“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” (Flaubert)

“Send up my chariot!” ordered the chief archaeologist.  He was Italian and inclined to display his English in the presence of the workers.  He was pointing, however, to a carriola, which is not a chariot but a wheelbarrow. 

They were excavating the baptistry of the fourth-century basilica beneath San Clemente, the Irish Dominican church in the centre of Rome, where I used to live at one time.
I went searching and discovered that the word ‘chariot’, in English, did in fact mean something like a wheelbarrow at one time.  Nothing could be more appropriate on the lips of an archaeologist than the long-forgotten meaning of a word. 

Words, like families, have genealogies, lines of descent, with times of glory and times of shame; they can rise to glory for a while, only to fall again into disuse or even into disgrace.  Or they are like coral, the deposited lives of our ancestors, grown into splendid and fantastic forms....

Do you speak the language or does the language speak you?    Every word you use has been used by millions of people before you.  Your most private thoughts, your most intimate feelings, are expressed, even to yourself, in English, a language spoken, whether as a first or as a learned language, by almost a billion people.  Philosophers and linguists have beaten their brains out about this.  Structuralists prefer to say that the language speaks you.  This sounds strange; it is like saying that chickens are the means that eggs use to reproduce themselves.  The serious question is: do you have an individual voice, an original thought, or are you only repeating scraps of language that you have picked up, as a chicken picks up grains?   

Hiding behind this question there is another question.  What are we really asking, what are we dreaming about?  We seem to be dreaming about standing, in some way, outside of all language – indeed, outside of the human race – a dream that can never be more than a dream.  We would like to be entirely on the outside from where we could command a view of the whole show.  We would like to be objective to everything, even to ourselves.  We would be all alone on that lonely peak.  In Hermann Hesse’s phrase we would be “hanging suspended in space.”  We would be like minor and very insecure deities.  But it is only a dream.  Just as we were born and are human by the agency of other people, we speak English (or whatever our mother tongue happens to be) by the same title; and just as we cannot take little breaks from having been born and being human, we cannot take a rest from thinking and feeling in a publicly available language.  We are part of the colourful coral reef, a member of the human family, and the whole layered past is our inheritance. 

Yet the fantasy persists: a dream of the noble savage living in isolation from society with all its inheritance, and all the better for it.  From Rolumus and Remus to Tarzan, it persists.  It is like the fantasy that many children have, once or twice in their lives: that they do not really belong in the family, that they were adopted, and that the best thing they could do is pack up and go...pack up, call a chariot, and go!  These considerations are not only for lunatics.  In an age shaped by the media, there is in all of us some kind of vague dream standing outside everything and being a spectator.  But the question is: who is doing the seeing, and from where?  A disembodied spirit, staring at you from nowhere?  No, it cannot be your disembodied spirit because it is especially your spirit that you want to observe; and not only your spirit but everything in you.  So it has to be a nothingness, looking on from nowhere.  And what does he or she (or it?) see?  It sees you as an object, everything in you and about you: an object, a thing of some sort.  Your trembling feelings, your thoughts, your sensations: all, all objects, things you can point at and talk about as if they were sticks and stones.  The project has turned inside out: you wanted to see yourself in your deepest intimacy and privacy, and you end by displacing yourself into nowhere and looking down on yourself as an object. 

You can no more stand outside inherited language than you can stand outside the human race.  The story of language is the human story, it is all about us; there is no need to dream about stepping aside from it.  If you have an original voice, it is an original human voice.  If you have an original thought, it is not absolutely original; it is relatively so, like everything human.  It is part of the vast and wonderful web of human thought....

“In the beginning was the Word” - the Logos.  Scholars tell us that the meaning of Logos is much broader than a written or spoken word.  Several English words are needed to express it: Meaning, Wisdom, Inner Principle, Harmony.... In the beginning was the Meaning.  In the beginning was the Structure.   God's Wisdom, the Logos, came forth from the Father, but was not lost in the sands of human language.  “Your Word came forth and yet remained within” – became other than You but not less than You.  Spoken, it was not lost.  You folded it in our flesh, so that we too might not be lost.  But we keep forgetting.  We dream of being alone in the world, absolutely original, orphaned from the Logos, beating Flaubert’s cracked kettle, forgetting that the Logos became flesh and lives among us. 


Donagh O'Shea.

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.