August 9, 2018
No language can hope for anything but its own defeat. Gregory Palamas
Everyone runs for cover in the stability of words, in their apparent capacity to define, stabilize, judge and control reality—indeed, the word’s power of ‘placing’ realities there in the first place as essences we might grasp, rendering everything in the world ‘sayable’, ‘cognizable’, ‘rational’, etc. When the latter qualities are lacking, we experience great discomfort. Words and all that comes with them—images, connotations, associations, memories, projections, assumptions, etc.—seem the remedy, mending the rips in time’s web.Words are like nature’s answer to the ‘brutal’ anxiety humans experience when they experience themselves as a question without an answer. Words seem to stretch so far, to fill so many gaps, to account for so many things, that they nearly prevent any such question from presenting itself. Yet, as everyone knows, words hardly make good on the faith we place in them, though their failure in this regard rarely leads us to lose our faith or, better yet, invent words that will be true to us. Instead, turn after turn we’re disappointed by what we can say, what we can get done through words. Often this drives us to stay within the confines of what we already know how to say; conventions that have already granted us a measure of success in the sphere of communication. This is not without consequences, however, for the reality we conceive ourselves to be living and living in.
While we would like to believe that conventions (‘ordinary language’) are just abbreviations for richer experiential realities, in reality they exert a constant framing power (‘common sense’, banal examples, lack of nuance). They exert the ‘soft power’ of ideology and conformism on our most basic understanding of life. They serve a repressive function, inducing individuals to frame their realities according to generalities, the most general categories and phrases, which are picked up socially and mimed from others with only slight variations and without any real analysis of their function or accuracy. There is comfort in that, a minimization of difference which would risk social isolation and jeopardize coherence. But in all likelihood it is also responsible for the mediocrity of most experience. What’s worse, in those rare moments when matters become crucial, elevated, rare, or of fatal importance, this more essential content feels itself forced into forms so banal and lifeless—now we become acutely aware of it, through our tears and incapacity—that it feels like it will be a betrayal to speak about it at all.
Because it is painful to not be understood, we gravitate towards words whereby we can present ourselves, our ideas, our feelings, our views on reality, with the least possible resistance to the other listener, in forms that sound ‘digestible’ to the superego in our head, the imagined listener which is, structurally, always present. These inherently ‘known’ and ‘regurgitated’ forms and contents of discourse smooth things out socially and, in the short term, grant a reprieve from tension and awkwardness amongst our fellows. But since the question is without an answer, the tension without any real equilibrium, ultimately the smoothing and soothing function of words only delays our confrontation with the unanswerable. It allows us to quickly get the desired ratiocination, conclusion, resolution, story, sense. But in the end, whether it is said out loud or held internally, something nags at us with incompleteness: the brutal anxiety of the question, dissatisfied by whatever we might have said and, moreover, conscious of the fact that perhaps no one is actually listening, or cares, or would be able to do anything even if they did care. (The drunk who, after an hour-long tirade filled with passion about some vital issue, suddenly feels overtaken with fatigue and the emptiness of the whole situation, the vanity of the moment’s rousing speech, indicates well the phenomenon at stake here.)
Even the question, ‘what is human? ‘when it aims toward knowledge, and not toward an experience of humanity at its limits—loses itself in words that aide in the evasion of the question. The formulated question masks the degree to which it relies upon words that mask the potential limitlessness of the questioning. To pursue it to the farthest limit would surely mean to experience the futility of words, the ‘final silence’ which shall engulf all of humanity, all its plans, borders, identities, histories, personalities, etc. But words, by the spell of sense they cause, protect us from their own futility which, if apprehended, could lead the mind to madness. To sense even for a moment the prospect of that abyss is to be conscripted to a lack of faith in the power of words to secure anything, to render anything finally coherent. —But what can it mean, ‘to sense even for a moment…’? Unless perhaps it is a stab of pain, our senses are already mediated by languages, learned behaviors, cultures of response, fears, the ‘sociality’ we inhabit. To sense something ‘outside’ is to sense nothing at all, save perhaps the torment of being without voice, without words, condemned to insufficiency (but how shall that express itself?). Such ‘muteness’ or impotence is what words, in daily animation, normally keep very far at bay, legitimizing in the process, as if by default, the cover-up.
Words in sum make it possible to take the ‘self’ out of play—to no longer risk it, to save it from the questioning that would consume it and drive it to the limit of its anguish. Religion, politics, opinion, banter, even interpersonal relation, are often in service of such psychological purposes: to save us from the collapse of collective and personal story, from an exposure to the nonidentical, to a world which is inherently without order, to objects which do not obey the claims words place on them. These discourses serve the mind as stop-gap measures, plugs against the on-rush of disparity and disunity. This comes long before their degree of truth can be evaluated: they satisfy a need to be ‘covered’, ‘insured’ as beings against the flux that engulfs them. Different discourses stabilize chaos differently, logic things together differently. They assert a uniformity of interpretation over the manifold; allow things to be counted for ‘what they are’ according to the language system; give us occasions to justfiy our acts in light of extant circumstances; etc. ‘Ordinary language’, of course, accomplishes this to a certain degree, through the various games we play with it. But there are language games that produce unique experiences, even if this is only achieved by the power of suggestion.
