Growing…, Or, Untitled Document
Now that I have an assignment, I find that all of my ideas have run away. If I can just get past this introduction, maybe they will come back and I can make a go of it. I haven’t written on an assigned topic since I don’t remember when, and I’m only doing it now because I got caught fighting with my fellow classmates, so Dr. Smith has assigned us some extra homework. I don’t mind, or I wouldn’t mind, if my head hadn’t hadn’t been emptied by the idea of having to write something deliberate.
I guess I should start by introducing the topic, which is “[my] understanding of the matter current in discussion.” That discussion, at the time of the assignment, included arguments about whether or not a holy book is really a gift from God or has some value of its own, opinions on some interpretations, atonement, and comments about measures of purity and worthiness. And the “matter” of the discussion? That “is-ness,” or the “L” that language (of all kinds) is not, but is somehow tied to and meant to convey.
It is not my desire to present an argument, but rather to present “my understanding” in the hopes that it might convey some authentic “L”, and perhaps duplicate in someone else some portion of what is going on in me. Or if not, then some other authentic thing, perhaps a new thing; some other unintended “is-ness” that might by chance be encountered in these words, and which would prove useful or creative in some way. I accept the criticism sometimes made that I deconstruct much and offer little, so I hope not to do that here.
I should add the disclaimer that my understanding is not the product of any schooling or particular program of education, but I have come across some ideas over the years which seemed to make a difference to me. This essay is therefore my own synthesis of those ideas and does not represent the opinions of one in any way credentialed. Indeed, I am very lucky to have earned a high-school diploma, and almost I did not. Perhaps the fortunate thing about this deficiency is that nobody will confuse me for a representative of some institution, intellectual discipline or tradition, and therefore I am freed from such expectations and may speak for myself only.
There! I am warming up a little bit, and my ideas are beginning to come back.
Hobbes et al., and Signs of Self
I observe that most of the time people are unaware of language. We use it because it is natural to do so, and I suppose if we were constantly aware of it, this would actually be an impediment to us, for then we would have to take constant care. This might result in a type of paralysis, because much of what we wish to communicate is in the moment and cannot wait on proper language.
Indeed, I am very inarticulate in person and am liable to flub even the simplest of language, asking (for instance), “Will you pease plass the mustard?” when in fact there is only ketchup on the table, and nobody knows how to “plass” it. To this objection I might respond impatiently, “just know what I mean!” And of course, they do know what I mean. They knew it all along, in spite of my failed language. But it’s as if, when we become aware of language (say, when someone like me screws it up), it stops doing what it’s supposed to do until the language can be dealt with. We don’t like it when we notice language, so it’s good that we are unaware of it, most of the time.
Naturally, there are parameters that must be observed even if imperfect language is to be understood. For example, if I wanted someone to pass me the ketchup, it would be unhelpful if I said, “ergble frubm blegcart shgaegfet.” Well, maybe I didn’t say that. Maybe I really did say “please pass the ketchup,” only the three-year-old was screaming at the time and our signals got munged by the human receptors that I hoped would get my message. Someone might pick out the word “cart” from that noise and give me a funny look. Why are you talking about a cart?
This kind of thing happens to me often enough when my wife is trying to tell me something, and all I hear is, “mffcrem mmg chicken jrkteg.” There’s a little moment of panic when I realize I haven’t been listening, but I thought I heard “chicken” in there, so my mind madly races to fill in the blanks. I pretend I heard just fine, because I am naturally a very attentive husband and must not endanger that perception in any way, but… you can perhaps imagine how that usually goes down. I have pulled it off a couple of times, though.
I first started thinking about language when I read Thomas Hobbes. Now, you’ll have to forgive me if I misremember and misquote him (along with everyone else who has contributed to my understanding), but I decided I don’t really care what Hobbes (et al.) said, I only care about what I got out of it that still remains with me. That’s what mattered. Plus, I’m too lazy to look up my sources. So, give me an F.
Anyway, Hobbes says that words are the names and appellations that recall thoughts. Those thoughts were put into us–our memory–by some kind of motion, as if thoughts are the continuing momentum of the images of things (substantive things) moving upon our senses.
