Language, Mysticism, Magic, and Bierce


The relationship between language and its acquisition, and man's sense of the mystical are explored. Man's attraction to what does not yet make sense draws him alike to language, to science, and to God. Mysticism is the name we give that attraction. We suggest some of mysticism's strengths as well as some of its weaknesses, especially as they relate to the idea of magic.

Language in the Formative Years

To a pre-lingual child, language is a magical, mystical collection of incantations. He sees a person utter words he does not understand and then sees the wish fulfilled, as if by magic. He sees language establishing deep bonds between people. And he is compelled by nature to copy the behavior of his elders. He learns language. At first, learning language means accessing a domain of unlimited power. It it gives him a kind of mystical power over certain paople. He gets attention, he gets food, and so on.

All of these things small humans covet. And we learn language in order to get precisely what we want. But before we have gone far at all we find that it is a two-way street. Language soon begins to hold sway over all our actions. Language ceases to be a magical mystical power we exert on others exclusively for our own good. It becomes a reality. It also becomes a power others have over us. It becomes a tool with capabilities and severe limitations. And it loses its mystique.

Bierce defines Ardor as "Love without knowledge." This definition shows awareness of a rather common phenomenon among humans, the "grass is greener on the other side of the street " phenomenon in which we want something for the benefits we see it might give, but we fail to grasp the negative repercussions of the choice.. Then, when we get the thing we desire, we gradually come to realize its full costs. Frequently, once we have acquired language, the mystical power it holds for us dissolves away. Our ardor fades. The grass is less green than we thought. Language becomes quite ordinary. It is a tool, a common tool, and not much more. Its cost is the power other people have on our own behavior. Occasionally people find it so very useless or disappointing that they give up on speech and go to a convent or monastery.

Foreign Language & Mystical Experience

Those who have mastered spoken language and find that it serves them reasonably well may find themselves very interested in foreign languages. And they will begin to study them. Possibly, the mystique of a foreign language bears some parallel to the mystique of their own native tongue. There is the fantasy that another language will bring a kind of power that the current one does not. A person who has spent much time in a country where one's own speech is not spoken or comprehended will frequently find the experience quite humbling. The sense of powerlessness can be quite profound at times. So learning a foreign language can posess a kind of joy of empowerment just as the unknown parts posess a kind of mystique.

That foreign languages hold some sway over us as being magical will help explain why some religions insist on holding services in a language foreign to the native one; and why this may actually increase the mystical attraction of a religion. "I am a Latinist" quoth Martin Sheen in an interview on The Actor's Studio some years back. He did not explain why. But if one imagines that there is a space in the imagination where special ritual language to hold sway over a special, immaterial universe, then ritual language can have a powerful psychological impact. Entering a world governed by ritual language would then cause one to psychologically relive the hopeful life of a pre-lingual child. That is a time when all the universe is at one's command: as Bierce quotes Wordsworth "heaven lies about you." One commands this all-knowing, all-caring being to produce food and clothing and comfort, and the being does so. And language still promises more. To be able to evoke such a world at will, to transport oneself into it at will is powerfully useful. Magical almost. It can explain the appeal of certain religious rituals in an unintellibible or special language. And it can explain the psychological appeal of large cathedrals.

The psychological ramafications for this are profound. Worship under such circumstances, transports a person back to a pre-lingual state - a state in which a child is loved unconditionally and cared for unceasingly by a parent who utters mystical things. How people are affected by such ceremonies, though, might differ with their temperaments and by their own childhood experiences.

Bierce's childhood might have been quite difficult. There are enough references to broken heads (Force, for instance) in Bierce's Devil's Dictionary to make one wonder whether he was in some way abused as a child. Were this the case, it is little wonder that Bierce used language to poke holes in the cloak of mystical experience. At some level perhaps Bierce felt betrayed not just by his parents but by language itself. What better way to express anger at such betrayal than by defiling it with a dictionary that creates subversive interpretations of everything?

