Shakespeare, Psalm 88, and the Erosion of Meaning

Reading Shakespeare makes me a better reader of scripture. There are places in Shakespeare’s plays, especially throughout The Winter’s Tale, and in key places in Hamlet, where the language breaks down and meaning is obscured. Editors have tried to emend the text, trying to make it make sense. But I think that Shakespeare was intentional in letting the language decay and break down. The same is true in Hebrew poetry. There are places where the language breaks down, and biblical scholars have tried to emend the text to make it make sense. I think this is a mistake. One of the powers of poetry is the power to break language for the sake of truth. Example: in the final line of Psalm 88, the Hebrew breaks down. As best as I can tell, the literal Hebrew is “My companions––darkness.” Scholars and translators try to “fix” the Hebrew by inserting verbs and prepositions: “My companions *are in* darkness.” But I think the original Hebrew is intentional. The psalmist is so consumed by grief that her language itself breaks down, bordering meaninglessness and the void. Language doesn’t have to work properly in order to work effectively. And this itself is something that Psalm 88 teaches us about a life of prayer: God doesn’t want our perfect polished prayers. God hears our broken, grammatically incorrect, incoherent prayers.

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Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

On Naming Unknowns

“It follows therefore that we can give a name to anything in as far as we can understand it.”
Thomas Aquinas, ST Ia, Q. 13, A. 1, co.

For Thomas, naming is preceded by understanding. But what if there is a second kind of naming, a naming of unknowns? This kind of naming is more algebraic, where the name is a placeholder for the unknown thing, until more knowledge is received about the thing in question. The best part about this kind of x-naming is that the name chosen will accrue extra layers of meaning over time as more and more is learned about the unknown thing.

I’ll take this one step further. Anytime we name anything, we are naming something that is at least partially unknown to us. Therefore, every act of naming is at least partially algebraic. Any time we use that word, we are plugging it into several larger equations of meaning, including the sentence, the paragraph, our lived lives, our shared cultural memory, etc. As we provisionally “solve” other parts of the equation of meaning, we attach more and more provisional meaning to a word which may have originally meant only “x = unknown.”

I’m sure many, many people have said this before me, but I don’t know what the terms are for this kind of x-naming. Do you know what it’s called? If yes, please tell me.