Now, when a thought bubbles up into awareness, it is unlikely to be followed by just any other random thought, and this leads to the possibility of a well-regulated train of thoughts. Some thoughts follow other thoughts very reliably, and so we get “signs” that become “affirmations” of which True and False are but attributes. So, truth is an aspect of language, without which it cannot exist. One therefore does not find truth, one makes it by using the right names and labels in the right order. Or, as the boy in Chesterton’s story taught: Truth is saying things right.
And how do we know we have the right names and signs? Hobbes doesn’t tell us, other than to say, “Looke peeple, wee muft begin with definitions.” These, of course, Hobbes is happy to provide for us, which he does magnanimously (magnanimous=to defpise fmall helps). Soon enough we learn through impeccable logic that whatsoever the kinge doeth, this is no cryme.
Of course not. I mean, we are the author of that king anyway. That’s where his authority comes from: The people, who are miserable and brutish, live in fear and would kill each other unless they agree to yield up everything not-inalienable to a tyrant who will make them all be good.
So, to avoid this undesirable state of nature, we give ourselves up and author the Sovereign who decides on our behalf. The Sovereign, naturally, is exempt from the law, lest we enter a contradiction. Anything he does is therefore licit and just, because whatever he does to you, you are really doing to yourself–you being the author.
The whole of Western government is built upon this solid logic, and logic is really just language. There can be no law without justice and no justice without certainty, so language must be something certain. It can’t mean one thing today and another thing tomorrow, or one thing to me and another thing to you. We ought to be able to check syntax, prove those affirmations, and derive truth. It’s so comfortable, because everyone knows where they belong. All are agents of the absolute monarch, receiving their callings from him. Good is separated from evil by official decree. The contracts and covenants are all spelled out and the possibilities known. In Hobbes’ world, any illusion of freedom would arise merely from one’s choosing between these pre-made scripts with their accompanying rewards or penalties.
Language, according to Hobbes, is reliable. This really isn’t half the story of language, but it’s still a useful idea. We need reliable language. With it, we can identify misreadings and prove people wrong by dint of a verbal algebra. Do you want to know which is the true church? All you need are the right definitions–which are found in the Authority (where else? And he giveth liberally and upbraideth not)–and you need the right ordering of names. Then you can read your scriptures aright and have the truth that is the same everywhere to everyone, because it’s official.
I think we witness that process (the establishing of definitions and the right ordering of names, that is) in much of the apologia available to us, and pretty much everywhere people talk about truth. For the most part, Hobbes represents the extent of our understanding of language.
It’s very nice to be (or to represent) the Sovereign, of course; and you can say what things mean, or what thoughts the words should index. “Rest,” for instance, really means “service” or “work for the Lord.” And “work for the Lord” really means “attending church meetings” or “spending time in one’s church calling.” So, I can run myself ragged all day long on a “day of rest” without any fear of defiling it. Thank you, Hobbes, for pointing out this magic!
There is one thing that Hobbes said which affects me differently than his other words, and for that reason, perhaps, I remember it more clearly:
“For men measure, not only other men, but all other things, by themselves.”
By, “by themselves,” I think Hobbes must have meant something like “through themselves” or “according to themselves.” And that is an interesting idea.
Adam Smith took it up more satisfactorily, and to him I turn next for my understanding. Smith had this notion he called “fellow-feeling,” or “sympathy,” if I remember right. Rather than receiving signs and getting them all in order according to the authority, Adam Smith thought that we could “bring them home to ourselves.” You know–kind of try them on and replay them with the self as the actor.
That’s how we would know if something is worthy or not, is if we could enter into that fellow-feeling with it. It wasn’t law that established morality, but sympathy. Morality was a sentiment, but it was still pretty universal for the reason that there seems to be this “impartial spectator” that we all have some kind of affinity with. I believe that Adam Smith’s impartial spectator is simply a cultural awareness or sensibility, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the culturally-shaped self becomes the measure by which we assess language and truth.
