The power of forbidden words and the imposition of order
King James Version (KJV)
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John The Baptist, by Anton Raphael Mengs, 1774
by John MacBeath Watkins
In several posts, (1, 2, 3) we've explored the way modernist writers and more playful genre writers have responded to the power of language. But it's always well to remember that our ancestors were at least as smart as we are, and understood things we are rediscovering.
I've often wondered what the above biblical passage really means. From William Warner, University of California at Santa Barbara English Department:
The word for “word” here is“logos”, the Greek word for the indwelling logic, orrational order of things. But it also refers to and translated the figure of “Wisdom” from the Hebrew scriptures. The first 14 lines of John 1 thread together three distinct ways of understanding the productive power of God’s “Word”: creation,incarnation, and the communication of the “good news” of the Gospel.There is, of course, a great deal more to Warner's analysis, and I recommend you click on the paragraph above to read more.
For our purposes, perhaps the most important thing here is that in this ancient text, John the Baptist showed an understanding of the power of language to organize our world and to carry forward the wisdom our ancestors had gleaned and incorporated into language.
Language gives us the symbolic categories we use to think. Just as any tool carries within it the range of things we can do with that tool, language both enables us to think and, unless we invent new language, limits what we can think.
And, of course, there are always those who wish to limit what we can think. When Thomas Aikenhead spoke about his atheist beliefs, the indictment on a charge of blasphemy read:
That ... the prisoner had repeatedly maintained, in conversation, that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra's fables, in profane allusion to Esop's Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.Well, as a recent anti-bullying campaign told us, words hurt. And hurting those who have the power to kill us can turn out to be an outstandingly bad idea.
Aikenhead came to understand this after he had been sentenced to death, and petitioned for a reduced sentence because of his youth (he was 20 when he was indicted) and the fact that he was a first-time offender. The court ruled that it would only consider reducing his sentence if the Church interceded on his behalf.
The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". Thus Aikenhead’s sentence was confirmed.Profane words have a mystery at the heart of them. They are words that no one is allowed to say, but that everyone knows. It's a bit like the Harry Potter books, where Voldemort "must not be named," but everyone knows his name, and it soon becomes evident this is because everyone names him. It's a bit like the prohibition against saying the name of God.
And the nature of profanity changes over time. We are far less sensitive about religion or sex now, but no one should say the word "nigger." Oops, I just said it, and now you know that forbidden word. And yet, by knowing it, have you become more racially insensitive than you were before? No, but if you use it, knowing it is a forbidden word, you are saying that you are, and by knowing the forbidden word, you know what using that word says about the speaker..
These words are made profane to put them outside of what is acceptable, but how can we know what is unacceptable unless we know the profane word? And some words are forbidden not because they are profane, but because they are sacred.
Forbidding the word is a way to make the symbolic category of thought it represents unthinkable. The sacred works a little differently from the profane. A powerful church could, by making the name of God unspeakable, make excessive familiarity with God unthinkable (Oh, Jehova? Yeah, I used to have a thing with Him. Tall guy, big beard, booming voice, a bit overbearing if you want to know the truth. He actually, and I'm not kidding here, this is God's own truth, had my buddy Abraham right on the point of actually murdering his own son. Well, that was the last straw, I said, listen, 'hova, you know I love you man, but you're turning this into a cult...)
When they start using the diminutive of your name, your authority is right out the window, I suppose. "They call me Mr. Tibbs" is several steps below "you are not worthy to say my name," but it is an effort to insist on dignity, on a recognition of power.
But while the realm of the profane continues to thrive, moving easily from sex acts and religion to race and sexual orientation, what words are now forbidden because they have sacred power? None I can think of in society as a whole, although there will always be sects that preserve this linguistic outlyer. Forbidding excessive familiarity is an exercise of authority. When there is no authority that can insist on forbidding its name, this may represent an increase in freedom or a loss of order. Which you see depends on which you value more.
The power of the profane forbidden word is there to set boundaries, the power of the sacred forbidden word is to buttress authority. I cannot help but think the power of the profane is more important.
The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.
Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self