Walking With Wonder

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Wonder GirlOn Writing

Lately writing has been on my mind, partly because for the past nine months I've been on the faculty for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Vermont. I also have been thinking about writing, and words, because of a lecture on language given at Vassar College by James Hillman. Hillman is the founder of the post-Jungian school of psychology known as Archetypal Psychology. His concept of "soul-making" (a term borrowed from the poet John Keats) was partly what inspired me years ago to ask the Tarot "What is soul?" the question that began the practice I call Wisdom Readings. Following Hillman (and another of my favorite writers, Roberto Calasso, author of Literature and the Gods), we might say that literature, the union of art and story, is the place where the soul meets the Goddes.

Anyone who has ever studied writing in America will know of a book that has become the orthodoxy of correct practice. Called The Elements of Style, or sometimes just the names of its authors, Strunk and White, the book preaches simplicity and conciseness. Always use as few words as possible, it tells us. Be as clear and unambiguous as possible. Avoid adjectives, and adverbs, and all ornament. Use short words rather than long words, and words of Anglo-Saxon origin over words of Latin origin. "Strunk" and "White," as Hillman pointed out, are Anglo-Saxon names of one syllable.

More significantly, Hillman suggested that the entire doctrine of Elements of Style in fact comes from the Puritan tradition of the "plain style" of speech and writing (the expression comes from historian Perry Miller, in his book The New England Mind). The Puritans believed we must speak and write plainly, without adornment or subtlety, without excess or ambiguity. Fundamentalists want us to read the Bible this way, without any interpretation or complexity that might lead us away from the supposedly clear, literal meaning. Everything in the Bible, they tell us, is obvious and direct, and factually true.

It was Hillman's brilliant observation to connect the Plain Style of the Puritans, and the literalism of the fundamentalists, to The Elements of Style. But is the Bible really plain and simple? It is concise, yes, probably more so than we imagine when we read it in English. But simple?

Hebrew and Greek, the languages of the "Old and New Testaments," contain special qualities that open to great subtlety. Hebrew is written without vowels, which means that several different words will have the same letters. If English were written this way, the words "god", "good", and "guide" would all be written GD (these two letters also form the initials of the Golden Dawn, the occult group that synthesized Tarot and Kabbalah).

In both Hebrew and Greek every letter has a numerical equivalent. This means that words add up to numbers, and two words that may seem totally unconnected belong together because they have the same number. One famous example in Hebrew is the words for "snake" and "messiah." An Israeli friend of mine once told me that he did not see how anyone could read the Hebrew Bible in translation, because words and phrases lost so much of their subtle meanings. On a radio show awhile ago I heard an American Muslim say the same thing about the Qur'an, for Arabic too is written without vowels and with numerical values for the letters.

Greek, the language of the New Testament, does contain vowels as letters, making it harder to link unusual words by their spelling. However, many people believe that the numerical linking, called in Hebrew "gematria," actually began with the Greeks, and the mystic mathematician Pythagoras.

Even the grammar and sentence structure of the Bible are not so "plain" as the Puritans liked to believe. Does the first book really start "In the beginning, God createdÖ"? Scholars have argued for various other possibilities, including the wonderful "In the beginning God was created."

The ancient rabbis and the early Church theologians give us a very different approach to scripture and its language than the Puritans or fundamentalists, with their insistence that everything is simple and direct and literal. For the great Rabbi Akiva (shortly after the time of Jesus) every word, every letter, even the seeming ornaments above the letters, contained layers and layers of meaning. People can sometimes get lost in such detail, but what a model for writing it gives us!

The interpreters looked at four levels of understanding, based on the four letters (consonants) of the Hebrew word PaRDeS, which means Paradise (both the Hebrew and the English derive from the Persian word paradeiza, which means "garden"). P stood for the literal meaning, R an intellectual understanding, D a wider awareness of possible meanings, and S mystical secrets hidden in the other levels. Someone who could grasp all the levels would enter a "paradise" of true knowledge. The process of reading becomes a mystical quest. Such a quest could not exist if we insisted on a "plain" meaning for all statements.

Over a thousand years after Akiva, the great Christian poet Dante Alighieri took a very similar approach to the Bible and all true literature. He described four levels of meaning, the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the mystical. For Dante, the famous opening of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God," means far more than the fundamentalist notion that every word in the Bible comes from God and must never be questioned.

Genesis itself gives us a fascinating view of language and its possibilities. Many people will remember that Adam names the beasts in the Garden of Eden. Over time people have taken this to mean that Adam gives the animals their "true" names, and even gains control over them through this naming. The passage has become a favorite of modern Puritans who want to believe that nature exists for human exploitation.

But does the Bible actually say these things? Here is the sentence, from The New English Bible: [God] brought [the animals] to the man to see what he would call them." In other words, God is simply curious to find out what names Adam might give them. It goes on to say "and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name," but there is nothing here about the animals' "true" name, and certainly nothing about control. The issue is not one of fixed meaning, but of creativity.

Should we ditch the plainness of The Elements of Style? Certainly not, if we would replace it with jargon, or pomposity. But let us simply remember that words, and sentences, have many possible meanings, and clarity and ambiguity can support each other. And let us remember as well that the path of language is the path of God's curiosity, so that the journeys we take with our words may become the journey to Paradise.

— April 2003

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