Smith also talked about something he called casuistry, and it means that things aren’t always so simple. There isn’t an easy rule for right and wrong; sometimes there are cases and mitigating factors. What if a robber is about to kill you, and you swear on your honor that you’ll return with a ransom in a week’s time if only he’ll spare you? So he spares you, and you break your word. Were you wrong to do so? Maybe justice isn’t easy; maybe language isn’t always so certain and must be complemented by something else: the self.
Adam Smith gave me some inkling of what atonement is; the “bringing home” of the other into oneself. You measure the other according to the self, and I can imagine that maybe some part of it stays with you.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people stopped writing with a lifp, and Georg Simmel produced what seems like a million words on the philosophy of money. It took me a year to read them all, and I found that it wasn’t philosophy as much as it was sociology, though Simmel did wind his way through monism and other metaphysics while making his point(s).
It seems that money makes possible this divorcing of values from the things that possess them, and these values gain some mobility in this manner. This abstraction of value into token also introduces the possibility that the value might be counterfeited. Money makes prostitution into a counterfeit marriage, say.
By storing value in token, it can be summoned whenever (and wherever) it’s called for. This frees us from a lot of entanglements and dependencies on other people, which is nice; because now I can hire a plumber rather than relying on the household economy to get around to it. My son, who (thanks to the mature money economy) is now a liability instead of an asset, can grow up to be whatever he wants. He doesn’t have to participate in the family trade and will almost certainly move away from home at some point, and I’ll eventually be stored in a warehouse for old people. Yes, money made counterfeit families too. We call them “nuclear” families these days.
Wouldn’t you know it: when you “reconstitute” that abstract value in the man-for-hire as opposed to allowing it to remain with the apprentice or with the householder; or when you transfer the value to the brothel instead of leaving it with the wedding bed, it doesn’t usually re-emerge as the same thing. Something has changed, and the token changed it. Money even ruined Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand, making it evil instead of benevolent. Money could be easily hoarded, you see. Something is lost when you use token… maybe the token doesn’t really carry the value?
Like money, language is token too. It is a kind of currency meant to convey value. This is actually a step beyond language-according-to-Hobbes, however; because Hobbes’ language was just a kind of indexing and ordering–the sort of thing a machine does. Now we can conceive of language as token, a thing that is, in theory, connected to some actual value. This means that we could potentially transfer something without banking on the Authority. We could use language, not just to recall a pre-existing thought, but to reconstitute one ostensibly identical to some thought somewhere else. How successful is this? Probably about as successful as is money in transmitting real value. Probably most words when used like this reproduce only likenesses and counterfeits of the genuine value they are meant to convey.
Still, thinking more carefully about this, I suppose I was probably wrong to say, in all of my arguing, that “the language,” or “the book,” isn’t the gift that God gives us. Yes, and I am wrong because language is means to something else. My kids sometimes are given money as gifts, and money is means. Well, usually that gifted means just sits in their money jars, and they forget about it. So perhaps that is the danger of giving means as a gift. One supposes, having received the means, that one has already received the value. The gift is given, but not always redeemed.
The chance of receiving an authentic value through token is greatly reduced, I think, because token is a make-believe that can be reified. That is a word that Simmel used to mean something along the lines of, “to be made real.” Money can be embodied in tangible ways, leaving us with a physical representation of token (which fails to capture the authentic value), and of course language is reified in many ways too. So, why does this make it more difficult to “transmit” real values?
That question brings me to Marshall McLuhan, whom I’m pretty sure Daymon called a “tuna-heeled horsemilker” in his Cultural History Volume One. McLuhan came up with a popular saying, “the medium is the message (or massage, or something),” which, like all aphorisms, is true because it sounds true. Right?
I don’t know, but I doubt that McLuhan was attempting to reveal something about the metaphysic of language as much as he was pointing out something practical. The meta-language–the medium, or reified token–is what gets transmitted. Practically speaking. The real message isn’t actually transmitted at all, the medium-as-message is. The value is all in the currency.
