A footnote for the ages

I suspect that some of my readers are, like me, fans of detailed footnotes. This morning I came across a doozy. It’s on the bottom (naturally!) of pages 14-15 in my edition of Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (University of California Press, 1970 [1961]). For what it’s worth, this is not a numbered note but an asterisked one. Here it is.

In Homer, the word for “word” is mythos. In later Greek, it gives way to logos. The current stress upon mythology particularly needs the corrective of logology because mythology has come to place too great stress upon the sheer imagery of thought. The strongly terministic concern of logology is designed to correct this deficiency without leading on the other hand to an overly scientistic view of language as motive. Surely, the mere fact that the symbol-systems of chemistry, bacteriology, and nuclear physics now make it possible for persons in authority, if they will, to poison the entire planet is not of itself evidence that such terminologies are “accurate,” and that they should be taken as models which even the terminologies of the social sciences and the humanities should imitate. Rather, are they not on their face evidence that we must keep searching? If it is necessary to consider all the symbolic dimensions involved in the motives of the symbol-using animal. And this text [i.e. The Rhetoric of Religion] is intended to show why any secular theory of language that ignores the hints provided by theology is bound to be inadequate, whether or not theology is “true.”

Since “God” by definition transcends all symbol-systems, we must begin, like theology, by noting that language is intrinsically unfitted to discuss the “supernatural” literally. For language is empirically confined to terms referring to physical nature, terms referring to socio-political relationships and terms describing language itself. Hence, all the words for “God” must be used analogically – as were we to speak of God’s “powerful arm” (a physical analogy), or of God as “lord” or “father” (a socio-political analogy) or of God as the “Word” (a linguistic analogy). The idea of God as a “person” would be derived from analogy from the sheerly physical insofar as persons have bodies, from the socio-political insofar as the idea of personality implies such kinds of “reason” in flower in man’s symbol-using prowess (linguistic, artistic, philosophic, scientific, moralistic, pragmatic).

Burke’s point about certain technologies’ power to poison the planet revealing the limitations of scientific expression would be, I suspect, lost on most members of our society, intellectuals included. By contrast, such an observation would, I believe, be received as self-evident truism by many native peoples of this hemisphere and beyond. Our inability or unwillingness to admit the possibility of knowledge apart from that knowledge that equates to power marks us – as I have said before – as a sorcerer or cannibal culture, similar to that of pre-modern Fiji or Tenochtitlan.

Parenthetically, I must confess that this book presents me with a delicious sort of quandary. I picked it up some six months ago, and have dipped into it repeatedly since then. But the problem is, each time I find something so congruent with my own thinking, I immediately suffer pangs of regret that I had to read it in someone else’s words first, before formulating it on my own. It’s not a matter of jealousy – ideas are (or should be) free and sovereign – but simply a recognition that the process involved in arriving at a given thought can be more valuable than the thought itself. (The truly revealed or poetic word is a different matter altogether, existing uniquely for itself and not in service to a mere idea. Thus, I allow myself to read other people’s poetry with utter abandon and promiscuity.)

Oh Lord, major déjà vu here all of a sudden. This has all happened before. Aaaaaagh.

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