Last night I was reading the second chapter of Seth Lerer’s Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (Amazon), and was struck by a phrase from Archbishop Wulfstan’s 1014 sermon Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, a phrase that Lerer calls “as powerfully alliterative as anything in poetry” (35): “Ac worhtan lust us to lage” (or as Lerer renders it: “but we have made pleasure our law”).
That’s a chilling idea, although I suppose it’s a bit comforting that it could be said almost 10 centuries ago. But it’s also, as Lerer notes, a wonderfully evocative way of putting things. It sent my mind spinning off in to the world of language and especially of phrases that poetically call to me and it soon lit on another phrase, one used by that great post-punk-inflected-with-funk Minneapolis band the Suburbs (Wikipedia), a band that has been on my mind lately because of the death of guitarist Bruce Allen, and used to great effect, I think, because it captures the inherent contradictory impulses of our fallen natures (but that need not contradict because of the atonement, there’s always that caveat, thank goodness), that is Love is the Law.
I moved from the Suburbs to another post-punk band Joy Division because there’s a line in their song (note that the video is from the biopic and not the actual band playing) that captures for me the way language and life is fallen and yet reaching, the inherent irony in being eternal beings trapped in time and mortality and yearning for something more even though there is a way if we can just take up the yoke, the light burden, because after Ian Curtis sings “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” (and really I could keep quoting because it ties back in to the lust and the lage, but I want to get to heart of the matter so I won’t) and the rest of the verse he hits the chorus: “I’ve got the spirit, but lose the feeling.” And the way he repetitiously pleads feeling, feeling, feeling at the end of the song gets me every time, and I’m not sure exactly what it means to have the spirit but lose the feeling, just like I’m not entirely sure what it means that love is the law, but I think we’re circling here the disconnects of life, the burden of our inherited cultures and natural state and stuckness in language.
And even though it’s even more nonsensical, or at least doesn’t say as much as it might be trying to say, I think of Brother Flowers (Wikipedia) singing “I’ve got a soul, but I’m not a soldier.” Such a juxtaposition may seem facile (and could even generate anti-LDS readings), but once I get going I’m less concerned about exact meaning and more about the ability of language and English, in particular, to formulate phrases that linguistically indict, that inflect/infect the illusive seamlessness, papered over promise of wholeness or even fulfillment (or at the very least the promise of moments of pure pleasure or transcendence or just simply making-of-things-better) offered by various and sundry (from the politicians to the gurus to the marketers to the celebrity), the avatar-ness, the persona-fication.
And, of course, once I hit the alliteration and the hemi-Mormon-ness of the Killers frontman, my mind easily slides, over to our own Wulfstan, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, and so I revisit the In Memoriam I wrote less than two months after the founding of this blog, and I find there: “Surging selfishness, for example, has shrunken some people into ciphers; they seek to erase their emptiness by sensations. But in the arithmetic of appetite, anything multiplied by zero still totals zero!”
I could go on, but I won’t. But how cool and scary is it that there is more? And that’s just English.