Study Guide

The Cool Web Life, Consciousness, and Existence

By Robert Graves

Life, Consciousness, and Existence

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is, (1)

When Graves says that children can't say how hot the day is, he's also saying that children feel the heat of the day in a way that might be unbearable to adults. This is because children aren't able to compare a hot day to all of the other hot days they've experienced, because they don't have the language necessary to think in terms of hot days and cold days. So every hot day they experience hits them with the weight of the hottest day ever.

How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by. (4)

But no only are children unable to talk about how hot the day is. They also can't explain to adults how dreadful it is to see soldiers drumming by. This could mean one of two things. The children either find the soldiers scary and are unable to talk about it, or they don't find the soldiers scary because they don't understand the fact that these men are trained to go kill other people.

We have speech, to chill the angry day, (5)

According to Graves, our ability to talk is capable of warping our mind and actually changing our physical experience of the world. For example, imagine if you are out on an 80-degree day. Now that's probably pretty hot. But if you think about it as the hottest day you've ever experienced, you might quickly remember that there was a 100-degree day only a week earlier, which makes the current day not seem too bad. Children wouldn't be able to reason their way through an experience like this, since they don't have language (or thermometers).

We spell away the soldiers and the fright. (8)

Language is like a magic wand we can use to alter our experience and make it fit any mold we want to put on it. For example, we might not like the sight of a bunch of soldiers marching past us. But if we make sense of this experience by being patriotic and celebrating the soldiers for protecting us, the experience suddenly becomes much more positive. In that sense, language can definitely shape the way we look at the world.

There's a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear: (9-10)

One main effect that language has on our consciousness is that way that it keeps us from feeling too much pain or too much joy at any one time. For Graves, language has a sort of leveling effect on experience. It takes the major ups and downs of life and, by helping us think about them rationally, ends up making the highs and lows less severe. The only problem is that if language does this too much, we might not end up becoming totally numb.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession […]
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way. (13, 18)

If we were ever able to actually let go of language or escape its cool web, Grave says we would go crazy and die. In other words, he's saying that language is something that filters reality for us and helps us make sense of it in basic terms. But if we ever actually encountered reality in a totally unfiltered way, the experience would be way too overwhelming.

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