SIGNS AND SYMBOLS COULD HAVE SAVED THE WORLD:

A Fanciful Story
of the Tragic Failure of Human Communication

by Floyd Hardin

March 19, 1968

Thirty feet underground in this little cave, it is indeed difficult to write an editorial for the International Language Review.

At this tragic moment in history, when the broken and bleeding bodies of men, women and children cover the earth, one thought possesses me and upon this I will write:

“Signs and Symbols Could Have Saved the World!”

Into this cave I crawled at 7-13 A.M. this morning, just after the big mushroom bomb hit us here In Denver. — We ran! Oh how we ran! We ran to bury ourselves within the bowels of the earth. Only a few of us made it. As to the rest, the less said about them, the better.

I must write quickly. I have only one short candle and Only 7 matches with which to light it. I have beaten upon the walls of this cave with my naked fists and I have wept unashamed. Now I am weary and I’m blowing out this candle. Perhaps I will sleep. If I sleep, one thought will be in my dreams:

“Signs and Symbols Could Have Saved the World!”

March 14, 1968

Last night I found a little pile of musty straw here in this cave aid upon it I slept. Slept? . . Ever in my mind was the thought of the world which might have been,—the New World of which men have dreamed for centuries past,—for which they expended their sweat, their tears, their blood, their lives . . . . But why think of these things? Now it is too late! This is the old, old story of the Good, the Beautiful and the True: —too little and too late!

This morning I awoke in deep melancholy and in despair. These so-called benefits which modern civilization has conferred upon me,—were they worth the effort? Were they worth the dedication which I as an individual made to society? I wonder.

This dedication was a sacred heritage which I received from my mother and father. It was a holy gift. — One thing is now clear: this heritage was not enough; this dedication has now been utterly prostituted.

All-consuming was my bitterness as I entertained these forlorn thoughts, and through the night they kept me company like shadowy ghosts beside me In my narrow cave of refuge.

All of a sudden it is dark again in the cave. I will now invite the forgetfulness of sleep . . .This sorry outcome has been so unnecessary . . .

“Signs and Symbols Could Have Saved the World!”

Now it is too late!

March 15, 1968

I awoke early, with little hope, yet determined to finish my editorial. But why is it that I am always scratching myself'? I seem to itch all over. I must find some relief from this. This prickly feeling is not conducive to the writing of good editorials.

First thing, when I woke up, I took out my pocket comb and combed my hair. Strangely enough, my hair came out in big bunches, clogging my little comb. Suddenly I knew that my scalp was covered by those radio-active particles. My head was on fire! I had received the baptism of modern civilization!

Today I will abandon all thoughts of writing an editorial and will curiously count each individual hair upon the comb. As I do this, I find myself humming the strains of an old song: “I count them over every one apart; my Rosary.”

March 16, 1968

Too late! Too late! For a thousand years this has been our Requimen for the Good, the Beautiful and the True. We have complacently assumed that the Good would triumph, while we sat and twiddled our thumbs under the yum yum tree. Yes, this was our comfortable assumption, and so tonight we stand alone, each in his individual hell.

This morning I awoke hungry. After all, I have had nothing to eat for three days. This is hard going. Gazing upon the dim outlines of this little cave, the thought comes to me that I have somewhat lowered my standards of living. Certainly I am not now living in the style to which I have been accustomed.

Quick upon the heels of this, however, comes the comforting reflection that whatever else I lack in this little cave, I at least have one thing—I have security. This thought makes me feel good all over. It’s a little cave, but it’s a dandy! It is thirty feet underground and no silly atomic bomb can get me here! —And why shouldn’t I have security? Didn’t the governments of the world promise to each citizen this sweet security—to each citizen his little cave? We paid our taxes, didn’t we? We bought the cave, didn’t we? We paid cash for it, didn’t we?

March 17, 1968

A strange and wonderful thing has happened. Into this tiny cave there crept last night a little mouse. All night long we were buddies. Soft and timorous little creature, she lay all night in the hollow of my neck. Together we slept and together we dreamed and I called her “little Bessie”.

When the first ray of morning light hit the mouth of our cave, Bessie sat up on her haunches and stuck up her tiny nose and squealed—and I know that she was putting in her order for breakfast. . . I then put upon the auction block a Ph. D. degree in exchange for a box of corn flakes, — so that together, Bessie and I might participate in a new and strange sacrament . . . not the broken body of Christ, but the broken body of humanity.

Unfortunately there were no takers. So again tonight Bessie and I will go to bed hungry, along with a few others who remain upon this earth, on this 17th day of March, in the year of our Lord, 1968.

