Post-Babel:
My Lacanian Spirituality
by Louie Land

I know now that Pat Robertson isn’t exactly representative of the whole breadth of Christianity, but that wasn’t something I knew then, when I was something like fifteen years old turning on the TV and stumbling across the 700 Club. The evangelists were in the middle of some sort of healing; a man in a suit was speaking to the camera with his eyes closed on behalf of someone in Ohio, or Kentucky or Missouri, and noting that they had something wrong with their legs, or their eyesight, or their pancreas. Honestly, I don’t remember the specifics. But I do remember my blood boiling at the nerve of this man to speak for, and perform miracles on behalf of, God. As if he had the right to point at anyone in the room and say, “Your illness is gone, and if it isn’t, it’s your fault for not believing. It isn’t God’s fault, and it certainly isn’t mine.” I remember thinking, how dare he?

How dare he.

 *

Maybe I should back up a little bit.

I was born into a Lutheran family but haven’t been to church consistently since high school. If I were to chart my spirituality like a compass, you would have Christianity at the north and Zen Buddhism at the south, specifically the concepts discussed by Takuan Sōhō in The Unfettered Mind. Philosophy and literary theory are on the east, specifically Lacanian psychoanalysis, with strands of Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard. And to the west is Charlie Parker as a stand-in for jazz music in general (let’s disregard that he was a heroin addict; like I said, he’s just a stand-in).

Probably the least familiar dimension here is Lacanian psychoanalysis. My understanding of psychoanalysis is tinged by Derridaen poststructuralism as well. I don’t mean to throw these terms out at you; I really can’t help it, these subjects fascinate me too much to leave by the wayside.

Lacan and Derrida were interested in the linguistic theories postulated by Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that language is divided into signifiers (sounds that make up words) and signifieds (concepts). Basically, what Lacan and Derrida both suggest is that language doesn’t signify anything. Language is referential, but nothing is actually invoked by language, except for more language. If I say “tree,” there isn’t actually a tree in the room. Further, when I say “tree” I might be thinking of an oak tree, but the image you summon up in your mind might be of a birch, or spruce, or pine. Also, if you don’t speak English, the word “tree” doesn’t mean anything at all, and so signifies nothing. Derrida refers to “traces,” suggesting that all we have in language is the ability to be self-referential. The more words you string onto something, the less specific things seem to be. Have you ever been in a situation where the more you talk, the deeper shit you’re in? That’s Derrida. (Sort of).

Lacan would suggest that language is a substitute for a transcendental Other. Language is what we have instead of a direct line of communication and contact with a grander Other. If you’re religious, this transcendental Other might be God. Or maybe it’s a mother-figure who represents plenitude and the lack of want. Derrida would argue that this “transcendental signified” does not exist, whereas Lacan suggests that it exists conceptually, and that language is a means of reaching towards it, or making up for its absence, without ever actually getting there.

(I’m being absurdly reductive here, but both wrote volumes on this stuff, and I only have a few pages, so please bear with me. If you’re interested in more, Lionel Bailly’s Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide is very helpful, although it spends more time focusing on the clinical aspects of Lacan’s work, rather than the philosophical applications. For Derrida, the introduction found in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism explains his philosophies quite well.)

The biggest distinction between Lacan and Derrida, and between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, is fairly simple. In deconstruction, nothing exists; everything is a construction, a falsehood. In psychoanalysis, however, the subject or self exists. I exist. Some might refer to the self as the soul, or simply as consciousness, and there are various psychoanalysts who take on the challenge of the self, but psychoanalysis is primarily concerned with the way the subject responds to the mass of elusive signifiers that surround it.

Anyway, let’s put these linguistic theories in Biblical terms. In Genesis, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. The God of Christianity (and of Islam and Judaism as well) can invoke the material through the power of language. Another example is the classic verse from the beginning of John in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Both the New and Old Testaments begin with God invoking (or being one with) language, thus equating language with the power to create, but we as humans lack that power. For us, language is merely referential.

Take the story of the Tower of Babel, for instance. According to the story, mankind advances to such an extent that they attempt to build a tower that reaches the Heavens in order to “make a name for themselves” and unite mankind. God sees this and says, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Language, at the behest of God, is from that point on insufficient. God strips the people of language not only so they cannot communicate but also as a means of making them powerless. We attempted to reach the Heavens (and perhaps by extension God), but in order to thwart this attempt God “confused our language” and so we are by our very nature separated from God because of our languages. We tried to reach God, and God was afraid that we would succeed, and so in order to keep us from reaching Him, He more or less broke language. Thus, language from this point further is an insufficient means of reaching God.

