Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Steiner and Croce at Leech Lake

The modern age is no less rife with ignorance, superstition, and down-right silliness than any other, I suppose. (The “post-modern” age is merely an academic fashion, an afterglow at best, and ought not to be considered an epoch in itself.) And among the silliest of its theories is the one suggesting that our expressive capabilities are somehow limited, and perhaps even dictated, by language. The idea is that because the language we use has a finite number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, some parts of our experience will remain unexpressed, and in fact inexpressible, due to a lack of vocabulary. It has even been suggested that our experiences themselves are flavored, and perhaps even shaped, by the terms we have at our disposal when committing them to memory. The French have eighty words for love, but no word for “child.” Certainly this must affect how they see and describe the world?

I was reminded of this odd and misguided, but widely-held notion not long ago while sitting in the lobby of a motel in Walker, Minnesota, on the shores of Leech Lake. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I had begun to thumb through a book of essays by polymath George Steiner that I’d brought along to peruse in just such an hour. I had delved briefly into an essay called “Heidegger’s Silence,” hoping that it would shed light on his experiences alone in his rustic cabin. The actual subject, Heidegger's troubling silence concerning the Holocaust, didn’t much suit the mood of the occasion, so I moved on to an essay called “The Retreat from the Word.”

Here Steiner suggests that the Western tradition has been guided since ancient times by the idea that, as he puts it, “all truth and realness—with the exception of a small, queer, margin at the very top—can be housed inside the walls of language.” Following a brief discussion of musical expression and Tantric transcendence, Steiner spends the greater part of the essay examining how the rise of mathematics as a symbolic language since the seventeenth century has eroded our faith in the primacy of words and changed our understanding of the cosmos. That argument was not very interesting—not to me at any rate—because Steiner was setting it in opposition to an initial premise that was wrong-headed to begin with. Language does not “contain” thought.

In our effort to explore the issue, I think it would be a good idea, first of all, to divest it of the clumsy metaphor Steiner has draped it in: “Truth housed inside the walls of language?” Is that what thinking is? To cast about for a suitable “house” within which to settle our thoughts? I don’t think so. But if it were, then there are many, many such houses available. The English language, which is the world’s richest in vocabulary, has upward of 650,000 words; the average speaker knows perhaps 20,000 and uses 2,000 in an average week.

But the fact is, when we attempt to express ourselves, we don’t simply look around for a suitable single-family dwelling on a good-sized lot; we build a new house, making use of whatever scraps of vocabulary we have at our disposal. And when we poke our nose into a new book by Steiner, Nietzsche, Melville, Whitman, or anybody else, we’re looking for entertainment and enlightenment … but we're also looking for building materials. Such materials are virtually limitless, as I noted a moment ago, and the moment we begin to combine words into phrases, sentences, stanzas—which is what writing is, after all—we enter new and uncharted territory, putting the stamp of our personal experience on the production.

Steiner opens his essay with a reference to the famous passage from John, “In the beginning was the Word….” He goes on the suggest that this Word, this Logos, is the Hellenistic concept to which Western civilization owes its essentially verbal character.

Monoglot though I may be, I fear that Steiner (who speaks four or five languages fluently and read the Iliad in the original Greek at the age of eight) has somehow missed the boat here. For what is the actual meaning of the term “logos?” We translate it as “word,” but it’s clearly a very special word, if it’s in the presence of God, and is, in fact, God, as the evangelist suggests. Everything came about through this “word,” according to the text, and the life which is the light of mankind came about within it. This word is not just any word.

No doubt Steiner was making use of this reference as a rhetorical trope, a means to open his essay about language, but the richness and indefinability of the word “logos” as it functions here might better be taken as an example of the opposite case—of how powerful and inexplicable language, and even a single word, in a foreign language no less, can be.

Consulting an on-line dictionary at random, I am confirmed in my understanding that “logos” carried a wealth of meanings in ancient times. To the pre-Socratics, it was the principle governing the cosmos, the source of this principle, and the human reasoning that struggled to illuminate it more fully on a personal level. The Stoics held a similar view, though they more explicitly associated it with God as the source of all activity and generation, and with “mind” (nous), which, through the power of reason, develops the wherewithal to bring order to experience and even, on occasion, make an associative leap to the divine. Among the Sophists, “logos” took on a more arid meaning of the topics and necessary implications of rational arguments—in other words, formal logic.

What we derive from all of this is that “logos” is not merely “the word” or language, but a form or logic that unites the cosmos and the individual in some sort of quivering harmony. I am reminded here of the quivering mosquito twins in the Book of the Hopi that sustain the universe, and the musical meters which, in the Satapatha Brahmana, are the cattle of the Gods.

But perhaps I've begun to nod off here, as the sun rises over Leech Lake and the TV news creeps in from the motel breakfast room. I’ve begun to dream of the mosquitoes we swatted and the cattle we passed in the course of our bike trip through the Shingobee Hills south and west of Walker yesterday. (And where does the word "Shingobee" come from?) Let me return to my point: the Western tradition does not rely over-much on the “word.” In the Lysis Plato takes up precisely the question of the “logos” in relation to the “ergon,” the word in relation to the deed, and this theme runs throughout the history of the West, both religious and secular, from that day to our own. What this amounts to, for example, is a consideration of the goodness of an act, as opposed to the logical rigor of an ethical theory defining what goodness is; the beauty and power of a phrase or an entire novel, as opposed to the correctness of a grammatical theory defining the limits of what we can express. It may be true that among linguists and theorists such as Steiner himself, “language” can sometimes be a more interesting phenomenon than the things that have been expressed with it. Indeed, as Benedetto Croce observes at one point,
The revolts against logicism in theory of language have been as rare and have had as little effect as those against rhetoric. Only in the romantic period … did there develop, among certain thinkers, or among certain circles, a vivid awareness of the imaginative or metaphorical nature of language and its closer tie to poetry than to logic.
Herein lies the crux of the issue. Speech, writing, the use of language to cloth and preserve our thoughts, is a deed, not a word. Every utterance we make expands the language in which it is cast—or has that potential. The words and syntax we have at our disposal act, not as a limiting force, but as a powerful set of tools, or an expansive field of play, if you like, within which we express ourselves through verbal dance (can’t you see me skipping here), choosing this or that phrase, this branch, that flower, to construct a new hut which reflected the logos of our personal experience no less than that of the surrounding countryside. Anyone who knows the language is welcome to enter, to join us, and share in the music.

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