Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part IV

(Part III explored the idea that using language in any way is an act, and so barbed or deadly language may threaten or damage the physical or psychological wellbeing of its intended victim as effectively as physical acts do. Language invested with the task of wielding control must be carefully focused. In cultures where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemomenon, certain sets of words, followed by unaccountable misfortune, mark an attack. In cultures where witchcraft is not acknowledged, the witch uses perceptive language to find and manipulate the psychological “Achilles’ heel” of his or her victim. An important feature of such language is that it strives to convince its victim that the witch’s proposed course of action is “the only way,” thus sealing off avenues of escape.)

As the language of witchcraft weaves to close corridors of escape, sacred language, including holy words, the language of healing ceremonies, tales of resolution and recovery, and words of comfort and wisdom, labor to unravel the trap and deliver the sufferer. The natural remedy for captivating language is language that creates alternatives outside of the choices established–language that opens up possibilities. But if you are a sparrow, finding such language is difficult. You need the help of a god, a shaman, a priest, a hero, or some other person with “strong blood”–the power to reveal “ways out” you might not imagine or choose for yourself.

An Apache tale recounting the origin of healing ceremonies is one of many that demonstrates how help for sufferers comes from outside (Erdoes 1984:38). Two men become sick but their people can’t help them because no one has ever become ill and no curing knowledge exists. The One Who Made The Earth intercedes, telling one sufferer, “Everything on earth has power to cause its own kind of sickness, make its own trouble. There is a way to cure all these things.” Then come the story’s point: “Now this man understood that knowledge was available.” Four men facing in the sacred directions start chanting. The story tells, “They did not conceive this pattern in their own minds “¦ It was as if the knowledge of what they could chant or sing had suddenly been transmitted to them from outside.”

Whether holy ways or ways out are revealed to a people by gods or by someone with wisdom and prophetic insight, or whether they’re uncovered by a hero who through strength or resourcefulness frees his people from a monster’s tyrrany, freedom and wholeness must be begotten upon the consciousness of entrapped people by someone who knows something and is himself fertile with possibilities. The reservoir of stories recounting what heroes do in archetypal events forms an encyclopedia of ways out. Adding to such a collection and then passing it on helps provide for the health and safety of the culture that inherits it.

As a witch must have an actual subject to speak against and ensnare with words, so also must an unwitcher, shaman, priest, or sacred storyteller have a genuine need that he strives to fulfill with language. Simply having tales, chants, and rituals at hand is not enough, since disembodied from relevant circumstances they are merely generalities without referents.

Barre Toelken notes the marked difference in the way the Navajo storyteller Yellowman spoke his Coyote tales to a tape recorder and the way he performed them for his children (Toelken 1969:221). Toelken says it became clear to him ” . . . that Yellowman sees the Coyote stories not as narratives (in our sense of the term) but as dramatic presentations performed within certain cultural contexts for moral and philosophical reasons” (Toelken:244). Furthermore, Yellowman casts light on the storyteller’s belief in what the need for such stories might be. When Yellowman stressed the sacred nature of Coyote, Toelken asked why, if Coyote is such an important mythic character, does Yellowman tell such funny stories about him?

Yellowman’s answer: “They are not funny stories.” Why does Everyone laugh, then? “They are laughing at the way Ma’i does things, and at the way the story is told. Many things about the story are funny, but the story is not funny.” Why tell the stories? “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people, if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad.” Why tell them to adults? “Through the stories everything is made possible.”

For Yellowman, the Coyote stories are a rainbow of possibilities that he spreads before the eyes of his friends and family members. One implication of such belief is that if Yellowman or someone else did not lay these options out, people might not discover them and the likelihood of their being caught is magnified. Another implication is that if storytellers withheld their stories as a season sometimes withholds rain, they would be responsible in part for the resulting drought of spirit and spirituality.

6 thoughts on “Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part IV”

  1. It seems to me that you’re taking an overly deterministic view of language. If thoughts and ideas and sentiments are not separate from their expression in some sense, then there is no room for innovation. 

    Posted by DKL

  2. If thoughts and ideas and sentiments are not separate from their expression in some sense, then there is no room for innovation. 

    Hm. If I said that thoughts and ideas and sentiments are not separate from their expression, then your observation that there’s no room for innovation holds. But did I say that I believe that thoughts, ideas, etc. are not separate from their expression?

    It seems to me that you’re taking an overly deterministic view of language.

    The effect of barbed language–language invested with the goals of limiting a victim’s options–is to create an illusion of determinacy (as I discussed in Part I , Part II, and Part III of this series).

    For instance, a pedophile might tell an 8-yr-old child he has begun molesting, “If you tell anyone, I will hurt your family.” While some pedophiles do hurt family members of their victims (like the case in Idaho, where a pedophile killed his victims’ entire family) all that most pedophiles have to do is say that they’ll hurt them and then depend upon their victim’s believing that they will. Having just experienced firsthand how harmful such a person can be, a linguistically unsophisticated child may be “caught” with such language and believe the pedophile. So to protect his or her family the victim will comply with the pedophile’s desires.

    Let’s be clear–I am innovation’s No. 1 fan. Restorative language is cool, certain sets of words signal to any community member who has fallen away that they stand on thresholds of re-admittance to the community they lost and long for. Such poetry, narratives, or songs open up the exclusionary language of witchcraft, the “you can’t go home again” language that isolates its victims from their previous social support systems. Its intention is to show them the way home. But flash me innovative language–productive, creative narratives etc. that take human consciousness to the next level, both individually and collectively–I’m all over it!

