34. Sacred language

Orwell says in his famous novel: when each word will have only one meaning, thinking in the forms we know will cease to exist. We are witnessing the fulfilment of this prediction, or rather we are already on the other side of the divide between thought and its absence. The disappearance of thought is directly linked to the depletion and shallowing of the expressive power of language. Language is the most divine thing after our mind, and the weakening of language means the weakening of all things human.

The coup d’état of 1917 and the subsequent misfortunes in Russia showed how much thinking is connected with language, its forms and expressive means. Moreover, now, from a distance, one can see that the collapse of Russian speech preceded the devastation of culture, turning it first into something serviceable (under the ‘new order’), and then into something purely entertaining, appealing to the poorest and simplest in man.

And the other is seen from a distance. Language not only has form and meaning; it is sacred in its own way, as a value created by generations and nurturing generations. Of course, this dual role is not peculiar to language in its entirety, but only to a certain part of it, a core which I would call sacred language or sacred speech. The raison d’être of this nucleus is not merely the ‘expression of thoughts’, but the accumulation of means for expressing the inner life of man. This is the most difficult but also the most rewarding of the uses of language.

I say sacred, but the main characteristic of this language is not sacredness, but power. All jargon follows the road away from sacred language towards greater flatness, insufficient means and outright poverty. Lingua sacra gives thought power, jargon impoverishes thought.

Sacred language, in which words have many meanings, are internally connected, many-layered, exist outside of time — contrasts with the language of newspapers and science, the language of semi-education, where each word either has only one meaning, or, conversely, the meaning of the word is not at all clear, so that it is used at random. The sacred language is precise as well as many-layered; it is the source material for poetry, literature and thought. It has been developed by the spiritual life of generations — as opposed to the fruit of years of oversimplification, the ‘flat language’ of schools and newspapers.

The difference between sacred and flat language is the difference between the two types of thinking. One who does not speak lingua sacra is not just unable to understand words: he cannot follow thought, he cannot hear overtones and reflections. A large part of the power of sacred language is self-knowledge; not for nothing is it the language of Scripture and poetry. He, who has not thought about himself, who has not heard his soul, who has not looked inwardly, even a little, does not understand this language. It does not follow from this that Old English or Church Slavonic give special strength to the mind: not at all. But in a language of culture, which by definition is many-layered, they make up one of the layers, and one of the deepest.  [2] There is no self-recognition in jargon, as I said before.

Sacred language is layered, it is the condensed sum of expressive means over several centuries; jargon is flat, always new, always today. Novelty and flatness coexist in it.

Poetry as such is not yet lingua sacra. However, it is always an impulse in the right direction because it is nourished by the desire to express the inexpressible, the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, ultimately God, through the power of unambiguous secular language. Jargon is not coincidentally associated with godlessness, as there is no place for any encompassing unity, super-unity, where there is either a single concept or none at all behind a word. Poetry makes flat language spatial, comprehensive, expanding the volume of thoughts which can be transferred — on its heights, of course; and the mature, deep prose goes even further in this respect than poetry.

Lingua sacra is always present in the language, although its share is not constant. In times of undisturbed inheritance it is stronger; in times of destruction it almost disappears, as now.

Flat language knows only two purposes: to induce action or to state facts. Where sacred speech induces thought or conveys feeling, in a word, engages the reader with the spiritual life of the author, flat speech is mute. In flat speech, no colouring of what is written in the tones of the writer’s inner life, be it sadness, or joy, or scepticism, is possible. Words are driven in like nails. The meaning (if there is one) is conveyed by the words, not by what’s between them. But the real art of prose is precisely the art of conveying meaning beyond the words themselves. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, the meaning of the written word is not in the transmission of facts alone. Of course, there are also written words meant only for this purpose. But the main purpose of literature is to continue the human spirit in time. Flat speech does not cope with this task, does not even attempt it.

True literature, the very one that produces sacred speech, always belongs to the realm of scripta manent.  Here it is not without the immortality of the soul, however small, indirectly, through books. ‘In my sacred lyre / My spirit shall outlive my dust’s corruption’, Pushkin said of this very thing. The soul, in time, goes beyond the edge of the world, and in the world it remains in nothing else but words, spoken with sufficient force. The realm of flat language deprives entire generations of this small and mediated afterlife…

The expression le style c’est l’homme [3] is not suitable for flat language: there is no person in it. The elimination of the human being from language is the process by which flat language is created. This process under the New Order took two paths: first, through the simplification and flattening of the person, and second, through the ruthless redaction of everything that passed through the censorship created by the New Order. The impersonality, the powerlessness, the pallor of writing are now the hallmarks of ‘science’ and ‘literature’… I am talking, of course, about literature with a claim to importance. Entertainment literature has never had its own face, imitating the thoughts and expressions peculiar to its reader, the little man who wants to have a rest with a book.

Lingua sacra and jargon (or ‘deep’ and ‘flat’ speech) are not simply different styles. Behind each is a different way of thinking. The very thought process that leads to them is different. The spread of ‘flat speech’ over a large space, over a long period of time, eventually creates a new nation in place of the old one, whose name and place of residence it shares.

