Monday, 18 October 2010

Nothing is Self-Evident

One of the pleasures of writing The Invisible Province is that I often receive ideas and suggestions from people(and even if they don't make it into a blog post, they are always interesting - so do keep sending them to me). The following blog post is thanks to the chaplain of the University of Essex, Fr Paul Keane.

In 1988, the American writer, Raymond Carver reflected on the following words from St Teresa of Avila: "Words lead to deeds...They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness." Carver was receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford and in his acceptance speech before a packed auditorium of university students and lecturers, he said:
Long after what I've said has passed from your minds, whether it be weeks or months, and all that remains is the sensation of having attended a large public occasion...try then, as you work out your individual destines, to remember that words, the right and true words, can have the power of deeds.

Václav Havel, the renowned dramatist, essayist and the first President of the Czech Republic, would agree with Carver. Words lead to deeds and that is why words are such volatile, powerful and important things. They are vessels of sacredness and should be handled with a sacramental reverence. One cruel word can, in the words of George Steiner, "do dirt on hope". On the other hand, words that are blessings, revelations of understanding can illuminate the darkest abyss and build communion. Contrasting the words of Salman Rushdie with those of Ayatollah Khomeini, Václav Havel famously wrote: "Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerise, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful - lethal even. The word as arrow."

For Havel, the question of our time is whether words can be expressions of truth that man can live by or have our words become so semantically corrupted by the virus of relativism (e.g. those schools of postmodern literary theory that advocate the deconstruction of meaning and the annihilation of all syntactical or lexical descriptions) that truth is beyond expression. Where words have been emptied of their truth and are reduced to the level of a euphemism, the value and power of language is called into question. In this environment, the meaning of words become so elastic that the linguistic bonds that unite human beings begin to fray and break. The idea that words are to be used responsibly is viewed with suspicion and disdain. Words become instruments of power and violence. Havel writes:
We should all fight together against arrogant words and keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble. Obviously this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for words and towards words is a task which is intrinsically ethical. as such, however, it is situated beyond the horizon of the visible world, in that realm wherein dwells the Word that was in the beginning and is not the words of Man.

Václav Havel has just given a remarkable speech at the opening ceremony of Forum 2000. This is language used with all the fervour and energy of an Old Testament prophet. But, above all, this is language that has the power to make synaptic connections between different viewpoints. Havel links the destruction of our landscapes by a philistine consumerism with "a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity." In Havel's mind, the economic recession is of a piece with a mystical intuition that "strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well." Havel really does believe that words can lead to deeds.

1 comment:

  1. A timely reminder in these days of uncertainty that we should all think about what we say!