Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Holy Darkness of Words

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

  Exodus 20:21

Then said Solomon, The LORD hath said that he would dwell in the thick darkness.
 2 Chron 6:1  

I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
Isaiah 45:3

"Remember when I moved in you; the holy dark was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah"[1]

Usually I’m not a very big fan of artists adding their own tweaks to classic songs but I make an exception for Rufus Wainwright.  When recorded his version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah and he changed the words “holy dove” to “holy dark” he gave me a name for something I have been struggling to put my finger on for years.
"I remember that time you told me
"Love is touching souls"
Surely you touched mine
'Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time"

Words.  They bring us joy and sorrow.  They fill us with rapture and disgust.  We use them, abuse them, learn them, rhyme them, we define and redefine them. We love (with) them and we hate (with) them.  They have so much power* and I have to wonder, do words serve us or do we serve them?  We may shape them but they shape us as well.  They are the stuff of our thoughts.  They are the hammers and chisels that carve our very souls.

"There's a blaze of light In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah"

I suspect sometimes that words have a secret life of their own.  I know it sounds crazy but there are times when I listen to a song or read a piece of poetry or prose and I get the sense that the words are barely contained by paragraphs and punctuation.  They buckle and strain against their confinement, trying to break free, trying to take you deeper, show you more.  Sometimes they roll around your mind like snowballs, picking up thoughts and becoming ideas.  Sometimes they leave you with a sense of otherness, something hard to explain.  It’s like the words are bigger than they look.  They seem to show you something just outside your field of vision, something you can just glimpse through the corner of your mind’s eye.  You can’t really name it, you can’t really explain it but its there and it’s transcendent and big and very real and somehow unreal at the same time.
"I've always felt consumed by an air as thick as fever
All the way through my childhood
Even today your birthmark burns
In a sunshine haze you stay vulnerable"

So I guess calling it the holy dark is as good a term as any.
"I am elated in the twilight"[3]

There are many examples of times it seemed like there was something bigger behind the mere words.  Sometimes it took a bit of life experience to get it.  The Counting Crows have all these profound sounding lyrics that on closer inspection must be in-jokes (or just nonsense) because they make no rational sense.  But the song Long December suddenly made sense to me with my mom’s long illness, especially the line that talks about “the smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls”.  What does that mean?  I can’t tell you exactly.  And yet on some level that makes complete and utter sense to me now.  It resounds with me on a level I cannot quite express.  Similarly, I can’t tell you why the lines from Book of Love that goes:

“The book of love is long and boring
and written very long ago
it’s full of flowers and heart-shaped boxes
and things we're all too young to know”

I hear that last line and something inside me goes “Yes, that’s exactly right” but when I reply “What is?  What do you mean?” I find that I can’t answer me.  There is just something there, something almost tangible, something I almost understand.  It’s a holy darkness.  It’s nothing short of a numinous experience.

"The book of love has music in it
In fact that's where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb"

Now I grant you that the evolutionary explanation for why we experience the numinous - namely that our ancestors who felt there was something out there (even when there wasn’t) tended to live longer than those who didn’t feel there was something out there (when oftentimes there were) - is a very plausible explanation.  But I can’t help but wonder if the reason we have a sense of the numinous could instead be because our species grew up around the numinous, because there truly was something wholly other around us from our infancy – a seldom glimpsed mystery we could only reach for but never truly grasp.

"And even though It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"

This is one of the reasons why, for all my love of reason and rationality, for all my skepticism, I’m still a believer.  Try as I might, I simply cannot shake the conviction that there is something greater than myself, greater than us all out there.  I can’t tell you exactly why but that’s the holy dark sense that some words leave me with.

* George Orwell (in the brilliant and dreary Nineteen eighty four) suggested that he who controls the words control all – because if you cannot word it you cannot think it (and even if you could manage you could never express it) – something I find utterly profound and incredibly frightening.

[1] Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen / Jeff Buckley / Rufus Wainwright (Pick your favourite version)
[2] A case of you - Tori Amos (The cover far surpasses the original IMHO)
[3] In the Twillight - aKing
[4] Book of love - Peter Gabriel (Again, not the original artist but my favourite version)


GumbyTheCat said...

They seem to show you something just outside your field of vision, something you can just glimpse through the corner of your mind’s eye. You can’t really name it, you can’t really explain it but its there and it’s transcendent and big and very real and somehow unreal at the same time.

Excellently put.

In a somewhat crude analogy, this "holy darkness of words" reminds me of that feeling I get when a word is on the tip of my toungue but I just can't get it. It's that experience of almost grasping something fully, but it just evades the reach.

Words are clumsy artificial constructs built to convey the incredible finesse of the human thought process. They are like using a sledgehammer to build a Swiss watch.

No matter how often we read prose or poetry or listen to the lyrics of a song, as close as we come to fully understanding the emotions and thoughts the authors are trying to convey we just can't. I have found this "holy darkness of words" to be quite frustrating at times.

The holy darkness of words affects not just reading but writing as well. It tortures me when I try to write important blog posts. Posts where it is critical I convey my innermost thoughts effectively. I have found that it is simply impossible to illustrate the psyche with a few words. This will become a stumbling block as I try to describe my recent process of apostasy, which I will attempt to put together in the near future.

Words bring you tantalizingly close, but they don't get you all the way. They can't. Oh, to be a Betazoid.

Tania said...

Dude, this is profound. Any writer/poet will wholeheartedly agree. Power to the pen (and the heart that supports it)!

Plucky said...

The Apostle John referred to Jesus as "The Word." He also said that all things were created by "The Word" . . .

Scripture also says that Christ's spirit lives in us . . . Is it possible then that we have an element of that "creative power" in the words we speak?

I'm not trying to elicit debate on creationism as I already know our views differ and that difference is of little consequence to me or to my friendship with you . . . I'm just trying to make the point that our words are powerful and have an effect beyond our understanding which I think relates to your reference to "the holy darkness of words."