After smoking, the body thinks. Catastrophe, riot, factories blowing up, armies in flight, flood—the ear can detect a whole apocalypse in the starry night of the human body.
— Jean Cocteau, Opium
Two possibilities remain for the age of the completion of modernity: either the violent and rash end (which looks like a catastrophe, but in its already determined triviality is too lowly to be able to be such a thing), or else the current situation of unconditional manipulation just going on endlessly decaying.
— Martin Heidegger, Überlegungen XII (GA 96)
What today is unjustly named “peace” is the continuation or the extension of war by other means. No, neighbors! The preparation for an event for which the expression “war” is no longer suited.
— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall
The catastrophe may not be coming. It may already be here. The catastrophe may be that there is really no such thing as “the coming catastrophe.” We may already be buried beyond hope under the catastrophe of an endless continuation of one equivalent catastrophe after another—for example, Hiroshima followed by Nagasaki, followed by Three Mile Island, followed by Chernobyl, followed by Fukushima, followed by whatever’s nuclear disaster happens to come next—ad infinitum. That’s what Heidegger envisions, in the lines from him above, as the second of the two possibilities he mentions. And the first of those two possibilities is really not that different from the second, since an unending string of equivalent catastrophes just becomes “the new normal,” with nothing truly new under that sun, not even any truly new catastrophe. Catastrophe itself loses all its catastrophic quality. (Always, just one after another of the same old catastrophes, with no end to it! Bor-ing!)
At any rate, whether the catastrophe is still on the way, or already happened long ago and from now on just keeps on keeping on forever after, the catastrophe is, as Günther Anders suggests in his lines above, no longer one to which such terms as “war” and the like—including even the name “catastrophe”—are any longer suited. Really to succeed in saying what we are trying to say when we talk today, this never-ending day of the age of the completion of modernity, about “the catastrophe,” we would need an altogether new language, or at least a new relationship to our old one, as Heidegger used to like to say. We would need something like what Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (revised e-edition: Verso, 20006; original edition: Verso, 1983) calls a “sacred language,” which is to say a language that is no longer just another “vernacular” one, no longer just another language people somewhere actually speak to one another as they go about common transactions in their everyday lives.
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Over the Valentine’s Day weekend of 1982 my wife and I left our son (our daughter’s birth was still a bit over a year away) with my parents and flew away from the cold of a Denver February, and into the warmth of Mazatlan–where we stayed at the Camino Real Hotel en la playa (“on the beach”) just to the north of the main city. One morning around 10:00 that weekend, as I was finishing my second Cerveza Pacifico (my version of doing what the Romans did when one was in Rome was to drink the local beer wherever I happened to be at the time), I had a vision–a “mystical experience,” one in which I “saw the very face of God,” as I thought and spoke of it even then, long before I had any real truck with God-talk or the like (which only happened after I stopped drinking cervezas—or Scotch, or gin, or whatever else you had handy).
I never forgot what I saw then. It was the truth.
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In his discussion of “sacred languages” in Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson’s main example of a sacred language is Latin during the European Middle Ages. Latin had once been a vernacular language, a “native tongue” or “mother tongue” that children, with no need for special schooling or explicit instruction, just picked up naturally at home, as the everyday language of the nation, the “people,” into which the child was born. Such a language is a language of the hearth, not of the market place—or only of the latter insofar as when one goes out in public one continues to speak the same language that one speaks at home, which is exactly what occurs when markets and other common places for sharing with others remain local. The situation changes once markets and the like go trans-national, which is to say become polyglot places, places where a variety of regional, vernacular languages are all spoken, because trade and sharing is carried on between diverse communities, that is, “peoples” or “nations.” (I will consider what happens in such trans-national situations more fully later.)
Originally, Latin had been—to put it in Latin—just such a domestic matter, something belonging to the domus, the “household,” for those who spoke it. Only later did Latin become a res publica, a “public thing” (cosa nostra, “our thing,” to use what turns out to be an all too appropriate term from Italian, one of the vernacular languages that eventually evolved from Latin itself). By the time Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and all the other Romance languages had evolved from the Roman language of Latin, the latter had altogether ceased to be a native language, a mother tongue children just picked up naturally at home. It had ceased to be spoken everyday at home in any place in Europe (or elsewhere, for that matter), at least in the overwhelmingly vast majority of homes. Latin had instead become something that required explicit instruction to learn—a language in which one had to be literally schooled. Latin had ceased being a domestic language, and had instead become an academic one.
Latin became an academic matter, that is, a matter of explicit schooling, rather than a domestic one, just something one picked up naturally at home, because of the in-egalitarian social forms that Europe had inherited from Rome along with Latin. As long as the common people were to be kept subordinated to an elite, then Latin, as the “universal language” of the day, was also reserved to that elite, as the very language that communicated elitism the way contact with carriers communicates disease, to adapt the notion of “communication” to fit the case at hand. To protect the insecure ruling elite, Latin could not be allowed to become any mere lingua franca, which means literally “Frankish language” or “language of the Franks”—or “Bastard Spanish” as the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me it was sometimes called in 17th century English sources. Whatever such lingos are called, at issue are the mixed, “pidgin” forms of speaking that common people naturally develop, with no need for schools and instruction from appointed and certified teachers held accountable for their teaching, in order to communicate with one another across all their vernacular linguistic borders.
