The text as performance

16 09 2010

Jorge Luis Borges, in his short essay, Del culto de los libros , writes that a watershed moment in the history of human thought occured when St. Augustine found that St. Ambrose could read a text without moving his lips or reading aloud. Being a man of the world, one could only assume that St. Augustine found this to be an unusual skill. But to be mentioned in St. Augustine’s Confessions, it has to be more significant than just a cheap parlor trick. Borges explains:

Aquel hombre pasaba directamente del signo de escritura a la intuición, omitiendo el signo sonoro; el extraño arte que iniciaba, el arte de leer en voz baja, conduciría a consecuencias maravillosas. Conduciría, cumplidos muchos años, al concepto del libro como fin, no como instrumento de un fin.

(That man passed directly from the written sign to the intuition, omitting the audible sign; the strange art that it initiated, the art of reading to oneself, would lead to marvelous consequences. It would lead, after many years, to the concept of the book as an end, and not a means to an end.)

As preface and postlude to this watershed moment, Borges highlights how various thinkers both disparaged and deified the written word in early and late antiquity. Plato and Pythagoras were against it. Clement of Alexandria likened writing a book to putting a sword in the hands of a child. A master can choose his disciple, but a book cannot choose its reader. It is no wonder that many ancient cultures have a law of the arcanum. To this day, for example, Louisiana Creole treaters refuse to write down any of their secret prayers, for fear that such secrets might fall into the wrong hands. Many prefer for their healing arts to die with them.

Around the time of Augustine, the written word begins to take on a whole new metaphysical meaning. Borges writes that in Islam, the Koran is not just considered God’s book, but is an uncreated attribute of God Himself. The emergence of Kabala in the sixth century also brought forth a radical re-interpretation of Judaism from a religion where God speaks to a religion in which all things are made from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. For example, the letter kaf has power over life, was used to form the sun, Wednesday as a day of the week, and the left ear on the human body. With the European moderns, the book comes even more into its own, with Mallarme opening the essay by saying that the whole world exists to be put in a book.

There are some problems with his argument in my view. For example, in Hebrew and Greek, letters also had a numerical value, so the Kabalistic leap concerning the power of letters in contrast with Platonic numbers is not such a leap after all. Numbers and letters were interchangeable. On the other hand, I wonder what Borges would make then of the Book of the Apocalypse, in which the Book figures prominently in bringing about of the consummation of the ages. Perhaps this was the dominance of the book avant la lettre, so to speak. But it is very true that the only words that Jesus wrote, before the accused adulteress in the Gospel of St. John, were on the ground and seen by no one. No doubt they were wiped away by footsteps and the breeze.

What brought to mind this essay for me again was the idea of the interior word. I have no doubt that very few of you reading this will read it aloud or while moving your lips. Indeed, I type this without doing so. I had a friend once, a Protestant with quite a bit of formation, who said that the Bible as it was originally intended should be considered as a musical score. In that case, it should be performed rather than mined for information. That is perhaps the tragedy of Internet discourse in general: it is the absolute triumph of information in the Information Age. The music of the spoken word and the spectacle of the living voice are replaced by the dull tempo of clanking keys and the internal monologue of the brain processing pixels on a screen.

When people get on my case for disparaging my co-religionists who try to figure out from a computer monitor what they should believe about God and the soul, I am thus at a loss to explain my hesitancy. For how do you describe a sound to someone who has barely heard anything? And how does one hum a melody to one who is content with his own mute symphony? Perhaps the musical score is all one has. But if you do not know the sound of the blaring but triumphant trumpet, the ethereal violin, or even the excitement of the insistent snare drum, I would still contend that having the score is not enough. There is a music that we are still missing, and it is the music the moves all things from a blade of grass to the very stars in the heavens.



4 responses

19 09 2010

My lips move while reading your blog, but only because I eat chips while doing so.

17 09 2010
Jared B.

This reminds me of something I read in C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. He wrote that one characteristic of the shift into modernity was the view of what education is. In the Classical through Medieval ages it was seen as a kind of initiation, student gains admission into Reality. At the time Lewis was writing it seemed that the view of education as conditioning would prevail, and some do still see it that way (all the work done to get statistics comparing education levels with crime rates are working from this paradigm). Nowadays it seems that secular, religious, primary and secondary education is not even that ambitious, and is mere information transfer. Online learning courses evince this: if it is only a matter of getting the information into one’s skull, what could “the classroom experience” mean? Nothing.

16 09 2010

He has done some interesting stuff with the nature of time, time travel, and alternate realities.

I was once in a Maze thinking about him.

16 09 2010

I once upset some folks on my blog by suggesting that a performed theatre piece of, lets say, Shakespeare, is superior to the written version. I myself am also a fan of that phenomenon known as audiobooks: In those, technology actually restores something that technology took away. Sure, one cannot see the reader, but a multitude of changes etc in the voice are now re-introduced. This goes for Homer, as well as for PG Wodehouse. The latter, strangely enough, is vastly superior in audio than in writing only, especially if the reader is a seasoned stage actor, like Simon Callow. I know this is not the thrust of your argument, but I find it interesting and delightful.

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