This is the third post in a series on “The Traumatic Word.”
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All that glitters is not gold.
— Old commonplace
Even for us, gold still glitters. However, we don’t any longer attend especially either to gold or to glittering . . . We have no sense for that “sense” any longer. Insofar as gold “is” gold for us, it is only as a metal that carries value.
— Martin Heidegger
The word gives voice to the silence it breaks.
Sometimes during the second half of my long university teaching career, I would bring a small Tibetan meditation gong to class, to give the students an opportunity to experience two different modalities of listening, as I myself had first experienced them once by fortuitous accident. I would ask the students to find a comfortable position in their chairs, close their eyes gently, and hold themselves relaxed but attentive. Then, before ringing the bell, I would telling them to focus their attention on the sound of the ringing itself, and to hold onto the sound for as long as they could continue to hear it, however dimly, then just to stay quiet and attentive, eyes closed. After giving the ringing sound ample time to die away, I would ring the bell again. This time, however, I would first direct the students not to focus on the ringing of the bell as such, trying to hear it as long as they could, but rather to listen for the silence to return to the bell.
Afterwards, the class and I would talk about the difference between the two experiences of listening. Some of the students reported that they really hadn’t been able to tell any difference. However, others—usually a smaller number, which is to be expected, for reasons I need not discuss here—would report surprise at just how different in quality the two experiences were.
I would then end by encouraging all of the students, whichever of those two reporting groups they belonged to, to practice the two different ways of listening on their own. I know from subsequent feedback that some did, but I also have good grounds for suspecting that most did not—for reasons similar to those I think account for the disparity in size between the two reporting groups, but that, once again, I do not need to discuss here.
As I already remarked above, when I first experienced the difference at issue myself it was not under any special guidance or direction, but just by serendipity. It happened twenty or so years ago. I was quietly meditating one fall morning, with my eyes gently closed, outside the chapel of the secluded Benedictine Monastery where I’ve retreated for a few days from time to time for the last quarter-century. As I was calmly and quietly sitting there, thinking nothing, the bell in the chapel tower began to ring, calling the monks to come together for one of their daily session of common prayer. Calm and comfortable yet attentive as I found myself at that moment to be, I just continued to sit there, eyes closed, thinking nothing, and just let the ringing of the bell continue to sound. I was so calm and comfortable that I didn’t even find myself listening to the ringing itself. Rather, as I said, I just let it go on, giving it no special attention, but still fully aware of it in my open, attentive frame of mind. To my surprise, as the sound of the rung bell died away, I heard the silence return to the bell, and with it to the world of the monastery as a whole.
Through the slow dying away of the bell’s ringing, I heard the silence itself began to ring.
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Decorations, ornaments and adornments are there to call attention to what they decorate, ornament, or adorn. So they glitter, like gold.
In Der Spruch des Anximanders, a manuscript that Heidegger wrote apparently in the 1940s for a never-delivered lecture course, but that was not published until 2010, when it came out as volume 78 of his Gesamtausgabe (GA: the “Complete Edition” of Heidegger’s Works published by Vittorio Klostermann in Frankfurt). The title means “the saying (or ‘dictum,’ to use a common Latin-derived term) of Anaximander.” Anaximander was the second of the three “Milesians” (the first being Thales, and the third Anaximenes), so called because all lived in Miletus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor. The three have gone down in tradition as the first three philosophers. Only one saying or dictum has survived from Anaximander, and that is what is at issue for Heidegger in his manuscript.
At one point in the text, Heidegger has a lengthy discussion about gold, and what gold was for the ancient Greeks. I have taken my second epigraph for this post, above, from that discussion (from a passage to be found on page 70 of GA 78). In addition, a bit earlier in the same discussion (on page 67) Heidegger himself cites the German version of the old commonplace I used for my first epigraph for this post, “All that glitters is not gold,” which in the German Heidegger uses is, “Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt.”
