Really, This Is About Jonah

I’m supposed to be working on my sermon this morning, and (in a sense) I am, since by blogging these thoughts out, I’ll make room in my imagination for the sermon to coalesce. As I was reading for course prep yesterday, my iPhone played XTC’s “No Language In Our Lungs,” one of my all-time favorite musical ruminations on hermeneutics (lyrics):

There is no language in our lungs
to tell the world just how we feel
no bridge of thought
no mental link
no letting out just what you think
 
there is no language in our lungs
there is no muscle in our tongues
to tell the world what’s in our hearts
no we’re leaving nothing
just chiselled stones
no chance to speak before we’re bones
there is no muscle in our tongues
 
I thought I had the whole world in my mouth
I thought I could say what I wanted to say
For a second that thought became a sword in my hand
I could slay any problem that would stand in my way
I felt just like a crusader
Lionheart, a Holy Land invader
but nobody can say what they really mean to say and
the impotency of speech came up and hit me that day and
I would have made this instrumental
but the words got in the way
 
there is no language in our…
there is no language in our lungs
to tell the world what’s in our hearts
no we’re leaving nothing behind
just chiselled stones
no chance to speak before we’re bones
there is no language in our lungs.

Andy Partridge suggests (“suggested,” since the song comes from 1980) much of what I’ve been advocating in the past few books and essays. “Meaning” isn’t something in there, whether in words or in us; we can’t transmit intentions in such a way as to make a warrantable connection between speaker and receiver. The urgent temptation to think and act as though our expressions contain definite meanings undergirds the outlook of interpreters who want to be able to oblige others to adopt “correct” understandings, to suppress the abundance of meaning that any expression might engender.
 
All this came to mind as I was reading Richard Hays’s study on Paul’s use of the Old Testament, wherein Hays frames his arguments with claims about what Paul was alluding to, and what we can infer from his allusions. Now, on the whole I tend to agree with Hays’s supposition that Paul’s allusions to Scripture should most productively be read with attention to the material surrounding his explicit citation, so that we catch points of reference that Paul didn’t include in the quoted material. But sometimes Hays infers that because Paul constructed such an allusion, he must have expected his readers to catch it — and that seems a very different, and very mistaken, inference. Writers and speakers construct our expressions out of the abundance of our imaginations (deliberately and subconsciously), but experience teaches us that people do not always catch all our allusions, and our expression is (oddly) the richer for not being comprehensively up-taken.

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Forgive me, but that’s the thought that came to mind reading your post, because it reminded me of Dave Weinberger’s somewhat frequently cited celebration of blogging, “We’re writing ourselves into existence.”

    I’ve been reading a bit about narrative and psychology and the unconscious. It’s all fascinating, but I keep going back to that reaction I had to Weinberger’s elevation of artifice over experience.

    Ultimately, it would appear that all attempts at conveying meaning fail to some, probably significant, degree. Yet, too often, we allow these imperfect constructions to compel many destructive actions.

    Which is why I find appealing:

    “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”

    Or Heraclitus, “Silence, healing.”

    Springsteen has some interesting things to say about personal narrative in a recent interview, don’t have the link handy just now.

    But our own difficulty with constructing meaning out of first-hand experience ought to inform, I think, our ideas about how well we understand what anybody else _meant_ to say.

    But then, maybe if it did, we’d never get out of bed in the morning!

  2. Ultimately, it would appear that all attempts at conveying meaning fail to some, probably significant, degree. Yet, too often, we allow these imperfect constructions to compel many destructive actions.

    I suspect they only seem to fail to the extent that we adopt the misleading presuppositions of subsistent meaning. The overwhelming preponderance of our expressions succeed so well that they’re hardly noticeable; we just take for granted that our turn signal will communicate to other traffic that we intend to veer left, that the price marked on our frozen edamame will match the price that the cashier at Whole Foods charges us (and that the currency we use will satisfy that cashier); checks clear, lovers embrace, dogs sit, and athletes score, all without either consistent failure or self-conscious fretfulness. (I should stipulate that Beatrice doesn’t “sit,” but that’s a problem of training, not semiotics, if it’s even fair to make a distinction, hmmmm.)
     
    But if we infer from that vast universe of successful expression/uptake that all expressions should be the unambiguous vessel of a containerized “meaning” or the deducible index-symptom of a definable communicative intention, we’re bound to notice the instances in which expression and uptake don’t match up smoothly as “failures.” I’m more inclined to regard them as the entirely intelligible demonstration that expression is imprecise, uptake is imprecise, and our conversation attains a stunningly complex blend of satisfaction (“success”) and dissatisfaction (“failure”). Those satisfactions often arise from an apparent perfect match of desired response and enacted response, but also from mismatches that may please us for other reasons. And sometimes dissatisfaction arises from perfectly-matched apprehension (a “Dear John” letter, or the somber greeting from military officers making knocking at the door).
     
    But maybe this isn’t the sort of response you anticipated. I’m eager to see the Springsteen link, anyway. Now I have to get back to the sermon, then run some errands.

  3. The interview is a pdf at:

    Hopefully that worked.

    I suppose the difficulty lies in the difference between “meaning” and “the transmission of information.” Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, information is just, well, you know…

    A couple of nuggets from the interview, not sure how the formatting will turn out:

    “The past is never the past. It
    is always present. And you better reckon with it
    in your life and in your daily experience, or it will
    get you. It will get you really bad. It will come
    and it will devour you, it will remove you from
    the present. It will steal your future and this happens
    every day.

    “So the song is about this happening to this
    character. He moves ahead. He tries to make the
    right moves. He awakes from a vision of his death,
    and realises: life is finite.
    Time is with me always.
    And I’m frightened. And
    he rides west where
    he settles down. But
    the past comes back in
    the form of this bounty
    hunter, whose mind is
    also quickened and burdened by the need to get
    his man. And these possessed creatures meet
    along the shores of this river where the bounty
    hunter of course is killed, and his last words are:
    ‘We can’t undo the things we’ve done.’
    “In other words, your past is your past. You
    carry it with you always. These are your sins. You
    carry them with you always. You better learn how
    to live with them, learn the story that they’re telling
    you. Because they’re whispering your future
    in your ear, and if you don’t listen, it will be contaminated
    by the toxicity of your past.”

    All of which is about how we construct a meaningful narrative from our experience, part of which was contingent upon behaviors themselves grounded in a larger, ongoing social or cultural narrative, which we inherit and inhabit, often largely unconsciously. But what resonates most strongly is the assertion that “it will remove you from the present.”

    Existence precedes narrative. Allow narrative to take precedence, you surrender your present to a story written by someone else, even if you may think of yourself as the editor.

    Anyway, it ends up giving me a headache. Probably because it’s something too abstract, too removed from experience, except for the experience of being incapable of conveying the meaning of what you’re experiencing.

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