March 18, 1968

At midnight I awoke and sat up on my little pile of straw. I found my stub of a pencil and in the dark I began to write upon the subject: “Signs and Symbols Could Have Saved the World.” Time van running short and I wrote hurriedly.

The study of signs and symbols has fascinated me since my early youth. They have ever intrigued me as exotic tools and devices whereby men the world over might come to a common understanding and live in peace.

But what do I mean by “signs and symbols”? I mean the limited cries of men and of animals, their meaningful noises, their snarl words, their cooings, the bubbles upon the baby’s lips. I mean the waving of the arms, the pointing finger, the posture of the body for attack or for surrender. I mean the flags, the rich ceremonial vestments, the processions, the hosannas . . . I mean all of these things, but principally I mean words, whether spoken or written, — words that have slyly congregated into groups, to make up the diverse languages of the world.

Not one man, but thousands of men have invented these systems of signs and symbols. Alas, each new system of signs and symbols proposed was the signal for a new camp of warriors to arise and fight all other camps: denying with the keen edge of the knife any possible values that might inhere in other systems. If we could have come to an agreement upon the universal use of any one of these systems, — signs and symbols could have saved the world!

March 19, 1968

This musty, smell,— I am so sick of it. This cave smells, like the dead and, looks like the dead: just darkness, black as the quivering shades of hell:—black as the great void out of which I came and to which I will soon return. Why I continue to write is beyond me. Who can explain this? Why is it that even man who commit suicide, leave scratches upon paper as a message for others to read?

Signs and symbols, diverse codes, uncounted languages—why these thousands of systems? Why did men invent them and why did humanity rest its high hopes upon them? It is a simple but a tragic tale:

We were born into this world as solitary souls. Don’t ask me why. Ask Almighty God. Naked we came into this world and naked we depart. Did we like it? . . Were we content to be born so naked and so alone? Answer this question yourself. Scan the recorded history of mankind and note what our reaction was against this silly state of affairs.

To the eternal credit of man it may here be said that from the moment of birth we bitterly protested against our nakedness and the solitary state into which we were born. Even as babies we blew bubbles and soon we said “mama” and “papa”. We arose and in rebellion we invented signs, symbols and languages as a means of communication with others. We made strange noises in the hope that others might understand. Frogs croaked in the village pool; insects hummed in the night; men lifted their voices. It was a mighty and desperate chorus. No living thing was content to be alone, because . . . to be alone . . . that is hell.

. . So we arose and seizing whatever implements were at hand, we made marks and drew pictures; we wrote upon waxed tablets; we chiseled hieroglyphs into the granite of the pyramids of Egypt. We invented words and languages. Millions of us perished miserably, so grimly determined were we to establish communication with other human beings. Alas—our efforts were ineffectual and now it is too late. And yet, and yet, somehow I believe that signs and symbols could have saved the world.

March 20, 1968

“Give us this day our daily bread!” An ancient prophet breathed this prayer which I now utter. “Me too”, whimpers little Bessie. Once I thought that all a man needed was white orchids for his soul. Now I know that men need bread. Give us bread for the main course and we will have God for dessert.

. . Signs and symbols—we invented thousands of systems. There was a Niagara of words, strangely grouped into a thousand curious and competing languages, — and over each different language there waved a tiny flag; — not only over the land which constituted their country, but over their diverse languages, hundreds of groups waved the little flag and shouted: “We will fight until death for the preservation of our native language, because eventually it will become the language of all mankind.”

A citizen of my country arose and said: “If you want “bread”, why don't you say ‘bread’—and not ‘brot’, ‘brodet’, ‘pain’, ‘khleb’, ‘kenyer’, ‘maize’, ‘buka’ and all those silly words? “Bread” is “bread”, isn’t it?

After all, the words which we invented were empty vessels and into them we each poured our prejudices until they divided us in bitter enmity. We spoke innocuous words and our fellowman retorted: “Them is fighting words, pardner!”

March 21, 1968

“When morning gilds the skies!” You ask me how I am. Well, I’m alive, but little more. This is probably my last day upon earth; therefore I must write, — I must write swiftly!

Signs and symbols . . I should here record a strange happening which I witnessed within my lifetime: a group of men arose and said: “We believe in words but we must invent an international language so that we can all get together. We must invent an international word for “bread”, so that we can all hear and understand the prayer of the hungry ones.” Great laughter greeted this proposal and I was considerably chagrined, because I was one of this number. Many were the proposals for a universal tongue . . . but why speak of them? It is now too late—and yet I do believe that signs and symbols could have saved the world.

