Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 2

For Yuri. Continued from part one. Mostly redundancies from ~1~, in anticipation for dense textual work in ~3~ and following. 


Were one to construct things as we did at the outset, Yuri, as with my acquaintance and the abbot who gently retorted to him, then writing on paper would be a technology of concession to the inevitability of temporal and spatial distances, to ensure that some words can transmit in the absence of the speaker. The organic connection between speaker and audience is retained if they both know one another, as with most of the letters of St. Paul (with the Epistle to the Romans as, I think, the sole exception, if memory serves me), and as with the reminisces of the disciples of Elder Zosima. With regard to setting up words to persist after one’s death to reach audiences unknown, the organic connection between speaker and  audience being broken, written words would be regarded as decidedly inferior. This is part of what Gregory Palamas worried about regarding writing — and that excerpt from Palamas seems to capture much of what is involved in the kinds of writing, and problems with writing, on display in TBK.

Now, I have written before about the origin of poetry in Greece, as a preparation for talking about the change of medium from spoken word to written word (which shall be part two of that series), which ends in a consideration of modern media (part three). One of the things I shall likely point out in part two of that series is that the act of writing fundamentally changes the role of the bard who tells oral stories held in memory; formerly, if one wanted to know something, one needed to rely on those with superior memories; after the advent of widespread writing, however, memory is merely for the parlor trick of recitation, and the important words are not housed in the memory of the bard, but on a scroll. The words are separated from memory; one does not need to have a good memory to, say, be a good lawyer — one needs only to know where to go to find the right scrolls. (You know better, Yuri — is this not why you love the humanities as I do?) This is certainly a rupture in the identification of knowledge and memory; it changes the relationship between law-givers and those who handle the law; it it also signals a break in the organic connection between the law-giver and the law itself, for the law is there, as a text, and one does not simply hear it and remember it; one can look at it, put it down, think about it, go away, come back to it, write it out next to similar legislation from other law-givers and compare them, &c.

This is the case for all things, once they become texts, once they are committed to writing. One acquires a kind of sovereignty over what is written, if one can read — at least potentially. It may be that things that are written have more authority, precisely because they are written, and separated from the authority of the speaker (isn’t this why things written on Facebook are more threatening to people who disagree than the same words would, were they overheard in a coffee shop?). If one approaches what is written with the same disposition of vulnerability that one brought to written words, if texts can acquire a charismatic authority, by virtue of their aesthetic distance from a reader as texts (a feat for an individual, though perhaps a feature of the written medium), then perhaps this hermeneutic sovereignty is only a possible mode of engagement, a possible mode that, perhaps, is enabled by the translation of spoken words onto paper in the form of written words, but not demanded by it. This distance, if recognized by those who seek power or control or something of the sort, can be capitalized upon, and makes any such writing essentially marked not by the act of writing, but by the character and motives and purposes of the writer.

Though the advent of writing may have enabled all of this, it seems that the technology of writing did not immediately and fundamentally change the social dynamics of culture. Old habits die hard. Written words as a substitute for spoken words seems to be how the technology was first put to use. The letter writing of the New Testament is hundreds of years after the relatively widespread advent of literacy in the Greco-Roman world (Plato calls attention to this shift), and is, to varying degrees, marked by this, but obeys the urgencies of runners carrying messages from the frontlines of battle, rather than the slow accumulation and production of long-term projects. St. Paul’s letters show that they were intended to be read aloud in “the assembly” (the Sunday gathering). It even appears that they were read aloud repeatedly by those earliest communities; in a culture where only a few are literate, those people who read them became important for the community, because they could read aloud “the writings”, which would be heard. (I’ve read estimates in the ballpark of ten percent of the population being literate, though I’ve also read that figure contested; also, being able to read and being able to write are not the same skill, now or then.) To this day, the Orthodox Church has a minor ordained order: that of “Reader”. The function is the same, although with the advent of widespread literacy, its aura has gone the way of the bard (to the chagrin of many “Readers” whose FB profiles include their minor order the way that “Dr.” was once there, making it look like they’re almost LARPing, arrogating some authority to themselves that is really incomprehensible to me — though this is itself one way of using writing to gain authority, to perform credentials and value, and not unlike many characters in TBK).

At the outset, writing is proxy to speaking, whatever other unique operations it has or enables. If writing is inferior on this account, however, then this fact may cause one to reflect on other uses it might be put to, uses that may not only be inferior to spoken words, but altogether different in their intent and purpose. If writing conquers time and distance, writing could also be a way of seeking conquest, especially if the heart of the writer is insulated by the prophylactic of writing (which is more difficult for a speaker). Further, insofar as the one writing is writing about someone rather than something, it is curious that the heart of the one written about nowhere appears except in the writing; were one actually to meet the person written about in said writings, the one-written-about’s heart would be mediated to the vulnerable reader by the portrait painted in the writing (for the reader’s hearts are still vulnerable tablets, even when the speaker is insulated by the act of writing).


Header image is handwritten by Dostoyevsky himself regarding The Brothers Karamazov, and can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 3 | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Some Baseless Speculations about Christianity and Words and Speaking and Writing, With Regard to Hearts, and Regarding Dostoyevsky, Clumsily Conceived, Part 4 | Into the Clarities

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