Reconsidering: Untamable Words

Mary Cassatt
Baby on Mother’s Arm, 1891
Oil on canvas

“Reconsidering” is a series of posts written in the spirit of the Magic: the Gathering Time Spiral block. If you don’t get the reference, that’s okay. Some of the special cards in Time Spiral were just reprints of old cards packaged with the new ones. Some of them were old cards with new twists (mainly color changes). And some were cards that represented where the game was going in the future, with fun references to the game’s past. Here I’ll resurrect my old posts and ideas from my previous blogs, my MAPH notebooks, and various other collections from my past. Some I’ll leave as they are, others I’ll breathe new life into, and yet others I’ll reconfigure as future engagements that still touch on the old notions. This practice is both an act of remembrance — engaging with my own intellectual past — and an act of growing — learning to learn from old mistakes, or rediscover old masterpieces.

From an original post on my old blog dated April 4th, 2017.

Words arise without any history. One does not need to be an anthropologist-linguist to chart this particular mystery. One simply needs to be a parent, or an older sibling, or an aunt or uncle. Watch a child fumble with sounds that have no meaning, and he will begin to communicate whole lines of thought that are wholly and utterly incoherent yet not pointless. Every tumble of the lip, every tremble of the tongue, every throated yell, every “bah” on the mouth is the fundamental elements from whence speech comes. And, at some juncture, to the parents’ delight, that “bah” becomes “Dah dah dah,” “Mah mah mah,” sometimes “Bah bah bah” or “Kah kah kah,” which soon transforms into “Dadda,” Mamma,” “Babba” (bottle), and “Kaakaa” (kitty-cat).

These are anhistorical fragments of words, formed without meaning until they are assigned meaning, spoken into the void of the universe and then, soothingly, lovingly, directed by the parents toward their proper home. Signifiers floating about as simple tones, given signifieds by the authorities. As the completed linguistic (Saussurean) sign they enter into time rightly, connected with the past, their lingual family; but as signifiers they are eternal mysteries. From whence do these sounds come? From whence do these notes of a hidden song arrive?

My son turned one year old recently. We gave him Duplos as a birthday gift. Immediately, when we opened the box, he grabbed the pieces and tried to fit them together. Surely Duplos are not so different from normal wooden blocks, but then how does a child recognize that they go together when he cannot even stack wooden blocks atop one another yet?

Following the same path Giambattista Vico did once, one comes to the historical boundaries of humanity, the darkness in which a mysterious light once shown and suddenly we began talking. The primordial, pre-linguistic, pre-signifying human existence is the definition of the unknown for us. We believe we are so intelligent, we pierce and probe the ancient world in ways that Vico could never have imagined; but this moment is impossible to contemplate.

Where does the Word come from? How do a people communicating in grunts or howls suddenly begin to formulate language? And how do a people who communicate in a language begin to formulate its articulations, with words, with phrases, with sentences, with paragraphs, with essays, with treatises, with entire genealogical accounts and completed biographies?

The question is an earnest one from an earnest questioner, first because I identify as a part of “people of the Book,” as some say; second because I identify as a “lover of words,” as others say. Both as a Christian and as a humanist, I take the logos very seriously. How does one honor the logos as one writes it? How does one honor the Logos as one writes on His behalf? Words are heavy. Words are dignified. Words need due respect.

Maybe the reason they are to be treated in such a formal manner is that they approach us from beyond. They exist in a world and a time far from us. They connect us into history, but they themselves exist outside of our understanding of time altogether. We are not the authorities over words; words come to us from authorities beyond ourselves. Words are the ultimate agents of humility, because they remind us that none of the worlds we have built are worlds built without the aid of some other, older, coiner of phrases and turner of language. Worlds are built of words, and all the words we have we have borrowed. We cannot be self-made men in the land of words, nor can we pull-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps when the very bootstraps we wear have been a gift given to us.

This makes me think that the phrase from Seneca regarding rhetoric and the bees is even more true than I had originally thought: every man goes about from book to book and takes the best nectar of each to form into his honeycomb. The man who doesn’t say such is not being honest. Even the man who has never read anything is still referring to books that are written, to sayings that are said, and, most importantly, to words that are not his in the first place. The words are from beyond himself.

The Writer, then, is a person whose art is in taming the Mystery of Words for the common man. But the Writer knows full well that those Words are untamable. He does the best he can with them nevertheless.

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