Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Listening to Words

I am doing a comparative study of various editions of The Cloud of Unknowing and it is a discouraging business. We are all influenced by the context in which we work, some more than others, however. Some have fewer scruples about making the text what they want it to be than what the text says. Hodgson's work remains the benchmark, but even her 1982 introduction has echoes of William James, Evelyn Underhill, Baron von Hugel, and perhaps some pre-Vatican II neo-Manicheanism. Walsh is a neo-scholastic and seems far more concerned with characterizing the Cloud -author as a transmitter of St Thomas Aquinas than as someone who is discussing an actual human psycho-spiritual process. Walsh's "translation" seems very wide of the mark, in fact, alarmingly misleading in places: for example, he translates "feeling" as "experience". The Cloud-author has a word for "experience" (a form of "prove") and he is an author who seems careful with words. "Feeling" is very different from the modern notion of "experience" and I don't think Walsh is using the word "experience" in the sense of "instance". In fact, the more I work with these texts, the more it seems that scholars, lacking either practice or understanding of the underlying dynamic of the texts they are working with, think ancient and medieval authors such as the Cloud-author are discussing abstractions instead of using the ambient language to describe "the work of silence".

People who have become scholars after Vatican II seem even more hung up on the word "experience" in a way that is deeply misleading and is the opposite of what medieval people meant by it. The word doesn't even enter the language until the late 14th c. and then it is taken from the Latin and means something like "experiment". It doesn't have the nuance of self-authentication it has acquired in the 20th and 21st centuries. Certainly the word can mean an instance, for example, "an instance of excessus mentis" but that is not the way it is used these days, and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be "experienced" in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd. The word also has been intruded into translations from the Latin where it doesn't exist in the original. So if you see the word used in a translation or a paraphrase, be sure to check the original! The ancient and medieval authors had a far more accurate idea of how the brain works than modern authors who want "experience" (a commodity these days) at any price and who are unwilling to acknowledge that there is much that cannot be "grasped" (another widely misused word, along with "achieve." Yes, I'm making a list. You're welcome to contribute.

Translations of the bible raise similar problems. In Ephesians, for example, the word "comprehend" is often used to translate 3:18, when "insight" or "understand" might seem more the sense of katalambanō in the context. Jerome uses the Latin comprehendere but the Latin can mean "understand. Or perhaps, stretching things a bit, we could see "comprehend" here as an ironic paradox—and certainly we linear 21st century types miss a lot of the paradoxes. For example, when medieval writers use the word "cling" (adhaerent) what they are clinging to is dispossession—clinging to wonder, for example, in Richard of St Victor. As far as the Ephesians passage goes, "insight" has my vote.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the recent Penguin translation by A.C. Spearing, which includes other works of the same author, and Carl McColman has been recommending Carmen Acevedo Butcher's new translation. Are you familiar with either of those? I have not read The Cloud more than once, and only in the Spearing version, I think.

2:15 pm, October 13, 2010  
Blogger fs said...

I'm glad you're taking this on, Maggie; it sounds an excellent match for your interests and strengths. Ideally, words attempt to convey meaning as clearly as possible or, with poetic and meditative writing, replicate as closely as possible the nuances of the author's vision or reality. My copy of The Cloud of Unknowing is a fairly old one, purchased second hand, a 1973 version edited by William Johnston. It's always seemed good, but I have nothing with which to compare it.

Have been reading your Pillars of Flame, which is so very welcome at this time in my life. Throughout my church experience, I've been repeatedly jarred by involuntary glimpses into the massive, sometimes even insane, egos of some priests and equally shocked by the attitude of parishioners who perhaps choose to ignore this phenomenon or perhaps are truly impervious to it. I made the mistake, apparently, of reading the synoptic gospels prior to joining a church, so my expectations may have been unrealistically high.

Your book should be required reading in seminaries and by all who take part in the discernment process. Actually, I think Garry Wills has it right when he says that priestly hierarchies are simply antithetical to Jesus' teachings.

In trying to come to terms with this, the relief for me is in knowing that there are people who do care about the internals of what it means to try to follow Christ.

8:02 pm, October 13, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Mamadar: I'm afraid the Spearing suffers from the same problems; he interpolates the word "experience" where it is not intended among other things. I haven't yet done as close work with it as I have with Walsh in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, which in my opinion is so misleading it should be withdrawn.

I have not seen the Butcher translation although I looked at the preview online and shuddered. The last thing the Cloud needs is an "O Wow" paraphrase.

I have found (confirmed by a recognized Latinist) the same problems with the word 'experience' in the Zinn translation of Richard of St Victor in the CWS series, though Zinn to his credit does understand and use the word 'behold'.

Carl McColman is very well-intentioned but there is a difference between feeling good and scholarship and/or the work of the spirit. Just because someone has a feel-good message does not mean either that they understand the work of silence or the classic texts that describe it. There is a lot of wishful thinking going on.