For those denied access to the schools—or for those granted access to them as part of the ruling elite, but who, as St. Gregory says of St. Benedict in the former’s classic, brief biography of the latter, freely chose to remain “wisely uneducated,” when faced with such all too Roman things as schools—it was precisely the lingua franca or “Bastard Spanish” of their day that gave them a truly universal, which is to say trans-national, language for conducting all the common business of truly common life, that very ongoing, thronging life upon which the elites themselves constantly depended for their very own survival. In contrast, the language used in the courts, schools, tribunals, and other organs of force and enforcement for keeping the elite in power—in which institutions that language had the status of being the officially “universal” language of the day—was reserved to the elite. Throughout the European Middle Ages that officially universal language was Latin.
Such an officially universal language could be accurately characterized as “universal” only in the perfidious sense that it was the language used everywhere by the powerful to impose their power over others. Accordingly, it was anything but “universal” in the non-perfidious sense, namely, the language spoken everywhere by everyone everyday in community. In that latter sense of the term, it was not Latin that was the universal language of the European Middle Ages—at least “universal” across Europe, which is already an obvious tweaking of the notion of universality. Rather, the language that was truly universal in that non-perfidious sense was precisely the pidgin tongue that the nose-thumbing, Latin-literate, über-national, ruling elite of the age derisively referred to as “Frankish language,” or maybe “Bastard Spanish.”
As the “officially” universal language of that age, Latin was nothing that could just be picked up naturally at home, as a “national” language, a language belonging to some one “nation” in the original sense of the word, namely, a community of people indigenous to some limited area. Nor was it some simple, pidgin mix of divers national languages that one picked up naturally in one’s everyday dealings with polyglot others in trans-national markets or other places of trans-national sharing and exchange between diverse peoples from diverse regions. Instead, Latin was something the learning of which was confined to schools, which is to say institutions that were themselves among the most important elite-serving organs of force and enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the people who lived in that day could not speak, read, or write that supposedly “universal” language. Only those who claimed and held power could speak, read, or write Latin; and the speaking, reading, and writing of Latin belonged itself to the claiming and holding of such power.
* * * * * *
What I saw in Mazatlan in February of 1982, when I was staying there with my wife in the upscale Camino Real hotel over the Valentine’s Day weekend, was grass growing tall in the cracks between the cobblestones on the paths around the resort. I saw the Camino Real hotel in ruins, and the ruins already returning to the jungle that had come back to claim its proper place.
I looked to the rest of Mazatlan, the bulk of which lay south of the north beach area where we were staying. I saw the whole city in ruins, all vanishing back into the triumphantly, inexorably, but gently returning jungle.
To the west, away from the beach, I saw all the highways around and through the town abandoned, and already over-grown with vegetation reclaiming the land. The roads were void of traffic, and littered here and there with rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles—cars, busses, and trucks. Some rabbits hopped along the road at places.
I looked up. No contrails tracked across the sky. No planes flew there. No helicopters patrolled the beach, nor were there any motorboats pulling kites with swim-clad men and women strapped safely into them, to soar above the crowds of swimmers and sunbathers below—had there been any. But they were all gone, too. No bathers lolled in beach chairs on the sand, or swam in the warm ocean waters. Nor were there any local entrepreneurial traders walking up and down the beach, accosting the tourists, trying to sell them blankets, trinkets, or anything else they could muster up.
In sum, I saw what came after the collapse of the entire system of unending economic expansion and exploitation, and the ever-deepening impoverishment that inevitably accompanies it. I saw the return of what had been there all along, biding its time till it could return, patiently awaiting the inevitably coming catastrophe. I saw peace descended again over all the earth after that whole seemingly endless economic battle had actually ended, and I heard the silence that had come back over everything again once all the noise of our “civilization” had fallen away. And I saw all the sovereign nations everywhere drawn back into tribes, those nations before there were sovereigns.
In Mazatlan in February of 1982, I saw all that—and I saw that it was good. Void of anything I would have been willing to call “belief,” I nevertheless gave thanks to the God who had created all this.
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What is sacred or holy is literally what has been set apart as special, freed from limits, which is to say made absolute, from Latin ab-, “from or away,” and solvere, “to loosen or free.” To be truly a sacred language, one holy and absolute, a language would have to be freed from all subservience, whether to everyday interests in the simple preservation or enjoyment of individual or communal life, or to the interests of a ruling elite in preserving and enjoying special privileges denied to the vast majority of people—hoi polloi, “the many” (in Greek, not Latin).
Accordingly, Latin in the European Middle Ages was no truly sacred language, however much it served the interests of the elite to have it pass as one. It was far from a language loosened from all ties that bound it, and thereby set free solely to speak, which is what a language as such does. Rather, Latin in the European Middle Ages was a language shanghaied into bondage to serve power— deprived of its own power, the power of speech, of saying what is, and made to tell lies instead. Latin in those ages was therefore the very opposite of sacred. It was sheer blasphemy. Any God of that day would have had to speak some other language than Latin—perhaps Bastard Spanish.
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To be continued.