In case it isn’t entirely obvious by now, I don’t trust words. Starting this blog, deciding to let my weird self hang out a little bit on the wide old web is an exercise in navigating that distrust. While I know that words can go awry, that a fixation on words can lead one away more surely from life than just about anything else, in times of fracture like these, they are also necessary. When the order of things starts to come undone, all of the signs we have to communicate to ourselves and each other become opaque as the social world that underpins them loses its force. We start to drift and if we are going to do more than drift apart, we need to resort to baser means to communicate to each other.
Words don’t escape the disaster, but they are strangely more durable than convention. They become spare and obtuse, but I can take one side and you another and in the tugging hash out some crude messages. Like those ingenious West African oracles where the diviner and client hold a stick in common, letting it find the ‘right’ objects that answer their concerns amidst the diviner’s cache of bones, stones, and statues, we can let words help us to guide each other.
I try (emphasis on try) to talk simply, not because the matters facing us are simple, but because to face them together we need to have simple words we can easily grasp together. I have no idea how succesful this is or will be, but I want to give it a shot. To do that, I need to cultivate a sense of words that is less sweeping and less metaphorical, one that is more metonymic, one that uses words to tap, tap, tap against the surface of experience. I am not trying to produce the flash of light that suffuses the whole room, but guttering match strikes to catch whatever I can of the dark world that rises up to meet us.
I speak as if the times are exceptional and that is because they always are. This is the time we have, not the time of the past or of the future, but of the present. I suspect these times may be more exceptional than most with the twisting collapse of an old order and no clear signs as to what sort of order will come to replace it. Even in times of calm, though, when it comes to the gnostic work, the present time is always the exception, always the point at which the light might come spilling through.
I came up intellectually among the voices of the Continental European philosophers. Some of this by training, but that by way of the seeking that led me there. Among these philosophers, there has been a deep tradition of distrust for words. It shouldn’t be too surprising–the 20th century gave Europe a lot to distrust. This distrust, however, is conjoined to the deepest respect for words, a sense that though they may be eaten up by corruption or defiled by lies, words border on the sacred and the holy. That isn’t particularly comforting when you think about what a conviction to ideology has wrought in Europe.
Words aren’t things you should take for granted, as having an inherent truth to accept. If you accept them without thought, they can become a vehicle to take control of you. We think and talk with words; if we do not struggle with them, we will accede to them. This is where the distrust becomes a valuable tool, one that helps us to gain a little leverage on the language that we inherit and that we breathe in order to speak. With distrust, we can begin the struggle to win over words for ourselves. Failure is inevitable, but successes are possible.
When we talk of wisdom that is beloved, it includes in large part these hard-won words. When we are able to use some words to bring forth to ourselves secrets of our inner, spiritual, conscious, experience, we have made a step forward in our pursuit of wisdom. When those words have provided another with the opportunity to do the same, we have discovered philosophy.
We only win those words, though, through prayer, contemplation, and argumentation. Prayer and contemplation are processes of tasting and calibration, setting the words upon our understanding, in the midst of our experience, and seeing how they lay. Argumentation is sharper, flintier, shaping words to fit. Since we are on the internet, home of the flinty argument, I would make clear that argumentation is one set of practices among many and contains many variations. You need to learn for yourself how to choose when and how to employ argumentation, much like you need to learn for yourself the best form of exercise suited to your needs. It is always, though, ancilla to the real work of finding those words a place in your life, to discovering where give you voice, real voice, a voice that resonates with the work of your life.