“I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service. I cannot express myself in English without enclosing myself in a tradition.”—James Joyce to a friend, from Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce
Unlike the East, we here in the West suffer a sort of paucity of the mystic tongue. Sure, we have plenty of mystic forebears, but they did their thing under the church’s always-poised-to-fall menacing mallet. (Ooh but I’m in a poetic mood this morning!)
Even after good ole’ Martin Luther shed much of the Roman Catholic trappings we remained hobbled by the mill stone that is a book too slavishly adhered to. Whether we will or not, until very recently we’ve observed the spiritual world through the variegated pages of the Bible.
All languages come with baggage, as Jamey Joyce was alluding to in the above quote. How does one who sees and experiences the world in a different way from the vast majority of his or her contemporaries convey that sense of reality to others? How does one communicate when the language one is born into is bound to old ways and no longer serves a budding new?
Ironically, Christianity is built around the memory of a man who paid the ultimate price for just that very thing. “Would you put new wine into old skins?” asked Jesus.
Dang, talk about baggage!
Anyway, Joseph Campbell writes:
“The art required is to make sounds, words, and forms, whether of base or of noble provenance, open out in back, as it were, to eternity, and this requires of the artist that he should himself, in his individual experience, have touched anew that still point in this turning world of which the immemorial mythic forms are the symbols and guarantee.”— Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology
Sounds, words, forms that open out in back—not to a way of life and spirituality lived 2000 years ago—but to eternity. There’s the rub.
We Westerners can and do borrow from past traditions not our own, but how much richer would it be for ourselves and perhaps all humanity if we truly embraced our own unique heritage.
Then could we humans truly move forward, truly transcend traditions, and experience life as it is… a world full of wonders.
A footnote with quotes:
What have we Westerners to add?
Joyce glimpsed it back in 1915, remarking as he did to a friend: “I’d like a language which is above all languages, a language to which all will do service.” He would go on to create his own version of that language in his monumentally unreadable Finnegans Wake.
Here again, as quoted days ago, is Joseph Campbell:
“Looking back today over the twelve delightful years that I spent on this richly rewarding enterprise, I find that its main result for me has been its confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and, today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.”—Joseph Campbell, on completion of his Masks Of God series
Forgive me, but one more, by Hermann Hesse:
“Similarly, the symbols and formulas of the Glass Bead Game combined structurally, musically, and philosophically within the framework of a universal language, were nourished by all the sciences and arts, and strove in play to achieve perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality. Thus ‘realizing’ was a favorite expression among the players. They considered their Games a path from Becoming to Being, from potentiality to reality.”—Hermann Hesse, Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game
Three men, in their own way driving at the same thing. However, they have passed and as much as I look around, layman that I am, I see no one carrying on their work. Granted, glimmers are everywhere, but without the work, without, as Campbell says, “… the artist… in his individual experience, touching anew that still point in this turning world of which the immemorial mythic forms are the symbols and guarantee…” we cannot escape the prison bars of tradition, we cannot experience this world of ours as it truly is.