To FS: Thank you for your kind remarks. Yes, Gary Wills is correct: the ecclesiastical system is antithetical to the Gospel. As Jesus says in John 14 (check out the Greek) "You [the disciples] can behold [theoria], but the system [kosmos—he is referring to the temple system but it applies to any system] cannot behold, and because the system cannot behold, it cannot receive the Spirit of Truth. Do you know the site "Great Treasures"? it's invaluable for checking out translations for the non-specialist.] So it is incumbent on every person involved in a system to call it to account; of course this does not happen; we are coerced into being clones, so we are stuck with the dead-end of Christianity.

10:36 am, October 14, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

I should add that, unpopular as this remark may be (pace, Carl McColman), there is a limit to toleration in these matters. The spiritual life is about truth, the truth of God, and the unfolding truth of the incarnate person in the light of God. This unfolding takes place out of our own sight. Contemplation is not about experience; it's about relinquishing all claims to experience, as the Cloud author, Richard of St Victor, Julian and others point out. There is a price to be paid, but our age not only does not seem willing to pay it, it seems to want to justify its "have your cake and eat it too" attitude; greed posing as spirituality. As the Cloud author remarks, if your practice is authentic, it will "bind" you so that you must have silence, solitude, and live a life of rectitude. You will not be able to engage in any activity that distracts from it. Few people in our culture are willing to pay this price.

The way the human mind operates, the way it goes into silence, is universal; it is the interpretation that is culturally influenced. Ancient and medieval writers were close observers of their minds (as we all can be) and their texts are often about this process as it manifests. Although they had no idea of neuro-biology, their interpretations were uncannily accurate. Science is only beginning to catch up. Our modern notion of 'experience' (which is opposite to that of ancient and medieval people—the Cloud author's word is a form of 'prove') is in fact not consonant with what neuro-biology is telling us.

Because our culture has no silence and because "the work of silence" was suppressed by the church, we have largely lost the assumptions that the ancient and medieval writers have, and as a result we tend to think they are talking "philosophy" (which sometimes they are, of course) when in fact they are using metaphor to describe a psychological process for which they have no language except that of theology/philosophy. Contrary to what Walsh says, the Cloud author could probably have written his text if Aquinas had never existed. Another example is, Ps-Denys who was a Syrian monk. No one to my knowledge (I have asked Louth about this) has done any work on the impact of his monastic life on his writings, particularly liturgical gesture and the Night Office. Some of the Mystical Theology sounds far more like John the Solitary than a neo-Platonic ascent. Again, I haven't studied Ps Denys closely enough even in English to say any more than this (and I would not trust any translation at this point) but the question needs to be raised.

The Night Office is another issue that has not been factored into scholarship because it is no longer part of monastic life and awareness of its influence seems to have vanished. But the Night Office was one of the most important times for prayer in the monastic cycle as it was the only Office long enough for the pray-er to utterly immerse him/herself in. Richard of St Victor's "hovering" sounds very much like what happens in the Night Office to one who gives him/herself to it, and the Cloud author's reference to liturgy as a way to enhance "the work" also sounds very much like a reference to the Night Office. The same needs to be considered in regard to visionary literature.

There are some aspects of scholarship that simply cannot be undertaken without an understanding of the psychological dynamic at work, and often this dynamic cannot be inferred from texts.

11:08 am, October 14, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Here is an illustration of what I mean by a limit to toleration in these matters.

I was in a situation where I was helping design liturgies and the like. The person I was working with wanted to stage a popular event to which I am implacably opposed. This ordained person asked me why I was opposed, and I said because it misled people, and from a spiritual point of view it was bad for them. She said she realized that it was bad for them, but that it was what people wanted.

From my point of view that sort of attitude is totally irresponsible and a complete betrayal of what the spiritual life/scholarly life is/are about. So when we tolerate shoddy scholarship or wishful thinking on popular websites we are neither giving sincere seekers the help they need nor serving the wider goal of advancing and disseminating knowledge. Instead we are misleading them and giving them damaging information.

11:19 am, October 14, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

I, too, am glad you're examining The Cloud of Unknowing. I typically read this text once a year. The version I read is the 1973 text, edited by William Johnston. I'd be interested to know your take on it. If you don't have a take yet, I'm willing to stay tuned.

4:23 pm, October 15, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

To Valerie:

I haven't compared the William Johnston translation yet, except to check to see if he keeps the author's use of 'behold'—which in the two places in the beginning, he doesn't. So far Underhill's version seems to most faithfully follow the Middle English as given in Hodgson's text. There is a new edition from Kalamazoo that's online
but the introduction seemed to me so wide of the mark that I was amazed that it was published. The message of the Cloud author cannot be domesticated.

10:44 am, October 16, 2010  
Anonymous AM said...

"and to imply that excessus mentis is something that can be "experienced" in the rather pathological narcissistic sense of the word that Merton is primarily responsible for, and which has spread through secular language as well as sacred, is absurd"

Just a bit shock over your take on Merton. Then i began thinking how in an early stage in his monastic life could he spend time immortalizing his personal life through his Seven Storey Mountain when even the Master have no self-referential writing at all except a wind-swept, never been deciphered one on the sand.

12:38 pm, October 17, 2010  

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