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).
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.
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.”
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
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,
He took her with a sigh.