Written Language & Magic

During the middle ages few could read but the powerful. Church functionaries could read. And most nobles could as well. There was a common sense that being able to read and write conveyed some mystical, magical advantage on people. So it was not uncommon in the middle ages for magic to be a subject of a book. The reason was not because the magic actually worked. The reason would be because people saw writing as magical and sometimes the idea would stick in the minds of people who read. In other words, magic sold.

In fact, being able to read and write bestows a huge amount of power on a person. It allows him to listen to what the dead said a millenium ago, or to hear a person in their own words who lives halfway around the world. The advantages of this are profound. They are so profound, that to people who do not know how to read or write they might seem magical. Writing empowers one to send specific commands to people far away, or to reach agreements with others that are detailed and complex. It allows for third parties to enforce agreements to which they have not been witness. In the absence of the idea of writing, all of these possibilities would seem magical. And so it was natural that humans who could not conceive of what writing was might imagine it to be magical. And it was in the interest of the powerful to preserve that misapprehension.

Mathematics, the Next Magical Language

Those who have studied the physical sciences understand that there exists a class of physical problems that can be represented easily in mathematical language and solved in that language. Science may sometimes be viewed as a method of discovering what sorts of real world problems can be cast into mathematical language for solution. In the notions of a pre-lingual child it is a search for incantations. ( Among practicing scientists and engineers it is frequently seen as a set of incantations as well. And the trick is simply to find the right incantation. When this happens, science ceases to be science, but becomes a black art, a religion.)

The models science provides are then used to create tools of various sorts: the light bulb, the automobile, the iPod. To those of us who have grown up with these various devices, there is nothing particularly magical about them. This is not so much because we can describe exactly how they work in scientific terms, but because we are acquainted with them. We are used to how they work. They do not surprise us. We know them.

But to those who have never seen a lightbulb, a television is a work of magic. By this measure, the engineering language that was used to create it is a set of incantations, odd, weird, mystical. This very idea provides the subtext for a wonderful novel called A Canticle for Leibowitz. A monk in a post apocalyptic world uncovers the blueprints for an ICBM, but he is clueless about what they are. The document becomes a religious relic. A perfect example of veneration of the unknown precisely because it is unknown.

Both Newton and Leibnitz were very religious and mystical men. And, in fact, there is good reason to imagine that their invention of a new language that came to be known as Calculus might have been an expression of their strong mystical drive. A drive to discover some magic and powerful language of incantations over the physical world. In all fairness to both men, neither had the illusions that his incantation could directly control the physical world; but they both wished to describe it more accurately. And we have learned that this more accurate means of description has, in fact, lead to greater power over it.

Magic, Why We Can't Get Enough

It is worthwhile to think about the idea that frequently we find that things holding a kind of mystical intrigue for us end up being quite important. It is true of spoken language, it is true of written natural language, it is true of mathematical language. Those who own cats will have noticed that, especially when they are young, cats are intritgued by all that moves. They look intently at moving objects and they engage playfully. It is as if the motion itself has a kind of mystical meaning to them. It is as if nature has provided them with a kind of instinct for observing motion in a special way. This would make sense, since cats survive by mastering motion as few other animals do. If motion is the mysticism of the cat - motion and stillness - then for humans expression in all its forms, language, arts, mathematics, graphic arts, dance and so on are all expressions of mysticism of a sort in man. In both cases the expression involves contemplation, practice, mastery. In both cases there is a language. For the cat it is a language of fluid motion.

Man, owing to a kind of innate lazyness combined with a need to consume and to be prepared to provide for the consumption of all he breeds, is ever looking for a way to make things easier. This sounds bad, but it can have a number of good effects if it is well managed. Magic promises these effects without the work. All forms of magic promise this. Science as a form of magic promises it. Multilevel marketing as as a form of magic promises it. The hope of being a sports star promises it. The hope of writing a book or a movie script promises it. The hope of building a popular web site promises it. It is the hope that we might find such a magical sortcut that makes man gullible. It is the dream of finding a magical shortcut that drives man to invent. So it is the interest in the mystical that has driven man to several of his greatest achievements. And it is in the interst of the mystical that man has fallen most easily for frauds and deceptions.

