Monday, August 09, 2010

`A Child Prattles No Less Convincingly'

“Such utterances as `Hippo gerosto niparos boorastin farini O fastor sungor boorinos epoongos menati’, or `Hey amei Hassan alla do hoc alors lore has heo massan amor ho ti prov his aso me’, hardly bear out the claim that `the languages are distinct, well-inflected, well-compacted languages’. The philology of another world does not abide our question, but if we are to judge these results by merely human standards, we must admit that a child prattles no less convincingly.”

This is Ronald Knox in Chapter XXII of Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950), “Some Vagaries of Modern Revivalism.” He is addressing glossolaly, or glossolalia – speaking in tongues, or the gift of tongues, specifically as practiced by followers of the Scottish clergyman Edward Irving (1793-1834), known as Irvingites. The tone of Knox’s pages on this phenomenon are skeptical and drily amusing. He writes:

“…nobody who is present in a merely inquiring spirit will be impressed by the sight of A talking gibberish and B saying the gibberish means this and that. But I doubt if Irving thought of the tongues as evidential in that sense. Rather, he seems to have valued them because they gave people fresh opportunities of exercising faith: you were to leave your `understanding’ behind when you entered the doors of Regent Square.”

The two sentences of glossolaly Knox quotes in the first passage (taken from Andrew Lansdale Drummond’s Edward Irving and His Circle, 1937) seem oddly familiar in two senses. My spell-check software failed to recognize eighteen of the twenty-nine words. Of the eleven it recognizes, six begin with “h” -- “Hey,” “Hassan,” “hoc,” “has,” “ho,” “his.” Superficially, the sentences resemble an Esperanto-like mish-mash of Romantic and Germanic elements. The sentences are “gibberish,” in Knox’s sense, but familiar gibberish. Given the way our minds work, it’s notoriously difficult to generate random numbers, words or sounds without assistance, mechanical or digital. We like pattern and form.

Second, the glossolaly reminded me of much work by the so-called Language Poets and their confreres. Consider this sample from Bob Grumman’s “Mathemaku 6-12”:

“(August afternoon)( ) – swans = willow.wwwwwww…”

And so forth. One hopes in vain for a whiff of parody but it’s not to be found. The convergence of avant-garde poetry and possession by the Holy Spirit is a spectacle to savor. As Knox says:

“Whether you found the performance impressive was, I suppose, a matter of temperament.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks for the Grumman quote and link. I actually like these, the way they try to abstract poetic feeling to mathematical equations.

Like the transcribed tongues, they show how raw feeling must rely on some kind of structure to be expressed. Even randomly generated poems rely on rules.

And how even a child's gibberish is generous with interpretative possibilities.

Pretensions to wordlessness, I think, are as old as words. Glossalia is simply a wilder and more heart-centered version of a buddhist koan.

Words just get in the way of understanding. That's why we love them so much.