March 22, 1968

When death draws near, men write strange and fantastic words. They either embrace the Universe or they spew it out of their mouth. I do the latter. I somehow regret that my last gesture must be to carve upon the walls of this cave my private anathemas. This is what men do in hell.

I am in hell because I am all alone. Even “little Bessie” has forsaken me.

I indict and anathematize the Creator of this sorry scheme of things.

I indict and anathematize the smug, the contented and the complacent who were always shouting — “I am better than thou!”

I indict Civilization with its watchwords of “liberty” and “democracy” which have regimented the flower of our youth and marshalled them the way to dusty death.

I have made a fearful mistake. I did not really know who my buddies were. I took counsel with the high and mighty. I should have had closer commerce with the lowly, the forgotten and the damned.

It is the end . . .

It is indeed a silly outcome to this big business of living. The laughable part of it is that it has all been so unnecessary.

Signs and symbols could have saved the world!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

March 23, 1968

“Come on out! Come on out!”, he shouted

“Come on out into the light!”

It was a little boy. It was “Jimmie”. Upon his stomach he had crawled into the cave and now he seized me by the hand and he was trying his best to drag me out of the cave.

“Leave me alone!” I implored. “Leave me alone here I the darkness. Here I have fellowship with a great multitude who for ages past have sat within the valley and the shadow of death. Here, in this grim fellowship of the lost, I would forever remain!”

“I know, I know”, Jimmie retorted. “But you’ve got to come outside. Everything is new, everything is different! People are dancing in the streets!”

As Jimmie dragged me out of the cave, I recalled the words of a prophet of old, who said: “A little child shall lead them.”

Once outside, I was blinded by the sun. It was terrific. Upon my eyeballs it beat like a machine gun. I lifted up my eyes unto the hills . . .

Eventually I got my bearings.

Jimmie was tugging at my hand.

“Where do you want to go?” he shouted.

My answer was immediate: “I want to go home.” — So together we started the homeward journey.

To go back home! Here is the ultimate answer to the quest of every man . . . “Homeward bound!” — here is the sweetest journey that the heart and soul of man can undertake . . .

It is the flight of the lonely heart to the homeland of the soul . .

“But such a tide as, moving, seems asleep,
            Too full for sound and foam:
When that which drew from out the boundless deep, —
Turns again home.”

Hand in hand we climbed over the piles of rubbish. Great buildings in Denver had bowed their heads to the atomic bomb. The Mile High, the Denver Club, the tower of Daniels and Fisher, were now rubbish and debris upon which we walked.

At the corner of 21st and Welton Streets we paused to observe the dancing and prancing of a merry group of youngsters in the public square. A girl of twelve detached herself from the group to embrace me. She kissed me upon both cheeks. “Isn’t it wonderful”, she exclaimed? “Have good, fun!” — In a moment she was gone.

Coming toward me was an old man, hobbling along upon his cane. Ten paces from me he stopped and threw his cane into the face of the sun. We embraced, and in that embrace I seemed to hold within my arms every living son of man, black, brown or white, — “from Greenland’s icy  mountains, to India’s coral strand.”

At the corner of 22nd and Welton Streets we again paused . . “Jimmie, look over at the corner of 23rd and Welton and tell me if the offices of the International Language Review are still standing.” “Of course they are”, he answered. — “But look at Pikes Peak! The atomic bomb has blown off its lid. It’s a little squatty squarehead now!”

Again we paused, because, as I explained to my little guide, I must take a look at the skies. Things seemed to be happening up there. I then lifted my eyes to behold colors new and strange, never before seen. There was music too, — perhaps the Heavenly Choir. Was it really true or did I only imagine that angels were leaning over the battlements of heaven? — There was a great voice saying: “Behold I make a new heaven and a new earth.”

Hand in hand we went on. We mounted the stairs and opened the door. As we entered the rooms there was the smell of fish. Oh yes, ages ago I had fried in the pan the juicy mountain trout.

There was the old rocking chair, bequeathed to me by my grandmother and carved upon its wood was the legend: “Sit ye here; rock and think.” I am now sitting in this old chair with my slippers on. — And as I conclude this long editorial, I am rocking and I am thinking. Slyly winking at me is the white coverlet upon the bed.

Over there, is utter forgetfulness.

Over there, is the merciful death of each day’s dreams.


SOURCE: Hardin, Floyd. “Signs and Symbols Could Have Saved the World: A Fanciful Story of the Tragic Failure of Human Communication,” International Language Review, Vol. II, no. 6, January - March, 1957, pp. [3-8].

Note: Underscores in the original have been converted to italics. M—dashes replace multiple hyphens.


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