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Divine Lip Smackings

Capon on the Christian discussion of “The Will of God”:

No doubt this picture of will as coercive, as the ability to Impose Patterns and Make Decisions Stick, strikes you as more or less the traditional christian view. The church, perhaps, has seemed to you to have put into the words “the Will of God” about the same tone as “Kinder, you vill all enjoy your oatmeal—zis very minute!”

Admittedly, this preference for the more northerly, not to say Prussian, meanings has been widespread; but for all that, there is plenty of evidence in the tradition that the streets on the southern side of the plaza have been well used. Scholastic philosophy, for instance, defines will as “a rational appetite whose object is the good”—thus making God’s will a heavenly kind of appetite, a divine delectation. Followed just a little further, that gives you a will of God which, instead of being a chain of Divine Commands, is a series of Divine Lip Smackings. And that, of course, is nothing but what Genesis teaches on the subject: At the end of each of the six days of creation, God says, “Tov!”—which is Hebrew for “Mmm, good!”

I suggest, therefore, that if we want to get rid of some of the unpleasantness that has crept into people’s minds on the subject of the will of God, we should work the southern side of the plaza. I suggest we pay less attention to the military-academy snapshots people have habitually been carrying in their wallets, and more to those pictures which show a little warmth and toastiness: namely, Inclination, Desire, Wish, Appetite, Passion and Choice. Let us make ourselves a promise to talk for a while about the will of God as attractive rather than coercive, as a delighting more than a deciding.

That done, the rest is easy. There is no contest for the most promising set of images to do the job. Having left the Square of Will via the Street of Desire, we land smack in one of the most gorgeous parts of the city—the Grand Plaza of The Song of Songs: love as the right way to read will; will as the desire of the lover for the beloved.

The will of God now becomes, not the orders of a superior directing what a subordinate must do, but the longing of a lover for what the beloved is. It is a desire, not for a performance, but for a person; a wish, not that the beloved will be obedient, but that she will be herself—the self that is already loved to distraction. The will of God, seen this way, is not in order to something, but because of someone.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

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Now that I hardly ever spell out a word I do not know, and the things that puzzle me in books do not lie in individual words but in the author’s assumption of shared knowledge about the human heart (never my strong point), I still have, like everybody, words in my vocabulary that are relics of that time. The words we learned exclusively from having books infill their meaning for us, are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else. Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter its sound. The classic is ‘misled’, said not as mis-led but as myzled — the past tense of a verb, ‘to misle’, which somehow never comes up in the present tense. In fact, misled never misled me. One of mine is ‘grimace’. You probably think it’s pronounced grimuss, but I know different. It’s grim-ace to rhyme with ‘face’. I’m sorry, but on this point, the entire English-speaking human race except me is wrong.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Whenever you use an image, you will do well to think of yourself as standing in the middle of a plaza—one plaza among the many in the vast city of meaning that is human knowledge. Off this plaza run streets in many directions. These streets are the several distinct meanings to be found in the image itself. While you stand still in the plaza, you see all the streets at once; but if you decide to use the plaza as a way station to some other place in the city, you have to choose a street—a particular meaning—and follow it. Some of these streets will take you straight to your destination. But others will get you there only by detours—sometimes through the worst parts of town. Others still will turn out to be blind alleys with assassins lurking in dark corners. When you think by means of images, therefore—when you try to get somewhere in the city of meaning—choose your street carefully before you leave one plaza in search of another.

A simple illustration first. The relationship between the first and the second Persons of the Trinity is expressed in christian theology in terms of the image Father/Son. Take that as the plaza in which we stand. Now look around and see what streets lead off it. Father/Son. Fathers come first; sons come second. Fathers are bigger; sons are smaller. Fathers and sons are not equal. How does that sound?

It sounds like a street which, if followed only a little further, would lead you straight into saying that the Father made the Son, and that the Son, therefore, isn’t really God. But that’s not where you want to go. You want to get to the plaza called God From God, Light From Light, True God From True God, located right at the end of One Substance Avenue. Look around for another way.