Neil Postman ran with the idea and pointed out that there is a difference between the “typographical,” mind that knows things through reading words, and the, uh, TVgraphical mind that knows things through talking heads on the television. By changing the medium, you change what it is possible to know. It’s difficult to contact the same ideas through television that one might contact through the printed word, because the medium has actually somehow changed the message. In the end, we don’t get, for example, “language + technology”; or in other words changing the medium isn’t just a new (perhaps more efficient) way of saying the same thing. No, we get whole new language, and the medium imparts it’s own is-ness to the message it is meant to convey.
For some reason, I connect McLuhan with television, billboards, and advertising in general. It seems that his idea of the importance of medium is key to all marketing efforts. Don’t just say things (who is saying things, anyway?), say them with kittens or flashy lights or beautiful people! Now we, marketers, can use language to reliably manipulate emotions. This is ideal for institutional speech, because the language need not come from any particular one, it merely conveys itself as a medium. Maybe the language is just an accessory to the medium. There need not be any real ideas behind it, because… aw, look at that cute baby! Or, look, Jesus endorses whatever this is. There he appears, handsome as the Marlboro Man, looking kindly upon us while we read, “#BecauseOfHim I can start again and again.”
Ooo, I see what happened there. There’s something else going on here: Having no ideas of its own, this language can use your ideas. Maybe it will let you fill in the blanks, though: I can be like Jesus by ________. I know, I know… free agency, right? Anyway, I know that this is an authentic message (what is the message, again?), because… Jesus is there, or it’s a nice looking font, or something. I’m not even sure what it is, really, but it’s real and, well, sign me up.
So this is language without ideas. It is, however, full of slogans and images that, much like McLuhan’s aphorism, are known to be true because they sound true or look true or feel true. What is the truth behind these representations? We can’t really articulate it–having received no authentic ideas–so we can only become fans and consumers instead of disciples.
The magic of this language wears off, eventually. We wake up and find that something authentic really has been conveyed after all: Billboard-ness and T-shirt-ness and Twitter-ness and Facebook-ness. It seems that the medium is the only real we are getting here. Thus we are left with billboard religion, T-shirt religion, Twitter religion, and Facebook religion. It turns out that the kingdom of God is advertising, and, left thirsting after ideas, we turn away and latch onto whoever has got them. This is apostasy, then: Getting ideas.
I also notice that complicated-ness is a kind of meta-language that imparts the sense of authenticity or plausibility to language. I once browsed a forum on the topic of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. It was full of much complication: names and orders and hierarchies. People were taking this stuff seriously; it was pretty clear that you had to participate using only the right ordering of names, as Hobbes might say. One participant in a thread piped up and asked, “Is Middle-Earth real?”
Of course, religious apologists naturally live in this complicated world too. It is fodder for the intellect.
Complicated-ness gives rise to complexity, rather inadvertently I believe (i.e. complicated speech “gets away” from its author and begins to exhibit a life of its own, expressing unpredictably that which its author did not imagine); and where there is complexity, there is a sense of “you can’t just make this stuff up.” Even the skeptics doubt themselves and wonder if there really isn’t something to all this mythomania. Complicated language might have ideas. Or it might not.
This leads me to the last person I wish to mis-remember, and that is Victoria Alexander who is a novelist, teleologist, and student of the complexity sciences. She says that it isn’t some hoped-for future-state that makes us purposeful beings; rather it is our relationship to signs of things not present that makes us purposeful. We can imagine relationships between things into existence, and we can act on what the signs lead us to imagine–even things that aren’t “true.”
According to Alexander, it might be useful not to think in terms of future, since the future is never real; but in terms of bringing about those things that are not present. Since we are always in relation to the signs, the thing that emerges and comes into being is the self. All signs are signs of self–that is what gets created.
Sometimes we discern signals in the “stochastic resonances”–the random noise–and we imagine meaning there. Maybe we do something because of it. I’ll start cooking the chicken, for example. Did it work? Will my reaction be repeated the next time the sign is discerned? Yes? Then the creation was useful; there is life and development. The self has recognized something true and may grow and continue. Now I might look back on that signal and say, “oh that’s what it meant all along.”
This sense is not necessarily right. Some language might not be true (i.e. it might just be noise to begin with) and yet still be True. Get it? Just know what I mean. Accidental interpretations can still give us life.
