“Scripture is poison, so to the holy one. Only when it is translated back into oral use, the spoken word, can my stomach tolerate it.” – Franz Rosenzweig
The ancient proscription of knowledge, of the knowledge especially of good and evil, falls heavy in our enlightened hears. Knowledge is our unqualified good, education the panacea by which the masses will become civilized. Civilized for what? Even the most unreflective of us knows that knowledge is bought at a terribly alienating price. The absolute moral standard, the unwavering law of good and evil snatches us inexorably from the naivety of our existence. Now, I cannot exist together with you in the simplicity of speech. Now, I must reflect, I have become a self, our unity has been torn asunder. You, and I, and between us this mediation – these Scriptures, this writing.
Writing makes speech more difficult. Now I must translate back, from the deposits of history, from the vast stores of the dreams of others. Translate back into an idiom which can be understood, not by some absent other, but by the one to whom I speak. I must learn to speak again, not as one writes, but as I am. Already, in the silent spaces of my mind, I can hear the crafty serpents hissing, “you’re just practicing a metaphysics of presence; outdated, idolatrous.” It isn’t so. This desire for proximity, for closeness, for the physicality of the word is my deep desire as a man, a human being. Writing is lonely, infinite loneliness. It reveals already the loneliness of speech; in the delicate dialectics of presence and absence, of yearning and seeing. So, we will not condemn writing or disparage of education. But it must be made palpable. To constantly take medicine won’t do. The Scriptures are overwhelming. Holiness is overwhelming, my mere mortality cannot stand up under its sheer weight. Yet what use is all the knowledge in the world if my own soul becomes a paralyzed deadweight and I cannot speak to you.
You will not surely die. The words of the serpent work their crafty magic. Immortality is promised, and indeed delivered, but only in a certain way; a disembodied way.
The codex, unalterable and terrible, devastates me, creature that I am. Its permanence makes possible the diabolical evils of which I previously would be incapable of even imagining. The longevity of my sins, of my errors, must now outlast me. The weight of the risk I take in communicating of myself now increases, but it is increasingly unclear how the words of my heart and my mouth can go out to become productive and to live on in the hearts and minds of others. Without a community, without a friend, I would surely have no stake in language itself. The seriousness of this loss is easily perceived in contemporary discussions on “free speech.” What is typically meant is a speech that is free, not in the sense of freedom and authenticity, but free in that it is not carefully considered responsive and responsible speech. The permanence and anonymity of writing, of a disembodied textuality, whose repercussions in the world of flesh and blood are all too real and usually violent. The immortality that is offered in the textual fabric of civilization, and the end of life.
The dream of redemption is ever-present. Even in the face of the terrors, and the horrors of history. In the face of the evolution of the craft of death there are signs of life. The poison of Scripture can, indeed must, be translated back into orality. We will learn, because we must, how to speak to one another. To do this we must ask difficult questions, ask them, especially, of each other. Thought cannot be the monologic stasis of a single self thinking itself into the world. The world; the community of human language, is already out there, and the thoughts and words that fill it take their place with respect to the complex ecology in which they abide and within the conversation of those living humans who populate this earth. The weight of words is a heavy burden, and if there is no certainty that they will not prove poisonous and vain then it would, perhaps, be better to be silent. But if our words are intimidating and oppressive, how much more terrifying our silences. After all, a complete refusal to engage in the compromised human world would not heal our deep and desperate need for communion.
And healing is what we need.