The Mysticism of Language

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In the beginning was the word, the word
That from the solid bases of the light
Abstracted all the letters of the void;
And from the cloudy bases of the breath
The word flowed up, translating to the heart
First characters of birth and death.

Dylan Thomas, “In the Beginning”

Language is a double-edged sword. It can illuminate meaning but it can also obliterate and swamp it in verbosity. I have never seen the language as a tool over which we are masters: I rather think that our language speaks us. That we choose words may be an illusion, perhaps they choose us. In an essay On the Way to Language, written by Martin Heidegger in 1959, he wrote famously and beautifully: “Language is the house of Being.” He complained there about the state of language, how worn out and jaded it was, how devoid of any deeper meaning. Let me follow his thought.

I think little has changed since 1950s and we are still in need of some kind of a linguistic rebirth. We often use words without roots in Being: our language is abstract, schematic and repetitive. Freshness of language, its rootedness in physical reality, have almost completely disappeared from our speech and writing. And a language unconnected to the living and breathing tissue is a dead entity, it is flat and uninspiring. It lacks substance and a breath of life is missing from it. I have recently come across this line from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “How charming it is that there are words and sounds: are not words and sounds rainbows and illusive bridges between things eternally separated?” Similarly, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used the phrase “the wall of language” to symbolize the chasm that separates two individuals trying to communicate (he specifically meant the relationship of a patient and a therapist, but I think the image has a more universal appeal).

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We tend to cover our lack of understanding with words and we try to use words to conjure up the reality we would like to live in. But we have lost the Logos that created the world. We keep repeating our magical incantations but nothing happens. Our words are weak, with no Force at all. Further, we often talk instead of attempting to understand. We use words in lieu of quiet reflection.

In The Red Book, Jung wrote:

“There are hellish webs of words, only words, but what are words? Be tentative with words, value them well, take safe words, words without catches, do not spin them with one another so that no webs arise, for you are the first who is ensnared in them. For words have meanings. With words you pull up the underworld. Word, the paltriest and the mightiest. In words the emptiness and the fullness flow together. Hence the word is an image of God. The word is the greatest and the smallest that man created, just as what is created through man is the greatest and the smallest. So if I fall prey to the web of words, I fall prey to the greatest and the smallest. I am at the mercy of the sea, of the inchoate waves that are forever changing place. Their essence is movement and movement is their order.”

Words have deeper roots than we realize. All languages come from one common language, perhaps it was Sanskrit, as most linguists believe, perhaps a primordial language that preceded even Sanskrit. The Babel myth is common for many cultures.

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Peter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel

For the Hindus it was not the tower but a tall tree that reached heaven and made Brahma angry. The god cut off its branches and threw them down to the earth, where from each branch grew a tree and a separate language. What that means is that the true origin of language is completely beyond human understanding. In every word that we use, something eternal vibrates. In “The Name of God and the Lingustic Theory of the Kabbalah,” Gershom Scholem speaks of the hidden and secret dimension of language and its symbolic dimension:

 “The mystic discovers in language a quality of dignity, a dimension inherent to itself, as one might phrase it at the present time: something pertaining to its structure which is not adjusted to a communication of what is communicable, but rather—and all symbolism is founded on this paradox—to a communication of what is non-communicable, of that which exists within it for which there is no expression; and even if it could be expressed, it would in no way have any meaning, or any communicable sense.”

How to get to the meaning behind and beyond the wall of language? Language has sprung from the unnamable source. According to the Kabbalah, the letters are “configurations of the divine creative force,” which have “bodies” and “souls.” Creation is seen as “an act of divine writing, in which God’s language penetrates things, and leaves them behind as his signatures in them.” In Hinduism, there is a correspnding concept of Nada Brahma – the sound of god that created the world. After Babel, the sacred language was fragmented into a multitude of languages but beyond the seeming differences there is a common spring of the original. If it is true that the limits of our language define the limits of our world, as the celebrated quote from Wittgenstein says, I believe we can reach deeper beyond our native tongue towards the common mystical source of all languages. Scholem refers to the thought of Abulafia, the founder of the school of Prophetic Kabbalah:

“As Abulafia says, the mystic re-smelts all languages and recasts them in the one holy language, with the result that he is fully aware in every series of words which he articulately utters that this utterance is composed of the 22 holy letters.”

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William Blake, The Book of Urizen (detail)

In astrological symbolism, the sign Gemini signifies human speech, while its polar opposite, Sagittarius, in its higher expression pertains to the sacred word and the sacred sound. This made me think of Ludwig van Beethoven, the deaf composer of divine sounds, who had his Sun, Moon and Mercury in Sagittarius. Another brilliant Sagittarian soul was William Blake (Sun conjunct Jupiter in Sagittarius), whose poem “Love’s Secret” I will use as my conclusion for today:

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.

I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she did depart!

Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly
He took her with a sigh.

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50 Responses to The Mysticism of Language

  1. Love this post! I have always viewed words as symbols which fail miserably when it comes to trying to express the ineffable. But what is unique about words as symbols are their power to create, and Scholem really goes into depth on that subject. As I’m sure you know, the magic word “abracadabra” comes from the phrase avra kadavra (I create as I speak). Thanks for another inspiring post!! Cheers.