Father/Son. Fathers love sons; sons love fathers. Love between persons can be equal without having to be the same. Ah! That sounds more like it. That’s a street worth taking. Off we go: Paternal love/Filial love—and so on.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

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At the same time, I couldn’t read quite a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story, I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn’t understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing. No one had ever told me aloud to behold something, and I didn’t know that vessels could be cups and bowls as well as ships. I could say these words over, and shape my mouth around their big sounds. I could enjoy their heft in the sentences. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets. But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well not have been printed. When I speeded up, and up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently. I methodically left out chunks. I marked them to be sorted out later, by slower and more patient mental processes; I allowed each one to brace a blank space of greater or lesser size in its sentence; I grabbed the gist, which seemed to survive even in sentences that were mostly hole; and I sped on.

I could do this because written English is an extremely robust system. It does not offer the user a brittle binary choice between complete comprehension and complete incomprehension. It tolerates many faults, and still delivers some sense. The reasons why were spelled out in 1948, by Claude Shannon of the Bell Telephone Company, as an incidental consequence of his mathematical research into the capacity of phone networks. Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication has been fruitful for cryptography, the sciences of chaos, literary theory, and the design of the Internet. It can also be applied to a six-year-old reading The Hobbit. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice, and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise; and Shannon was interested in measuring how much of a message could be disrupted by the noise that’s inevitable on any channel of communication, before it became impossible to decipher it.

He showed that information, in certain respects, flows through a network like heat flowing in nature. Like the entropy of atoms dispersing into ever greater randomness, an information flow’s entropy could be measured, that is, the relative freedom every passing bit of information had to be any one of the symbols in the set that was in use, whether they were digits, or Morse dots and dashes, or letters of the alphabet. Conversely, it was possible to calculate how much of any information flow was not free to vary, since it was enforced by the structure of the message being transmitted. Suppose that the symbol set in question is the alphabet, and the message is being sent in English. After every letter q the next letter must be u. After every letter t the next letter is more likely to be h than any other; and may never be x. I comes before e except after c. All of these rules are expressions of the ‘redundancy’ in English, indications of the ways in which the structure of the written language makes it less than random, and so restricts the possibilities for each element.

Shannon used ‘redundant’ as a technical term. He did not mean that these rules were not essential to the intricate, delicate ways by which we convey meaning in writing. But the more highly structured a message was, the more its individual elements were indeed redundant in the sense that they could be dispensed with, and the more the message could be compressed, or edited, or subjected to electrical storms and mice and ignorance, without losing its intelligibility. If u invariably followed q, then u really added no extra information to q. U could therefore be taken away and nothing would be lost from the meaning. The person receiving the message — Shannon concluded — would be able to understand it adequately if noise removed any amount of the message up to the maximum redundancy built into the message by its structure. He did a quick statistical survey of written English, and calculated that it had a redundancy of about 50 per cent. Up to half of an English text could be deleted before doing such critical damage to its message that you’d give up and say Eh? A page of The Hobbit could have had Tipp-Ex rained down on up to half its words, or been cloven by dwarvish axes so long as it was not quite cloven in twain, and I would have been able to follow it. My mental blanking when the print spelled out a-d-o-r-n-m-e-n-t could not stop the flow of story from the book into my mind.

I found that the gaps in the text where I did not know words began to fill themselves in from the edges, as if by magic. It was not magic. I was beginning to acquire the refined and specialised sense of probability that a reader gets from frequent encounters with the texture of prose: not just the probabilities of which letters and words would follow each other that Shannon had studied, in his brief survey of language as one transmission system among many, but all the larger probabilities governing the shapes of paragraphs and chapters, all the way up to the over-arching rules — or meta-rules — of story itself, that grand repertoire of beginnings and middles and ends. Unknown words picked up meaning from the words around them; meanings that worked well enough in context, though sometimes I was completely wrong.

