Why wordless?

Image from Lynd Ward, Vertigo

Lynd Ward, Vertigo

When English writer Laurence Sterne’s eccentric novel Tristram Shandy was first published in 1759, each copy contained something strange and unexpected: a piece of marbled paper stuck in the middle of volume 3. Because of how marbled paper is made, no two pieces can ever be exactly alike. In the same way, Sterne may be suggesting, each reader's experience is unique and interpreted through his or her own background and perspective.

Wordless novels take this idea further. Recognizing that books always have a dual narrative—the author’s and the reader’s—they are, on one level, a reminder of the subjective nature of reading. Think for a moment about how you yourself read books. Even when there are words, you probably invent images and maybe even metanarratives in your mind to go along with them. In wordless novels, this is reversed. The artist provides the images, and the reader writes the narrative(s). As cartoonist Art Spiegelman puts it, “Wordless novels are filled with language, it just resides in the reader’s head rather than on the page.”

We can also see wordlessness as a commentary on social authority. The words author and authority, in fact, have a common root. To be either, you are expected to know a lot, to speak from a place of understanding. This, in turn, entitles you to make decisions and, sometimes, to have authority over other people. Born out of the socialist movements of the early twentieth century, wordless novels set up a quietly subversive metaphor: authors are to readers as the ruling class is to the working class. Readers are invited to bring their own knowledge to bear on these stories. In real life, workers must do the same and demand shared authority.

Visual storytelling, of course, is not automatically democratic. In some times and places, such as the Aztec civilization of Mexico, the significance of images was carefully guarded, and to fully understand them, you had to be taught their meaning by the ruling elite. Wordless novels, however, transcend social and linguistic barriers and can be easily “read” around the world. Experiments with universal language form part of the backdrop to these books. Around the time the earliest pictorial novels were printed, constructed languages like Esperanto were being promoted to facilitate international communication and world peace. Socialists, communists, and anarchists learned them to help spread their ideas. It is no coincidence that Hitler outlawed not only Esperanto, but also the works of wordless novelist Frans Masereel.

Not least of all, wordless communication challenges our assumptions about the concreteness of words. Considering how much the meanings of some words have changed over time, is written language as reliable as it seems? Moreover, wordless novels leave us wondering to what extent we consciously or unconsciously bend stories of all kinds to match our preexisting views.