Samizdat

"Samizdat: Publishing the Forbidden."

Tag: Philology

Eco: Before and After Europe, 2

babel

MC Escher, Tower of Babel, 1928. This image of a drawing is copyrighted by the artist, who died in 1972. Low-resolution images of works of art for purposes of critical commentary qualify for fair use under United States copyright law.

“Despite this, by the second century AD, there had begun to form the suspicion that Latin and Greek might not be the only languages which expressed harmoniously the totality of experience.

Slowly spreading across the Greco-Roman world, obscure revelations appeared; some were attributed to Persian magi, others to an Egyptian divinity called Thoth-Hermes, to Chaldean oracles, and even to the very Pythagorean and Orphic traditions which, though born on Greek soil, had long been smothered under the weight of the great rationalist philosophy.

By now, the classical rationalism, elaborated and re-elaborated over centuries, had begun to show signs of age. With this, traditional religion entered a period of crisis as well. The imperial pagan religion had become a purely formal affair, no more than a simple expression of loyalty.

Each people had been allowed to keep its own gods. These were accommodated to the Latin pantheon, no one bothering over contradictions, synonyms or homonyms. The term characterizing this leveling toleration for any type of religion (and for any type of philosophy or knowledge as well) is syncretism.

An unintended result of this syncretism, however, was that a diffused sort of religiosity began to grow in the souls of the most sensitive. It was manifested by a belief in the universal World Soul; a soul which subsisted in stars and in earthly objects alike.

Our own, individual, souls were but small particles of the great World Soul. Since the reason of philosophers proved unable to supply truths about important matters such as these, men and women sought revelations beyond reason, through visions, and through communications with the godhead itself.

It was in this climate that Pythagoreanism was reborn. From its beginnings, Pythagoreans had regarded themselves as the keepers of a mystic form of knowledge, and practiced initiatory rites.

Their understanding of the laws of music and mathematics was presented as the fruit of revelation obtained from the Egyptians. By the time of Pythagoreanism’s second appearance, however, Egyptian civilization had been eradicated by the Greek and Latin conquerors.

Egypt itself had now become an enigma, no more than an incomprehensible hieroglyph. Yet there is nothing more fascinating than secret wisdom: one is sure that it exists, but one does not know what it is. In the imagination, therefore, it shines as something unutterably profound.

That such wisdom could exist while still remaining unknown, however, could only be accounted for by the fact that the language in which this wisdom was expressed had remained unknown as well.

This was the reasoning of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote in his Lives of the Philosophers in the third century AD:

“There are those who assert that philosophy started among the Barbarians: there were, they claim, Magi among the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Gymnosophists of India, the Druids among the Celts and Galatians” (I).

The classical Greeks had identified barbarians as those who could not even articulate their speech. It now seemed that these very mumblings were of a sacred language, filled with the promise of tacit revelations (Festugière 1944-54:I).

I have given a summary of the cultural atmosphere at this time because, albeit in a delayed fashion, it was destined to have a deep influence on our story. Although no one at the time proposed the reconstruction of the perfect language, the need for one was, by now, vaguely felt.

We shall see that the suggestions, first planted during these years, flowered more than twelve centuries later in humanistic and Renaissance culture (and beyond); this will constitute a central thread in the story I am about to tell.

In the meantime, Christianity had become a state religion, expressed in the Greek of the patristic East and in the Latin still spoken in the West. After St. Jerome translated the Old Testament in the fourth century, the need to know Hebrew as a sacred language grew weaker. This happened to Greek as well.

A typical example of this cultural lack is given by St. Augustine, a man of vast culture, and the most important exponent of Christian thought at the end of the empire.

The Christian revelation is founded on an Old Testament written in Hebrew and a New Testament written, for the most part, in Greek. St. Augustine, however, knew no Hebrew; and his knowledge of Greek was, to say the least, patchy (cf. Marrou 1958).

This amounts to a somewhat paradoxical situation: the man who set himself the task of interpreting scripture in order to discover the true meaning of the divine word could read it only in a Latin translation.

