Some time ago, a Bahai friend of mine was
explaining why their prophet used such flowery and extensive
language to communicate with his followers. She explained that
the language of God was beyond our comprehension and that as a
divine intermediary, it was necessary to speak in a more nuanced
language – one that often escaped our direct understanding. In
essence, spiritual language cannot be equated with common
speech. I held onto this point, not because I was satisfied with
her explanation, but that there was a greater depth to be
explored with regard to spiritual language.
More recently, I listened to the portfolio of
recorded lectures of Joseph Campbell. Buried in the many
concepts presented is a discussion of the language of myth.
Campbell contrasts prose with poetic language. Prose is
essentially our Western manner taking the form ‘who, what, when,
and where’ – prevalent even in our fictional works. In contrast,
the language of poetry invokes symbolic terms, not limited to
poems and songs, but in other writings as well. A principle
device of poetic language is the metaphor. Poetic language
conveys meaning through sound, rhythm, substitution, and
emotion. To get the full impact of poetry, the words must be
spoken. Campbell asserted that the language of myth invokes the
language of poetry.
Mythic language is a step beyond poetry – the
meaning is not expressed purely by metaphor – but by becoming
the object being studied.
Poets intend to achieve the ‘I’ and the ‘eye’
for the reader simultaneously. First, the reader is absorbed as
the first-hand witness (subject) in the poem, but always through
the filter or ‘eye’ of the poet. The reader’s observations are
limited by what the poet frames. We make our own inferences, but
are still tethered by the words of the author.
In contrast, mythic language projects the
nuances of our own psyche rather than limiting us to what the
poet, or ourselves, can verbalize. A picture paints a thousand
words, but writing down a dream or vivid projection loses
meaning unless an effective symbol can be invoked.
So isn’t mythic language difficult to
communicate, and as a corollary, cannot the same be said of the
communication of spiritual concepts? Yes and no. Culturally, we
are trained to deal in the written word and encouraged to be
precise in our language. But our brains work so well because of
their ability to process images, symbols and patterns incredibly
fast. Our preference for multi-media presentations over
typewritten manuscripts is the fuel which powers multi-billion
dollar industries. First, the motion picture industry has made a
science of mythic language – so much so that the products are
often perceived as formulaic or manipulative. But, nonetheless,
the gems of this industry are held with a passion at least
commensurate with those of the great books, and are more widely
recognized. Similarly, the companies driving this Internet are
moving toward higher capacities to share images, audio and video
tracks between ever widening participants. Talk about a
collective psyche! We now share ideas and symbols across
traditional cultural, religious and language barriers. And we
are now conveying these streams of consciousness in methods that
were inconceivable a few months ago – just wiki
it, then podcast it please.
So the building blocks of mythic language are
in active use, not just by authors and filmmakers, but by
increasing numbers of ordinary folk. The next issue is
transforming our use of that language toward shared
understanding and acceptance of those other beings out there.
While virtually none of these beings agree with me, we all share
in this odd symbolic framework called humanity.