A Byzantine Epiphany

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The other day, I was composing a poem in the basilica of Sent Antuan in Istanbul, just before mass (you must forgive this opening: it’s so rarely I get the chance to make such a statement truthfully that I feel I must take the opportunity when it presents itself – and it is relevant, as a matter of fact).

The gist of the poem was that there were dangers in building in stone, as its permanence meant that what you were trying to express might outlast the capacity of people to understand it. This was prompted by a conversation we had been having the day before – about Sent Antuan (St Anthony’s) in fact – but also by thoughts that had occurred to me some time before in a different church, Holy Cross in Crosshill, Glasgow.

Holy Cross, designed by Pugin and built in 1911 (about the same time as Sent Antuan) has an interior that is very much an expression of nineteenth-century piety: carved stone angels abound. It could be called, in many repects, beautiful; the community that built it put a great deal of effort into it and must have been very proud of it, but to me it spoke a language I no longer understood – and that is the danger of building in stone: the stone stays the same, but the people (and their way of looking at things) change.

This thought came back to me later as I sprawled sultan-like on my divan (such behaviour is obligatory in Istanbul; besides, it was rather a wet and windy afternoon). By this time I was thinking about language and in particular the concept of what I will call ‘Literal Rationalism’.

That term calls for some explanation: what I mean by it is the way of thinking about things that arises after speech acquires a written or literal form. (It is worth noting and storing away the fact that, whereas speech is as old as humanity, letters and writing are a relatively recent invention – the oldest that we know just now is between five and six thousand years old; compare that with the wonderful cave paintings in France, Spain and Indonesia, which are between thirty and forty thousand years old – and it seems to have taken about a thousand years before anyone thought to use letters to write what we would call literature. The relevance of that will become apparent later, I hope)

What happens after speech acquires a written form – a long time after, since the process is gradual and ongoing – is that language develops a dual character, with the two aspects being not complementary but antithetical.

What is the nature of this antithesis? Not so long ago, my answer would have been to quote this latin maxim:

vox audita perit; littera scripta manet

(the voice heard perishes; the written word remains)

In other words, speech is fleeting; writing lasts.

That, after all, is surely what makes writing such a brilliant invention – it allows learning to be captured and transmitted from one generation to the next; it is, arguably, what makes the modern world possible, a necessary though not a sufficient condition for the industrial and technological revolutions that have shaped the way we live now.

Yet there on that wet and windy Sunday afternoon in Istanbul (following, as it happens, by the wonders of technology, my football team’s agonising defeat in the Scottish Cup semi-final, via computer links to the BBC and – of all places – Shetland) I recalled what I had been thinking about that morning, and I had an epiphany, a sudden and dazzling insight –

that Latin maxim was, quite simply, not true; it was little more than propaganda for the Literal Rationalist outlook

– on the one hand, the vaunted permanence of the written word was the same as those stone angels in Glasgow: the mere capacity for its form to survive was no guarantee that its content remained comprehensible (a notion neatly embodied in the Phaestos disc which is written in a language no-one now can read)

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while on the other hand, the assertion that speech is ephemeral – ‘vox audita perit’ – might be true in a trivial sense, as a description of the behaviour of sound-waves, but in the larger sense it was utter nonsense, the very opposite of the truth.

My father, who was an English teacher before becoming a headmaster, was a great reciter of verse: driving us to school of a dark morning he would declaim

Tis morn, but scarce yon level sun

can pierce the war-clouds rolling dun

where furious Frank and fiery Hun

fight in their sulphurous canopy!

or, as an alternative,

On Linden when the sun was low

all bloodless lay the untrodden snow

and dark as winter was the flow

of Iser, rolling rapidly

If it was a better morning he might say

Awake! for morning in the bowl of night

has cast the stone that put the stars to flight

and Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught

the Sultan’s turret in a noose of light!

While in April (as it is now) he could be depended on to give us

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Housman was the poet of his youth – he was born in 1913, on Easter Day – and another favourite recital came on the last night of November, at the back door (and indeed at other times when the weather was appropriate)

The night is freezing fast;

tomorrow comes December

and winter falls of old

are with me from the past;

and chiefly I remember

how Dick would hate the cold…

It was many years before I ever saw the text of any of those poems, and I have not had to look them up now (apart from the second line of ‘Loveliest of trees’); my point being that, as my recollection of my father’s recitations clearly demonstrates, the word heard does not perish: on the contrary, it lodges in the mind and stays there, as these lines (and many others) have for the better part of half a century.

And that is nothing to do with any unusual capacity on my part; rather it is an inherent quality of poetry in particular, and ‘sounding’ speech generally – because the utterance of speech, the pattern of sound waves, is ephemeral, it must use all the available resources – rhythm, rhyme, striking imagery, pleasing patterns – to make itself memorable; it is only the written form that need not make that effort.

So, to conclude for the present – for there is much more to be said here, believe me – the anithesis is not

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but rather

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and do not protest that writing can be all the things on the left, too – indeed it can, but these are but the clothes it borrows from speech to conceal its true nature, as delineated on the right.

I will look at this in more detail shortly.

2 thoughts on “A Byzantine Epiphany

  1. Yay for speech! As I was reading along, my mind was already protesting but then came your epiphany so all was good. Traditional oral storytelling (Seanchaí) is a spoken form that is still much about here in Ireland , It is seen as an art. Besides that, read a book to a child and that is wonderful! but just say the words(With no book in hand) ‘ once upon a time’ and they will gather round you with eyes wide with wonder . Lovely and thought provoking piece John.

  2. Very interesting thoughts. It is true for me too (and perhaps we can say for most people?) that it is the recollection of spoken words which most readily brings back absent friends. Certain quirks of expression with all their idiosyncratic intonation are about as close to a definition of personal identity as the memory can get (come to think of it – how much more difficult would the Turing Test become if it had to be conducted in voiced language?!) The deceptive nature of the spoken/written dichotomy is something Derrida et al loved to discuss. If there was ever a time when the two modes of expression could be clearly separated and defined, it is long gone I think. Your father’s recited verses were of course written and re-written until they were memorable enough to echo down the generations. But I agree entirely that ‘literal rationalism’ is always in need of a corrective! So thanks for sharing this.

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