems to me the most insidious of all, because science is touted and widely believed to be a ‘neutral’ force that speaks the truth in the voice of Truth, the pinnacle of understanding to many. Yet, these blind worshippers of ‘science’ tend not to notice or accept that our science is human after all – researched by humans, its strategies invented by human minds, and hence its discoveries subject to imperfect, skewed interpretation, according to the perspectival capacity of the human scientist.
So much of autism research is based on the common measure of linguistic mastery. What is emerging now, through accounts from autistic individuals who have managed to ‘cross the divide’ into the realm of standard semantic expression, is that our minds often grasp, grow and contain non-semantic modes for conveyance of intense meaning. I am glad for this ‘revolution,’ I now know I am not alone. Language, as the world knows it, is limiting. Many autistics exist inside a more urgently primal realm of the senses – and as adroit as I may seem at ‘painting’ with language (English) such that the majority minded world may understand my communiqué, I nevertheless grapple with immense frustration at the lack of vocabulary for the more refined, elemental and vital sensations, emotions and intrinsic responses. Some languages are more expressive than others. Although I am ethnically Chinese (my forebears hailed from the south, many generations ago), I regretfully have too poor a grasp of the language to make any expert assertion. However, from listening to the Tang poetry that my father used to read, some of which he explained to me, and learning the popular songs of the 1960s-1980s, where poetic expression was as important as melismatic musical offerings, I found that the Chinese language, Cantonese in particular (whether employed in its classical form or common vernacular), was far more eloquent and poignant than the English language. One word can contain a wealth of meaning that an entire passage in English still fails to evoke, and embedded inside these single, cogent sonic and silent, spoken and written, tonal and rhythmic words, I found sensory reverberations, sympathetic resonances, ‘meanings’ that can only be touched, tasted, seen, smelled and heard through the senses.
The worms wriggle along, leading me once more to the question that was bouncing away in my head yesterday. Is music a language? Can music be a language? Obviously not – from the perspective of the traditional way we approach language. Didactic. Semantic. Stable signifiers. Etc. However, more and more, from the perspective of my own inner mechanisms, and that of some fellow autists, when the eye readjusts to gaze through the sensory projections of our intrinsically sensory world, the answer is yes. Similar to but not exactly in the same way that Lucy communicates with me in her non-verbal language – through the realm of the senses, and even within a metaphysical-yet-concrete dimension. The argument I hear often is, “But there is no commonly accessible system of semantic vocabulary and grammatical structure.” Fair enough. That is true, I stress again, when viewed from that traditional standpoint. Yet, there is something persistent and resilient in musical expression and communication, that has stubbornly adhered itself to every human cultural and social development through the ages, and with systemic structures unique to the cultures from which it derives and in which it lives, that is, music is a vibrant entity woven into the tapestries of cultural embodiment. What is it about music that has made it such a powerful force? To me, music speaks.
Until I am able to shake and rattle from this rich and tightly woven tapestry a few more smoothened pebbles, for now, music, to me, is indeed a language. It is one which lives within an alternative dimension, a parallel embodiment, where it is, whether consciously or subconsciously, a sensory-based intercourse of meanings known only to those who speak it, but has the capability for bringing enjoyment, again, through the sense, to even those who do not speak the language at all.
Should you have the appetite for more food for thought, here are two links to explore further the idea of sensory non-verbal communication, where Arianne Zurcher interviews Paula Durbin-Westby: