Thursday, 22 March 2012

Irregular Language, part 2

The Living Word

In After Enlightenment, Betz notes how, in Hamann’s case, the dictum that one cannot understand the work apart from the man ‘applies to an almost unparalleled degree’. Hamann’s rational project of humbling proud autonomous reason, for example, reflected his own uncanny combination of ‘idiocy and profundity’. Betz quotes Friedrich Leopold of Stolberg’s comment that, ‘At one moment he has the appearance of one who cannot count to three; the next moment he overflows with genius and fire.’ Hamann himself wrote of aiming at a ‘stoic wisdom that interchangeably unites the imbecillitatem Hominis and the securitatem Dei ’. As Betz notes, the title of the fragment Apologie meines Cretinen refers to Hamann’s younger brother, who suffered from mental illness, and for whom Hamann and his partner Regina Schumacher cared until his premature death.

In The Fate of Reason, Beiser drew attention to the crucial importance for the development of Hamann’s thinking of his experiences as a young man in London, where he had been dispatched in 1757 by his friend the Riga trader Christoph Berens on some form of pointless business mission:

‘To locate the source of Hamann’s philosophy, we have to go back to his early years in London in 1758. What the young Hamann saw during a mystical experience contains the germ of his later philosophy, not to mention the basis for his critique of Kant and the Aufklärung.’

In Beiser’s words, the circumstances surrounding Hamann’s conversion to Christianity are ‘dramatic and moving, the stuff of a novel or play’. Humiliated and shaken by a derisive reception at the Russian Embassy in London, Hamann fell into despair, and felt lost and alone in a foreign land. Seeking to relieve his misery, he squandered all his money on a dissolute life. Then, ‘I went about depressed, staggering to and fro, without a soul with whom to share my burden, who could give me advice or help.’ Finally in the winter of 1758 he rented a room in Marlborough Street, seeking to seclude himself with his books. As Betz writes, ‘It was here, with no money, a £300 debt, and failing health that he began an intensive reading of the Bible.’ In Beiser’s account,

‘He read it in the most personal manner, as if it were God’s message to him alone. He saw the history of the Jewish people as a parable about his own sufferings. All that happened to him in London, all his trials and tribulations, seemed to be prefigured in the Bible.’

On the evening of March 31, 1758, reading the fifth book of Moses, Hamann began to – in Beiser’s words – ‘feel the spirit of God working through him’.

‘After hearing the voice of God inside himself, and after reading the Bible in his personal and allegorical way, Hamann came to believe that God was always communicating with him, if he would only listen. Indeed, he became convinced that everything that happened to him contained a secret message from God, and that it was an allegory like everything else in the Bible. This conviction then led Hamann to a grand and extraordinary metaphysical conclusion: that the creation is the secret language of God, the symbols by which he communicates his message to man. All nature and history therefore consist in hieroglyphs, divine ciphers, secret symbols, and puzzles. […] In Hamann’s metaphorical terms, “God is a writer, and his creation is his language.”’

Hamann understood language, Betz notes, as ‘the point of intersection between things divine and human’. In The Knight of the Rose-Cross, as Betz observes, Hamann presents language as being ‘at once fully human (“as natural as child’s play”) and fully divine (as having its ultimate source in the Creator)’. Hamann:

‘Every phenomenon of nature was a word – the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, secret, inexpressible, but at the same time all the more intimate union, communication, and communion of divine energies and ideas. In the beginning everything that the man [Adam] heard, saw with his eyes, looked upon, and touched with his hands was a living word; for God was the Word. With this Word in his mouth and in his heart, the origin of language was as natural, so near and easy, as child’s play […].’

