Saturday, May 15, 2010

Second day: the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit

We proceed to examine our topic, the High Technology of Prayer.

One of the sillier antagonisms of our times is the one which tries to rank "science" against "art". I say it is silly, since "art" is nothing more than a thing done by Man, and "science" is nothing more than a thing known by Man - and in nearly all cases which come to mind, doing and knowing are so inter-related that it is (as I said) SILLY to think they are separate.

Of course it is true that the typical scientist spends more time studying and doing math and forces or circuits or structures - the things of the world and the typical artist (in the large sense) spends more time studying and doing words and dates and thoughts - the things of humanity. Again I find it silly, since the scientist has to use words - in other words, reading and writing, and the whole panoply of human arts - in his work, in order to acquire or disseminate his ideas. The artist has to use things - in other words, media, paper, pens, and the whole panoply of communication, that is the technical arts - in his work, also in order to acquire or disseminate his ideas.

Moreover, the singular art which is the also the singular science, the fountainhead of all other such things in the Tree of Virtues, is Language. Whether we come at it by the extreme mathematics of Finite State Automata, and all the glamors of the formalisms from Boolean Algebra to Turing Machines, or by the curious hypotheses of Indo-European Roots and the glamors of the three-consonant Semitic roots or the structures of poems and plays, we always approach it "from the inside" - since we cannot ever really get "outside" of Language to study it. In the neums of Gregorian Chant, as in the diagrams of Petri Nets, We always find ourselves erecting systems of signs to represent our thoughts. As Chestertonians, we might recall things like "The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd" in The Club of Queer Trades, or the hilarious mechanisms for character names GKC proposed when his sister-in-law got in trouble for using the name of a real person in a novel. [See Autobiography CW16:181-4] Of course the suggestion to use "numbers" rather than "names" ought to suggest that our Mr. Chesterton was a fore-runner in the theory of compiler design and file-system schemes, to rank with Von Neumann's "Code is Data" paradigm... but I digress.

No, the greatest Science, and the greatest Art, truly the sine qua non of civilisation, is Language, in both spoken and written forms. It is indeed so wonderful a gift that we are given it so early in life that most of us forget that we have been given it.... unless, as adults, we made the attempt to acquire another language, at which point we find out how incredibly hard it really is!

Language is of course a great mystery as well as a great gift. It is so important that it is one of the few human acts about which there is a specific commandment (the one about bearing false witness). If only we could feel the power, the majesty, that ought to gleam out from our powers of speech and of hearing, of writing (I must include typing here) and reading! Ah, if only there was a religious ritual - perhaps of the old pagan form, since the moderns don't seem to be creative - perhaps a temple - its symbol would have to be the door-knocker, on which Chesterton heaped such extravagant praise:
a door-knocker is so full of significance that any person of quite average intelligence might write volumes of poems about it. It is - to name but a few of the things beyond question - the symbol of courtesy, the guardian of the home, the declaration of the proposed meeting between man and man, the salute to the rights of the individual, the sign of the bringing of news, the herald of happiness, the herald of calamity, the iron hammer of love and death. That we have a knocker on our doors means almost everything that is meant by the whole of our ritual and literature. It means that we are not boors and barbarians; that we do not call on a man by climbing into the window or dropping down the chimney. It means all that was ever meant by the old fairy stories, in which a horn was hung up outside the castle of the giant or the magician, so that the daring visitor might have to blow it, and utter in echoing sound the thing that he dared. That trumpet, somewhat conventionalised in pattern and no longer, I must admit, adaptable as a wind instrument, still hangs outside every door in Brixton. It is still there, however neglected and debased in form, to express a dim sentiment that it is a serious thing to go into the house of a man. It is there to say that the meeting between one of God's images and another is a grave and dreadful matter, to be begun with thunder.
[GKC Lunacy and Letters, 66-7]

But therefore - no. Let me start again, with Chesterton's own emphatic phrase.

How much more, therefore, must we exalt our power of language when we use it, not to communicate with our neighbor whom we hail as we meet on the street, or our friend on our cell-phone, or cast forth our e-mails to all the corners of the networked globe - but to communicate beyond all space and time, past all possible representations of symbol capable to any analysis by automata, or even by human - that is, when we pray!

For then, we use our art and our science together, our knowledge and skills, to put into act our thought - even if it remains just a thought, but it is an ordered thought - it is a "message" and therefore a "linguistic unit". But it is no longer a natural action - that is merely a natural action, or limited to nature. It is exalted. It is now supernatural, for the "message" defeats even the grand theories of Einstein and such speculations of physics, and escapes the All-That-Exists - because its destination is the One Who Is, the Creator.

The fact that we also use the same tool to greet our friends, or even passers-by, in work and at play, in study and in chores, that we could use it to assist or to impede, to praise or to curse.... well, perhaps Language is far more transcendent than the transcendental numbers, and has more of infinity in it than a whole flock of Alephs.

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