“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Creator Gods: Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Five

[For Franz Wright]

I have said before that you (or I) cannot make up a language.  Children may play at making up a secret language, but what they are doing is creating a code, using different words or sounds in place of the words used in their daily language.  Scholars, such a J.R.R. Tolkien or Anthony Burgess, may invent languages, but these are a sort of mathematical exercise:  no one speaks the language these men invented for their fictions.  The one extended and widely supported attempt to create a language, the Esperanto movement of the mid-twentieth century, failed completely.  Today the language is spoken only by small clubs who meet and use it as if it were a parlor game.

Who creates a language? We do. Not I.  Not you and I.  We.  We are as real as – I might argue more real than – any “I” or any number of “I”s.  The group (village, community, tribe) precedes the individual, both logically and historically.  Individuals exist only as abstractions of relationships.


There is, however, one part of language that an individual can invent:  names.  Bell could call his aural recording device a “phonograph.”  Larry Page and Sergey Brin could name their website “Google”.  The power of naming is so great that it is rightly considered a gift from God:  Adam is given the task of naming all the creatures in the Garden.  Naming is his only work before original sin drives him and Eve to labor in their respective ways.

It is important to note the one significant limitation on this power:  you cannot name yourself.  If you do, it will never be more than a nickname or a “stage name” or a “nom de plume”.  Those who know that you made it up will always say that “it’s not his real name.”  You must receive your real name, since your name is a sign of your relatedness.
The power to name is also the power to command.  Repeat the name of a demon the ritually prescribed number of times, and the demon will be summoned to appear before you.  Jacob wrestled with the angel demanding to know his name so that he could have power over the angel and summon him at will.  This power explains the Biblical prohibition against speaking the name of the Lord, making it the unspeakable name, whereas the name of the Evil One “is legion” – i.e., there are a million of them.

I have read that George W. Bush always gave the people around him nicknames.  He renamed them as an expression of his power over them, as a King renames a knight (“I dub thee -- ”) or as the church renames a nun when she takes her vows.  His lackeys apparently felt flattered by Bush’s condescension, but his true peers, such as Angela Merkel, were offended.


Poetry – and religion – offer us something like new languages, and examining their scope and limitations in this light helps us understand more of the nature of language.

Religions in general and their sacred texts in particular are what I might call “hyper-languages”.  They use ordinary language to attempt naming and explaining those aspects of human experience that are inexplicable in words.  The mysteries of Creation, of birth and death and life after death, of the injustice of life, its horrors and its beauty, are all the subjects of religious discourse.  But the language created by the prophets, by the writers of sacred texts, and by the inventors of religions, are languages of icons and symbols.  They use narrative, metaphor, and imagery, which are themselves all conveyed in ordinary language, to attempt the communication of ideas about that which the human mind cannot entirely understand and which it cannot therefore represent in words.

Poetry, too, uses ordinary words to convey images that speak the unspeakable name of God, that express the yearning of the poet’s soul, and that portray the life of the world as it truly is, beyond the limitations of the human mind.  Joseph Campbell said that he thought “Religion is really just a misunderstanding of poetry”, and I would add that the converse is also true, that poetry speaks a personal religion, that every poem is a sacred text.


Here is Wallace Stevens talking about the reality behind the perceptions in our minds, about the things of the world as they are beyond our thoughts:

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.