What Betz calls Hamann’s ‘view of original and redeemed language as a kind of innocent, “playful” response to the Logos’, seems to me to reimagine the garden of Eden as a stammerer’s fantasy of the fluent condition; for the stammerer spoken language is often far from ‘near and easy’, but for Hamann’s Adam, divinity has supplied communicative ease, naturalness and the self-confidence (or self-forgetfulness) required to be linguistically playful – just as Christian hermeneutics supported Hamann during his London breakdown. Deeply personal issues arising from his experiences of dysfluency and mental illness do seem to me to provide the existential context for Hamann’s conviction that, as Betz puts it, ‘language is essentially a dialogical religious phenomenon’, involving a suffering human and redemptive alterity. The concept of a 'living word’ is surely, at least on some level or in part, Hamann’s response to his own stammerer’s experience of communication as something which – at wholly unpredictable intervals – becomes blocked or frozen. Similarly, Hamann evolved a concept and practice of a living hermeneutic as a response to the depressive ‘cover’ clamping down on his mental health in London; the origin of the scriptural commentary he produced in London, the Biblical Meditations, was the urge to read ‘with more hunger’ so as to develop a mode of spontaneous exegesis from that renewed vitality:

‘Because I wanted to make a new beginning, it seemed as if I began to perceive a cover over my reason and my heart, which had kept the book closed to me the first time. I thus set out to read it with more attention, in a more orderly fashion, and with more hunger; and to write down my thoughts as they would occur.’

Betz matches Hamann’s concept of a living word to his concept of a living hermeneutic, when discussing Hamann’s perspective on the biblical critic J. D. Michaelis in Aesthetica in nuce. Writing of the way in  which, ‘as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, the language of Scripture is “living and active” (4: 12)’, Betz notes that for Hamann, ‘it is precisely this that Michaelis cannot see: lacking the inspired gift of interpretation (cf. 1 Cor. 12: 10), he cannot see the prophetic Spirit of God tabernacling within the contingent and seemingly arbitrary elements of human language’. Betz also records that by the time of his return to Germany from London, Hamann’s urge to practice his hermeneutic gift had grown into a vocation. ‘My vocation is neither to be a businessman, nor a civil servant, nor a man of the world […] Reading the Bible and praying are the work of a Christian’. Yet as Betz sees, already in 1746, as a student matriculating at the University of Königsberg, Hamann affiliated his dysfluency to his disinclination to practice professional Bible study: theology. ‘A more immediate reason he cites for not taking up theology, however, was a speech impediment, in addition to his poor memory, the corruption of the clergy, his high estimation of this vocation, and his sense of hypocrisy’.

For Hamann, ‘Humility of heart is the one required disposition and most indispensable preparation for the reading of the Bible.’ Betz fascinatingly shows how Hamann’s self-denying stammering, which disqualified him from becoming a theologian, and his conception of Scripture as something ‘living and active’ (Heb. 4: 12), alike enabled him to develop a practice of hermeneutic humility.  

‘For it is no longer a question of how can I (viewed as a complete, self-present, pre-textual identity) understand the text, but rather a question of how the text understands and constitutes me. Indeed, as Bayer puts it, “Scripture interprets me and not I scripture.” Accordingly, priority shifts from the modern subject, which constitutes itself (e.g., through Descartes’s radical doubt or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception), to the text, which represents the subject to itself in a new light, metaschematically constituting (or reconstituting) its identity by means of the figures and parables in the story that is told.’

The humility underpinning Hamann’s self-reconstituting hermeneutics itself reflects the humility of the Bible’s author, who – Hamann believed – condescended to elevate human history into parables of sacred history. Betz:

‘Thus Hamann speaks in striking terms, in addition to [of] the humility of the Son, of the humility of the Holy Spirit, “who, in the face of our proud little mare of reason, produced a book as his Word, in which, like a foolish and crazy [spirit], what is more, like an unholy and unclean spirit, he made small, contemptuous events into the history of heaven and of God (1 Cor. 1: 25).”’

In summary, Hamann understands hermeneutics not as a form of philosophical reason which constitutes reality, but as an act of spiritual petition to the Scripture which, in his Christian view, constitutes reality. ‘As he puts it in the “Fragments,” “Nature and history are […] the two great commentarii on the divine Word; and the latter, on the other hand, the only key that unlocks our knowledge of both.”’ Hamann also thinks of faith as the key to understanding nature and history – in the Socratic Memorabilia he writes, ‘Without faith we cannot even understand creation and nature’ – and so in this way faith is equivalent to Scripture; but of course for Hamann faith is itself also necessary for accessing the truths of Scripture: ‘the Holy Spirit is promised to all who petition the heavenly Father’.

To be continued.

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