Fresh discovery through 'language under pressure'

By Simon Barrow
November 13, 2013

The fifth presentation in the "Making representations: religious faith and the habits of language" Gifford Lecture series was delivered by Dr Rowan Williams at the University of Edinburgh on 12 November 2013.

Its theme was 'Extreme language - discovery under pressure', and it followed on from one on the physicality of language.

By way of a prospectus, Dr Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalen College, Cambridge, had written: "One of the most complex aspects of our language is that we refine the patterns we create in it - by rhyme and metre and metaphor - in the confidence that through this process we will discover something about what our habitual language does not disclose.

"The language of art - and in striking measure the language of innovative theoretical science too - assumes that what we perceive is more than it appears, and that it 'gives more than it has'.

"The processes of rediscovering ourselves through the deliberate distortions and re-workings of familiar language (as we do in poetry, prose or scientific narrative) once again suggest a significant confidence in the bare practice of speech to transform understanding and the relation with what is real.

"What is encountered is essentially oriented towards something like communion or integration," he suggested

In the lecture itself, Dr Williams began by citing linguist Margaret Masterman, who noted that paradox is an extreme form of metaphor, and metaphor is an extreme form of simile.

Paradox deals in apparently irreconcilable perspectives and thus (paradoxically) may bring us closer to the difficult subject, and to truthful acquaintance with our environment.

Poetic language regularly tries to see one thing through another. An idiographic rather than a subject-predicate description may similarly unfold new ways of being precise in a non-forensic language environment.

"You never know how much you may need [in terms of language resources] to be truthful," declared Dr Williams. Mining the plenitude of language under pressure (e.g. in poetry) can enable us to produce a freshness, a different perspective, which is not purely arbitrary. This is about accessing "resources in or for our world to which we do not have straightforward access".

It is an important hermeneutical principle to recognise that narratives cannot be reduced to a single point of view. The environment we inhabit is more than it seems.

At this point, Williams embarked on several examples of 'language under pressure', from Welsh poetry through to Russell Hoban's Ridley Walker and the playful, but also deadly serious, idiolect that it generates.

In other contexts it is our human cleverness that has made us difficult to ourselves, observed Dr Williams. But there is no way back, only through, language.

Exposure to new kinds of difficulty is beneficial. Seeing ourselves as puzzling is the key to our self-understanding. Equally, we are invited to find ourselves in the faces of others.

"What I say is bound up with what I have said to myself." Picking up more of what is said to us enables us to discover more about how and where we are located, and what we may say - including the possibility of saying nothing.

We may detect in all language, not least what passes for 'the ordinary' much of the time, echoes of connectedness as well as inherent provisionality.

In response to questioning, Dr Williams acknowleged that his careful and measured presentation of 'extreme language' might indeed detract from its extremity and the impact of this. Assessment must be seen to be secondary.

What we need, as in the parabolic form, are fully calculated shocks. Not mere attempts at reproducing or replicating what we take to be the case, to be 'there', to be deducible.

What is God like? A whole narrative is necessary to begin to say. In biblical texts we are often face with the sheer embarrassment of extreme language. The divine comes through to us in metaphor and in pushing conventional or habitual speech out of shape. That does not mean, for example, that God is to be taken to approve of, say, the unjust steward (or landlord) in the famous parable of Jesus that goes by that name.

(In this case, I would add, interpreters like Walter Wink have pointed out that disapproval of the lord among contemporary hearers is a condition of not making that mistake, and seeing afresh.)

Language introduces us to ourselves. Under extreme pressure it undermines complacency and pressure. We end up (as I would put it), "speaking beyond our means".

This involves trust. Trust that, even in extremis, meaning is possible. Language of this kind enables us to be located differently on our world. There are issues and lessons raised for us here by Autism, as the lecture on physicality and language highlighted. According to some understandings, this kind of condition results from the overloading of brain by stimuli, and the anxiety about control this results in.

In relation to drama, Stanley Cavell observes that (in a post-Renaissance context) we need to suspend our role as agents in order to apprehend our solidarity with those in the narrative to whom we are presented. We have to face our vulnerability. We cannot warn Othello of the danger he faces! Have to listen.

By 'explaining' extreme language we domesticate it. This is secondary and carries a health warning.

We also need to attend with particular care to the language of those under pressure in the world, with the caveat that there is slack, sentimental language about struggle, as well as about love.

W H Auden tells us that "Poetry makes nothing happen". It suspends us. Equally, we should not mistake what is spoken for what needs to be done, though the latter may feed off the former as well as the former off the latter.

Good art is about the honesty and risk, not just political commitment and satisfaction in local settings. "How can I be vulgar if I'm so sincere?" More readily than you may imagine. At the same time, as in postcolonial discourse, we must attend to subaltern cultures, messages and forms of speech.

Why, Dr Williams was asked, did you go to significant lengths to avoid 'magical thinking'. Because, came the reply, magical thinking is about access to control. In one sense, the problems this created (for example, with Indulgences) led to the Reformation. There was something important about this, but it in turn led to an over-retreat from 'presence', which is also what magical language may evoke.

Words of prayer, in particular, need to take us to the edge of comfort. Edges are what often require us to listen afresh.

Using biblical language as straightforward sanction, treating metaphor as simile, is a mistake. Don't assume too much distance between hearers and receivers then and now. We often miss the distinctively ironic tones of scripture.

Those were some of the registers, patterns, tones and possibilities raised by Dr Williams' lecture, at least as I apprehended it. As ever, it is important that the reader returns to the original rather than taking my word for it. There is much that I have passed over in a dense hour, and much that I have missed.

The theme of the final lecture, to be delivered on Thursday 14 November (also live cast and saved as a video cast) is, 'Can truth be spoken?'


* On the whole series:

* Representing reality: Williams is back in his element:

* Language as unfinished business:

* The physicality of language and the fleshy word:

(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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