What is the Language Using Us For #2

What is the language using us for?

Hopkins is still with me, who got it into his self-castigating/denying head that he shouldn’t write poetry, because he was now going to dedicate his selfhood to Christ and being a Jesuit, and even though there was no explicit Thou Shalt Not in the Jesuit “rule book”, he denied himself the pleasure of living at that high-holistic pitch that only art, it seems, and maybe good relationships (sex?), can offer us, until language came knocking again at his door.

Or more like sloshing into his world. For on the 11th of December 1875, he opened up his copy of The Times to read about the death of 5 German nuns travelling with another 123 emigrants to New York on the good ship Deutschland, and their death-throe cries (“My God, My God, make haste, make haste”) moved him{{1}}. He was moved by their agonised end, but it was language that called.

[[1]]Perhaps because, as biographer Martin suggests, “he almost immediately identified himself with the tall nun [which doesn’t entirely make sense as Hopkins himself was tiny] and spent half a year in trying to imagine and give life to the meaning of her last reported words, called out in German that he might not even have understood had he been there.” [[1]]

Hopkin’s took, according to Martin, what was perhaps just a “hint” of compliance from his rector at St Beuno’s{{2}} that maybe someone should write “something” (a poem?) to commemorate the nuns and allowed himself to write again. This one “vague suggestion” from “a kindly man” gave him a kind of psychic accession to a place he felt he hadn’t “allowed” himself to participate in or with until then.

[[2]]”Fr Jones, who had no particular interest in poetry, made a vague suggestion about its being a good occasion for a pious set of verses inculcating a moral lesson from a sad event, and…in his eagerness Hopkins heard a more inclusive invitation than the Rector actually extended”[[2]]

I’m also thinking, about another poem I heard only recently on a Poetry Foundation podcast by Gerald Stern called ‘The Name‘: the name being the literal hebrew translation of HaShem (יהוה– YHVH): God.

                                                                                        the
name still on my mind whatever the reason for
mystery, or avoidance

Particularly pious Jews are so beholden to The Name, the nominative, this noun, that they will get extremely irate if The Name is not rendered according to their laws. For example, one is not allowed to write The Name in full, but must render it so: G_d, which I’ve always thought is the equivalent of star-filled bowdlerisations (f*ck, sh**, c*** etc.), only drawing more attention to the word, making it something taboo-laden and shameful, as if screaming it out in one’s mind rather than a natural part of the sentence. But maybe that’s the whole point.

I once held a reading group in a Jewish drop-in centre and was roundly told off by one of it’s users for leaving the ‘o’ in my photocopy of a story which mentioned The Name a few times. It was explained to me, which made absolute sense, that this wouldn’t be a problem if The Name were in a book, as the book would be cared for. But the photocopy would more than likely end up in a bin somewhere underneath a leaking can of baked beans. And this was no way to treat the Name{{3}}.

[[3]]We got a really good discussion out of this (language, with its rules and regs using us, to connect?), and much of it was quite good-humoured with other members of the group as equally conflicted about The Name and its uses as I am. But there is a dark undertone to all of this. We read in Leviticus 24 of an unnamed son of an Israelite woman who forgot to treat The Name with the reverence it was felt owing to it, and “all who heard him” lay their hands on his head, and then summarily stoned him to death.[[3]]

Part of me admired this reverence towards language. And yet, it was not entirely towards “language” (which I feel is my reverence), but specifically and blinkeredly towards one word (The Name). At the end of our session, they did not take away the photocopies on which the Name had been printed inappropriately so as to dispose of them correctly. In fact, they never took away any of the poems or stories I brought them . That was their way of trying to keep on top of (the) uncontrollable Language, do-gooding me with all the power-play inherent in that, and maybe even The Name itself.

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