“Screen-Visions,” Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend (2)

Real vision today is only possible with closed eyes; and today the only “realist” is someone who has enough “fantasy” to paint the fantastic morrow.

— Günther Anders, Hiroshima Ist Überall

. . . nothing is ever past.

The actual value of memory lies in this insight that nothing is past.

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, two entries from 1971


Truth plays with us. Sometimes it trifles and toys with us as a cat might a mouse. Then its play with us becomes delusion, which comes from the Latin de-, used here as a negative intensifier, and luder, “to play.” We ordinarily understand delusion in a negative sense, as something that plays with us in such a way as to lead us astray. We think that delusion teases us, and appears to us to do so with malice. In the same way, a cat playing with a mouse capable of imagining such things as deliberation and malice might appear to that mouse to be deliberately malicious.

That appearance, however, would be an illusion, from the same root meaning “play,” plus the prefix il-, a form of in-, used here in the sense of “against.” How the cat’s play appeared to such an imagination-able imaginary mouse would be a distortion of the truth, a twisting or torturing of it. In the same way, even when truth plays with us, that is, deludes us, truth is not in truth malicious. As toying with a mouse before killing it is just in the nature of the cat, so is deluding us just in the nature of truth, when that’s how truth strikes us.

*     *     *     *     *     *

At one point in “Cultural Roots,” the second chapter of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson observes that it was through such “sacred silent [because written, not vernacular] languages” as, to use his own examples, Latin during the European Middle Ages, Arabic in Islamic tradition, or the ideograms of classical Chinese writing, that “the great global communities of the past were imagined.” However, such set apart, non-spoken, written languages could serve as such media for imagination only because “the reality of such apparitions”—that is, of such visions of universal community—“depended on an idea largely foreign to the contemporary Western mind.” That idea, according to Anderson, was “the non-arbitrariness of the sign.” To understand just what he means by that, we need to look at the examples he then gives of “sacred” languages, which is to say languages consisting of such “non-arbitrary signs.”

His first example is “[t]he ideograms of Chinese,” which, he says, “were emanations of reality, not randomly fabricated representations of it.” In other words, they were not the results of convention, but rather of what we might well call projection—which I mean in just the sense that, for example, images in dreams work, by Freud’s analysis, as projections of repressed wishes.

“We are all familiar,” writes Anderson next, to give his second example, “with the long dispute over the appropriate language (Latin or vernacular) for the mass.” What is at issue for Anderson in that second example really only begins to clarify itself, in my judgment, when he progresses to his third one. To introduce that third example he writes—with emphasis added to highlight what is to me the truly salient point: “In the Islamic tradition, until quite recently, the Qur’an was literally untranslatable (and therefore untranslated), because Allah’s truth was accessible only through the unsubstitutable signs of written Arabic.” He then follows up with a remark that, by my reading, is the clincher. “There is no idea here,” he writes—that is, as I read him, no idea in any such “sacred language” as ideograms in Chinese tradition, Latin in Roman Catholic tradition, or Arabic in Islamic tradition—“of a world so separated from language that all languages are equidistant (and thus inter-changeable) signs for it.”  Once again I have added the emphasis in that line, to bring out what I consider to be the crucial operative notion at issue.

That is the notion of the substitutability or interchangeability—the equivalence—of all languages, insofar as languages are reduced to mere systems of signs that refer to a world from which they have all been equally separated, and hence in relation to which they are all “equidistant,” as Anderson says. That is, insofar as languages can be substituted or interchanged for one another, it is precisely because they have all been equally “separated” from the world, all placed at one and the same distance (“equidistant”) from the world—and become, in such equi-distance, equi-valent (equal in “value”) to one another. Accordingly, to the extent that all languages can be translated into one another, no one language has anything special to say, anything that cannot be said just as well in any other language. All languages become interchangeable with one another, and no language is set apart any longer as special—special as language, which opens a world, as opposed to being special in the sense of being reserved to the some elite, who have stolen it and set it aside as their special property.

