The most important piece of writing of the past decade to me is an article written last year in Modern Age by Ewa Thompson, “The Great Amputation: Language in a Postmodern Era.” It is important because it identifies the key to our modern stupidity. This acid stupidity has gradually seeped into political decisions that affect our lives and now has become a governing principle.

Thompson provides an explanation for what to me was merely an intuited frustration: when we have literally at our fingertips the entire record of the greatest thoughts of human history, why do we not use them to help solve our problems, understand each other better, or merely delight in the play of human genius? Why do we seem unable to contribute to this genius? Why are we becoming sub-literate? As Thompson writes: “words are losing their power to convince, console, and elicit joy.” As someone who takes literally Faulkner’s injunction that man is immortal because he alone among animals has an inexhaustible voice, and to ignore that voice is to watch the end of man, the disempowering of the word is a matter of grave significance.

Thompson explains that the Medievals identified four levels of meaning in language. The lowest was literal: the way the language reflects our daily life. Next was analogical, which “responds to our ability to describe something by pointing out that it is similar to something else.” Here we can sense the beginning of literature. The third level was symbolic: the invocation of non-material similarities to describe something that cannot be described in any other way. This may as well be a definition of poetry. Accessing the symbolic level requires cultivation because many of these combinations refer to previous symbols. The canon provides the key. Finally there is the anagogic level, where “symbols are utilized, but they point to a transcendent reality rather than to the intellectual or material one.” Thompson writes that in her lifetime she, as a professor, had seen the amputation of the final two of these. We only communicate on a literal and analogical level.

“Language is a treasure trove that preserves not only the facts of history but the entire human culture,” Thompson writes. “The role of language as a carrier of culture is vouchsafed by the fourth level of meaning: the connection words have to the world of mystery.” The amputation of the top two levels of meaning has made us less civilized. Somehow, this was a deliberate process, brought about by the post-moderns. To what aim, I am not sure. From some instinct of nihilism to be sure. To see what would happen, perhaps. Unlike Nietzsche, who probably thought that he could play with matches because the edifice was too big to burn down, the post-moderns knew they were playing with fire. So they have set the blaze. And those of us who do feel a connection with the past and its glories, and who wish to learn from it to avoid its miseries, have been deprived of the most important tools to put it out.

In one vital way, Francis Fukuyama was correct: the liberal-democratic-capitalist state was not a threshold to the end of history, but rather the farthest point in the three millennia march of Western civilization. We are now on the return march, away from liberal values, away from legitimized political authority, away from economic rationality, back to an inchoate anarchy made up of unclear and overlapping authorities, states without borders, and the exercise of power that, in the absence of any sort of rational political thinking or structures, will be exercised through brute violence, charisma, force, trickery, seduction and corruption, or all of the above. We are walking backwards into history blindly because we have poked out half of our eyes.

And, irony of ironies, this amputation was performed in the service of what is named progressivism—of moving forward. But progressivism, which is essentially a set of whimsical pranks wielded with the force of both legal tyranny and the older sanction of ostracism, cannot play its games unless language is reduced to only its first and second meanings. Progressivism delights at the analogical level because its rhetoric is little more than a series of false analogies. It cannot reach the symbolic level because it mocks the transcendent. And it cannot reach the anagogic level because it refuses to meet history on its own terms. “History,” James Bowman wrote, “once the soul of culture, tends to be to the progressive what it is often to the socialist: not just useless but a positive hindrance to understanding, a history only of error.”

There is a level of language baser than the literal. It is language as violence, such as we are seeing now. Language that refuses debate and compels submission. And worse, this language of violence is being used specifically to destroy historical memory. I search in vain in history for an example of such a sudden implosion of civilization. (Forgive them Lord, one might say, but they wouldn’t get it.)


Photo by ErikSmit (Pixabay)