Sunday, September 19, 2010


Good to be home, here, on OUR blog, Toby.
I got.. wandering too far from home, checking out new blog universes (partly because of your shoulder, but don't feel guilty...).
I promised a safari, a big game hunt in the jungle of idolatry.
An ENORMOUS jungle. With lots of undergrowth, overgrowth..
This is a word with layers and layers of Pullmanian dust around it.
A.. word of WORDS. Like.. "THE WORD", right ??
Remember : "den alles Fleisch es ist wie Grass, und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie das Grasses Blumen. Das Grass ist verdoret, une die Blumen abgefallen sind.
ABER des Herrn WORT.. BLEIBET IN EWIGKEIT." (Then all FLESH is like unto grass, and all the happiness of men like unto ... LEAVES OF GRASS (??). The grass has withered, and the flowers have fallen. BUT... the Lord's WORD REMAINS for ALL ETERNITY." Isaiah, I think. I am quoting it from Brahm's "Ein Deutsches Requiem", as I.. sang it, way back when.
Think about it... IF you take out (!!!...) the WORD "GOD", you STILL have : the WORD remains for all eternity (while the flesh decays and dies).
And THAT IS CERTAINLY TRUE, according to my human experience.
A lifetime love affair with words has led me to believe now, more and more that we do not speak "the Word(s)".
They speak US. They INCARNATE in and through us. They lead the dance.
Humbling, and frankly terrifying at certain times.
An inescapable TRUTH of our human condition, this linguistic YOKE we have around our necks from the womb, even. That is bound up into our flesh.
On to "idol".
You may not think about this word very often. Maybe not even at all.
But it STILL is at the heart of some of the most violent intellectual debates we are having now. In ways that are not immediately apparent.
For example.. a few hours ago, a fellow blogger backhanded a remark to me, sneering at my... "literalist" manner of approaching certain history texts.
"Literalist" ? What do you associate with this remark, dear reader ? The.. BIBLE, maybe ??
Many readers do not know that rabbinic Judaïsm which has perfected the ART of INTERPRETATION to a level that American founding fathers/Constitution writers would have been envious of, distinguishes SEVEN levels of textual interpretation, ALL of which must be considered while READING (interpreting, right ??) the biblical TEXT.
I will not take sides in THIS debate ever, maybe, at least UNTIL we have looked at the "idolatry" word.
End of introduction.
From the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971 edition (the OED is NOT TRUTH, and I will offer myself the luxury of a little DISAGREEMENT with it today or next time, maybe...)
(By the way, this is damned uncomfortable, and a sacrifice for YOUR edification (and mine) dear reader, because the OED weighs A TON, and is very cumbersome to handle while typing on the computer..)
"Idol" from "ydele", MIDDLE English and Old FRENCH, "idolum" in Prudentius, cerca 400, Sedulius, 470, "IMAGE, form spectre, apparition in ecclesiastic use. And GREEK "eidolon" : IMAGE, phantom, IDEA, FANCY, LIKENESS, also from.. EIDOS : FORM, SHAPE... The current FRENCH "idole" was adapted in 13th century from Latin "Idolum".
"The order of appearance of the senses in English does not correspond to their original development in Greek, where the sequence was apparently : "appearance, phantom, unsubstantial form, image in water or a mirror, mental image, fancy, material image or statue, and finally, in JEWISH and CHRISTIAN use "image of a FALSE GOD". In English, this last was, under religious influence, the earliest, and in Middle English, the ONLY SENSE, hence(as also, in French) came sense 2. These are the only popular uses of the word. The other uses are 16th century adoptions of earlier Greek senses, often however coloured by association with sense 1 (strict RELIGIOUS sense, me)."
Whew, and I haven't even got to the DEFINITIONS of the word yet.
Can you see all that DUST already ?
First remark : an etymology is really an extremely condensed short cut that does NOT FLESH OUT some aspects of human life that disappear behind.. the words...
Behind this etymology, there is over two thousand years of history, which stretches over 3, 4 ? different cultures : Greek culture, Greek culture as it impregnated and colonized its Roman colonizer culture. Jewish culture. Jewish culture as it informed the succeeding Christian culture. Roman/Greek culture as it gradually fused with Christian/Judaic culture and reached outside of the Meditteranean to touch other cultures, with very DIFFERENT IDEAS AND BELIEFS (the so called... barbarians that swept over the decaying Roman Empire).
And.. in spite of the decline of the Roman and Greek empires, the decline of the dominant Christian "empire" in the medieval period... the WORD "idol" is STILL with us.
Spoken by US, and spoken by 4th century Latin church authorities, too.. (A WORLD of difference, certainly between THEIR worlds/words (meanings) and ours...)
All that flesh that has decayed, and the WORD is still standing, eh ??
Something else that should be apparent is that this word is POLYSEMIC. That means that ONE word has the possibility of conjuring up... LOTS OF DIFFERENT IMAGES (!!!) in our minds, and at the SAME TIME TOO. Images... that CAN go in the direction of our Jewish and Christian ancestors, and THEIR culture.
And images that can go in the direction of our Greek ancestors too. In addition to the directions of all our ancestors in the years up until NOW.
AND.. think about it... since GREEK was the initial language of THE NEW TESTAMENT, look how that FACT ties Greek culture and Jewish culture TOGETHER in an inextricable KNOT.
They are.. INSEPARABLE in our minds now. The way that the Middle English meaning was tied up into... the Old French meaning, too...
And THIS FACT has consequences for us. Inescapable consequences that it is important for us to understand. IF we are going to manage... to be perhaps... a little less SPOKEN by our words, and more SPEAKING them ??
I think there is an extremely important aspect of this problem that we need to keep in mind as much as possible. These... transfers of meaning, these intrications, are all the RESULT of the physical movement of our flesh and blood ancestors who were... moving from place to place, in conquest, in colonizing, in wandering, whatever. Men and women who inevitably brought their culture with them wherever they went.
Remember.. THAT YOKE ??
That's all for now. We will continue. Next time. Promise.
Just to throw out a teaser... NEXT TIME.. we will continue, looking at the POLYSEMIC WORD.. "false" too. It has momentous bearing on the idolatry question...
(LOOK how the words are bouncing off each other here, right ?? A regular BIG... CHAIN REACTION, in my book. ;-) )
(P.S., Toby, or a Germanist friend passing through the saloon, could you correct my German, if necessary ? I am quoting from memory, cannot find my copy of "Ein Deutsches Requiem"...)