Yes, language, or, what is the same, a way of thinking, creates a nation. Since the force of time is hostile to sacred speech and has almost stopped its development, it is not a change in the style, but a change of one way of thinking by another, hence one nation by another, of the same name, but totally alien to the former. A new people emerges, speaking and feeling in jargon.

In the old world there was no sharply defined divide between the sacred language and the everyday language; even people of shallow enlightenment were sufficiently affected by the complexity and richness of the lingua sacra. Flat language came into force only under the new order and its efforts. In fact, flat language created, in place of the former Russian people, a new nation incapable of perceiving complexity and depth. The gap was exacerbated by the collapse of the ‘new order’ in 1991. Now this new nation, ‘people of Russia’ in the place of ‘Russian people’, can be considered established, and there is little reason to hope that it — in the person of its cultural class — will ever overcome the flatness of thought and expression and return to national foundations. After all, it is not just the ability to think that is disappearing — it is the knowledge and understanding of the expressive means accumulated over the centuries.

And on jargon, of course, one can build a civilization, but at its very foundations it will deny any inexpressible remainder in man and the world. A seeming clarity and simplicity will distinguish all its judgments. A culture without self-knowledge, with only the knowledge of things, will be built.

Flat language educates a mind capable only of wandering in the dark corners of applied questions: ‘Dostoevsky and..’., ‘Leo Tolstoy as..’. He is not trained to go the direct route, to ask his own questions, and this is ‘unscientific’. Science — we must say this firmly — is on the side of flat speech and against sacred speech. For its narrow purposes, redundant, rich, multi-valued language, able to define a thing from different angles, is not needed; on the contrary, the rule ‘one word — one meaning’ suits it just fine.

In the realm of flat language, literature is a ‘service force’ whose task is ‘propaganda’, as Dobrolyubov put it, or to entertain the masses, adds the newest era. The life of the spirit is destroyed with the withdrawal of the word that expresses the spirit. By depriving a man of the gift of profound speech, it is easy to indoctrinate him into materialism. No wonder that people, formed by flat speech, are so hungry for everything murky, unformed, vague: in the mud of words they see the depth. They are impressed by anything obscure by virtue of their lack of personal spiritual experience. If they had that experience, they would know that the depth is clear.

Those brought up in flat speech look for a different kind of reading than we do. For them, what is written is not the key to the sum of inner experiences, but a ready-to-use ‘truth’, an instruction to action, something that requires passive assimilation and imitation rather than internal labour. If there is no instruction in what is read, the persons of flat culture do not understand what they have spent their time on.

The culture created by flat speech is thoroughly materialistic, not because science has supposedly ‘dispelled the darkness of ignorance’, but because the inexpressible remainder, that truly human which is at the same time divine, cannot even be approximated by means of flat speech. Rooted in sacred language, religion is replaced by cults, the main feature of which can be called the slurred speech of their prophets (Roerich, Blavatskaya, Gurdjieff). As is his custom, the man of the flat world looks for depth where there is only murk. Flat culture is quite impermeable to meaning. In reading it seeks either entertainment or a guide to action. A book for people of that culture is either a reference, or a textbook, or a substitute for vodka, but never a nourishing medium for the mind.

In order to overcome ‘flat language’ and the thinking it engenders, the so-called ‘enlightenment’ is not enough. On the contrary, it is school, that is, the assimilation of a certain amount of technical knowledge, the reading of a book or two of a technical nature, that produces flat thinking.

The school, unfortunately, has long been on the side of resolute simplification. Before 1917 these simplistic motives were extinguished by the government, and the school, with all its simplistic inclinations, still prepared the individual for hard mental work.

As for ‘knowledge’ as such, it does not protect against flat thinking, worse still: a certain kind of knowledge produces this thinking. There is nothing worse than the imaginary knowledge of ‘how things work’, the brainchild of the new school and ‘popular science literature’. First, it is illusory (after all, we have more opinions than knowledge outside grammar and chemistry); second, it teaches us to look down on everything human as if it were of little importance compared to ‘exact sciences’ third, it gives the mind a false serenity, suggesting that all important questions have long since been answered. With this knowledge, the worldview of a technician, prosperous in his ignorance, is created.

In order to restore depth and height to thought, we must abandon the ideal of simplification, of generality, of ‘real education’ as the only educational option available. The argument between ‘real’ and ‘classical’ is only cut short by the ‘new order’, but it is not over. The point of classical education is to train the mind to work on non-technical, i. e. essential, questions — which is what we need most today.

[1] This essay and the two that follow have no direct connection to Twilight Time, but I have included them in the book as they are ultimately adjacent to its main issues: about the national, the complex and the sacred.

[2] In Russia, the rejection of traditional orthography, i. e. fidelity to tradition in language, is inseparable from an adherence to flat speech, if not outright jargon.

[3] ‘Style is a person’.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

Back to Twilight Time

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