06 January 2011

Epiphany: A Point of Punctuation

Words aren't everything, but they might well be somewhere near 80% of it. Isn't it amazing, the unlikely, unpalatable, patently offensive things we can get away with saying, provided we say them in the right way? A Way shaped by recognition of the fact that our listener is never just a Democrat, or a Republican, but more importantly - at least for Love's purposes - a creature like ourselves? And thus a creature more or less accessible (at least on occasion) to some of the same appeals, entreaties, overtures? So that our conversation may have at last some hope of becoming more than just a tense, transient parleying-ground between Light and Darkness?

And of course the right way most often means choosing the right words, and between them the right pauses, silences, music, etc, etc. It means the sort of musical words that know intimately, not just what makes us political, or awesomely smart, or irredeemably stupid, but what makes us human. Imagine, for instance, how Shakespeare might have written, well, just about anything he wrote - had he been solemnly convinced that those who disagreed with him politically and economically were idiots, or monsters. Or devils. What effect do you suppose his staunch convictions would have had upon his language? Would they have made his words more undulant, more cadenced, more a-dance with imagery that evokes nameless and haunting things - or drier, more stiff, less playful, less pulsing with real life? What about his characters, and his insights into human nature as a whole: would they be fuller, more balanced, more real and convicting and identifiable with ourselves? Or would his fierce, uncompromising stance have made his creatures more stock and wooden, his observations more starched, his insights more stuffed with maxims and platitudes? And supposing those same characters could be made to come alive in front of him, what then? Do you think his stern convictions would make it easier for him to talk to them, reason with them, listen to their stories? Or easier to interrupt them?

And so I characterize the right words as musical words, that seem to know us intimately - almost as if our human nature itself were a kind of music, a sort of composition. Or else they seem to follow the thread, or to enter into the warp and woof, of what makes us human - almost as if they had been there when it happened. Almost as if they'd somehow pierced to the heart of what makes us who and what we are, long before there could be any question of self-seriousness or self-importance, or pride in self-accomplishment. And also, as if they'd dredged the depths of what unmakes us. Or more accurately, who - in both cases. The Lord God in the case of our making; mostly ourselves (with a little judicious input from Old Scratch) in the case of our unmaking. Ah, now there's a real difference of Light and Darkness for you, besides being the one from which all the others derive. But notice how everything ultimately comes down to God and Man, and how to make perfect the Life between them. And as for all the rest (Satan, demons, powers and principalities, etc), why, what else should we expect - other than the outermost darkness and stumbling - when we try to be conformed to some unnatural, hideous image of ourselves, promulgated by one who hates us?

That is why I keep saying that our God-making, even at its dilapidated worst, is always better than our self-unmaking at its most rational, streamlined, state-of-the-art best. Any making always bears some imprint, some stamp - however badly effaced - of the God who made and walked in Eden; whereas the sharpest, most industrial-strength, most indelible imprint of Man only shows how far from Eden we've wandered, and how efficiently the debasing of the coinage has progressed. And at some level of consciousness however primitive, our quietly-discerned, heedfully-chosen words can know and reflect - and celebrate - that difference. Even as (I believe on more than a few occasions) Shakespeare's did.

In the same way, the worst real creatures are better than the best ideas. The problem with ideas and other reconstructive surgery is that they are always limited by what we make of them, whereas real things are as limitless as only God can make them. Including - dare I suggest it? - even the Maker Himself. Think about it. God being God, do you really suppose it was beyond Him, had He wanted to, to "incarnate" Himself among us as an idea, an agenda, even an organization? To be the kind of superarching, overawing achievement, or program, or system, as would make any mere individual human being quake in her military-corporate boots? Why, then, do you think He enters among us as something, if you will, so much tinier, and so much less impressive? As something that organizations and agendas, and occasionally even ideas, have been known to become very impatient and exasperated with - if not to despise outright, and dismiss out-of-hand? Why does our God become, in short, a real creature? Oh, but that's nothing compared to the strangeness of what follows. Because then, instead of inspiring and consoling, challenging and disturbing us with new thoughts, or new motivational points, or new performance levels, He goes on to use this same New Creature to make us, in our turn, into new creatures. Or stranger yet, He makes Himself to be both the seed, and the seedbed, of - but what's this you say now? not a new philosophy or ideology, or set of self-evident constitutional principles, or infallible economic axioms - but a new Creation?