  2. Thank you for such a great post… Barbara x

  3. bostaj says:

    This is brilliant writing. Ken Wilber in his latest posts talks about semiology / semiotics and how we are all the time moving the boundary of undescribable. Language is in a way a curse, and a cure at the same time. You just move one S out of the word.

  4. Sometimes Language can not do justice to our feelings, for sometimes there are just no words to describe how we feel.. A very in-depth post and loved the poem at the end 🙂

  5. ptero9 says:

    “If it is true that the limits of our language define the limits of our world, as the celebrated quote from Wittgenstein says, I believe we can reach deeper beyond our native tongue towards the common mystical source of all languages.”
    Love, love this post! Language, our use or abuse of it, is always on my mind. I do believe there is a way to reconcile the beauty and the limitations that languages creates. I find that the writers I love the most are ones that acknowledge that language needs to be seen through for its power to define and restrict and that understanding may fool us into believing that we know reality.
    I have just discovered David Bohm, who writes a lot about how we use language believing as I do, that understanding that language is creating a false separation between us and our environment because by its nature it breaks the wholeness of reality into parts and reality is whole.
    There are people whose writing I read and immediately sense that they understand the limits of language because of how they use it and Monika you are one of them which is part of the reason I so enjoy your posts.

    • Thank you, Debra, you are so sweet. Language has always been on my mind – I think it is both mystical and mysterious and it can uncover deep secrets, for example through etymology. You are so right, though, that it also restricts, but, on the other hand, I prefer discipline to rambling. Oh, I could go on and on about language. You may remember I’m a Gemini.

  6. Beautiful post! I do believe, as vibrations of the One, language has energy and even carries with it old and deeper layers of meaning. Umoto’s work with words and water demonstrated some of this. I always look forward to seeing you in the Reader! 🙂 Namaste _/l\_

  7. “With words you pull up the underworld.”
    An inspiring post to me, even given that sense that language is a weak and insufficient transport of ideas. The quote above seems especially true at times, a promise of many valuable connections while the human race finds more direct means. A one-to-one communication of an idea, though, may affect the pleasure of mining ideas from language arrangements. It may detract from the experience of assembling a definite whole from simple language parts. (=

  8. kimfalconer says:

    I love this post. As a Gemini, the idea of playing with words enchants me, but it’s a dangerous occupation.

    Language comes alive through storytelling. That’s where the power is. A spark still very much alive. It lures us in, like Kore, picking flowers in the meadow, and before we know it, up roars Hades in his flaming chariot and we are abducted, stolen away into the underworld. If the story works, we are eventually released but . . . back on the surface, nothing will ever be quite the same again.

    As much for the writer as the reader, don’t you think?

    • Absolutely, a beautiful analogy. I love stories that take me to the underworld and deeply transform.
      When it comes to wordplays, they can be very alluring, but, as you say, that can be also a dangerous activity or just plain pointless or draining. There is something like the fetishism of language, I believe.

  9. Since the commentary has been so rich, I only have a few things to add. I think that the key to the door of understanding language is the vibratory frequency. Keep in mind I said just the key, it is only the beginning of a journey. The book and film Bee Season immediately came to mind when you mentioned the Kabbalah. As a Gemini moon I have lived my life mesmerized by both the written and spoken word. however,with that Gemini moon and mercury in the 9th, I can get lazy and just revel in the whimsy of word play or clever verbiage. my affinity for language can sometimes obscure the divine intent. Over time, i have chosen to be more careful with my use of language.

  10. Wonderful post. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the power of mantras, where meaning, sound, and belief seem inseparably fused.

    There are several Tibetan stories about simple people who mispronounced or misspoke certain mantras that none the less had the desired effect until a learned master corrected them, rattling their faith, at which point the powers disappear. Dostoevsky told story like that about three simple Christian monks.

    And I think it was Paramahansa Yogananda who said, “If you don’t believe in the creative power of sound, try repeating the word, ‘headache’ as a mantra and see what happens.”

    I know I’ve repeated this on various occasions, but I once read that a hundred years ago, the average vocabulary of a high school graduate was 50,000 words. Now it’s something like 10,000 words or less. It must have been such considerations that prompted Andy Warhol to say, “Someday everyone will be thinking exactly what they want, and it will be the same thing.”

    I think you’re absolutely right, language, like anything else, needs periodic renewal. Thanks!

    • I would love to hear the story of the monks because I am a fan of Dostoevsky but I do not remember it.
      Thank you for all these valuable remarks. I had a suspicion our vocabulary was diminished but did not realize the extent.

    • I have just discovered that the story was actually told by Tolstoy. If you scroll down the comments, Stephen kindly explained it. It really is an extraordinary story.

  11. “In every word that we use, something eternal vibrates.” Oh, may this be on billboards.

    Vibration is primordial, probably the “first” thing from no-thing-ness. Thus Word – Logos – relation is the primordial as well. This post was like a fine wine, Monika.