The notion that he ought to consult the Hebrew original never really seems to have entered Augustine’s mind. He did not entirely trust the Jews, nurturing a suspicion that, in their versions, they might have erased all references to the coming of Christ.

The only critical procedure he would allow was that of comparing translations in order to find the most likely version. In this way, St. Augustine, though the father of hermeneutics, was certainly not destined to become the father of philology.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 12-4.

 

The Letters of the Great Name

“Whatever the precise nature of the supreme sefirah, hokhmah is in any case the “beginning of being” as it is also the “beginning of the dibbur.” Prom hokhmah, all the sefiroth proceed in a clear chain of emanations. In terms of Isaac’s language-mysticism, the divine things are at the same time the divine words. The ideas are names.

This motif, already prefigured in the Bahir where the sefiroth coincided with the ten logoi, now appears in a much profounder form. For the kabbalist, evidently, language-mysticism is at the same time a mysticism of script and of letters. The relation between script and language is a constitutive principle for the Kabbalah.

In the spiritual world, every act of speaking is concurrently an act of writing, and conversely every writing is potential speech, destined to become audible. The speaker engraves, as it were, the three-dimensional space of the word on the plane of the ether.

The script, which for the philologist is only a secondary and otherwise rather useless image of real speech, is for the kabbalist the true repository of its secrets. The phonographic principle of a natural transposition of speech into script and vice versa manifests itself in the Kabbalah in the idea that the sacred letters themselves are the lineaments and signs that the modern phoneticist would want upon his disc.

The creative word of God is legitimately stamped upon just these sacred lines. Beyond language lies the unarticulated reflection, the pure thought, the mute profundity, one could say, in which the nameless reposes. Prom hokhmah on there opens up, identical with the world of the sefiroth, the world of the pure name as a primordial element of language. This is the sense in which Isaac understood the saying of Yesirah 2:5, according to which all language proceeds from a name. The tree of divine powers, which formed the sefiroth in the Bahir, is here transposed to the ramifications of the letters in this great name.

But more than that of the tree, Isaac liked the simile of the coal and the flames (shalhabiyoth) that are fed by it, inspired by another passage of Yesirah (1:7) to which he often has recourse:

“ … Their root [that is, that of language and things] is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, which are mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal, and in the manner of the leaves of the tree, its boughs and branches, whose root is always in the tree . . . and all the debharim become form and all the forms proceed only from the one name, just as the branch comes from the root. It follows therefore that everything is in the root, which is the one name (on 2:5).

The world of language is therefore actually the “spiritual world.” Only that which lives in any particular thing as language is its essential life.

Raising the above to the level of kabbalistic discourse, the words, dibburim, constitute the world of the sefiroth, which are united in their configurations in order to form letters, just as, conversely, the words themselves are the configurations of letters.

Isaac uses both images though their kaleidoscopic relations are not entirely transparent. In any case, letters are for him the elements of the universal script. According to him, the Hebrew word for letters, ‘othiyoth, derives from the verb ‘atha, to come; the letters are “things which come from their cause,” thus, that which “proceeds” from the root.

But each of these elements comprises in ever new configurations all the sefiroth: “In every letter there are the ten sefiroth.” Thus we are told, in connection with Yesirah 4:1 that the ten sefiroth are “inner [or: hidden] essences” whose inner [hidden] being is contained in the hokhmah, and that they are at the same time the roots of principles in which good and evil are still united.

“They [the sefiroth] begin to grow forth like a tree whose beginnings are unrecognizable, until a plant issues from them.” The verbs employed by the Book Yesirah to describe the formation of the letters that God “hewed” in the pneuma suggest to Isaac the image of a mountain from which raw stones are extracted, then hewed and chiseled, and from which well-ordered edifices come into being.

This “edifice” is the world, but the world of the sefiroth as such also represents a building of this type that issues from its elements, and, in the last analysis, from the hokhmah. The sphere in which this hewing of the innermost elements takes place is not the hidden Sophia, where everything is still conceived as united without form, but the sefirah that follows it, binah or teshubah (“that to which all returns”), which is itself a mystical hyle from which the forms are chiseled.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 277-9.

%d bloggers like this: