Kanji symbol for cherry blossom
Linden tree fossil
In his book On the Way to Language (1959), the philosopher Martin Heidegger includes a philosophical dialogue between an “Inquirer“ (I) and a Japanese man (J). This particular exchange really stirred my imagination, though I do not speak or understand Japanese at all:
“I: What is the Japanese word for ‘language‘?
J: (after further hesitation) It is ‘Koto ba.‘
I: And what does that say?
J: ‘ba’ means leaves, including and especially the leaves of a blossom-petals. Think of cherry-blossoms or plum blossoms.
I: And what does ‘Koto‘ say?
J: This is the question most difficult to answer. But it is easier now to attempt an answer because we have ventured to explain ‘Iki‘: the pure delight of the beckoning stillness. The breath of stillness that makes this beckoning delight come into its own is the reign under which that delight is made to come. But ‘Koto‘ always also names that which in the event gives delight, itself, that which uniquely in each unrepeatable moment comes to radiance in the fullness of its grace.
I: ‘Koto‘, then, would be the appropriating occurrence of the lightening message of grace
J: Beautifully said!“
I think the passage from Heidegger captures the profound mystery and beauty of the origin of language. Isn’t it is a wonderful coincidence that the Latin word “liber” (book) signifies the inner bark of a tree? I sense a deeper significance to this than just the fact that books are made of paper, which is made from trees. Before papyrus became popular, people used to write on leaves and barks of trees, especially on the bark of the linden tree. The Greek word for linden tree is Philyra, who in Greek myth was mother of Chiron. The gods transformed her into a linden tree because she could not bear looking at her monstrous Centaur son. She was known as the goddess of writing. I see parallels between the birth of Pegasus, the winged horse, patron of poets and the source of their inspiration, and the transformation of Philyra. Philyra mated with Cronus, who came to her in the shape of a stallion and later gave birth to the wise Centaur Chiron; Pegasus sprang out of the monster Medusa’s blood after Perseus slew her. The source of poetry seems to be far from ethereal: it is fleshy, bloody, characterized by paroxysms of passion.
Saturn and Philyra: the naked goddess, on the right, is holding the head of the god turned into a horse; both are floating among clouds. 1548 Etching, via:http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1404765&partId=1&people=40500&peoA=40500-1-7&page=1