Toby said...

I'm going to come back to this, but first the weird German ;-)

denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras, und alle Herrlichkeit des Menschen wie der Gras's Blumen. Das Gras ist verdorret, und die Blumen sind abgefallen. ABER des Herrn WORT.. BLEIB[E]T IN EWIGKEIT.

Those are immediate corrections without knowing the song at all (grammar rules are there to be played with, and old songs do such with gusto). The line "Das Gras ist verdorr[e]t, und die Blumen abgefallen sind" should be "und die Blumen sind abgefallen" or you could skip the "sind" altogether. It's difficult to know how it was written to the melody, where words or syllables were needed. The "e" in verdorr[e]t (whithered), for example, is not there in 'real life', but is probably there for rhythmic and/or poetic reasons. Ditto "bleib[et]", which is "bleibt" in real life.

Also, this part "wie das Grasses Blumen" might be (as I have written) it a double possessive: "as of the grass's flowers", or possibly "as of the grasses' flowers" which would be something like "wie der Gräse Blumen". I'm not sure about the correct usage here.

There's so much you can do with a language, even just on the grammar side. Then comes the 'rule breaking'! Then comes etymology, meaning, interpretation, context, subtext, and so on. It's a wonder we understand each other at all.

Or do we?

Debra said...

No, Toby... we THINK we understand each other, but that is the COMMON and NECESSARY illusion that language brings about.
Otherwise the silence would be deafening.
Could you give me the Eisenstein ? references again. I have misplaced them, and couldn't find them looking back on the blog. The book about the slow onset of separation in our culture.
I think it's completely tied to ongoing.. secularization.

Toby said...

“They speak US. They INCARNATE in and through us. They lead the dance.”

Yes, but we speak them too, in that as we began ‘languaging’ we were a creative part of that process, not as atomic individuals, but as potent participants (excuse the accidental alliteration!) of a systemic process. We are not non-existent, non-involved. I strongly recommend Capra’s Web of Life for a good look at systems theory, it really helps (if read closely) build a sound intellectual mechanism for peering through the illusion of individuality in all things. We will have problems defining the ‘parts’ of language, culture, society, human being, responsible for this or that phenomena, while our ‘languaging’ remains culturally attached to the separate sense of self and not-self that has been there since our beginnings. My point here is that ‘language shaping us or us shaping language’ is a shallow dichotomy, though an important one. At the deeper level the process is creative in some way, and there is most likely agency somewhere ‘in there’. Not the ego, but some part of the ‘individual’ active in some way.

I don’t find our dependency on language (and other things) terrifying at all, not anymore, because it is the illusion of selfhood and autonomy that is dangerous or corrosive, not the reality of ‘inter-beingness’ and co-dependency, which is quite liberating when more deeply pondered. There is a joy in attachment, a kind of abandonment in giving up the draining effort of being the solo hero taking on all comers and coping alone.