  12. shreejacob says:

    Firstly…enjoyed this post very much!
    Now, I can’t really remember where I read this…but in the higher dimensions there are no need for actual words because people communicate with telepathy and in fact it cuts out a lot of miscommunication. Language was we could say a gift given to us because we have lost this ability to communicate with our hearts? I thought of this as I was reading the part about how words have lost it’s rootedness in the living.

    Personally I don’t like “big” words. To me words simply said can sometimes carry a lot more meaning that big words…but then again maybe I’m just lazy to look for their meanings and even when I do..I forget them, quite easily..hmmm….wonder why.

    I agree that words are symbols because when I read…I see. I used to think that was a cool thing but then I realised a lot of people do that too hehehe. The problem with it though is that the picture I paint with the words I read or see is definitely tainted with my own perceptions which can get quite iffy …miscommunication and all that, which is why I feel it’s important for us to relearn the art of listening with not only our minds BUT also with our hearts!

    I’ve also always had this believe that words made up of letters are just that. However, when we say them or write them, we infuse energy into them…and that is why it is not so much the words we say but how it is said that is also important. However, I’ve read that words themselves carry energy, each sound has it’s own vibrations…so…not too sure how to blend the two together..hehe.

    • I have had some experiences of telepathy, actually, so I think you may definitely be right.
      About big words, maybe all words are kind of big, but I know what you mean. I think Winnie the Pooh expressed the same sentiment when he said Big Words bothered him. Listening with the heart was something he was really able to do. Words are carried by a river of feelings.

  13. I love the Blake reference… a great way to tie it all in together!

  14. Pingback: The Sunshine Blogger Award! | The Practice of Living Awareness

  15. Reblogged this on Stuff Jeff Reads and commented:
    I generally don’t reblog posts, but this one deserves it. I have been thinking about it since I read it yesterday. I hope you find it as inspiring as I did. Cheers!

  16. I was especially interested in your insights on the Kaballah and the doctrine of signatures. I once went to a workshop where we performed movements based on the tetragamaton-the holy letters.
    I am fascinated by the notion of bringing fragmented language back to it’s origins in the Divine, creative Word. Sufi’s have the spiritual practice of tawil`- deep reading-tracing sacred books back to their ultimate source in gnostic experience.

    • The workshop you attended sounds extraordinary. It sounds like we share similar fascinations. Deep reading – I can imagine using it on the greatest works of literature as well.

  17. H3nry J3kyll says:

    This is a great essay Monika. You’ve touched on so many profound concepts that I had to read this several times to ensure that I was “speaking your language.” lol
    I especially liked the idea of humanity having “lost the Logos.” Gurdjeff and other profound thinkers echo your sentiments that our language and ordinary expressions have become imperfect and weak.
    Just outta curiosity, have you ever heard the expression “the language of the birds?” The tongues of Gypsies, Bedouin, Aborigines, certain Amazonian peoples and a handful of other nomadic tribes who use linguistic forms less dominated by materialist rationality are said to retain traces of this original language of power.
    I can’t articulate the why, but Blake has a remarkable ability to invoke simultaneous feelings of humility and awe in such few words. I think the bridge that he creates between the real and the abstract is simply beautiful.
    Thank you for another thought provoking share.

  18. archecotech says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about language (been teaching English to Russians) and asking myself and God about this. I can sense that language, thus communication is the most important thing we have. Somewhere in the midst of these communications I realized when we try to do something without our creator it can only belong to us. But in his wisdom he knows that this will only bring sorrow. If we are seeking to truly understand language then we must seek him first. When he spoke, “Let there be light”, and it appeared. It became alive. Our words will be and only be logos, but when we seek to fill ourselves with “Rhema” then true power and incredible communication takes place. When we seek anything else it fall pale. So when the tower of babel fell, it fell because it lacked this source. Anyway loved the post. Always looking to have a deeper understanding. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this comment and also for reblogging the post. I also studied linguistics and always sensed there was much more to language than we learnt about. Language is a miracle, that is the most important thing to acknowledge.

  19. Casey says:

    Reblogged this on The Sprightly Writer and commented:
    Just…wow!
    I have no words to adequately describe this…but yes!

  20. stephen says:

    Thank you for this post. I read it just before my wife told me a dream in which a tree appeared. Your piece helped me help her interpret the dream. Wonderful how that happens!

    I don’t know if you checked the “Dostoevsky” reference, but the tale is actually told by Tolstoy. Tolstoy wrote that a bishop is sent from his superiors to visit three hermits on their island. When he arrives he finds the hermits have a very rudimentary understanding of Orthodox teaching. When they pray to god they simply link hands and repeat: “You are three, we are three, have mercy on us!” The bishop spends the day with them, painstaking teaching them orthodox dogma and the Lord’s prayer. At the end of the day the bishop, quite impressed with himself, departs. Miles out at sea a strange light appears on the water coming toward the ship from the island. As he stands on the deck the bishop sees the three hermits, hands joined in a circle, running on the surface of the water, bodies glowing.

    When the hermits reach the ship they call up to the bishop: “Please help us! We have forgotten the prayer, and we want to be saved!” The monk said to them: “Go back to your island and pray in your own way. And please pray for the rest of us to be saved!”

  21. Great post! Thank you for sharing!

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