In a world of increasing specialization it is ever the case that one person will know some useful thing that another does not know. Humans survive by commerce and the chief currency of commerce is trust. So it is only natural that some people survive by making claims to special knowledge that others do not have. In many cases such claims are warranted. Often, practitioners in the fields of law, accounting, engineering, medicine, the arts, and so on will have special knowledge or special skills that produce results that appear to people unacquainted with the peculiarities of those specializations seem like magic. And this is one of the reasons specialists in many fields make a lot of money: at some level society is rewarding them for being magicians, for transcending the constraints of mortals.

At the heart of mysticism is the notion that the world, the universe, and everything are much bigger than our own understanding. By embracing this idea, we see possibilities, we see new frontiers. It is not accidental that Europe blossomed after the discovery of the New World. One reason, of course, was the great influx of natural resources: new foods like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and squash, new sources of metals and stone and lumber and fuel. But another reason was that it fuelled the imagination. Swift's Gulliver's travels exploited the brand new (then) idea that the world was much bigger than had ever been imagined, and much more varied. Few English works display more imagination about the variation among peoples and customs. It is not pure coincidence that he was writing this at roughly the same time as Newton was inventing the idea of gravitation. Both were works of great imagination. Both rely on a strong sense of mystical empowerment.

Acts of magic and deception serve to bolster our mystical capacities. And our mystical capacities bring new ideas and approaches into the real world. So there is a way in which our pre-lingual notion that unknown things are more interesting than known ones becomse an impulse to invent or create or explore in a way we would not otherwise do.

And here we begin to bump up against an irony. For mysticsim provides the basis by which we imagine God. It is in our mystical imagination that God lives. God's relationship to adults - in terms of power and knowledge and physical capacity - is roughly a parents' relationship is to tiny infants. Religious language refers to God the father over and over. Real or not, God is a powerful act of imagination. But religion, the realm he inhabits around us is a social institution whose purpose is social order. Religion serves men through establishing norms of behavior and by pacticing rites and rituals that bring men into its reach. Social order is upset by change. Nor does the social order itself worship the God we have created in our own minds - our own personal God who pretty much serves our own will. Thus the very power man has to conceive God is the one that poses the greatest danger to organized religion. And vice versa. The point is that good religious practice depends on being able to see where the God we invent out of analogy to our pre-lingual state ends and the one of a greater social order begins. Failure to understand this distinction almost inevitably leads to ruinous action.

Bierce and the Magical World

Organized religion tells us that the world around us was created by God. But then organized religion will tell us that God exists, and it providse for us a proof that he does not - attributing the logical gap to our own problems of perception and logic (see Thomas Acquinas proofs of God) rather than to God's nature. Those predisposed to find God through this sort of an argument find the mystical contradiction strengthens God's appeal. Those predisposed not to do so will find the whole thing puzzling, or absurd. How it strikes one might depend upon one's temperament and upon ones experiences.

The truth is, sometimes it is fun to be fooled. And sometimes it is fun to imagine new things. In fact, life in the absence of a rich imagination can be really dull. It is not enough to have imagination alone, but as one might treat a horse one must give it free reign in the new and untested pastures. Bierce, though he had a rich imagination ultimately found life unlivable. His last dispatch suggests that he considered the Mexican firing squad to be his ultimate hope, and perhaps it was the first not to disappoint. Bierce, for all his imagination, had lost touch with the mystical part of man that is still willing, sometimes, to be fooled.

It is this part of us that allows us to fall into love, to imagine how much we will enjoy a new computer, to imagine the Atlas mountains at dawn on a winter morning, and to find the magic in these things. Hope failed Bierce in the end, but it was language that failed him first.

Bierce mastered language. But no matter how facile he became with it, it never gave him what he wanted. He never realized the hopes he pinned on it in a pre-lingual state. In defiling language he got even with all the objects of veneration that had disappointed: loved ones, political institutions, religious institutions, schools, even language itself. And when the satisfaction that brought finally expired, Bierce did, too.


Copyright: Stephen R. Brubaker, 2006. All Rights Reserved