Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Semantic Recalcitrance

Wallace Stevens makes a vocation of semantic recalcitrance, but he did not invent it. Oh, take for example this poem by John Donne, a 17th century English poet, a poem called “Batter My Heart,” oddly enough:

Batter my heart, three personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

So what is the poet saying here? Is he saying that he wants God to take him by force, against his will, his reason? Is he saying that he wants God, the great freedom lover, to imprison him? To do damage to him? Does he want God to go against his nature? Does he want God to be un-Godlike? Isn’t this irrational? Isn’t the poet being rather emotional here? But don’t the prosodic control and extended metaphor demonstrated here tell us that this is a remarkably rational man?

Or take for example this little imagistic poem by William Carlos Williams, a 20th century physician poet call “The Red Wheelbarrow:”

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

What is this poem about? Is it really about a red wheelbarrow? Apparently. But why would we care? Why should we care? What is the point? And what depends upon this red wheelbarrow? Does it literally depend or figuratively depend? Or both? Are we talking about rainwater here? Does the glazing of the rainwater depend on the red wheelbarrow? Do the white chickens? Does our understanding of the poem depend on the red wheelbarrow? If so, how so? But doesn’t understanding have to do with ideas? And there doesn’t seem to be hardly an idea here, does there?

Or take for example William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” written perhaps in the 16th century:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Is this a woman the poet is talking about? Is it the idea of a woman disconnected from any particular woman? Is this God or Holy Spirit? Is it a man? Is Shakespeare homosexual? If this is a woman the poet is speaking to, why does he pretend to compare her to a summer’s day, when he really contrasts her with spring and summer weather? In what sense can a woman be or exist in eternal summer? What is eternal summer? Is that heaven? Is the poem itself a kind of heaven or eternity? How is this possible? How is it possible for a linguistic object such as a poem to “live?” How can a linguistic object give life to a living person? Doesn’t it work the other way around, with the living person giving life to the poem?

Or take for example the first five verses from the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Is “the Word” language? Is it the Torah? Is it Jesus? What does “in the beginning” mean? Does it mean at the beginning of time? At the beginning of the universe? The beginning of this planet? Does it mean before the beginning of time? Of the universe? How can the Word both be God and with God? What sense does it make for a person to both be a man and to be with man, for example? If we say that “the Word” is in some sense Jesus, then what does it mean for all things to be made through him? Did he make all things, or did the agency of their making originate with someone else? What sense does it make to say that a living person had life in him? Isn’t this obvious? Why point it out? And how is the life of Jesus “the light of men?” What is “the light of men?” And in what sense can the darkness not understand the light of men? How can darkness understand anything?

Are ambiguity, ambivalence, and paradox—semantic recalcitrance—at the heart of language and any linguistic object? Are these qualities at the heart of Jesus and his meaning for us? Are these qualities to be found throughout the Bible? And if so, what does this mean for our understanding of Jesus, God, and the Bible? What does it mean for how we would best think about and talk about and write about God and his Word?

Is certainty about God and the Bible possible? In what areas is certainty possible and reasonable and justifiable, and in what areas isn’t it? Why?

Is theology an attempt to perfect God? To perfect the Bible? To the extent that it is, isn’t this a serious problem? Isn’t this like taking arms against a sea of troubles in hopes of ending them? (Please visualize here a man with a sword, hip-deep in the ocean, hacking away at the waves as they come crashing over his head.) Isn’t certainty in every theological dimension doomed? And isn’t the person who seeks certainty about God in all matters doomed?

Isn’t the I AM telling us, in telling us that his name is I AM, to back off? Isn’t Jesus in referring to himself as I AM telling us to back off?

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