*     *     *     *     *     *

A sacred language is an irreplaceable one. No other language can be substituted or interchanged for it. There are no equivalent languages, that is, other languages that could serve just as well as it for saying whatever it might be able to say. A sacred language does not refer to some world from which it is separated off and set at a distance. Rather, a sacred language projects a world, opens a world in the first place, letting it first be as a place where people can build a dwelling for themselves.

The untranslatability of one sacred language into any other is the untranslatability of worlds as such. Worlds are incommensurable with one another, and there can be no exchange or substitution of one for another, any more than one beloved person (or even guinea pig) can be exchanged or substituted for another. One may some day come to love another, after one’s beloved has died; but there is no substituting of one beloved for another. Each is unique. It’s the same with worlds, and the languages that, in speaking, open them.

When a language ceases to be capable of projecting a world, opening it for building and dwelling in—rather than just referred to as an already given world from which the language has been artificially separated and set at a distance—then the language dies.    The world the language once opened closes off. It dies, too. The world is not there at all any longer even just to be referred to, let alone lived in.

When Latin ceased to be a vernacular language and came to be reserved for the few, put to service to insure their special entitlement, sacrilege was committed against Latin as a sacred language. Even when blasphemed, what’s holy is still holy.   Otherwise, one could not blaspheme against it in the first place. Just so, even after having sacrilege committed against it by the Medieval elite, Latin remained a sacred language, which is to say a language that opened a world. Latin remained a living language even after it had been sold into bondage to the ruling elite, and no longer permitted to the people in common—permitted them so that, in speaking back in their commonplaces what they heard Latin say, they might build for themselves a common place.

Eventually, however, even the elite ceased to have access to the world of Latin. Then Latin truly did die, along with the world it once opened.

*     *     *     *     *     *

In a journal entry he includes in Hiroshima Is Everywhere (Hiroshima Ist Überall, pages 56-58), Günther Anders recounts a breakfast conversation he had one day in 1958, when he was in Japan to participate in an international conference for nuclear disarmament. The conversation was with an American professor of economics who also happened to be in Japan. After the American arrogantly dismisses Anders’s disarmament concerns as “utopian,” Anders turns the tables on his tablemate by saying that it is he, the American, who is the utopian. The economics professor has just pompously predicted that by, say, 1970 or 2000 (it is to be remembered that the conversation is taking place in 1958), the earth will still have human occupants on it, and won’t be reduced to a “dead cinder circling the sun.” Well, Anders, replies, all the odds are that that’s exactly what the earth will be reduced to by then, if nothing is done to stop the rampant nuclear proliferation and stockpiling of nuclear weapons by Cold War contestants. So the American is the one being “utopian,” says Anders, in denying what is there to be seen by anyone who has eyes to see, and the will to use them.

Of course, we who have all survived till 2015 can look back with condescension on both parties to that long-ago breakfast conversation. We can still find the American economics professor to have been an ass, but we can also look down on Anders himself, albeit with charity for his meaning well. However well-grounded Anders’s prediction may have been on the basis of the evidence available at that time, it is so clear as to hardly merit noting that subsequent history has obviously proven him to be the one who was wrong, and the ugly American right. After all, we are already 45 years past 1970, and even 15 past 2000, and, as the American predicted, the earth is indeed still not reduced to a dead cinder circling the sun. People in ever greater abundance still hop around all over its surface, apparently as ineradicable as cockroaches (to paraphrase one of Nietzsche’s lines).

Or do we just lack the eyes to see?

Anders himself falls prey, perhaps, to an all too common lapse of vision, when he takes his own concern for banning the bomb and encouraging disarmament to be founded on any such thing as a prediction—a “saying in advance,” from Latin prae-, “beforehand, prior to,” and dicere, “to say”. However, what struck me when, some four years ago, I first read the passages from his journal in which Anders recounts that now-old conversation, was that back then he was really not advancing any prediction at all, and that by taking himself to have been speaking at the level of predictions, he played unknowingly into the know-it-all American’s equally but differently unknowing hands.