This leads me to my distaste for Biblical literalism. Forget that the Bible has contradictions within itself. Instead, let’s look at the fact that the Bible is written in language post-Babel. The language of the Bible must be by its very nature insufficient to reach God.

Let’s take it one step further. Have you ever had trouble articulating what you meant in plain speech? “I love you” is probably the most classic example of this; three words seem so insufficient to render one’s feelings of attachment to a significant other, or overwhelming gratitude for a parent, or all-consuming dedication to a child, yet we say them anyway; we accept them as substitutes for the real expression of love (there’s that Lacanian substitute again, language filling in for the absence of something larger).

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that it seems to me like it should be impossible to fully render a being as nuanced and complex as God in the reductive mode of reading that is Biblical literalism. The Bible, and the language that comprises it, is a substitute for the real thing; it is not actually the real thing. The Bible will, and must, be a substitute. The Tower of Babel story proves this just as well as Lacanian linguistic theory. I would also argue that subconsciously this is something we already understand. If the Bible were the real thing and not a representation, we would worship the Bible, right?

*

Now let’s turn to some of the other points of my spiritual compass: Jazz, Immanuel Kant, and Zen. Where Lacanian linguistic theory suggests that language offers absence, Kant, Zen, and many jazz musicians counter that art and being can provide access to a transcendental signified.

I want to take a look at Kant in particular. To briefly (and unjustly) summarize, Kant says that there exists in the world the Beautiful, which transcends the balance between the Good (useful things with specific purposes, such as a coat which keeps me warm) and the Agreeable (chocolate, which tastes good, damn it). The Beautiful is precisely transcendental, overcoming the seemingly binary nature of the Good and Agreeable. In short, the Beautiful is an object that seems as if it should be the object of everyone’s “liking” (Kant’s term) but for no reason.

For example, why do I like Jim Hall’s rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood”? I have no reason to. There is nothing intrinsically useful about the tune, nor might I have any sort of particular interest in liking the tune, yet I like it nonetheless. I gain nothing from the tune, and because I am not attached to it, I gain pleasure from its Beauty. The Beautiful is transcendental; it seems as if all should like it, though not all do. Essential to Kant is the notion of subjective universality. The liking for the Beautiful is subjective because it comes from the individual, the subject, but the liking is universal because it transcends both the logical and the personal. Again, I am painting in broad strokes here, but I believe, at least in part, in Kant’s notion of the Beautiful because he is drawing attention to the fact that, despite the fact that we often disagree about what makes “good art,” it is remarkable how often we agree on that very same subject. Kant suggests that there is a transcendental quality to these works of art that lead to our liking.

In the documentary Icons Among Us: Jazz in the Present Tense, Bill Frisell says, “I like to think of music as a reflection of the way life could be.” He goes on to say, “Music is a place where I can go where things work right.” The performance of the music, and the music itself, is transcendental. There are stories (legends!) amongst jazz musicians that during the many performances of saxophone titan John Coltrane, “members of the audience would break down and weep, reacting with a raw, fundamental emotion triggered by the beauty (Beauty) before them.

What about Zen? Much of Zen deals with selflessness, where meditation leads one to knowledge precisely because the trappings of the self and the exterior world fall away. As I have done with Kant, Lacan, and Derrida, I paint Zen with a bastard brush, but Zen seems to me to fall in line with both jazz and Kant: the self and the problems of the world fall away as we observe the Beautiful, or, in the case of Zen, as we meditate. In The Unfettered Mind, a collection of letters from a Zen master to a master swordsman, Takuan Sōhō writes that one must be free in the use of technique in order to properly wield a sword. A warrior cannot think about how to react to a strike; the only proper response is to react. Technique must become instinct and the self falls away. This is true in jazz as well. If I think about how to respond to the chords in a song as I improvise over them, I quickly lose my place, whereas if I know the structure of the song by heart, I simply play.

So. Despite the fact that I believe that language alone can be insufficient to lead someone to a transcendental signified, I believe that art (including the literary arts), with all of its nuances and imperfections, can take us further. In “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” a text that seems to prefigure the deconstruction movement, Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that an aesthetic endeavor (an artistic one) is a purer way of reaching truth than a scientific one. Nietzsche suggests that both attempts—scientific and empirical, and aesthetic and artistic—fail, but in a sense the aesthetic fails less.

