Saturday, February 27, 2016

On the Necessity of Formal Speech

In his The Origin of Speech, Rosenstock-Huessy took the question of language out of the province of linguistics and put it squarely in the lap of history—of time, of community-building, of the founding of cities, nations, institutions. Speech is formative, he says, and formal speech is the energy behind the founding of nations, constitutions, cities. It can transform a situation of speechlessness – of  chaos, disorder, trouble, muteness, paralysis, confusion – into a new path to the future. Such speech restores us to ourselves. It renews our faith. It gives us hope. Words matter for the reason that they are neither “natural” nor “instinctive.” If speech were purely an “instinct,” there would never be an elegy, a rite, a liturgy, an initiation. It is thanks to the power of formal speech that man liberates himself from nature and commemorates the important stages of his life: death, birth, baptism, marriage, initiation, commencements, memorials. 

I have been aware of the claims of formal speech for many years, in connection with the writing of poetry. Formal poetry, like formal speech in general, has become nearly extinct. Along with the extinction of poetic form has comes a massive increase in “subjectivist” or “personalist” poetry. Why should there be a correlation between the disappearance of strict form and the rise of a poetry which seems to have less and less to do with public events, history, shared experiences and social facts?  

The answer: because informal speech depends upon formal speech. If there is a deficit of formal speech in society, that would mean that people, missing the public, shared dimension of life, are thrown back into themselves. Issues relating to public memory, social discipline, historical continuity, national community—all of these would be affected by the decline of what used to be known as public speaking.   “We must forget our informal habits when we wish to understand the sublimity, elation, exultation, gravity and precariousness which it takes to speak formally,” says Rosenstock. Such speaking demands risk.  But in a  time when  slogans, clich├ęs, jokes, advertisement ditties, and casual and trivial speech is so prevalent, what’s the risk? “Let it all hang out” and “anything goes” and “whatever”  make a more measured and thoughtful approach seem  antiquated and irrelevant.   

The draining-away of formal speech can be seen in a small example. A friend of mine, a priest, remarked to me that he had called a restaurant to order a pizza. He placed the order and thanked the fellow, who answered, “No problem.” We can ask: how is “no problem”  a substitute for “You’re welcome”? As an alternate, it is confusing, for why would there be any difficulty about ordering a pizza from a pizza restaurant? Wouldn’t one assume that taking orders from customers would be the primary desire of the pizza restaurant?  This incident is a good illustration of Rosenstock’s contention that informal speech depends upon formal speech. “No problem” descended from “You’re welcome”—though the line of descent, as we have said, is unclear, and the meaning, at least in this case,  self-contradictory. But, as Rosenstock put it, “It’s a great day!” depends upon “The heavens declare the glory of God.”  And not the other way around.  

How is formal language called forth? Rosenstock examines pre-linguistic situations that demand to become articulate. “We shall have a science of speech when we have penetrated the hell of non-speech,” he says. And: “…new speech is not created by thinkers or poets but by great and massive political calamities and religious upheavals.” Always, he brings us back to the role of speech in forging a tribe, a nation, a political constitution.  Mankind exists under the perpetual threat of war, crisis, decay and revolution. The breakdown of speech, the inadequacy of speech, the cessation of speech: all of these things portend social upheaval. Faith and credit can only be restored when men stand by their words and act accordingly.  

Some people are beginning to notice that we are not tending to the traditions which the formal language of America’s founding brought into being.  In “A Colossal Wreck: The State of our Presidential Politics,”  DwightLongenecker writes—“Our nation…is broken, battered, and weather-beaten. Why? … if we do not preserve what is best from the past we should not be surprised if the future is even worse. For the better part of the past half-century we have demolished and distorted the morality, the law, the principles, and the faith of our fathers. Now the past being abandoned and broken, the present is our curse.”  

It might be argued, by some, “Well, you are just talking words.” When something is just words, we are not talking about transformative speech. Speech has the power to change us when we have the power to mean what we say and stand by our words and act according to them.  In one of his most beautiful statements,  Rosenstock wrote—“Speech was established to call forth life.”  This is the greater life into which we are born, or rather, initiated.   Rosenstock stresses that the facts of prehistory and anthropology  agree that speech served the function of  bridging the span between the death of one generation and the initiation of the next.  Speech told of predecessors, appointed successors, and  told the story of the tribe. Speech brought man into time, delivering him from being altogether bound to the present moment. Speech is not “natural” in the sense that: the grave = the cradle =  the coffin (e.g. of initiation) =  the altar (e.g. of worship).   Burial, birth, tomb, ritual: all become revealed  through the time-processes of speech. We are human beings because we have knowledge of our predecessors. To the extent that we are willing to become successors, we can play our part in passing on the culture. 

Finally – last but not least – Rosenstock draws attention to the link between formal  speech, the founding and sustenance of the tribal/political community, and what we call “common sense.” Common sense, he says, is what is “precipitated” out of the high speech or “super-sense” of the community. This is a remarkable insight, simple and compelling like his original distinction between formal and informal speech. Truly, the Rosenstockian “speech-thinking” becomes the key to a new sociology, one no longer prone to abstractions, and verifiable and experiential in its nearness and aptness.  For the insight concerning common sense rings true.  One would expect in a frayed community like the United States, that various forms of unbalance, bizarre behaviors,  arbitrary crazes, and the like, would increase.  One could call these kinds of actions a-temporal: they lack the creativity of being in a line of predecessors and successors. It is this breakage in the fabric of historical consciousness which seems so characteristic of life in our “advanced” nation.

But sadly, sometimes it seems that all that’s advancing is the decay.

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Quite amazing, all these insights in just the first forty pages or so of The Origin of Speech.
I intend to go through this book step by step, and will be reporting on my responses in this blog.




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