by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
December 27, 2000
NOTES FROM THE LANGUAGE JAIL
SEATTLE, Wash -- "I've gotta use words when I talk to you." Thus spake Apeneck Sweeney in T.S. Eliot's "Fragment of an Agon."
We all have to use words, we humans, and we are the only creatures who do. Language is our last distinction from all the other animals.
Never mind that words have no material form. Language is what is common to speech, writing, semaphore, the signing of the deaf, and so on, and cannot therefore be said to exist at all, except as an abstraction. Language is the fiendishly intricate system of interrelated parts which can be manifested in many material forms but is identical with none.
That the essence of being human is an abstraction is not exactly discouraging for those of us who use the word "soul" seriously, and notonly in musical or culinary contexts.
But my topic is not the glory of language as our great distinction. It is the tragedy of language as our straitjacket.
In two areas, often thought of as utterly antagonistic, faith and science, language is not the glory of man but the prison wall beyond which he cannot go.
True, faith and science are not equally disadvantaged by the barrier of language. If the quantum world that has just celebrated its centenary cannot be expressed by the words of ordinary language (and this fact is said to have delayed by decades the discovery of that quantum world - men could not see what they could not say), then the scientists have a marvelous alternative: mathematics.
Mathematics is of course not outside of language; it is an immensely specialized instance of it. It is not the language of everyday. It is not the words that Sweeney gotta use. But it is the only means of dealing with a particle that leaves in the morning and arrives on the previous night. Words like that can make fun of it, but math can make sense of it.
Theology, alas, has no such alternative. It has only words, and these words are at once its only tools and the one supreme obstacle to its ultimate success. The addition of one capital letter to Sweeney's line might suggest the quandary, for the altered line is the subtext of all prayer: I've gotta use words when I talk to You.
It is the subtext of all theology when altered in another way: when I talk about You.
The obstacle, let me hasten to say, is ours, not His. It is we, not the Almighty, who are in the prison of language.
Consider the trivial question whether God should be referred to by the masculine pronoun, a practice that needlessly irritates many. What are the options? She, It, We, You, They ... and even, albeit unthinkably, I.
That exhausts the pronoun system of English (and of most Indo-European languages). None is preferable to any other, and all are profoundly meaningless as references to the Being outside of time and space.
"Outside?" Hopeless. But we've gotta use words.
How odd that the very medium by virtue of which we are conscious at all, language, should fail us at the outer reaches of science and at the upper limits of religious thought. On the frontiers of two worlds, the physical and the spiritual, we find that our word-packed saddlebags are empty, and we have to go on without them.
Or is it so odd? Music, dance, sculpture. For all their drenching with the words of language-crazed critics, the sublimest arts are as securely and happily beyond the reach of language as the Author of our being.
May the New Year bring you all peace and happiness.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.