 *

I have been in that transcendental space before, playing jazz. In jazz guitar, we are taught to sing along with our solos. One of my old teachers, Ted, told me it prevents what he calls “diarrhea of the fingers.” By singing our solos, we connect our voices to our instruments, and thus create a solo that is more lyrical, more melodic, and simply purer than what we can achieve by the technique of our fingers alone. Entering that state is a transcendental experience and I can describe it as nothing else. Everything else falls away, including yourself. The music is there, yes, but even that seems secondary to the pureness of being. On the stage, you are.

Perhaps it’s not transcendentalism that I’m talking about. Maybe it has to do with being. Maybe I am made by the music. Maybe, instead of reaching towards something transcendental through the Beautiful, perhaps it is presence in this moment (a Zen teaching that seems apt here) that is achieved through the Beautiful. A fullness of being; an affirmation of life. Art is not about moving away, but about being made. To me, transcendentalism and being are two sides of the same coin, not opposites but complementary parts.

That feeling is fleeting, often expiring before the tune ends. It can resurface at any time during the night, but you must be willing. As trumpeter Nicholas Payton said in Icons Among Us, “You have to be willing to let go all you believe in order to experience truth.”

My grandfather, who is a pastor, once told me of a profoundly religious experience he had in the 1950s when a quartet of jazz musicians visited his parish and incorporated several hymns and spirituals into an improvisational jazz performance. My grandfather said, quite wisely, “If the music is well played, and it is good music, then that music is spiritual.”

God is, by his very nature, transcendental. An omniscient and omnipotent being should be unfathomable to us. Science will never poke, prod, and examine its way to the presence of God. This is another reason why Biblical literalism rings so false to me: you can’t prove a transcendental being exists. The Bible should not be science. The Bible should be acknowledged as the spiritual writings of people, with all of the faults and imperfections that come with such writings, because it seems to me that that would be a better way of attempting to reach God. Perhaps the writings of the Bible might not be true in a literal sense, but they can still be very productive. Instead of using the Bible as proof of God’s existence and as the literal word of God, let’s use it as an interpretation of the teachings and the beliefs of God’s disciples. Let’s use it as a way to reach towards God instead of trying to prove, proudly, that we are right.

  *

Let’s return to the story of the 700 Club. What set me off so much about that moment was the fact that those individuals claimed God. They were playing God. A transcendental being is indescribable and you do not get to decide what that transcendental being can, should, or will do. The absolute arrogance of anyone who claims to be able to direct the will of a being of God’s magnitude makes me sick to my stomach. The fundamentalists and the Biblical literalists think they have it figured out and as a result think they can speak for God, because they have read and believe to understand the Bible, which many think of as the Word of God (though is it?). Unfortunately for them, language, and even art, are ultimately insufficient means of depicting and relating this being.

This is what leads me to conclude with Søren Kierkegaard, and his notions of faith. My understanding of Kierkegaard is limited (see Fear and Trembling) but Kierkegaard seemed to suggest that the presence of God cannot be proven, but rather must be taken on faith. We will not know or understand; we cannot know or understand.

So, have I been saved? Do I believe? Do I have faith?

I believe in something bigger than what can be depicted in the strict, limiting language of the Bible. I am reticent to speak of my feelings on religion and spirituality because I believe that language will endlessly circle the subject, traces after traces after traces surrounding a negative space. I do not believe that we can move outside of the “text,” the experience of life and language. But I do believe that we can share in an experience. I believe that we can move towards a broader understanding of faith, which is by definition grounded in an acknowledgement of our lack of understanding. I believe that language limits our access to this experience, but that we can try anyway.

In the end the only truth I believe in is that I am ignorant. All I know definitively is that I do not know, and that I cannot know, and thus I must have faith that there is something larger out there, something bigger than my imagination can comprehend. I cannot be put down and limited by Biblical literalism. It cannot be distilled into ready-made spiritual pick-me-ups like Christian rock or Christian bookstores. It cannot be manipulated by televangelists. It is elusive, inconceivable, and irreconcilable.

 


A native of central Pennsylvania, Louie Land has published fiction, poetry, and essays in The Santa Clara ReviewFRiGG Magazine, The Susquehanna Review, The Idle Class, Deadshirt.netUnwound Magazineand others. He is also a jazz enthusiast and performs regularly with his straight-ahead jazz trio. He is studying towards his Master’s of Arts in English degree at Bucknell University


 

 

 

Photo Credit: Randianne Leyshonheader

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