That commonplace, Heidegger goes on to add, contains implicitly the recognition that “gold is what authentically glitters, such that on occasion what also glitters can appear to be gold, even though that appearance is a sheer semblance.” The German glänzen means to glitter, that is, to sparkle, glisten, or shine. That last word, shine, can be used as a verb, as I just used in the preceding sentence, but also as a noun, as when we speak about the shine of a pair of polished shoes, or of gold itself. The noun shine is indistinguishable in sound from the German equivalent, Schein. To form the infinitive of the corresponding verb, “to shine,” however, German adds the suffix –en to form scheinen, which in turn can become again a noun when given a capital first letter, Scheinen. The German phrase “das Scheinen” would need to be translated in some contexts as “the shining” (as in the title of the famous Steven King novel or Stanley Kubrick’s movie version thereof). In other contexts, however, it would need to be translated differently, as I have done in quoting Heidegger in saying that what isn’t gold can sometimes appear to be gold although that appearance is “a sheer semblance,” which I could also have rendered as “a mere seeming”: “ein blosses Scheinen.”
To be sure, not everything that glitters is gold. However, whatever is gold does glitter. Glittering, sparkling, glistening, shining, belongs essentially to gold, constituting its very being-gold, its very golden-ness. So says Heidegger at any rate. Glittering or shining as such (page 68) “belongs to being-gold itself, so truly that it is in the glittering [or shining: das Glänzen] of gold that its very being(-gold) resides.” Glittering resides essentially in gold regardless, Heidegger says, of whether the gold has been polished up already, or is still dull from being newly mined, or has had its shine go flat through neglect.
Gold glitters. It shines. That is the very purpose of gold, what it is for: to shine. In other words, gold as such, the golden, has no “purpose,” is not “for” anything. It just shines. Gold is simply lustrous, that is, “filled with luster,” from Latin lustrare, “spread light over, brighten, illumine,” related to lucere, “shine.” As essentially shining in itself, gold adds shine to that on which it shines, as it were: as lustrous, filled with luster, it is suited in turn to add luster to what is suited to wear or bear it.
Hence the role that gold has always had as decoration, ornament, and adornment. Decorate derives from Latin decoris, as does decorous. Latin decoris is the genitive form of decus, from the presumed Indo-European root *dek-, “be suitable.” What is decent, from the same root, is what is becoming, comely, befitting, proper; what is decent is what is suitable.
Ornament comes from Latin ornare, which means to equip, to fix up or deck out, to adorn—which last ends up saying the same thing twice, since adorn also comes from ornare, plus the prefix ad-, “to.”
Worn decorously, gold adorns those it ornaments: When it fits, it adds luster to what it decks out.
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W. G. Sebald devotes one of his essays in A Place in the Country (New York: Random House, 2013) to Gottfried Keller, the great nineteenth century Swiss poet, novelist, and story-teller. “One might say,” writes Sebald in the essay, “that even as high capitalism was spreading like wildfire in the second hall of the nineteenth century, Keller in his work presents a counter-image of an earlier age in which the relationships between human beings were not yet regulated by money.”
A bit latter in the same essay Sebald writes: “It is, too, a particularly attractive trait in Keller’s work that he should afford the Jews—whom Christianity has for centuries reproached with the invention of moneylending—pride of place in a story intending to evoke the memory of a precapitalist era.” Sebald then recounts how, in that story, Jews who are welcomed into a shop built not on capital but on barter—thus, a shop that serves as an example of just such a pre-capitalist era. The non-Jewish proprietress welcomes itinerant Jewish traders among those who regularly frequent her shop, to come inside to sit and talk.
When the talk in the shop turns to tales of how the Jews abduct children, poison wells, and the like, those Jewish traders, writes Sebald:
merely listen to these scaremongering tales, smile good-humoredly and politely, and refuse to be provoked. This good-natured smile on the part of the Jewish traders at the credulity and foolishness of the unenlightened Christian folk, which Keller captures here, is the epitome of true tolerance: the tolerance of the oppressed, barely endured minority toward those who control the vagaries of their fate. The idea of tolerance, much vaunted in the wake of the Enlightenment but in practice always diluted, pales into insignificance beside the forbearance of the Jewish people. Nor do the Jews in Keller’s works have any dealings with the evils of capitalism. What money they earn in their arduous passage from village to village is not immediately returned to circulation but is for the time being set to one side, thus becoming like the treasure hoarded by Frau Margaret [the non-Jewish proprietress of the shop herself], as insubstantial as gold in a fairy tale.