At least that's what I think He told us. But if so - if God did indeed so love the creatures He made - then all the more reason why our best words should want to mold and fashion themselves according to the pattern of real things, and not just our ideas of things. After all, if God thought enough of His own creation to want to make it new, should our words respect it any less? Hence also the reason why the best words never fall into the trap of taking even good ideas too seriously. They understand an idea's weakness - surely at least 60% of any idea - no less than its strength. And of course concepts, agendas, blueprints all have their place. They are a time-honored shorthand method of classifying, deconstructing, utilizing, even measuring just about everything we humans do, and practically everything we are - except, of course, our Selves.

Good words, on the other hand, are really nothing like most of our ideas at all. For one thing, they're extremely loath to pronounce upon things on which they have no really good handle. Or at least, on which they have no better grasp than, say, the conclusions of some highly superior extraterrestrial visitor regarding his latest captured specimen of that mysterious animal, Man. I'll admit the intergalactic alien may have solid-enough grounds for thinking he knows us inside and out. But at the end of all his most painstaking experiments (assuming she survives them), will he know your friend - or what makes her a friend - one-eighth as well as you do? Or perhaps you'd prefer that we consulted our visiting ET for his cutting-edge intergalactic wisdom and insight into - perhaps quite literally into - the human condition, as he ever-so-gently probes us with his latest telepathic instruments. Fine. Call me a sentimental old fool. I shall persist in believing the right words, rhythms, etc, know an even better way - albeit a very different One - both around, and into us.

What do I mean then by words that both intimately know, and speak intimately to, another human soul? I mean words that are never eager to burst out of their kitchen-doors - much less probe and interrogate - but they're always ready when they do. They are ready because they have first prepared and flavored and seasoned themselves, because they have first been steeped and dyed in the presence of that soul, and of its Maker - and because they are still fresh from the strangeness, the poetry of that encounter, before it can stale, or ossify, into familiarity and prose. The right way, then, means the kinds of musical words that understand - even, or especially, when we don't - both the maddeningly simple innocence, and the unfathomable riches and complexity that make up our common human nature (which also goes some distance, I believe, towards explaining our capacity for evil). To say nothing of the wild, magical, unrepeatable ways in which that nature is individualized in each and every human creature. So individualized, and so vital, in fact, that the absence of contribution from any one of us always leaves a tear in the fabric, and a vacant (and sorely mourned) seat at the Table.

In sum, the right words not only know, but know how to enjoy, those things that make each of us at once both commonly human and uncommonly irreplaceable. They would never dream, for instance, of asking how much of Mary is "nature," and how much "nurture." And not merely because they'd consider the question highly intrusive and impertinent, but because they know there was already something in her, and Someone even deeper within and beyond that, long before either of those would-be tyrants had begun to have their say. Yet neither is it just where Mary "came from," or what has "gone into" her, that interests them. In a sense the right words also know her future, where she is going to, and even more to the point, what will nourish and safe-keep her along the way. They know - better than even the wisest, most probing extraterrestrial! - that it isn't power or knowledge or technology, but rather the God who loved her from Adam's loins, and Eve's womb, who is Mary's life, her food, her substance - and who is no less the key to her individuality, and creativity. Perhaps - who knows? - even her productivity. And thus do the right words - which always consist of the right marriage of meaning and sound - speak to Mary, but more importantly listen to her, accordingly. Good words always listen before they speak. Indeed, what better way to say things that are uniquely and individually affecting, to each human soul, than to use words that are literally creative - not in the sense of conjuring magickally or "creating from nothing" - but as if some part of the Creation had rubbed off on them? Almost as if they'd been listening when it happened, because, after all, they'd been there.

Certainly my own prayer is that we may never be satisfied with, or settle for, the familiarity and contemptuousness of mere prosaic words. I mean, haven't we as a species already wandered far enough from Eden - and by that I mean not so much the place as the Presence? My own prayer, then, is that we may never forget how to use living words: words that keep us alive to the strangeness, the freshness, the unexpectedness, of every one of us, and every thing of us - just as surely as if each (man, beast, herb, etc) had emerged newly from the peace of the Garden. And that's why, again, I keep saying we need words that secrete music. Words that not only know their Way inside us, without stumbling or getting lost, but that know also when they've reached their destination - which usually turns out to be some Eden in our souls we may easily enough deny, but can never, ever forget. Best of all, no destination need ever be an impossible one to reach, or one requiring extraordinary feats of poetics or other wordcraft. Sometimes getting there can be as simple as taking a message that burns inside us, longing to come out (God will supply the music) - a word we might have reconstructed into something as weak and stiff as an injunction, a threat, an exhortation - and rephrasing it in the form of a question.

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