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Blasphemy’s Implicit Exaltation of Language


A poet’s concern that his poems are failures is nothing new. The difference, beginning in the 20th century, has been where we place the blame. We used to say: The poet has failed the language. Now we say—whether with horror, like Celan, or with the frisson of vandalism, like late 20th century literary theorists—Language has failed the poet. The hubris of declaring all language futile may be even greater than the hubris of claiming “immortality” for any one example of it.


Most discussions of the futility of language assume that the poem (or novel) aims to represent something outside of it. This is exalted Reality, whether objects and phenomena, or “thought” and “feeling.” (When it comes to these, neuroscience may yet convince us the distinction is a meaningless parsing of interconnected neuroelectrical pathways far too complex for those outmoded words. The future may regard the words “thought,” “feeling,” “perception,” and “memory” the way we regard the Four Humours.) Reality is what language, as Reality’s toothpicks-and-chewing-gum replica, will never be. The endpoint of this linguistic disillusionment is the endlessly repeated canard that silence is more powerful than speech.


This attitude toward language is common in theory, rare in practice. Even Zen masters, officially in love with the nonverbal, seemed to turn out prodigious numbers of haiku. 20th-century Deconstructionists lectured and published. Even those who diminish language end up adding to it. It’s as hard to kill as the Hydra. (A language even dies like the Hydra, by stiffening to stone. Theorists merely spit on language; grammarians dunk it in cement.)

A far more common attitude toward language, historically, is one of holy awe. For centuries, and not just in the West, a poem was considered an addition to reality, both a representation and a thing-itself, both birdsong and birdcall. More importantly, reality was considered subordinate to language. This is the case wherever you look. In Hinduism, it’s precisely reality, both subjective and objective, that is maya, illusion, unreal, bunkum. What’s sacred are the Vedas, the “breath of the Gods,” Sanskrit—that is, the Gods inhale and exhale language. In the beginning was the Word: The Bible insists that language came before reality, and served as the genesis of it. Throughout medieval Europe, people believed, literally, that the right words in the right order could conjure demons out of hell and force them to do your bidding. Today, language is believed powerful nowhere so much as in the Islamic world: Shariah law against blasphemy implies the idea, absurd to us, that human language can successfully insult God. It is no accident that Theory rises as Biblical religion weakens among Western literary intellectuals. Faith in language and faith period seem to flourish and fade together.


Which is not to say that we, in 21st century America, don’t have our own conviction about the power of language. It’s only literature departments that like to ponder whether language might meaningless or futile; the society at large knows better, which is why you can’t talk about assassinating the President, or deny the Holocaust, or comment on how sexy your co-worker looks today, or say the n-word without personal and professional consequences. Language is power. We, like the Taliban, have a sense of blasphemy; it’s just that ours doesn’t have anything to do with God.