“(By the way, this is damned uncomfortable, and a sacrifice for YOUR edification (and mine) dear reader, because the OED weighs A TON, and is very cumbersome to handle while typing on the computer..)W”

Might I humbly recommend a book holder? I use one all the time, very handy, great for taking notes and reading simultaneously.

The etymological link between image, idea and idol is fascinating, I had no idea! A big thanks from this dear reader for bringing that to my attention.

And yes, there are great cultural differences, but the similarities are probably more important, hence the durability of a word like idol. We humans are social creatures of high intelligence who are sadly also highly malleable and impressionable. Our hungers, needs, hopes and wishes have remained pretty stable throughout the hundreds of millennia; family, good community, safety, variety, health, strong relationships, challenges, and so on. These things arise from our biology I believe. Culture is complicated and diverse because we are biologically capable of great variety. This complexity atop some quite fundamental needs is one reason we often fail to see the wood for the trees, and can remain trapped for centuries in pointless labyrinths of our own making. And always aggrandizing the ego, that shallow tyrant.

If we are to speak our words and not be spoken by them, we must be at core capable of creativity and self-awareness, and we are. And in true Baron von Munchhausen fashion, we can ‘language’ our way to a perspective that allows sufficient ‘objectivity’ to achieve some variant of this type of mature freedom, freedom being the happy willingness to do what we must do. “Happy” is a key word there, also polysemic.

Good stuff, though I could use more direct thoughts on idolatry itself, though perhaps what you have done has armed me with enough stuff to do so myself! Thanks Debbie!

Toby said...

I think we understand each other with smell, sound, eye-contact and touch. So face to face is very important. But language adds another level of potential understanding and misunderstanding, though both are possible.

Debra said...

You know, Toby, two days ago I was sitting with my daughter while she struggled to write her motivation letter to get into a technical school in England.
And she had written a nice sentence that was really quite good, BUT..
I told her that what was missing in it was.. the "I" person. That when she says "I" (which, by the way is NOT THE EGO, Toby.. "I" is NOT THE EGO, but you would have to do some work on Judaïsm to catch this one. The ego is "me"... "I" is the SUBJECT, and there is a UNIVERSE OF DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO.), she is moving HERSELF into the words, and THEY are coming back into her, to give HER consistency too.
I don't know if you understand what I mean ?
When she says.. "I" want to do this, that is when she is the most alive, and vibrant in her language. Like if you think about the WEDDING CEREMONY, Toby, when two people say : "I take this person, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for better, for worse, until death do us part", that is "I", and it is ONE HELL OF AN "I". And even our slick, cute, jaded, and decadent culture STILL HAS AN INKLING of the committment that is there IN THOSE WORDS.
In any case, Toby, we KNOW that saying things, and saying them in a particular way... ENGAGES, or DOES NOT ENGAGE us. That is what the incarnation question is about.
I haven't finished with "idolatry". That was JUST THE BEGINNING. An appetizer, if you like...
What is terriying to me is NOT dependance, indeed, I have organized my life around it.
And when you say... "our dependance on language", Toby... you are doing, I think, what many people do on the blogs, positing in a subtle way that WE could be SEPARATE from our language. I don't think we CAN be separate from it. The idea that it is, or could be, a tool, is a very fallacious one, because.. a tool is an object. And... language is not an object at all. Not for us. Language... is what enables us to become SUBJECT too. Look at that "I", right ??
And we will always.. SPEAK our words AND BE SPOKEN by them AT THE SAME TIME. Because we are creatures of paradox, and because living is paradox. In my opinion.

Toby said...

"Toby... you are doing, I think, what many people do on the blogs, positing in a subtle way that WE could be SEPARATE from our language. I don't think we CAN be separate from it. The idea that it is, or could be, a tool, is a very fallacious one, because.. a tool is an object. And... language is not an object at all. Not for us. Language... is what enables us to become SUBJECT too."

A slip of the hands, often unavoidable. I agree with you, and as I have quoted: "world and mind arise together." Mind and language are inseparable, which makes, from the human perspective, world and language inseparable.

A human without language, say a blind and deaf person, is not a social being in the way sighted and hearing people are. I saw a documentary once showing blind and deaf people 'communicating' via touch, standing together in a bunch, tipping, leaning and lightly bouncing off one another. No observer of such an event can be certain, but they seemed to enjoy their 'language' with one another intensely. Here though I'm using "language" very loosely indeed. Contact of that type can't have rules of grammar, nor vocabulary, nor semantics etc, but blind/deaf people ARE their communications via contact with the world they perceive only via contact. Mind and world arise together...