The trouble with text

TL;DR Version? Be mindful of your words, be they written, spoken, or thought. Do not abandon your words, but do not inscribe your understanding too tightly within the domain they circumscribe. Realize the generative capacity of words but root that capacity within the rich soil of creation. Or, you know, don’t and enjoy the flurry of clever little parasites that will buzz through your life and flash through the lives of all those near you. Life is life, after all.

An observation Alexandra made in a recent post struck a chord with me, in no small part because I have been thinking about a similar issue from a different direction. I’ve been thinking, again, about Simone Weil’s observation in the 1940s that we seem to be missing a lot of the context for the Bible. She suggests (and I generally agree) that something happened between the initial revelations that motivated it and its codification that left Christians with a much poorer sense of the Bible’s mystical dimensions.

I picked up a book on the role of the heresies in defining orthodox Christian doctrine in the early days and it’s left me with a sense of what might have animated this loss—the drive to codify doctrine and theology. That not only required determining which Christian texts were orthodox, but establishing what makes them orthodox. Theology becomes deeply entangled with epistemology and ontology, the texts are treated with increasing literalism and their fluid esoteric dimensions supressed in favor of exoteric stability.

I tend to think of an esoteric dimension as ‘gnostic,’ but I should be clear to state that this doesn’t mean that I precisely identify myself with the Gnostic ‘heresy’ so-called. In part, what we are seeing in the debate over whether Gnosticism is a heresy or not is the mutual dessication of both Gnosticism and orthodox Christianity, not simply the victory of a dessicated orthodox Christianity over a vital Gnostic impulse.

This is where the post over at Otherwise comes in. The concern she expresses for an overly textual paganism which too easily attaches discrete divine identities (and a pantheon-like role) to names used in myths parallels this problem. It results in a similar-but-not-identical situation where a textual element takes precedence over spiritual experience:

What seem to be various characters called Eithliu, Ethlinn, Eithne, Étain, Boand, and possibly also Bé Find may in fact all be one person. I’m always wary of being reductionist, but I think we should regard god/dess (and ancestor figures’, culture heroes’) names as epithets in most if not all cases, and in that light, these are at the very least people who share the same epithet and their roles within their respective stories overlap significantly. And what they have in common is really interesting. I think this is a likely legit goddess, frankly, though your mileage may vary.

I have come to think of there being a (basically) (1) healthy organic drift, between the pluralization of divine cultus based on names and aspects acquiring prominence and independence in relationship to the spiritual experiences of individual people and communities, and a (2) problematic (and often but not always toxic) (a) proliferation or (b) narrowing of figures based on an overly textual and theological approach.

I think paganism has suffered a bit from the (2a) sort of problem. Paganism often had to rely upon texts rather than oral tradition. Even where oral tradition existed, written material has often been given precedence, seen as providing better and more ‘genuine’ access to an uncorrupted (prechristian) world.

Paganism is hardly alone in that (2a) problem, lest anyone think I’m picking on the movement. While the problems arise due to a focus on texts, the motivations for this reliance vary. In his study of Ifa in the 19th and 20th century (Des Dieux et Des Signes: Initiation, Écriture, et Divination en les religions afro-cubaines), Dianteill notes that Eleggua acquired some of his many reported roads in Cuban Ifa through the same praise name being transcribed differently.

Two people heard the praise name (or maybe even one person heard it differently twice), wrote it down differently, and when someone later compiled a list from those two transcriptions, they identified each as a different aspect. This question of hearing is important because it makes clear that the dangers of textuality cannot be avoided by avoiding written texts. There is (Derrida rumbles in his grave) the same problem to be found in purely oral texts. They are subject to the same corruptions.

If you wander around some of the ethnographic literature of shrine migration in West Africa (e.g., Allman and Parker’s Tongnaab), you’ll see this happen. You’ll hear about an acoutrement of a shrine becoming the center of its own cultus, say the sack in which the consecrated elements of a soon-to-be shrine becomes the center of its own shrine.

When it comes to the (2a) problem, folks then have to figure out what differentiates these aspects which leads to speculation and inspiration. Problems ensue.

Except when they don’t.

The weird/wyrd/almost fortean side of all this is that these ‘wrong’ names sometimes get responses from spirit and become functional parts of the living ritual world (probably no accident Dianteill stumbled across theis multiplication through Eleggua), though often at the cost of obscuring the conceptual order that animated the original. It’s always hard to tell when that’s a big problem (deceiving spirits [whatever that means!], etc.), just evolution (variation and selection) in action around our interface with the others, or something else entirely. This is one of the big reasons why I hedge around (2) problems usually being toxic; they can be generative, too.

I don’t think there is an easy way to figure out when the error is just an error or when it turns productive. Like so much in life, there’s a lot of just mucking about until secure footing is found (which is what some people will more nicely describe as “this is more art than science”…except many sciences are messy in this way, too). I will say that I think it becomes more likely when the textual exchanges happen outside of the dialogue that grounds a tradition alongside others.

A similar issue seems to hold for (2a), as happened in the Christian world, both during the early establishment of Christian orthodoxy in antiquity and during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of early modernity. Even as the terms for the divine are vigorously eliminated, the remaining terms become increasingly rich and anchoring new forms of spiritual voice. So, while often problematic and often toxic, there are generative strains of it, too.

Some of the productivity of these otherwise toxic situations derives from the nourishing force of a ritual world (1) that anchors the textual world, but I don’t think that is the only thing going on. There is a potency proper to text, to our capacity to generate and manipulate texts. That potency needs to be recognized, in part so we can more actively reconcile it with the more stable potencies that animate the non-textual dimensions of spiritual experience.


7 thoughts on “The trouble with text

  1. Pingback: Addendum to thoughts on “Celtic” paganism: text, ontology, epistemology, theology | Otherwise

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