So, language doesn’t really “convey” anything, nor does it create anything on its own. Is-ness can’t actually be transmitted through a medium as if it were some kind of energy; it’s never separate from its thing. When language succeeds–because it faithfully “conveys” the authentic is-ness of that which it represents–it’s only because, either that is-ness was already a part of the receiving agent, or the receiving agent was able to imagine it and create it from the signs.
This is why I say things like, “the holy book is not the gift,” by which I mean no offense; although sometimes I criticise those whose means are precious to them, and perhaps that is a mischief of which I ought to repent.
My understanding consists of these ideas, then:
Through Hobbes, I perceive a kind of language that names and orders images of things. It deals in syntax and semantics, and it makes truth an aspect of itself. This is the language of analysis, certainty, justice, and authority. In popular mormonism, this language is used to establish laws, covenants, performances, interpretations, and judgments; it is absolute and unchanging. We receive callings and become agents of the sovereign (as opposed to free agents), re-imagining agency in a world that is now bounded and defined by the official discourse.
Through Adam Smith, I know about language that I can “bring home” and play out with myself as the actor, having an intuitive sense of some impartial spectator. In popular mormonism, this is the language of our culture. Through it, we relate to each other and don’t feel even a little bit weird talking about things that trouble and bewilder outsiders. Sometimes we forget that others don’t share this language with us and cannot enter into it so easily. It is the language of community and tradition; of fellow-feeling and of shared morality.
Because of Georg Simmel, I recognize language as a kind of token or currency, or means of transmitting some allegedly real value that is not in the language but separate from it. This is language that summons power and pretends to transfer it into other things, mostly creating counterfeits. In popular mormonism, this kind of language is used to bestow the goods of an imaginary economy consisting of keys, authorities, powers, membership, and the Holy Ghost. This is the language of delusion and hypnosis; it conjures and summons and presumes to make real.
On the other hand, because of Marshall McLuhan, I see a type of language that has no real ideas attached to it at all, relying instead on its ability to fool us into thinking it is the idea. It is itself a counterfeit language: meta-language masquerading as language. This language is used to manipulate us and to turn us into the tools of those who use it. In popular mormonism, this includes sloganeering, kitsch, glurge, and all of the trendy outlets through which these non-thoughts are disseminated en-mass. This language constitutes the missiology of the movement, turning authorities into celebrities and disciples into media. Like “The Happiest Place on Earth,” it is gorgeous and flashy on the outside but dark and empty on the inside. Pointing this out is tactless, however; as the packaging is above reproach and looks and feels so good that surely it must be the very Spirit of God speaking to us.
Related to this is language we use to muster plausibility. The complicatedness of the narrative (complicatedness being a meta-language) serves the purpose of making the language appear to represent something real. There is lore, there are hidden things, kaballah, apocryphal stories, the uncanny, the mystical, classes and orders of things, “the restoration of the keys of gathering” and so forth; a richness that lends weight and seeming substance to the imaginary.
And finally, through Victoria Alexander, I see a language that extends beyond simple understanding into self-causation and meaning. This is the language of creation and purpose, signs of the ever emerging self. While my idea of atonement may begin in the language of performances and sympathy, it comes to fruition here where, by way of signs, processes in one agent are either encountered or re-created in another agent, making them in that aspect the same “be”-ing. We can’t have a measure for atonement, of course; but at least we know when we have been enlarged by an idea, received meaning, and therefore come into contact with something genuine and useful. It helps us to live. This is the language of self-agents, intelligences who discern truth for themselves and hear their own callings, coming together to create a community that is spontaneous, complex, and alive. I see nothing like it in the popular mormonism of today.
I haven’t covered all of the ideas that contribute to my understanding of language and its relation to the is-ness of things. Especially, I am missing John Milbank and Simon Oliver, and the ideas of analogy (how we talk about ineffable things), participation, and univocity of being. Oh, and Lacan with his ideas of the Real, which can’t be expressed through a symbolic order. Daymon is a contributor to my understanding, too. I read him because, by the signs, there is something in his mind that corresponds to something in my mind. It makes sense to me, whether or not he intended the meaning that I am getting.
