Contradictions and the Perfect Word (Myths of Language, III)

A Christian friend of mine told me recently that this blog was fun to read, but that he “disagreed with it completely” – somewhat worrisome considering my goal is a legitimate Christian literary theory.  Before going on to the grand finale of the “Myths of Language” series, therefore, I’d like to touch on the theological underpinnings of the story that I wove in my last entry.  Unfortunately, I have absolutely no background in theology.  But this a blog, right?  Anyone can be an expert on the internet!  And I’ve been to church a few times. . . so here we go!

[By the way, I’ve been laboring over this blog for several weeks now, distracted by a lot of sundry occurrences, some minor and some literally earth-shaking.  Having finally finished, I’ve just read over it again. . . and I have to disclose that I was tempted not to post it; I considered just tacking up chapter 13 of the Biographia Literaria instead.  Still, do I think you should read it; it’s at least worth trying to get through!  Right, right. . . here we go!]

Total Depravity

Basically, I intended my last blog on the “Christian Myth of Language” to be a linguistic version of the doctrine of total depravity.  Christians (particularly Protestants) believe that God’s will is the ultimate good, and that humans are helplessly out of alignment with it.  Ever since the Fall, we’ve been totally depraved – that is, ultimately unable to discern the best choices to make or the best things to do.  We can do good things, within our own imperfect contexts; but we have lost the supreme context of God, and when it is superimposed upon us, we will discover treacherous contradictions and inadequacies in even our noblest intentions.

Augustine of Hippo first articulated the doctrine of total depravity.  He based it on his reading of the Bible, of course, but the doctrine also bears traces of an earlier aesthetic work, De Pulcro et Apto, which Augustine wrote during his pre-Christian “carnal days.”  This earlier theory stated that beauty is relative to context, that a person or object in the right situation is pleasing to behold, but that the wrong setting can ruin even the fairest of appearances.  A chipmunk in the park is charming, for example, but a chipmunk on your bed is a menace.  A cobweb in the corner is filthy; a spider web in the sunlight is resplendent.  Lovely colors still can clash.  Place and situation are therefore key when it comes to beauty.  It’s easy to see how this idea contributed to the doctrine of total depravity – true goodness (or ultimate moral beauty) comes from closeness to God, and the Fall changed us in such a way that it’s no longer appropriate for us to be in that context.  Because of our depravity, our most ethically or aesthetically apt place in the order of things is now a great distance from God – in the compost bin of creation, say, where our dissolution can be useful and our smell will not offend.  Thus total depravity had an aesthetic element to it, even from the beginning.

The Universal Sentence

In the same book where Augustine outlines this aesthetic theory – book four of The Confessions – he also makes a curious analogy between creation and language.  All things, he says, are transitory; all come to be and then pass away.  The universe is like a spoken sentence, and every individual thing that exists is like a word or syllable in that sentence.  In order to have meaning, and to keep the meaning of the whole construct moving forward, like spoken words we must come to be and then pass away.  For “meaning is not complete unless one word passes away, when it has sounded its part, so that the next may follow after it.”  If one word lasts forever, if something within creation achieves eternity – eats from the tree of life, or constructs a tower that stretches from earth to heaven – then meaning becomes fixed and constricted, and fails, and all the rest of the sentence piles up in a wreck behind it.  Considered in this sense, it’s a good thing we lack the power to pin down ultimate meaning.  That’s not to say we should never have access to God’s will, or goodness, or meaningfulness – we just shouldn’t have control over it.  It’s possible to experience meaning without possessing it.  That nearly brings us back to where we left off in the last blog, with the concept of grace.

Grace

For Christians, grace is a partial answer to the problem of total depravity – and to the agony of Babel.  Grace is the interference of God’s will in our hapless, confused lives.  It’s a beam of divine virtue that transforms our circumstances, making something good out of a lost cause.  It can also inspire, urging us to actions that we otherwise wouldn’t take.  Given our totally depraved nature, there is no reason we should experience peace, or happiness, or even exist at all. That we do so is not because of our own actions, but because of the free gift of God’s grace.

Grace also functions in literature.  Through (and in spite of) writing we occasionally find strange glimpses, strange experiences and ecstasies, uplifting revelations that stem from a sort of spiritual alignment between the reader, the text, and the meaning behind it.  These experiences may not even be reproducible the next day.  (Basho [sic]: “Even if you only write one haiku in your life. . . it’s enough.”)  And literature can be inspired; or at least it can feel that way to its readers and authors.  From a Christian perspective, both of these are potential traces of God’s grace entering into the written word and the reading experience.  The term “graceful,” which we most commonly use now with reference to aesthetics, is etymologically linked to the Christian concept of grace.  Even in its current, colloquial application, it still bears an edge of spiritual importance.  A graceful form in life or art, or a graceful turn of phrase is by definition one that lends the impression of something greater, something that glints of hope and eternity.

Back to Babel

The fact that we respond so favorably to grace (and gracefulness) indicates that despite depravity, we still long for God’s goodness and delight in experiencing it.  This longing for God, this response to pure beauty, this hunger and thirst for righteousness, is a shadowy synonym of the highest human motive.  It is, finally, where we left off with the Christian Myth of Language.  When we last saw them, the descendants of Babel were spending eons struggling with the agony of a language that could never tell the exact truth.  Their words couldn’t describe the world as it actually is, but only approximate it.  Because of the curse of Babel, they could never really understand one another; they could neither fully know nor make themselves known.  While at first humanity may have wanted these things only for the sake of power, in order to “make a name” and raise themselves up before heaven, over the centuries that desire was refined – sublimated, even – through frustration, until it became something purer and humbler.  The will to dominate through language was transfigured into the longing to put things the right way.