    Is it possible that language that’s meant to limit a target’s options has instead the opposite effect and ignites or excites his/her imagination, awareness, or intellectual and spiritual momentum, opening up (instead of constricting) the cosmos? Absolutely. That’s when innovation operates at its most energetic, its most miraculous levels. Room for innovation? At this level it becomes a house with many mansions.

    So there is indeed room for innovation; often we depend upon the innovators among us to deliver us from illusions of determinacy that those who stand to gain from them conjure when they shoot their poisoned, flaming, and barbed language at our vulnerable parts.

    Posted by Anonymous

  3. I’m glad that we agree that there is some space between concepts and their expression.

    I also agree with you that language can create a misconception that there is determinacy, whether by deliberate deception or otherwise. But there is nothing unique about language in this regard–except that language, as such, is often difficult to talk about so that otherwise commonplace observations about language can seem obscure or deep.

    I don’t see any difference between using a conventional illusion like a hologram or a mask to scare a child and using language to create a misconception that scares the child. 

    Posted by DKL

  4. I’m glad that we agree that there is some space between concepts and their expression. 

    DKL, what I agreed with was your unstated assumption that there IS room for, even need for, innovation in language. It doesn’t necessarily follow that I believe there’s space between concepts and their expression. I’m not sure what you have in mind when you say that. Perhaps you can give an example?

    I don’t see any difference between using a conventional illusion like a hologram or a mask to scare a child and using language to create a misconception that scares the child.

    IMO the linguistic parallel to using a mask to scare a child would probably run along the lines of sneaking up behind the child and shouting “Boo!” Do you see a comparable “illusion of determinacy,” or an attempt to limit the options of the child, at work in using a mask to scare a child as I’m saying exists in the language a pedophile might use to to control his victim?

    You’re objecting to what you perceive as my assertion that language is uniquely suited to controlling the actions and thoughts of others and to the flip side of that concept, that language is uniquely suited to freeing or healing people of the effects of barbed or poisonous language.

    But maybe what you’re really doing is tossing out some question that’s wearing the mask of an objection? In other words, are you dismissing my point about language’s unique powers completely, end of discussion, or merely suggesting we talk about this a little more?


    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. Okay, I wish we would  ask more questions about language, because even though we have such scriptural referents as “And God said let there be light: and there was light” and “In the beginning was the was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we LDS don’t talk enough about the relationship between language, power, and how things are. Our narratives suffer because of this and our communities suffer because stewardship in all things is tied up intimately with how we are in language–how we are in the Word.

    IMO, language is not a tool we can pick up and use for a particular task then set back down when we finish that task. It’s not separate from us in any way. In many cases, if not all, the concept and its expression are one. The word concept comes from concipere, “to conceive.” Much of our lives is begotten in language, and from conception to conception we ought to go, from line to line and precept to precept.

    To put it another way, concepts are ideas. To borrow (or adapt)from W.B. Yeats, how can we know the idea from its expression? (Original quote: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” from his poem “Among School Children.”)

    Eventually popular science will catch up with the ideas of some preeminent thinkers about language and start making such lower end statements like “Scientists have discovered that human consciousness is still developing, and that its continued development depends heavily upon how we narratize (put into narrative language) our human experience,” or something like that.

    Language does contain tension, but I don’t think the tension hangs between concept and expression. In other writing I’ve described this tension (if everyone will forgive my being so brazen as to quote myself):

    “Because all language acts in relation with something, including itself, all language carries within degrees of alienation–art, music, written and spoken words, the maths. Alienation is bittersweet: the awe we feel at how the garden lowers into our hands poisonous as well as ineffable fruits, fruits of knowledge. This awe is our self-consciousness in the face of all-being, inertia when everything around dances, inability to answer as thoroughly as we have been asked. The degree of alienation implied might be great or it might be so small that rather than thinking it alienation we call it hope. But whether it is verse, advertisement, a painting, a fugue, or a scientific text; whether it conveys by texture, color, number, syntax, or tone; language holds like the body holds blood tension between boundaries and what lies beyond.”

    IMO, this alienation we feel, sometimes very acutely, is the effect of irony. Irony exists because there is always a gap between how we think things are and how they actually are, there’s always more going on than we know. I don’t know if this alienation is the “room” DKL feels between concept or expression or not, but many of us do feel a “difference” (in the sense of “the degree by which things differ”) between what we are able to put into language and … something. This vague sense of alienation plagues us in our expressions and is an indicator of our perpetual ironic state.

    In the case where there’s a difference between a concept and its expression, I suggest that the expression (the language) that shows the difference IS the innovation.

    Now I’ve probably said more than people want to know (TMBS! TMBS!) and I’ve probably proved DKL’s point that language ” … is often difficult to talk about so that otherwise commonplace observations about language can seem obscure or deep.” But I think LDS need to consider language more closely and explore meaning with greater care and start talking about it. If we don’t, we won’t understand what’s happening when language is wielded against us, and we won’t see the harm in wielding language against others. We won’t understand important narratives and we won’t be able to build upon or create them. We won’t be able to talk about our experiences, about possibilities, about the godly because … well, we can’t find the words.

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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