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Highway Robbery

I dedicate this post to Uncle Dan, the original lover of gloomy weather.

I woke up at 5:00 this morning to keep chipping away at Augustine.  When I awoke the light outside was just beginning to blue, and I laid in bed for a moment listening to my wake-up song:

This polyphony, Nesciens Mater by Jean Mouton, is a Renaissance piece I heard in a lecture at the beginning of this year.  A scholar had gotten a dreamy grant to tour Italian Renaissance churches and chapels with a choir to see if Renaissance music had been composed with specific buildings in mind.  She did a study of the way the sound waves of different pieces carried through different buildings, and it was completely amazing to see the way sound for different songs filled the architectural spaces in ways that were utterly specific to the buildings.  Grand, bombastic coronation pieces bounced around the giant spaces of the biggest cathedrals with perfect symmetry, filling every corner, while these quieter, "smaller" pieces were meant to fill the tiniest of little chapels.  This one was composed for a teeeeny chapel to Mary in a very small church in northern Italy.  The tonality of the voices and the closeness of the harmony almost requires that the singers are standing facing each other in a circle so the sounds almost sit on top of each other in the domed ceiling of this little chapel.  This is a side note, but that lecture blew me away.  I have listened to this piece every single day since that lecture in October.  Every time I am reminded that man is amazing.

Back to Augustine and my essay about Augustinian language theory:

It has morphed into a paper about negative theology - Derrida is commonly called a "negative theologian" because most of his theory depends on things that are not the case instead of things that are.  It's like anti-ontotheology.  Last term I wrote a paper about Derrida and Aquinas and language theory, and this time I thought I'd choose to engage Derrida with Augustine.  My relationship with Derrida is so funny - I think I write about him so much because he's the only literary theorist I remember very well from my lit theory class in college, so he has become an odd hitching-post for all of my theoretical inquiries about language.  See, proof that negative theology can be instructive and creative!

Anyway, this paper is addressing the question about whether two theories that have opposite premises can, simply through their processes, bring about anything fruitful.  By that I mean:  Augustine of course thinks that absolutely everything comes from and is centered upon God.  Derrida not only rejects God but the whole concept of a center at all.  So with these utterly opposing premises, is there really any intellectually responsible way to put them in conversation?  Or does it force you to bastardize both theories and just cherry-pick the few places where they can "play nice"?

I think, or at least my paper thinks, that this all hinges upon sin and fallenness.  Augustine looks at the problems with language (and the fact that our entire manner of knowing consists of and is bound by knowledge) and sees it as an emblem both of the fallenness of humankind and the prelapsarian limitations naturally imposed upon the human intellect for whatever reason.  Language may be a limited way to know, but it's the best we can do.  Signs of God are the strongest "quantities" of God that we can handle in our frailty.

Derrida looks at the "problem" with language and doesn't see a problem at all.  He thinks that there is altogether too much meaning in language because of the way words keep referring to other words and other words and so on to an infinite degree - each time creating more and more meaning.  There is no central point to which all meanings return (or point), but a never-ending "freeplay" of signs pointing to other signs.

In Christian Orthodoxy, these can coexist because God - that central meaning to which all things point, chez Augustine - IS INFINITE.  The endless amount of meaning that comes from the interaction between signs is the only system that can possibly eventually describe an infinite God.  It is more helpful to visualize God not as the center point here to which all signs are peripheral, but instead as a giant, giant circle within which all meaning is included.  There is still value in maintaining a center point in some sense because some signs are much closer to truth than others (I am thinking specifically of sacraments) - picture the concentric circles of Dante's paradiso.  But yes, Derrida, the possibility for meaning within language is completely endless and gleeful, and yes, Augustine, it is God in whom, by whom, and through whom all language has its meaning.

But back to the dedication of this post:  After listening to my Nesciens Mater, I crept through the blue light to my office and filled the room with the golden light of my desk lamps.  Ninety minutes passed and the day stayed dark as it started to pour rain.  I can hear it slapping the pavement below my window and pattering on the newly-returned green leaves on the branches next to me.  The rain has put a hold on the construction project in front of my house so I'm enjoying unusual quiet.  It feels like cheating to stay here in the rainy darkness - it's like stealing a bit of the shadowy magic from the black night and clinging to it past daybreak.  My office is a little 6'x6' addition to the side of my building - I sit in this perch with my lamps glowing against the warm yellow of my office curtains and look out into the gray street.  Sometimes I feel like I'm in a lighthouse up here.

As soon as I finish this draft I'll print it out, make myself a cup of tea, and light a fire in the fireplace while I move to the living room to edit. Probably the last fire of the year.

I don't know how I am getting away with this.  It's too wonderful.


  1. It's 73 and sunny this morning in south California, but for a mystical moment, I was right there with you in your precious lighthouse. I could hear the rain slap the sidewalks and patter the leaves. Your little home is a perch, a sanctuary, an aerie from which to launch these wonderful days. I love it when your writing puts us right there with you.

  2. Will you just write me moment to live in? I love this one, but it's already been claimed :)


  3. Oh, Catherine. You make me ache for joy. What a gift of expression you have. Reading this was like listening to Bach as you combined the best of Derrida with the best of Augustine. Keep stealing your "shadowy magic" and bringing it into the light for all of us to behold.


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