Here is one way I might put the point: To take the whole issue to be one of competing predictions is to reduce it to a matter of the American being “optimistic” and Anders being “pessimistic,” and arguing about which of those two is the most “realistic.” However, what was really at issue—so it struck me strongly when I first read the passage—was not prediction at all, one way or another. Rather, it was a matter of prophecy, which the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) tells me ultimately derives from the Greek prophetes, meaning “ ‘an interpreter, spokesman,’ especially of the gods, ‘inspired preacher or teacher.’ ”

The same source also tells me that the Greek prophetes was used in the Setpuagint—the translation of Hebrew scripture done by and for Greek-speaking Jews in the 2nd to 3rd centuries BCE, then later also adopted by the early Christian church—to render the Hebrew word nabj, “soothsayer,” that is “one who speaks the truth.” That is what Anders was doing, speaking the truth, which is not at all a matter of making some sort of “prediction.” It is, rather, a matter of saying what is.

Thus, what struck me was that, though Anders himself may have thought he was speaking Latin, he was actually speaking Greek, a very different language indeed.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Latin is a language of power, whereas Greek is a language of thought. At least that is how things have gone since Latin became the (pseudo-)universal language of those who exercised power—that is, since Latin, withdrawn from common usage, was set aside for special use by the elite, as the language they used among themselves to protect their dominance, during the European Middle Ages.

Heidegger often said things to the same effect about Latin and Greek, though he arrives at that destination while walking along his own pathways, rather than the one I’ve been walking in this blog-series. That Latin is the language of power is also for me one level of resonance to be heard in Jacques Derrida’s insistence that what has commonly come to be called “globalization” is really a matter of “globalatinization,” as he puts it* (with my emphasis added).

Today, all of us—everybody everywhere around the whole globe—speaks Latin. It’s the only language any of us speaks any longer. The problem, however, is that none of us really knows any longer what we’re saying when we speak it. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of us, such knowledge was long, long ago reserved for the elite, to which so few of us ever belonged. On the other hand, the ever fewer and fewer among us who do belong to the truly privileged elite of our endless day of the going-global of the economy—the .1 or .01 of 1% (or whatever it currently is, since the number continues to dwindle drastically) who already own pretty much everything everywhere, and will continue to come into possession of more and more of it as the clock continues to tick—no longer understand Latin, either. That’s because it long ago (less long ago than when Latin was first made blasphemous, but still a long while back) ceased to be necessary for the elite to learn it, to use it among themselves in order to insure their privilege. And that, in turn, is because the only people who might ever have really questioned that privilege, long ago lost any language still left sacred enough even to be able to protest against such blasphemy.

So, today, everyone everywhere without exception speaks Latin, but nobody anywhere any longer knows what anyone is ever saying in that tongue. We all just keep on chattering away mindlessly.

No wonder Anders misunderstood himself in his long ago breakfast conversation with the American economics professor!**

*     *     *     *     *     *

What we need, then, is a new sacred language. We need it even—and above all—to name clearly just why we need it: the dimensions of the crisis at hand for us all, without exception, in the very loss of such language, and the catastrophe that threatens us all in that crisis.

At least that is one way that I would like what I said at the very beginning of this current series of blog posts on “ ‘Screen-visions,’ Prophecy, and My Mazatlan Weekend” to be taken, when I wrote: “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.’ ”

There are other ways as well.

*     *     *    *     *     *

I will address those other ways in my next post, which I plan to be the last of this current series—and which will probably not go up for a couple of weeks, since I’ll be doing some travelling in the meantime.

* In ¶15 of “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone” (translated by Samuel Weber in Religion, edited by Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Stanford University Press, 1998), Derrida defines the term this way, between parentheses: “. . . globalatinization (this strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God, and tele-technoscientific capitalism) . . .”

** How appropriate on all three counts: “American,” “economics,” and “professor”!

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