Reflections on Language, 1

Nothing controls us more than the things we are unable to speak about.

“It is plain from the history of architecture, painting and sculpture, that men begin to theorize critically only when inspiration has died down. But inspiration has only died down because the theoreticians, the horses of instruction, begin to dissect, analyze, and then codify into rules what yesterday’s great artists did from their true selves.

Another reason I don’t like critics (the one in myself as well as in other people) is that they try to teach something without being it. They are like all those feeble, knock-kneed women afraid of bugs and burglars, who say to their husbands… ‘Go out and fight, you coward!’ They are second-eaters who have not the courage or the love to make anything themselves. Or they are like big game hunters, killing from a great, safe distance, with great ego-satisfaction (though they are entirely safe themselves and the shooting requires no muscular effort and not much skill) some nice little creature.”

-Brenda Ueland

“Don’t bring that here. I’m serious, Don. Don’t talk to me about her. It makes me feel cruel.”

-Midge (the mistress) in Mad Men

I recently wrote on why I insist on calling myself a “gay Catholic” even in the face of categorical criticisms by Catholic leaders, such as Courage International’s Father Paul Check. Some Catholics argue adamantly for the term “gay,” while others insist on “homosexual,” and many others insist upon “same-sex-attracted.” The divisions within the Church can be largely identified by who uses what term. For outsiders who may not have a personal investment in these debates, such semantic arguments may seem unnecessary and pedantic. Why argue over what people can or should call themselves? Why not leave this up to them?

On the other hand, some have argued against developing a language at all when it comes to these issues. Father Check’s recent remarks can be seen as working along this vein, as well as the 2014 essay by Michael Hannon, “Against Heterosexuality.” My non-Catholic friends probably think these arguments over language are stupid, and to a certain extent I agree. More important than the words we use are the actual relationships we cultivate and the ways in which we act in the world. These will inform language and provide context for it. Indeed, without the appropriate social and cultural contexts, it will be impossible to cultivate a meaningful moral language.

At the same time, Christianity treasures language. In the beginning was the Word. After each living creation of Genesis 2, God brings the animal to Adam “to see what he would call it. And whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name.” After creation, the first task of man is the word. Man has a vocation to name. In the biblical creation stories, this is the first place in which man expresses his independence before God.

Just as God created and then formed the chaos of Creation, man completes Creation in forming the chaos of a language-less world. Man first makes use of his creative capacities and his responsibility towards the incomplete through the establishment of language. The mouth of man functions just like the hand of God, in forming and completing creation.

In language, man takes part in the life of God by also performing a sort of creation ex nihilo. What was previously incommunicable becomes relational in naming, and man forms creation by the word of his mouth. Just as with God, man begins his relationship with Creation through the word.

Thus Wittgenstein writes, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” For this reason, one act of dominance in the ancient world would be to destroy the cultures of conquered peoples, by stealing their children and teaching them the language of the conquerors. For this reason, Karol Wojtyla combatted Nazi occupation by establishing an underground theater company to preserve the Polish language and culture. The first way to conquer a man is to make his world, history, and culture incommunicable. And the first way to immortalize a man is to give him words to communicate his life. The ancients and medievals understood the significance of language by associating poetry with divinity.

Language can be used as a form of communication and creativity, or as a form of limitation and control. Language can open up the world of another, and it can also be used to cut away at it. This explains why so many insecure men and women cling to analytic philosophy (or “theology”). They use it to exert control over the world of language and to seek an escape from their insecurities about the ambiguities of human life. Nothing bespeaks a fear of human intimacy so much as an obsessive insistence upon a controlled language. At the same time, nothing bespeaks a fear of commitment so much as an unwillingness to ever define.

Language reveals to us our real relationships to reality. Nothing controls us more than the things we are unable to speak about. Nothing consumes us more than the things we try not to say, than the things we cannot bear to hear, than the things we unconsciously keep from our mouths and ears. What weighs more heavily on a family reunion than the unspoken topic on everyone’s mind? What controls the emotional life more than the thing we hope won’t be brought up?

You can leave your fears unspoken. But in the silence they will rule you. So speak.

In tomorrow’s post, I will focus on the question of who speaks and why it matters, revisiting some of Anthony Esolen’s comments on coming out to your father

3 comments on “Reflections on Language, 1

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Language, 2 – A Blog by Chris Damian

  2. Pingback: Weekendlinks | Strength of His Might

  3. Pingback: The Words of Life – A Blog by Chris Damian

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