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Next Time, Won’t You Sing With Me: Intuitive Alphabet by Michele Oka Doner

Seth Cameron

Intuitive Alphabet by Michele Oka Doner.
It is generally ill-advised to put toddlers in the same room with 18th century musical instruments. Nonetheless, sometime in 1761, Leopold Mozart let his little one have at the family clavier and the four-year-old Wolfgang tossed back the tails of his petite petticoat and let rip Andante in C, ten bars of perfectly comprehensible Baroque music, with a mixed time signature and a closed cadence conclusion to boot. Now, I couldn’t tell you what “Baroque” means if you were to ask, and neither could young Mozart as he clunked away at the keys.

As I attempt to keep my two-year-old son at a distance from antiques, he decides to become a parking attendant. He lines up his toy cars in neat rows, and while glaring at his older brother, says “them are mine.” I promise he’s never heard his parents say it that way, so we know he’s not simply regurgitating phonological information. What he’s doing is abstracting a principle of grammar that applies to regular nouns – that their form is consistent whether being used as an object or a subject of a sentence – and applying it to a new situation in order to keep his brother’s mitts off his stuff. He couldn’t tell you what a grammar tree is if you asked, and yet, I am convinced of his creative genius.

His mind, like ours, is constantly doing something just as amazing as composing Andante in C. He is taking available material from the world, and transforming it into signs that mean things in the context of himself with others. He hasn’t memorized any rules because there aren’t any. The father of integrational linguistics, Roy Harris, put it so:

When we come across words we do not know, words which apparently did not exist a few years ago, it is difficult to resist two conclusions. One is that if there are verbal ‘codes’, they cannot be fixed: on the contrary, they must be changing all the time. The other conclusion is that if there are such codes, different people use different ones, and these too change. Until yesterday, mine did not include the word moshpit: today it does. But if the code has the kind of instability evidenced by the sudden emergence of new words and meanings, what guarantee of stability is there for ‘old’ words and meanings? The integrationist sees none. And if indeed there is none, then it is the viability of the concept of the code that is itself called in question.” – Introduction to Integrational Linguistics, 1998

Harris argues that language, rather than being a rule-based game, is an aspect of the open-ended, always contextual, creative act of communication. “Them are mine” works perfectly well in this context. In a year or so, he’ll likely switch to “they are mine” to avoid getting picked on. And if he ever moves to Appalachia or South London or North Dublin, he may very well switch back for the very same reason: communication requires continuous contextual creativity.

Michele Oka Doner’s Intuitive Alphabet is a narrative of this continuous creative process of sign making. Through partnering the twenty-six letter forms of the written English alphabet with thirty-four simple words and fifty-six images of beach stones, shells and shards, Oka Doner tells us a story of how our minds make meaning.

A rock with two descending protuberances and one round one popping out the side has the rough profile of a four-legged animal. A round stone with three dark spots looks like a face. Or an arcing bit of bone is a frown all alone.

Sometimes a stone is the shape of the letter form itself as in “I,” “J” and “K.” Sometimes the word directs us to see an interior shape in relief, as in “L is for Llama,” or to focus on the texture and color of the stone, as in “L is for Lamb” or “R is for Rust.” Still others ask us to see the stones in context of the page, as in “P is for Pair,” or “X,” which confronts us with the flatness of the photographic image. We are pushed to make metaphors metonymically at one turn, synecdochically at the next, with the parameters of the context shifting and expanding as we go along.

Associations move laterally throughout the book. “S is for Skull” and “U is for Upset” harken back to “F is for Face.” “T is for Toe” and “T is for Three” would have worked just as well with the images swapped, a point made blank with the nearly identical red dashed shells for “S is for Sunrise” and “S is for Sunset.”

And that is the delightful point of it all: to make us aware, at each turn of the page, of the remarkable plasticity of our imaginations, that reading and seeing are not passive experiences; they are ways we, quite literally, make the world.

Twenty-one years after a genius toddler knocked out Andante in C on daddy’s clavier, he composed Twelve Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,’ a virtuosic play on the pastoral tune we know in English as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, or perhaps most famously, The ABC Song. My boys sing it constantly, slurring their way through “LMNOP” and incorporating scatological vocabulary while their mother and I try not to laugh. We fail every time. It’s just too amazing to witness the world being made.

In 1993 scientists at the University of California at Irvine reported that college students who listened to Mozart before taking a spatial reasoning test scored higher than the average. The “Mozart effect,” as it came to be known, spawned an industry around turning babies into geniuses by playing Mozart in the crib.

We can put that fiction to bed. For one thing, the “Mozart effect” was neither enduring (it only lasted about fifteen minutes) nor tested on children. But more importantly, there is ample evidence that the instrumentalization of prodigious ability in children makes for an unhappy life (Mozart’s own misery included). Children are already up to some brilliant stuff, and the joyous purpose for parents of books like Intuitive Alphabet, is to make that inherent human creativity present to us.

My boys and I have a grand time making up our own associations with the pages of Intuitive Alphabet. And it is a pleasure to witness them bringing its tools of visual metaphor to bear on their own growing stone collections. Their stones become bears and buildings, cars and crocodiles, faces: frightening, fierce and friendly. Fictions as real as bedtime.

So for another day at least, the clavier is safe.

Seth Cameron is an artist who lives in New York.