“I write so that I can find out what I think.” – Flannery O’Connor.
A really great quote is both polyvalent; containing multiple layers of meaning, and paradoxical; containing meanings which appear to be at odds with each other. This Flannery O’Connor quote for example, sounds like it could come out of the mouth of a brilliantly obtuse Peter Sellers character. It’s as if writing is to thinking what sleepwalking is to movement. It’s as if to write is to be a passenger sitting beside oneself driving. It’s as if writing is a subconscious activity which brings about wakefulness. It seems nonsensical, but also strangely true. It ventures into epistemology, the branch of philosophy which concerns how we come to know. It implies that words are not just the tools through which we communicate thoughts, rather they are the stuff of thoughts themselves.
Many Different Views
But this is a controversial assertion. There are some modern philosophers who view language as roughly hewn and misrepresentative of subtle, ineffable phenomena. There are some ancient philosophers who view human thought and language as but shadow representations of great eternal truths. For both the cynical obscurantists and for the high-minded idealists, language can be more of a road block than a bridge. For the existentialists, alone in their minds, their private little islands of being are higher, nobler and more authentic than any contemptible attempts at communion. For classical idealists, venturing among their fellows asking questions can be viewed as subversive, but truth, even fleetingly apprehended and imprecisely conveyed is too beautiful to be ignored.
There are numerous shades of discontent among brooding French existentialists. Like John Paul Sartre, they can be terribly wordy without really believing in communion through language. Perhaps Sartre should have stopped at his famous aphorism “Hell is other people”. In his novel The Stranger, Albert Camus draws us into the ennui of the cold-hearted and indifferent Meursault, perhaps in the same region of hell in which Sartre saw other people. Camus has his protagonist Meursault speak with tenderness and compassion: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” For Camus, words and the characters who utter them are but rocks and dust.
Paul Ricoeur, a much more sympathetic and defensible thinker, developed a “hermeneutics of suspicion”, because, as he said, “discourse both reveals and conceals something about the nature of being”. He described language as a “second order articulation”, that is, not the experience itself, but a once-removed record of the experience.
Wilhelm Dilthey takes a more generous view of language and says “expression converts experience into meaning”. It’s a sort of middle country between words as rough representations and words as the very stuff of thought.
Plato, who famously proposed a theory of Forms in which all things here among us are more or less imperfect replicas of eternal perfections, wrote in his Seventh Letter:
Of the subjects that concern me nothing is known, since there exists nothing in writing about them, nor will there ever exist anything in the future. People who write about such things know nothing; they do not even know themselves. For there is no way of putting these things in words like other things that one can learn. Hence, no one who possesses the true faculty of thinking (nous), and therefore knows the weakness of words, will ever risk framing these thoughts in discourse, let alone fix them in so inflexible a form as that of written letters. (paraphrase by Hannah Arendt)
A Deeper Level of Understanding
Then, at the deepest level there is the Holy of Holies. Concerning the holy, the word “sublime” seems trite and presumptuous. And it is not just words which fail. It is the movements of the mind. With Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, we do not just think about her, we ponder her. At the Transfiguration we wince as Peter speaks up, but we’re also deeply grateful for his nature, which can’t help but think of what must be done: speak up and lead.
It is fitting that we should be hesitant, even qualified about our own words; the ill-conceived, misunderstood and misused articulations which both represent and are the very stuff of our thoughts. Like us, they are contingent, framed within matter, space and time, and like the followers of the Mosaic Covenant who dare not utter the Name of God out of reverence, we must remember that our words are not The Word. But God called forth creation through The Word, and made us from His very breath which is the medium of The Word. Words can be the most powerful things, the most beautiful things and the most real things, as “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
But along with the Breath of God we were made of the lowest thing, the dust, and so even as we take flight passing through the Platonic City of Speech on our way toward the Heavenly Kingdom we must remember not to take ourselves too seriously.
When I was a kid there was an episode of All in the Family in which a friend of Mike and Gloria had forsaken spoken language and communicated only with her eyes. As the episode rose to its dramatic climax her eyes darted frantically until everyone finally told her to shut up. Part of the great comedic power of the scene was the simultaneous truth and untruth of the woman without words. She was certainly a presence and she certainly communicated, but without words it was only reactive, amplifying on ideas expressed by others. Hers was not the silent wisdom of the cloister, listening to God. She forsook one of our greatest gifts. In the end she was just an audience member who clapped or booed too loudly.
But at the furthest point away from willful stupidity, that is, someone who consciously descends into a sub-auditory stupor, there is surely the ineffably sublime, that is, truths too great or too terrible to be represented by words.