I remember there was an intermediate stage when strange words did not yet quite have a definite meaning of their own, but possessed a kind of atmosphere of meaning, which was a compromise between the meanings of all the other words which seemed to come up in conjunction with the unknown one, and which I had decided had a bearing on it. The holes in the text grew over, like this. The empty spaces thickened, took on qualities which at first were not their own, then became known in their own right.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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To achieve the effect, someone reading a book in English has to perform an intricate procedure at high speed: an act of double translation. First, you turn the printed characters into sounds. The alphabet is a set of arbitrary signs standing for the sounds of the spoken language; though not on a straightforward one-to-one basis. Groups of letters build up to represent a single unit of sound, or phoneme, and the sound they make is dictated by the combination. The animal that claws your leg as you watch TV is called a cat, not a kuh-ah-tuh, although as children we’re encouraged to pretend that each letter has its own unvarying sonic identity, to give us some purchase on the first stage of the code we’re learning to crack. Then the second stage. Spoken language is itself an arbitrary code in which the sounds that the human lips, larynx and tongue can produce — the phonemes — stand for the grammatical units, or morphemes, into which meaning is divided; though not on a straightforward one-to-one basis. So you translate writing into speech, and speech into meaning. Graphemes into phonemes, and phonemes into morphemes. The complexity of this arrangement allows simplicity at its front end. An alphabetic writing system is extraordinarily compact. It uses a very small number of symbols to express the whole range of possible meanings in a language. You can read English, or Arabic, or Russian, or Hindi by learning between twenty and thirty different squiggles, plus a few punctuation marks representing pauses of different length and intensity. In the traditional form of lead type, the entire roman alphabet — that is, the entire European technology of writing — will fit across the palm of one hand. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. …

As a dinky, discrete little system it lodges in your head among the knowledge of how to do things. Like whistling or riding a bicycle, it can be retrieved from memory without any effort at all. But the economy of the code comes at the price of some cognitive heavy lifting. There’s evidence that dyslexia is a significantly greater problem for children in the alphabet-using cultures than it is in China and Japan, where a written language based on ideograms asks the reader for a single, rather than a double, translation. With ideograms, the character correlates directly with the meaning: graphemes go straight to morphemes. On the other hand, the difficulty that alphabets internalise is externalised in Japan and China in the shape of the vast array of 35,000 or more characters. A Chinese poet or jurist, no matter how learned, will from time to time come across a character they don’t recognise. In a sense, they never finish learning to read. Sparing dementia, stroke, or major head injury, a literate alphabet-user will never come across any b or z they can’t read.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Context determines the meaning of every utterance, and every word of every utterance. Because we exist in time, the context that determines the meaning of every utterance and every word is constantly expanding. Each moment there is more context. What I said yesterday will be understood not only in its original context but also in the context of the events of today. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon, but subsequent events convinced many Americans that he was indeed a crook, and the subsequent events now set the context for the original statement. The ultimate meaning of any utterance is deferred until history is done, until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.

But what if that never happens? What if context determines meaning, and context keeps expanding indefinitely, forever and ever without closure, without a last word, without a final judgment, age after age, amen? This is Derrida’s view, and he uses explicitly theological language to confess what he disbelieves. He rejects eschatology, any hope that there will be “messianic” finale to human history.39 Context will expand forever, and therefore meaning, which arises from difference, will be deferred forever. We can never know in fullness what our texts or utterances mean, much less the texts produced by another, because we can’t know how the future context, and future texts, might affect the meaning of what we write and say.

This is Derrida’s concept of differance, which he punningly spells with an a rather than an e to capture the twin notions of “difference” and “deferral.” Meaning arises from difference, but precisely for that reason, meaning is endlessly deferred.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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Your third-grade teacher no doubt taught you that you should write well-formed English sentences, employing proper punctuation. If you don’t learn to write with sentences and proper punctuation, she warned, you’ll never get anywhere in life, because everything you said and wrote would be unintelligible. Unless you learn to write well-formed sentences and use punctuation properly, you’ll end up in prison or holding a sign scrawled with “Please help” at highway exits.

Yet even in our day, when the well-formed sentence is officially promoted as the key to sensible prose writing, there are many intelligible uses of language that do not employ well-formed sentences—lists, lecture notes, genealogies, stories told by children. Listen to a sports announcer for a half-hour, and I defy you to locate a single well-formed sentence.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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