Sebald then concludes the passage: “True gold, for Keller, is always that which is spun with great effort from next to nothing, or which glistens as a reflection above the shimmering landscape. False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.”
In their remarks on gold, Sebald and Heidegger are two fingers pointing to the same thing.
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The English word order derives from the same roots as do the English words ornament and adorn. All three come from the Latin ornare, which, as I’ve already noted, means to equip, to fix up or deck out. That is fitting, which is to say decorous, since proper order—well-ordered order, we well might say, as opposed to disordered order (or “dysfunctional” order, to use some currently commonplace jargon, even though it has already lost much of its shine, having been in circulation for quite a while by now)—is there for the sake of what it sets to order, rather than the other way around.
Proper order is an ornament to be worn by what it orders, in order to let the latter come fully into its own radiance, its own shine. Such proper order is rare, so rare as to be genuinely golden.
What is genuinely golden—what shines of itself, and needs no trafficking in the market to give it monetary value—does not really call attention to itself, properly speaking. Rather, like the sun in Plato’s Divided Line at the end of Book VI and Myth of the Cave at the start of Book VII in the Republic, which calls attention to that on which it shines, but, as shining itself, vanishes in its own blinding brilliance, the genuinely golden calls attention to that which it adorns.
Soon after the lines I have used as this post’s second epigraph, in which Heidegger says that we of today have lost all sense for the genuine sense of gold and the golden, he observes that ornaments, decorations, and adornments do not as such call attention to themselves for their own sake, but rather to that which they ornament, decorate, or adorn, for its sake. As he writes (on page 73), “decoration and ornament [der Schmuck und die Zier] are in their proper essence nothing that shines for itself and draws the glance away from others to itself. Decoration and ornament are far rather such wherein [that is, in the “shine” of which, we might say] the decorated is first made ‘decorous’ [“schmuck”: “bejeweled,” that is, “decked out, as with jewels”—so “neat,” “natty,” “smart,” in effect], that is, stately [stattlich, “imposing,” from a root meaning “place”—so: having “status”], something that, upright in itself, has a look [hat ein Aussehen, a word that also suggests “splendor”: “good looks,” in effect, to go with its imposing status] and stands out [hervorragt], that is, itself comes to appearance [zum Scheinen].”
Thus, for instance, jewelry, does not distract attention from the one who decorously wears it, the one to whom it is fitting or suited. Rather, decorously worn, jewelry calls attention to the splendor already there in the wearer, adding luster to that luster. It lets the wearer shine forth in all her own glory, shining brilliantly with all her own splendor, radiant.
So adorned, the radiant one is there to be adored.
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The two words, adorn and adore, have distinct etymologies. The former, as I’ve already noted, comes from ad-, “to,” plus ornare, “to deck out, add luster to.” On the other hand, adore comes from ad- plus orare—with no ‘n,’ just as English adore is bare of the sound of ‘n’ that gets added to adorn. Orare means “to speak,” most especially in the decorous, stately sense of “praying” or “pleading,” as in delivering an “oration,” a formal speech before a court or other august assembly, a speaking that honors and thereby “praises” the high standing of the assembly being addressed.
Despite the disparate etymologies of the two terms, my own hearing discerns a deeper, semantic resonance between adorning and adoring. To add luster to what is already lustrous, as adornments add shine to those who already shine of themselves, polishing that shine to its own full radiance, and to speak to and of what already speaks for itself, addressing it in such a way as to honor its stature, attesting to its renown, fit together. Each, adorning and adoring, adds luster to the other in my eyes. Each praises the other—as creation, in Christian tradition, is said to praise its Creator.
Adornments speak well of those they decorously adorn. When decorous, adornments fit the adorned, fitting them in such a way as to defer to them, letting the adorned come forth in their own glory, bespeaking the radiance of the adorned, rather than boasting of their own adorning sparkle.
So do I like to think, at any rate. It fits for me. Most especially it fits my experience, years ago, of sitting outside the monastery as the bell rang, calling the community together to pray, and calling my own attention not to itself but to the silence it decorously broke, giving it voice—calling: “Oh come, let us adore!”
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I plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with my next post.