what i keep forgetting about words

Posted by on March 23, 2007

The protestant preachers of my youth were always talking about the power of the word, or the Word, I suppose. Without straining in the least, the scriptural soundbites still scroll through my mind: The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword…and here I falter, but I know that this same two-edged sword goes on to pierce the human heart “asunder.” I can also remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room with my sister, and receiving her assurances that the Bible was the inspired word of God, and that he would not allow one “jot” or “tiddle” (an obsolete expression from the King James Version) to fall away. I imagined God himself sustaining the very ink of even the tiniest semi-colon in my personal copy, a leather-bound Scofield.

I never gave thought to the remarkable interchangeability in this theology between God himself, who was called The Word, the audible words that he uttered to bring the world into existence, and the pink leather Bible I took to church, with my name embossed on the cover in silver, which was also the Word, and which I had worn out with highlighters, and multi-colored underlinings, as well as sermon notes and my own juvenalia insights in the margins. My teenage brain never bothered to analyze this state of affairs, this interchangeability between three radically different, uh, entities (if there is even a word that can adequately signify all three at the same time). But when I look back on it now, I realize how very compelling this link between the three was for me. There was God, then there was his spoken word, which was a real force in the realm of human affairs (hence the sword simile), and then there was the book I could flip through on any given afternoon, lounging in my bedroom. If this relationship had not been real for me, I doubt I would have been so preoccupied with the letters of Paul at the age of sixteen.

But at the same time I was also reading somewhat heavy novels like Madame Bovary and Sons and Lovers, and cultivating a love for essay-writing and words in general, insofar as I could through my mediocre public high school. When I finally landed myself in a small Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee, I never went through the common indecision over choosing a major. It would be English; that was easy. The only problem was that my classes bored me. I began sensing that in this environment of deeply engrained biblical literacy, and a sincere belief in the power of God’s Word, there was also a tendency to shy away from the power in other kinds of words. The canon of great literature, the usual sort of stuff that students have to read to earn an undergraduate degree in English, was read, but not struggled with; it was reported on and presented on but not given too much room to mean anything. Rather than challenging my classmates and me, I felt my teachers tried to get through the curriculum cleanly, sparing us from challenges that might trigger “a crisis of faith,” that extreme personal no-no for which, according to the academic catalog, campus counselors were standing by, prepared to help.

My suspicions about this timid teaching method culminated in a class I took on literary criticism. Literary criticism (I can only imagine, because I have no experience with this) should probably be the one subject that forces the mind of young English majors to do gymnastics. You learn that texts can be approached and interpreted in many more ways than ever occured to you. But I don’t remember ever having any somersault experiences in this class. In fact, a big chunk of class time was usually taken up with “prayer requests.” It was the policy at my college that every class begin with a prayer. How long or how much or what kind was really up to the teacher. I loved my French teacher, who just made us recite the Our Father in French every time we met. The teacher I had for literary criticism had a different style. She was not only into long, impromptu talks with God, but also opening up a time beforehand for students to share the things in their lives which they wanted prayer for, which usually involved the mom of someone’s roommate going in for surgery, or someone facing a big decision about whether or not to marry their boyfriend. One time I was running late for class, rushing across campus to get there, worried about what I was missing, and arrived twenty minutes late, out of breath, only to find that the teacher was still taking prayer requests.

This was the same teacher who, shortly after introducing and “explaining” deconstruction, perhaps the most conceptually nuanced of all the schools of literary criticism, concluded with something along the lines of, “So, you see, in the end, deconstruction basically deconstructs itself.” Oh, thank goodness we don’t have to worry about that anymore.

To this day I lament what was lacking in my college education. A few years ago, Jeff and I rented the movie Derrida, which is basically a lot of fairly recent footage of Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher, while he was still alive. The filmmaker followed him around as he did ordinary things like eating breakfast, and giving lectures. He also allowed himself to be interviewed casually by the filmmaker. The rest of the film is interspersed with a narrator reading quotes from his published works.