The Joker Makes a Violin
Maybe all of the above rambling is so much deconstruction. Why does it matter? That’s what I’m missing from my arguments. So here it is, something new to me: the “synthetic” portion of my essay. Here is the part where I attempt to create something.
Years ago, and with the help of a violent and disturbing movie, I learned something important about myself:
The Joker: Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.
And, I thought, “that’s me. I am the Joker.” Whether I’m good or evil is debatable, but I know for sure I’m chaotic. I just do things. It’s as if I intuitively know how it’s supposed to go. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m right, but that’s my mode. I understood that about myself when the Joker said the words, “I just do things,” and it’s been a different world to me ever since. It’s a little more sensible now that I know there are other people who don’t work like I do. There are planners and schemers who need the rules spelled out before they get started. Those people are safety-minded; I can be dangerous.
I once asked a man if he would teach me to make a violin. I had come across his web site, and I saw some photos of his process that I recognized as signs of a self that was not present but that needed to be present. I was a violin maker, I just hadn’t made any of them yet.
This man has instruments in world-renowned orchestras. I think even Joshua Bell owns one of them. Nevertheless, the violin maker agreed to teach me how to make a violin, and he would do it through correspondence. He even mailed me hand-drawn plans and patterns, and he didn’t charge me a penny for it.
He also told me what tools and materials to get and stepped me through the process. At the time I was too poor to buy most of the stuff, and I only ever sent back pictures of the results of my efforts, never of the tools and processes I was using in place of his careful instructions. I was embarrassed to show him that, instead of a 25mm #6 gouge, maybe I had a sharpened spoon or something crazy like that.
Time passed, and eventually we became personally acquainted. I studied with him a little bit, and that’s when things started to get really interesting. The first time I saw one of his own hand-made instruments, I was surprised. My violin looked that way too; it kind of had the same vibe. It looked very hand-made, very honest. For some reason, I was expecting something on a whole different level of violin-ness, something that looked flawless, as if no human hand had ever touched it.
We would work, and he would ask, “why is this so hard for you?” or he would say, “don’t use the template, just eyeball it,” or “why did you keep on cutting? You have to stay within the parameters,” or “del Gesu did whatever the hell he wanted,” or “the violins they make in Utah are too clean. They all look the same and are boring.” The violin maker seemed to know intuitively where the plan ended and the interpretation began.
Then one night, after good food and strong drink, master… let’s give him a name, shall we? Let’s call him, not just any name, let’s choose “Lehi.” Why? Because now he enters into allegory; one that has an idea. Anyway, master Lehi is feeling the honesty and candor that comes in the wake of some after-dinner drinks, and he says to me, “Joker… er… Jacob, there is no God. And if there is one, He hasn’t left even so much as a calling card.”
“Jacob, listen. I was a volunteer at the hospital for fifteen years. I sat with the AIDS patients there. They needed me; they had been discarded by their friends and family. It was the contagion, you know. They were afraid. So I sat with them, and I went to their funerals. Sometimes I went to a funeral every week. Do you understand, Jacob?”
I, Jacob, understood. In that moment, I came into contact with something authentic. It was a kind of infinity; not the infinity of the endless future, but that of the everlasting present. That suffering of the present–the suffering of the AIDS patient–could not be erased. The past “now” is still present, because it remains. It happened, and it is still there. The experience of it may be in some other frame, but it is still part of existence. Master Lehi knew this, and he also thought that–because there was no God to wipe away the tears of those who suffer–he, Lehi, would have to do it himself. So he did the best he could. He became the god who wiped tears.
What if an eternal life is bounded by a beginning and an ending? Yet it is also permanent; it remains. Man was meant to have joy. When? Now. Master Lehi knew it, and he was able to see a man who did not have joy. Lehi became the beside-helper, the sharer of burdens. Unlike his namesake, the Lehi of my allegory had no gospel–no schemes or plans from God to tell him what to do; yet he, a living agent, could be enticed. In atonement with those who suffered, he read the signs of things not present, and he acted to bring them about.
Maybe heaven will be full of people who never expected to be there.
