Saturday, 14 April 2012

Irregular Language, part 3

Reason and Rough Language

In After Enlightenment, Betz notes how Heidegger’s according of a central importance to language within his thinking was influenced by his reception of Hamann. Just as for Hamann language is ‘the mother  of reason and its revelations, its A and W’, for Heidegger language famously came to be the ‘house of being’. In ‘Die Sprache’, Heidegger quoted from a letter of Hamann’s to Herder:

‘If I were as eloquent as Demosthenes, I would have to do no more than repeat a single phrase three times. Reason is language, Lógox. This is the marrowbone on which I gnaw, and will gnaw myself to death on it. For me there remains a darkness over this deep: I am still waiting for an apocalyptic angel with a key to this abyss.’

For the stammerer language is distant and occluded, shrouded in ‘darkness’. For Hamann it is as if the need to understand his dysfluency has become a project which is ‘extreme, and existentially driven’ (to adopt Thornhill’s words on Weber’s sociology), and which involves a risk which verges on the autodestructive, or at least on a petition of an ‘apocalyptic angel’. Heidegger’s reading pointed towards this: ‘This view of language plunges into the depth of an abyss. Does this consist merely in that reason rests upon language, or is even language itself the abyss?’ One could then even argue that if our linguistic capacity is riven, abyssal or aporetic, for Hamann – as Betz puts it in a deconstructionist extension of the stammerer’s view – ‘not only is language the “mother” of reason […] it is also why reason cannot presume to attain any firm conceptual footing or totalizing grasp’. In the course of his analysis Betz ultimately separates Hamann from Derrida, however, and in a way that emphasizes Hamann’s conception of language as a playful and free response to the Logos, the living word. This conception seems to draw on a lighter, more relaxed stammerer’s self-image, when communication is experienced as faltering or errant rather than as falling into an abyss:         
‘Either, following Derrida, language is essentially, for all its non-finite supplementarity, a purely immanent construct that reveals nothing outside it; or, following Hamann, language is essentially a prophetic revelation of transcendence, of the divine in and through the human, including all the contingency and indeterminacy, creativity and eccentricity of human language that this implies.’

Central to Betz’s presentation of Hamann’s thought is an emphasis on Hamann’s critique of what Betz calls ‘the injustice of reason’, especially as manifested in attacks on linguistic ‘irrationality’ qua irregularity. Betz sees Hamann’s writing, for example the 1780 Two Mites Concerning the Latest German Literature with its orthographical concerns, to be animated by his response to ‘the contest of the age: a contest between a Christian worldview (which allows for and even celebrates a mysterious depth to human language, to human nature, to the world)’, and ‘a fanatical, puritanical rationalism that would seek to eliminate everything that does not conform to its immanent counsels’, such as ‘the “irrational ” arbitrariness of language’. Hamann’s defence of linguistic ‘excess’ can be read as stemming from his own experience of the extravagances – the repetitions, the delays, the extended silences, the ums, ahs and other fillers – which dysfluency entails.  

‘What he was against was the injustice of reason, i.e., reason “overstepping its limits”: whether this take the form of “rational” incursions into the sacred matrix of language in order to “clean it up” (as in the orthographical elimination of the terminal h) or impose upon it some kind of “rational” standard; or a Stoic denial of any positive rôle to the passions (as though human beings would have been better without them); or, in the matter of religion, “rational” eliminations of the supposedly “mythological,” “superfluous,” “irrational,” or at least “incredible” doctrines and contents of the faith […]. In short, as Hamann saw it, reason’s attempt to “fix the indeterminate and to cut out any excess,” as carried out here with regard to language, was symptomatic of the violence it commits whenever it transgresses its limits.’

As Betz notes, in his New Apology of the Letter h Hamann argued for the preservation of the silent terminal ‘h’ (for instance in words like Rath or Muth), in order to defend ‘the contingent and arbitrary aspects of language or religion’. A similar stammerer’s defence of linguistic arbitrariness lies behind his critique in Aesthetica in nuce of the reliance on rational philological methods in Michaelis’ scriptural criticism; for Hamann, Betz writes, ‘historical criticism alone can never hope to determine the meaning of the biblical text' - 'which depends, as Hamann puts it, “upon such fleeting, spiritual, arbitrary, and incidental determinations and circumstances that one cannot draw down the key to their understanding without ascending to heaven”’. The arbitrariness of the Bible’s linguistic determinations suggest to Hamann the way in which the Bible is animated by a spiritual impurity or transcendental disturbance. In Hamann’s view philological absolutism would void the Bible of what Betz calls ‘a mysterious image of the Spirit of the invisible God’, just as, for Hamann, ‘the silent letter h, which is an offense to reason, is symbolic not only of life and soul and the invisible creative human spirit, but ultimately of the creative breath of God’ too. Citing the Aesthetica in nuce, Betz writes that ‘the Spirit offends “good taste” and what counts as “good style”’.

‘As he put it as early as 1758, whoever “is called to be a preacher in the desert must clothe himself in camel’s hair and live from locusts and wild honey.” And, true to form, this is exactly what Hamann did: living on the meagre income of a civil servant, he imitated the rough exterior of John the Baptist through what is by all accounts a course [sic], rebarbative style (stylus atrox), in order to deflect attention away from himself to Christ.’

Attending to the vehemence of Hamann’s writing, Betz describes his ‘typically passionate, energetic, and declamatory style’. Betz argues that ‘Hamann’s style is more than anything a self-conscious imitation of the sublime, oracular style both he and [Robert] Lowth attributed to the sacred poetry of the Hebrews’. Betz notes that Lowth was a point of reference for Hamann in Aesthetica in nuce, and goes on to quote the following lines from Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, in connection with Hamann’s rough language. Here once again we find an emphasis on those qualities of disturbance, interruption and intermittency which define dysfluency and spiritual life alike; on the mysterious ‘fleeting, spiritual, arbitrary, and incidental determinations and circumstances’:

‘Thus if the actual origin of poetry be inquired after, it must of necessity be referred to religion; and since it appears to be an art derived from nature alone, peculiar to no age or nation, and only at an advanced period of society conformed to rule and method, it must be wholly attributed to the more violent affections of the heart, the nature of which is to express themselves in an animated and lofty tone, with a vehemence of expression far removed from vulgar use. It is also no less observable, that these affections break and interrupt the enunciation by their impetuosity; they burst forth in sentences pointed, earnest, rapid, and tremulous […] Is it not probable, that the first effort of rude and unpolished verse would display itself in the praise of the Creator, and flow almost involuntarily from the enraptured mind?’ 

To be continued.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

English Existentialism

Iain Sinclair, in his review last week of Robert Fraser's Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne [here], reminds us of Gascoyne's status as a 'Christian existentialist'. So maybe I got all this from absorbing The Sun at Midnight c. 1997. Maybe not. But I had been thinking of Herbert Read as representing the only English existentialist, so this is fascinating. Of course then there's Colin Wilson. Iris Murdoch.