The Power of Words

Published June 02, 2016 by Dr Carmen Cáliz-Montoro

Dr Carmen Cáliz-Montoro writes some reflections on how words' sacred nature is mostly ignored and misused to the extent that rather than being conducive to dialogue, words perpetuate the conflicts they are meant to lighten up.

St. John of the Cross’ diagram of the Ascent to Mt. Carmel

The more I ponder on my responsibility as a scholar, the more I ponder whether the tools we have at our disposal are questioned enough as we make use of them at different stages of our teaching practice.

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot approaches the writing of history, specifically regarding the Holocaust, through a brilliant dialogue between the myths of Echo and Narcissus. He illustrates miscommunication through the relationship of the nymph Echo and Narcissus and the interplay of sound/words, echoes and silence. He thus brings about a far deeper understanding of the nature of words to create or destroy, to give rise to fruitful dialogue or stagnation. Human experience also benefits from a personal awareness of the kaleidoscopic essence and changeable nature we all carry within ourselves. Under this lens, inner realisation challenges differences in skin colour, class, gender, and spiritual uniqueness. In my experience, any approach to difference and dialogue needs to be reconsidered and the use of words handled with far more care. The absence of a more respectful use of words has led society and media in particular to too much verbal abuse which, rather than resolving conflict, has ignited it even more.

I understand the importance of the Word as a vehicle to awaken levels within our divine human nature that we are hardly aware of. The opportunity to do research and ponder on how to translate knowledge and make it accessible and digestive to the world is undoubtfully the deepest challenge we all face. However, if we could bring back the mystery of phrases, such as "In the beginning was the Word, … and the Word was made flesh …," or as some of the Valentinian Gnostics phrased it, in the beginning was Silence and Depth, we could then envision some kind of fresh start to make better sense of the contrasts we are dealing with.

A few years ago, I came across an edition of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross' illustrations of the soul in Ascent to Mount Carmel, the sequel to his most famous poem, Dark Night of the Soul. The drawing brought my earlier reflections on words to a whole new level. At the mount, as shown above, lies wisdom and on the sides we find peace, joy, delight, piety, strength, justice, "on the mount, only honesty and glory of God". In another version of the drawing, he also writes "no thing there" (the mount top), no palpable object nor differentiated reality appears as if his use of drawings were meant to illustrate what words even as poetic as his could possibly convey.

I believe that fewer words are necessary when there is inner understanding because our other senses and organs, including the heart and intuition, often supply better understanding of things and people around us. I feel that in life we leave out levels of perception and favour the rational mind far too much. We use too many carelessly phrased words mostly unaware of the power and mystery they embody to shape our realities through expression. It is also my impression that a more fruitful start for human understanding and communication across differences needs to involve the peeling off of some of the programmed layers under which we have been taught to hide and define ourselves. There is great depth and beauty in the sincere sharing of our human vulnerability. The truth in my experience lies in the treasures that dwell within thoughts prior to their fleshed out expression into words. The way we choose to spell those out needs to be surrounded with much more respect, for words' sacred nature harbours depths that do not lie in the quantities used but in the light that a more succinct use of language may shed.

In other words, understanding of human conflict across differences may hold a better chance of resolution if education involved a deeper sense of the fast changing nature of human psychological stages of evolution. Implicit here lies a more conscientious attention to the original meaning of words (James Hillman, "The Soul of Words" in Re-Visioning Psychology). As it happens in the original myth of Psyche, the victorious journey of the soul through its physical human experience, the power of words may best be brought back to life from their comatose current state by holding them in a healthier relationship with the pauses and the silences between them. Perhaps deeper kind of listening can then have a chance to take the centre stage.

This article is written by Dr Carmen Cáliz-Montoro (PhD in Comparative Literature, University of Toronto / English Literature, Universidad Autonoma of Barcelona). She will be visiting Cambridge in August to continue some independent research as follow up to her book Writing from the Borderlands (TSAR Publications, Toronto, 2000).

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