What follows is an excerpt from the upcoming “A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness” (White Cloud Press, Spring 2011). So, onwards…
I want to deepen this idea of a crossroads, by how it relates both to initiatory practice and the relationship between speech and literature. It would be useful to get a sense of where the ideas in this book place themselves, situated both in oral myth-telling and the page.
The philosopher Jaques Derrida maintained that for over 3,000 years of Western philosophy, philosophers have claimed logocentrism–that the voice is the center, from Plato to Aristotle, to Rosseau, Hegel and Husseri. So languages are made to be spoken. Writing serves only as a support to speech. This idea would regard speech as exterior to thought, and writing as exterior to speech. There is a clear and distinct sense of hierarchy—a regression from mind to voice to letter.
From the perspective of logocentrism, presence is implicit in the communication of speech, but for writing, absence is the defining characteristic. So with speech, the listener and speaker are both present in time, and present to the succession of words from the mouth. The image of letters on a page, wrapped in an envelope, and sent to a distant figure, illustrates the concept of absence.
So writing becomes marginalized, quite opposed to Derrida’s notion that the development of modern language actually derives from an interplay of speech and writing, therefore one cannot claim primacy over the other.
Like keen-eye Trickster, Derrida also disrupts this old oppositional thinking by locating what he calls “undecidables.” Specifically concepts or words that cannot be brought into a binary logic. They unsettle. A phrase like Pharmakon, which means both poison and remedy. An “undecidable” within the context of a wilderness rite- of-passage would be contact with a spirit—rarely conforming to a hegemonic form—something neither male or female, a disruption to normality. Indeterminacy–it indicates no precision, clarity, or easy definition. Initiatory process indicates that it is only in the surrender to this difficult awareness that any real vision can ultimately arise (hence the severing from certainty that takes place). Initiation places you in the slippery crucible of paradox. With time this evolves, and insights emerge, but not without the profound drop into this contrary Underworld. You are neither Village or Forest, but some other, subtle thing. The world turned upside down. It’s a hard thing to talk about.
This book’s position is one of intense interplay, a shuttling between. Speech is occurring within the writing and writing is occurring within the speech. Many insights have come from telling a story orally, which is in turn influenced by years at the desk. What arrives seems to have a liminal touch, a betwixt and between. For the book to work within what Derrida—and Heidegger before him—refers to as “the metaphysics of presence” (the old position), the crossroads motif cannot exist, no matter how nebulous.
Interestingly, the logocentric is a position many oral storytellers would support, being central to their craft. I disagree. Where I do speak up is in the call for the spontaneous within an oral telling, the wild intelligence that arrives in the moment—but that does not belittle writing or its influence, just a script used inappropriately.
Like Trickster, Derrida is not interested in eradicating what came before, but in helping to engender some new constellation. He also draws from the past—writing about literary texts— while using such a contrary linguistic style it appears that the sentences are breaking down and reconfiguring in front of your eyes.
By working with host texts, Derrida actually requires the oppositions of past literature to find the instabilities that open the ground of uncertainty. Think again of Trickster: “The god of the roads (Trickster) needs the more settled territories before his traveling means very much. If everyone travels, the result is not the apotheosis of trickster but another form of his demise,” explains Lewis Hyde.19 This is an ancient ritual arrangement, the trammelling of boundaries to ensure that vitality tickles the status quo and life continues to grow. Trickster is nothing without something to rub up against.
As Derrida shakes the foundations of both structuralism and phenomenology, there is a loyalty to some wild spirit of investiga- tion that is both troubling and refreshing. As an old oak collapses, at the same moment a green shoot leaps from the earth. Speech and writing always hold the energies of history, influence, and repetition among them. Derrida is in the business of hints and diffusion, traditional attributes of the Underworld journey, rather than brightly lit sound bites. Still, when the young initiates are led from the village, they are blindfolded, spun round, turned up side down–they are now in submission to a fiercer dynamic. This is all in the nature of rupture. Derrida is being true to his work.
So how does metaphor assist this Road of Voice? Through approaching the old stories in this book it becomes clear just how crucial the role of metaphor is. Metaphor is the great leap, the generous offering of many possibilities contained in one image. So what is underneath metaphor in speech and writing?
Paul Ricouer claims that metaphor has a unique structure but two functions: it exists either in the realm of rhetoric—as an aide to persuasion, or tragedy—to establish a poetic sentiment. The poetic is not attempting to offer proof but representation, while metaphor in service to rhetoric becomes caught up in the configuration of rhetoric-proof-persuasion. When metaphor dwells in poetry the triad is poiesis-mimesis-catharsis.
Within this book it appears that the function of metaphor oscillates between the two—rhetoric as the voice of village, poetry as the voice of the forest. To place undue emphasis on either creates an unrealistic perception of the whole. Of course, an element of persuasion exists—if only to suggest that poetry can hold deeper reflections than just the literal. In that light, the two streams Ricouer offers are mutually supportive of each other.
The writer Hugo Ball regarded language as so entrenched in the rhetoric of politics and warfare he claimed that the binding force of syntax must be entirely broken so a poetry beyond words could be born. He says,“one relinquishes, lock, stock, and barrel the language which journalism has polluted and made impossible. You withdraw into the inmost alchemy of the word. Then let the word be sacrificed as well, so as to preserve for poetry its last and holiest domain.”11 While I admire the intensity of his position, Ball’s argument indicates too severe a break from “village” thought and mode of expression. The role of initiates as they wander into physical landscape or the obtuse terrain of poetry is to add and challenge the existing pantheon of village expression, not deny it completely.
George Steiner, in ‘After Babel‘, makes an explicit link between language and the erotic: Eros and language mesh at every point … are there affinities between pathological erotic compulsions and the search, obsessive in certain poets and logicians, for a “private language,” for a linguistic system unique to the needs and perceptions of the user?12
I am not seeking a specifically private language. However, I would suggest that with the use of metaphor, especially utilizing Ricouer’s association (just illustrated) with poetry, I hope to encourage the imagination, and where can the erotic begin except with imagination? Words of bite, substance, and imagination have a tremendously erotic undertow wherever we are lucky enough to find them.
Martin Shaw 2011 copyright White Cloud Press
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