Of Mice as Men with Minds

Near the beginning of Hubward Ho!, Ryan and I had a preliminary discussion about Maurice. First, should we include it in the project at all? Maurice is a book that stands apart from the rest of the Discworld series; ultimately, however, we decided to include it.

Second, where in our reading order should it go? Maurice didn’t seem to be strongly associated with any of the story arcs we were going to follow. We poked around online and decided to group it with the Death arc, as that is where most guides placed it. Still, we weren’t sure how well Maurice would fit into our overall discussion of the Death books.

Fast forward about ten months to when we started reading Maurice for real. Although Maurice has barely any overlap with the other Death books in terms of characters or plot or setting, this was the perfect place to put it. Now, I can’t imagine anywhere else it would go.

The main theme of Maurice, like the other Death books we have read and analyzed and discussed, is one question: what does it mean to be human? OK, that may not be the most fitting language for a book featuring talking mammals. Let’s try again: what does it mean to be sapient?

The simple answer is language. It is generally accepted that while animals definitely communicate, and some can communicate effectively with humans, animals do not use language in the same way that humans do.** The rats living in the trash heaps behind Unseen University could communicate and cooperate and build a community, but it was not until they were awakened that they could conceive of and use language.

While the awakening, both for the rats and for Maurice, refers more to a development of a self-aware consciousness, it is only through language that this development is apparent to other animals and humans. Maurice tests his potential meals for sapience by giving them an opportunity to speak. When the presence of the Rat King affects the educated rodents, they lose their ability to use language.

I think a lot about the value of language in society, including its relationship with intelligence and perceived intelligence. Effective use of language, both oral and written language, has long been the primary marker of how intelligent someone is. A lot of this is tied to class and status–when only the wealthy can afford quality education, “incorrect” or nonstandard language usage is not just a sign that you didn’t go the right school, but that you are mentally deficient.

It’s also an issue for those learning a new language. I tried for an academic way to say this, but the best phrased example comes from Modern Family: “Do you know how smart I am in Spanish? Of course you don’t.” In America, non-native English speakers are constantly fighting against the perception that they are less intelligent or less capable than native speakers.

Why is it language that is so tied to intelligence? The creation of visual art or the playing of music or the performance of sport or dance are all human endeavors, but when I play a violin poorly, no one thinks I’m stupid. They just think that I’m bad at the violin.***

The old chestnut is that 90% of communication is nonverbal. Through facial expression, posture, and tone, we can convey almost everything we need to indicate our emotional state and our attitude toward our audience. But it is only with that 10% of words that we can most fully communicate our interior minds.

After all, what is really stopping Maurice from eating educated rodents? He has an uneasiness about eating them, an uneasiness which I take to be one conscious mind recognizing another. Regardless of your current views on vegetarianism, if we found out tomorrow that chickens had rich interior lives and an understanding of their own place in the universe, it would suddenly become a lot more difficult to eat them.****

The only consciousness we can ultimately be sure of is our own; however, language is the most compelling evidence we have that the people around us possess sapience of their own. And that’s where Maurice ends up–humans and rats, recognizing each other as intelligent creatures. It is only through language that we can understand one another as individual minds, as beings with the same internal life that we possess.

How we use that language is a whole other kettle of fish. But it’s a start.

**Yes, I know about Koko, yes there is still debate about whether her signing is using language in the same way humans do, I’m trying to stay on topic here

***They are correct

****Honestly, just watch the Futurama episode with the Popplers

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