A crisis of faith in God, for example, has as much to do with the viability of a certain manner of language as it might have to do with the metaphysical question of God’s existence (which after all cannot be posed without words, though this inquiry too culimates in silence and a ‘cloud of unknowing’). Furthermore, despite its propensity to be entangled in conceptual and terminological quarrels (also attesting to language’s predominance), all great theology insists upon the primacy of prayer. And what does prayer do? It establishes, in a highly practical fashion, that a common language exists between the believer and the Absolute who is addressed by the prayer. Jesus’ instruction to pray to God like he is our ‘papa’ draws attention to this fact and means to render this relationship intimate and personal. Holiness begins and ends with prayer because it is only through prayer that a ‘dialogue’ with God is kept open, such that the ‘promptings of the spirit’ can be discerned.
No believer expects to know God in full, but without some understanding of God as a partner in prayer, belief really would be just empty words—words meant to prove to others that one is a believer, which is a much different ‘language game’ than prayer itself is. Just as one can forget how to talk to a friend with whom one has fallen out of contact, prayer is a matter of repetition and habit, indeed of ‘staying in touch’ with God through the continual address. Paul instructs the believer to ‘pray ceaselessly’ and to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ who was, after all, the Word made flesh. Anyone who rolls the dice with such a ‘linguistic practice’ knows just how quickly God begins to loom and overwhelm as an ‘interlocutor’. This does not necessitate God ‘talking back’—what’s relevant here is just prayer as a use of language and the sort of world it builds up. Noteworthy also is that, for someone who isn’t in the habit, prayer comes in moments of crisis and difficulty: when one ‘has no clue’ and ‘has no one to talk to’, yet simultaneously must ‘put words to it’, must put them to someone who will hear them. After all, that’s the guarantee of God: a listener who understands you better than you will ever understand yourself, who guides those who rely on him to the goal of religious life: to be “known as I am known.”
Rarely can a human put up with silence for long, even if it seems divine. A thought, a determination, an inclination, will always spring up from the depths of whatever repose, whatever quietude. And this is only right, according to the interrogation that we are, the reflection without which we would just be functionaries or minerals. The equivalent on our level of the addage, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’, must be something like, ‘Sense abhors a silence’. The void wants to be stuffed full of words, sounds, colors, sensations, thoughts; sometimes all these help us articulate the question, though we should not deceive ourselves that it is a question that might be answered through such means. Otherwise, that void is embraced to the point of surrendering to one’s own nothingness, as in certain forms of jhana yoga or self-emptying prayer.
But even the yogi ‘returns to language’. The monk comes forth from his retreat and writes, teaches. Nothing impedes or condemns the words that flow here, for silence has not meant futility, but the plenitude of God who fills our silence with his own. God either guarantees purpose, thus at a minimum solving the question theoretically; or God nullifies the self so thoroughly that no space is left for a question. In either case, the self as limitless interrogation, as ungrounded desire, as disappointed futility, tends to be taken out of play, ‘saved’. (It should be asked here what purposes of ‘cover up’ *this* interpretation of silence, as expressive of a peaceful and inextinguishable infinity, may serve. For here eternal silence is a consolation, rather than the horror that it also is. Without the faith that God secures all being despite it being suspended over an abyss, consolation could only revert back—or advance to—anguish and ecstasy over the unanswerable. Matters here are not easy, since it is very often those who are in the most direct contact with divine matters who experience most acutely and painfully the abyss. As Henri de Lubac put it, faith and atheism are separated by a hairsbreadth; and Christianity takes as its model a god who dies, God abandoned by God, but I digress.)
“Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions.” “What is the truth, but a lie agreed upon.” So did Nietzsche phrase it emphatically. But it must be understood as a polemic against every form of ‘running for cover’. His intention is clear: to destroy the illusions which protect humanity from a more difficult confrontation with truth, where the measure of greatness is how much one is willing to suffer for it, and where feelings of blessedness or consolation are no guarantee. “That the destruction of an illusion does not produce truth—but only one more piece of ignorance, an extension of our ’empty space’, an increase of our ‘desert’—” This indicates not a ‘relativism’ of interpretations, which would just be one more cover-up, but rather the difficulty of the task, which necessitates having an experience of language and humanity at the limit of their collapse and futility—the running-on forever of a life sentence. Nietzsche’s hope was that from out of that experience, the conventional beliefs which produce mediocrity could be razed to the ground and new goals be set. My hope is more modest: that we put everyday a little bit more of our risked self at play in our speech.