Unspeakable Nonsense: Glishing the Unglishable
I was attracted to the book because it discusses many of my favorite mystical theologians: Plotinus, Denys the Areopagite, John the Scot Eriugena (very underrated ninth century Christian mystic), and Meister Eckhart. I’ve only just started it, so at this point I must unsay whether or not I can recommend it for your reading pleasure.
This is ironic. I googled “Michael Sells,” and it turns out that he was involved in the controversy at the University of North Carolina, in which they required incoming students to read the Koran. As a matter of fact, Sells was the one who wrote the text to be used. The problem was, he assembled a bowdlerized version of the Koran, removing all of the naughty bits that might give us the correct, I mean, incorrect, impression of Islam.
I found an interview with Sells, in which he defended his decision by stating that he didn’t want to confuse the students with all those irrelevant parts of the Koran that deal with 8th century Arab politics--you know, dismembering infidels, killing Jews, beating your wife, all that crazy stuff.
Excuse me... I’m no Arab scholar... but... when you say “Arab politics”... why the qualifier, “8th century?” Isn’t that redundant? And those parts you excised from the Koran... might they have anything to do with why the Islamic calendar is running, oh, about 800 years slow?
So in Sells’ case, he “unsaid” some of the most important parts of the Koran--instead of “Mystical Languages of Unsaying,” we get “Mystifying Students With What’s Best Left Unsaid.”
So now it’s hard for me to enjoy the book, even though there are some good parts. I keep thinking about the disingenuous intellectual dishonesty. Stupid cognitive dissonance!
Switching gears now.
They say you can’t prove the existence of Spirit, but that’s not true, any more than you can’t prove the existence of love or beauty. Of course you can, but only to someone who’s inclined to accept the appropriate proof. In my case, once I began achieving a bit of “vertical liftoff” ten or eleven years ago, I began to “discover” things about Spirit. Or at least I thought I was discovering them. Turns out I wasn’t, any more than I discovered Lake Tahoe on vacation just because I had never been there before.
Two things about these “discoveries” were striking. First, I suddenly had the capacity to understand the meaning of spiritual writing in a way that I never had before. Somehow I understood its “within,” or inner significance. Secondly, instead of a process of “learning,” it was more like a process of confirmation. In other words, I would think that I had discovered something by myself, only to discover that others before me had discovered the same thing.
This book, Mystical Languages of Unsaying, is a case in point. It helps me understand exactly what I was attempting to do with language in the prologue and epilogue of my book. In those two parts of the book I attempt to use language to describe what is clearly beyond language--specifically, what is “before” the big bang and what is “after” our separate existence, whether you want to call it ego death, transcendence, union with God, whatever. Language can’t go there, so it must be deployed in a special way so as to not mislead. In short, you have to “unsay” what you want to say.
Mystical languages of unsaying are used in order to deal with the problem of God’s transcendence. In order to talk about God at all, we must give God a name. But as soon as we do, we have placed an artificial linguistic fence around God. It’s no longer God we’re talking about, only “God.” So how do we get around that?
Through what is called “negative” or apophatic theology. This idea--which is especially prominent in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and Vedanta--is that everything we say about God must, at the same time, be “unsaid.” It’s a way to talk about God without fooling ourselves into thinking we know what we are talking about--a way for language to “turn back upon its own propositions.” As I put it in the book, it is a way to make perfect nonsense.
So, for example, on page 10 of my book, it says “What a punnish ontic! [Combining Upanishads + ontology.] Is the author of this cacography [combining cacophony, or discordant noise, with what is possibly pure caca] an ainsoferable gnosis all [the Ain Sof is the Kabbalist word for the ultimate reality beyond name and form] or just an inrisible [i.e., risible, or laughable] mythmatician?... My yokes are easy, my words enlight [a reference to Jesus' statement that 'my yoke is easy, my burden light'].”
At least I was hoping that my yokes would be easy. Frankly, I was a little worried that the humor was overly broad. Turns out that my yokes may be hard and my words obscure, at least for a lot of people. More on that below.
Hello? Is anybody still with me?
Anyhoo, about a week before I finished the book, I discovered that I was hardly the first person to use jokes and puns to try to unsay ultimate reality. The Jews--it figures, doesn’t it?--specialized in a comedic approach to interpreting the Torah. Various esteemed rabbis would read between the lines of scripture and invent a midrash to illuminate a passage. Midrashim are often full of paradox, puns, wordplay and other midrashcally rabbitorahcal devoices, almost like zen koans.
And I only really dove wholeheartedly headwrong into the amuzing Meister Eckhart after I finished the book. His apophatic language is so full of punning and paradox, that it landed him in some real trouble with the religious authorities, who said to him, "how would you like an apophat lip, Meister?"
Sells writes of what he calls “performative intensity” in negative theology. In other words, when writing in this way, the “performance” of the language cannot be separated from its meaning: just as in case of the genome or the mathematical constants that undergird the cosmos, semantics can by no means be reduced to syntax. Again, the language itself is paradoxically trying to take you where language cannot go--it is trying urgently to say something that cannot be said. Yes, you can reduce apophatic theology to cataphatic, or positive theology. But as soon as you do this, you have eff’ed up the ineffable and screwed the inscrutable.
This has gone on a bit long, hasn’t it? Next week I hope to continue this line of thought and deconstruct some of the more mystifying passages at the beginning and end of my book, in order to shed some additional obscurity on what it is I was apparently attempting to unsay. As I said, I think it will help you ruahlize that my yokes are easy and words (hopefully) enlight. Who knows, you might even have a guffah-ha! experience.