I didn’t remain a student of master Lehi. Someday I may go back, but for now there are more convenient opportunities closer to home. In recent years, I have been a student of–let us call him, “Alma.” Unlike Lehi, Alma’s violin’s are flawless. They look like they grew that way and were plucked off the violin shrub by the hands of angels. It’s hard to believe they are the result of human effort and of steel touching wood.
My first day at master Alma’s workshop started not exactly like this:
Alma: Hi, welcome to the workshop. And you are?
Me: Hi, I’m the Jok.. er.. uh.. Jac… um… Corianton. It’s nice to meet you.
Alma: Well, Corianton, let’s see what you’ve got here, shall we?
Me, producing a GIGANTIC MALLET from my toolbox: I brought tools.
Alma, looking at the mallet: What is this for?
Me: It’s for banging… I use it for rough arching and rough graduations.
Alma: You won’t need that here. And where are your templates?
Me: I don’t have any, but I have these drawings.
Alma: Where did you get those?
Me: I got them from the man who taught me to make violins.
Alma: He’s a hack. Here, you can use my templates for now. These are curtate cycloids, and Stradivari used them…
(Stradivari, turning in his grave: Curtate… what, now?)
Alma: …to achieve the perfect arching. It’s crucial to the sound of the violin.
Alma: Now, let’s look at what you’re working on.
Me: Here is this violin neck I’m making.
Alma: Ah. Ok, let me point some things out. First, see this throat area where the pegbox meets the scroll? Think of that as the point of a wolf’s tongue licking in. That shape must be mirrored in the tip of the volute here, where it forms the eye of the scroll. These structures have to do the same thing. This point here, it represents a 45 degree angle from the line here. Look at this volute again. Now, Stradivari undercut his steep, then shallow here, then steep again here. We’ll work on it.
Alma: Look, Corianton, you and your work will be judged on these things. You will be docked points. But now that you know, you will do it right, won’t you?
I know almost nothing personal about master Alma–he sat alone at lunch time. Well, I know that he doesn’t miss a thing. He has handled many of the great instruments from the old masters, and he remembers and catalogs. He is not enticed by anything, he does not innovate. He channels Hobbes; he is the authority. Mercy cannot rob justice, but if you make a mistake, you may try again until you do not make the mistake. There is nothing but parameters, and without the fear of being docked points, students wouldn’t do it right. You must first know the rules, then understand that there is a penalty attached for not following them. According to Alma, that is the only reason why anyone would do well.
I’m following Alma’s program right now, though it is not my mode. I’m trying to make violins that are in some way just like those of the technically gifted masters of Cremona. I follow performances, for that is the language of Alma’s shop.
I admit that I’m quite impressed by Alma’s work. It’s stunning. It does get a little tedious after a while, though; for everything is predictable. So, I will follow for now, but I will not be fooled.
Lehi struck me as being after the manner of the Brescian school–more concerned with the artistry than the details. I like that. His shop was a place of ideas, which is what I want mine to be.
In his concluding words, one of the authors in The Book of Mormon invokes “the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” Through Lehi and Alma, I have come to understand the phrase as metaphor. The quick and the dead are among us; we are they. To which group do I belong? Can I be enticed by the good and act to bring about things not present–things that I, myself, discern? Then I am a living, free agent; and I am not acted upon by the law. It is not the standard by which I am judged, for the living receive mercy.
Or, will I only choose the good because there is a law with a penalty attached to it? Then I have not been enticed (or dare not be), for I am dead; dead like Latin is dead, or dead like the violin which hasn’t changed appreciably in the last four hundred years or so. I receive the law by way of authority, and it describes unchanging performances that must be observed in order for me to be like a “Cicero” or a “Stradivari” (also dead). Otherwise, left to follow my own will and be enticed, I might become carnal and sensual and devilish (solitary, poor, nasty, brutish… yes, thank you Hobbes), therefore, I shall receive justice according to the law.
Well, there it is. Does my personal understanding reflect the authentic value that this particular language in The Book of Mormon is meant to convey? I don’t know, but it seems real to me. I simply offer it as something possibly worth considering.