“I” in the English Language

Painting by Antoni Tàpies
Antoni Tàpies “I” 1961. Latex paint with marble dust on canvas

For Nancy – editor, publisher, and friend

By J.S. Porter

A few months ago, I wrote a poem for poet Anna Veprinska in Toronto:

I

The loneliest word in the language
not so much a word as a mark
see Tàpies 1961 painting “I”
a hoof marking the sand, a glyph
an orphan
the thinnest Giacometti sculpture imaginable
a line without beginning or end – insistent, attention-seeking, spokeless
a flattened dot
defined by un: unsheltered, unconnected, unanchored

What is the I – or who?  A stick, a hoof print, a mark, a glyph, a vertical line, a person, something emerging from nothing – the first mark in the Void?  I am here. I exist.

Rastafarians speak of “I and I.” A double I.  Divinity and the self. Is that the meaning of Bob Dylan’s song “I and I” in his album “Infidels.” I need to listen to the song again.

In English the first-person pronoun is I.  In French, je; in Spanish, yo; in German, ich.  In Old English (Anglo-Saxon) the word for I was ic, lower case.  Around Chaucer’s time in The Canterbury Tales in the 14th. century, ic became I.

In English the I is capitalized wherever it occurs – at the beginning of sentences, in the middle, or at the end of sentences. In other languages, it is given lower case status unless beginning a sentence.  As novelist and thinker Elias Canetti claims in The Human Province, “Of all the words in all the languages I know, the greatest concentration is in the English word I.”

Canadian painter Greg Curnoe made a number of I-paintings and I-am paintings in his short life. In the one below, the “I” in lower case asserts its tentative presence with a colon (to suggest that there is more information to come and then undercuts the colon with an unfinished question mark to indicate uncertainty).  I am: this, this and this?  Identity seems uncertain or shifting.

Greg Curnoe’s — “I am:”

Greg Curnoe’s — “I am:”In another of Curnoe’s I-am paintings— “I am:” – large letters painted brown with white patches give the appearance of paint peeling as if identity is fragile and dissolvable.

Werner Herzog in his 2010 3D documentary film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” takes viewers into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which contains some of the oldest human-painted images on record, some crafted 32,000 years ago. Mixed in with images of rhinos, bears, mammoths, and horses are human handprints. An I before the I.  The artist seemed to want his presence to be known and remembered.

The famous Catalan artist from Barcelona, Antoni Tàpies (1923-2012), preferred “rags and dirt” to “the shiny surface of technology.” His I-painting uses marble dust with latex paint. He conceived of his work as a meditation “on the void.” His essential themes: “the spirituality of the material world, and the infinite value and mystery inherent in even the most humble things” (Obituary by Christopher Masters, Feb. 7, 2012, The Guardian).

Tàpies’ “I” seems to present itself boldly. It’s large and seems to dominate its surrounding, but it’s also alone and vulnerable, easily erasable from its sand-like environment.

French novelist Marcel Proust wrote these words about the word I: “I began a book with the letter ‘I’[in his case, the word ‘je’] and for the rest of my work I’ve been condemned to being that ‘I’.”

We’re all stuck with an I.  What comes after the I? In my case, I can say:

I, John (a name)
I, son of Anna and John, wife to Cheryl, and brother to Caroline
I, father of Daniel and Rachel
I, grandfather of Kaizen, Marshall, and Blake (relationships)
I, retired teacher (occupation)
I, reader and writer (activities)
I, dreamer (personality)

We all fill ourselves out by various means.

In some cultures, the I is not the centre of civic and cultural life. “In Chinese poetry, fiction, and philosophy, the I is not the nerve centre from which thought and knowledge begin” says Madeleine Thien in her review—“Poems Without an ‘I’”— of three books on Chinese poetry in the London Review of Books, October 8, 2020.

To this downplaying of “I,” I want to say that the ancient Greeks believed in I, and in Platonic love the I looks for another I in order to be complete.

I want my relationship with my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and my friends, to be I to I.

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