Myths of Language, part III

The quest to finally describe experience once and for all, to express one’s self fully, to put things the right way. . . all of this is synecdochically the quest for the perfect Word.  This is the motive behind all writing and reading.  Authors struggle to find it, hunched over their keyboards, trying one word and then deleting it, trying another.  Book lovers pour through the pages, delighting in the Word’s approximations, almost seeing the world described as it actually is – or better, as it might possibly be.  Writers and readers hunger and thirst for the perfect Word.  And the perfect Word is righteousness, and justice, and mercy, and peace – or at least it carries these concepts in its wings.  Better that it redefine and reorient them, however, than that it conform to any set of fixed definitions.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ is this perfect Word.  Not the name “Jesus” itself – most of us know “Jesus” is just a Hellenism for the Hebrew Yeshua (or Joshua) – but we believe that Jesus the man is the ultimate spiritual sign, born into human form.  He is not any specific human word, because perfection is beyond human language.  Instead he is God’s Word, the very Word that created the universe.  He is the Word spoken by God that surrounds and sustains the universe, and that breaks into it from the outside.  He is the message that signifies God’s kingdom, the revelation of “good news” that God wants us to hear.  Still, it’s hard to understand him as a word at all, because the divine language (and divine reality) which he represents in microcosm is thoroughly inaccessible to us in our thoroughly confused and depraved state.  Even when God speaks directly to us, we cannot hear him without His assistance.  Essentially, the perfect Word is a word we cannot use.  Instead, it uses us, if we are open to it.  It re-centers our own language in a way that allows our own words to act as resonance chambers for meaning.  Our writings do not possess meaning in themselves, but they can channel it insofar as they are echoes or explorations of the perfect Word.

The “Christian Myth of Language” claims that the life, works, and person of Jesus Christ somehow embody the goal of all literary and poetic pursuit.  It is through him and only him – the Word that was God, and was with God in the beginning (John 1:1) – that the curse of Babel can finally be overcome, and true meaning can be obtained – as in Acts 2 the disciples receive the ultimate linguistic gift, when tongues of fire descend on them and render their speech universally understood.  It was Jesus, the Word of God, who was lost to us in the shadows beneath Babel; and Jesus, the Word of God, for whom we’ve been longing ever since.  The incarnation of Jesus is the perfect expression of the divine language within the world, and literature is at its highest when it compliments or echoes him.  Therefore, Christian critics then should have at least three modes of appreciation open to them:

  • The extent to which a text strives toward finding and expressing the perfect word.  The way it sidles up to or approximates the truth – its “slant,” if you will, or glamour.
  • The extent to which a text appears to be inspired – what we’ll call for now the “incarnational” or graceful quality of a text.
  • The extent to which God’s grace transforms the reading experience.

Naturally, all three of these are highly subjective.  The Christian Myth of Language necessarily empowers the critic to read a text for something other than an objective, universal interpretation.  Jesus invites us to an absolute relationship with him, one that transforms and transcends any claims of propriety or authority within the world, at least over our own experience, even that of an author to his or her text.

Additionally, Christian critics can assume that all western literature is specifically confronted and challenged by the Biblical claim that Jesus Christ is the perfect Word.  All writers must accept it or reject it, and/or explore its implications.  Christian critics can therefore ask these questions:

  • How does an author or a text respond to ultimate invitation back into grace, embodied in Jesus Christ?
  • Does the given text amplify the continuing reverberations of God’s Word within the world today?  Was it intended to be a deliberate echo, or does it incidentally allow echoes and resonances to flow through it?
  • Is the text an attempt to hold God’s Word in apposition to something else, either didactically or for the sake of curiosity, or for honest contrast and comparison?
  • What tests or questions does a text pose toward the Word of God?  Note that Christian criticism does not need to answer these questions; it just needs to underscore and affirm them.

One last point about Deconstruction and the Word:  Jesus himself was well aware of the essential instability of human language.  He spoke in paradoxes all the time; in fact he often appears to deconstruct himself.  “So the last shall be first,” he says, “and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16).  How can that be?  How can that mean anything?  Yet with grace, experience will prove that it does.  My favorite example is when, while translating a Hebrew prophecy, Jesus uses a word which in Greek means both cornerstone – something akin to the foundation of a building – and capstone – something akin to a rafter.  Which one does he mean?  He confuses the point further by stating: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed” (Matt. 21:44).  Clearly language stumbles over itself here.  How can the same stone be at once looming overhead and protruding under our feet?  However, rather than demonstrating the futility of language to describe ultimate reality, Jesus uses language to insist on the immediacy of that reality, despite our confusion: There is something behind his words that demands attention; something transcendental, indeed, yet as real and significant as the rock Dr. Johnson kicked with his boot.

“I am the Alpha and Omega,” Jesus said, “The beginning and the end.”  This is the difference between Deconstruction and what Jesus does with language: What the former holds up as a contradiction, Jesus turns into a reconciliation.  Therefore the Christian critic must also keep his or her eye out for binary oppositions within a text.  But we should do so with the expectation that they can be brought together and reconciled – that, as Coleridge put it, the product of opposition is ultimately a “tertium aliquid. . . no other than an inter-penetration of the counteracting powers, partaking of both.”  Contradiction isn’t an end; it merely produces tension, which can be in itself productive.  And when we close a book with satisfaction, reflecting on the unity of the beginning and the end, it is the perfect Word we’re pondering, the silent whisper that comes to us from the kingdom of God.

*****

That’s the last of the “Myths of Language” series; tune in next week as this blog becomes a review of books!  Next week, that is, or whenever I get around to it.  Thanks for reading!

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About eddystonelight

This is neither the first nor the last blog of David Gilman-Frederick.
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