Jacques Derrida is considered the father of deconstruction, and as I watched this film, not understanding much of it, I nonetheless realized that there was no malice in this man that I could see, or his ideas, which flowed naturally from his diamond-like brain. In fact, we had a living room chair at the time that had white stuffing poking out of the top, like hair, and we affectionately started calling Jacques in honor of this lovable white-haired man. I realized to what degree I had been jipped by my well-meaning English professors, who sanitized so much that didn’t need sanitizing. I finally began trying to learn something about deconstruction after the Derrida film. I was captivated by the idea that words and meanings are ever-shifting and unstable.

I can understand how such an idea might threaten the jot and tiddle view of the Bible. If even Bob Dylan can’t write a song that means the same thing four decades later (something I heard him say on yet another documentary), then how can the Bible retain its divinely intended meaning, being so old, and so often translated into different versions? Then there is the whole idea that meaning only happens in the brain of the reader anyway, not in the actual words on the page. These are the big literary and philosophical threats to the Bible, most of which I have only the spottiest understanding of. Call me crazy, but I don’t find them threatening to a conservative belief in the divine words of Scripture. Perhaps I don’t worry about the Bible anymore because within the Orthodox Church, the Bible is always linked with a living context that maintains and moderates its interpretation for all time, at least in theory. Or perhaps I’m just too simple to be bothered.

However, I do spend a lot of time worrying about my own words. Lately the things I’ve written have generated a lot of traffic on my blog, because I wrote about something that is currently connected to a public controversy, in which lawyers are involved. A wise friend advised me: “You might want to read what you’ve written as if you were a lawyer.” When I heard this, my heart raced. What? A lawyer, reading my stupid, careless blog? I suddenly realized that my words might be taken seriously. They might have consequences. They might influence an actual real-life event. They could also be taken away from me and given all sorts of meaning I did not intend. Jacques Derrida, you warned me! Why didn’t I listen?

I love words for their changeability and sound. I love an unexpected combinations of words, like when Amy Clampitt personifies the ocean by saying, “it behaves…toward the permutations of novelty…with random partiality,” (from the poem Beach Glass). I have no idea what kind of relationship lawyers have with words. Maybe it isn’t as different from poets as I imagine. I feel that they probably begin with a meaning in mind (the case that they are trying to prove) and then find the words that will serve it, picking and choosing among whatever they can dig up. I guess poets do that too. The only problem with me thinking like a lawyer is that, if I begin to scan and re-scan my words with a lawyer’s eye, looking for all possible meanings, trying to make them air-tight, I may actually never write anything again. I will completely lose heart, as I have on and off again in the past week.

Words are risky, changeable, and sometimes even dangerous. It was good to be reminded of that. But now I have to keep writing them without fear, or else shun them altogether. If God didn’t shun words as inadequate but used them to create the world, then I think that perhaps I can keep blogging.

  1. Anonymous
    March 27, 2007

    Poor Julia…I hope you remain unintimidated and continue to write with the passion your readers know you for. This post reminds me of how insistant Bill O’Reilley is on repeating the cliche phrase “this is a no spin zone.” – Jessie

  2. Ser
    March 29, 2007

    I know this wasn’t a humor piece, Julia, but the image of your literary criticism class starting with prayer requests is so funny to me! You are right, there is something fascinating with Derrida’s notion of the ever-shifting meaning of language, and it is an idea that I think need not be classified as “the godless ideas of this new, postmodern world.”

    I really like this post. I’m sorry language has overwhelmed you in the last few weeks. You have a wonderful gift with language and you should always keep writing (and blogging, I would say, so I can read it).

  3. Julia
    March 29, 2007

    Oh no, you can laugh at my alma mater any time you want. I do.

    My little handful of faithful readers is what keeps me going! Thanks everyone for always leaving such incredibly nice comments.