There is a phase of ancient history which never ought to be forgotten by those who wish to understand their fellow-men. In Africa during the fourth century a great many Christians joined a body of schismatics who were wrecking the Church by maintaining that only sacraments administered by a righteous priest were valid, and that a number of contemporary priests had proved themselves unrighteous by showing cowardice during the persecutions of Diocletian. They raved: for according to the Church Christ is the real dispenser of the sacraments, and it is inconceivable that a relationship prescribed by Him could break down through the personality of the mediator, and in many cases the tales were scandalmongering. But though these people raved they were not mad. They were making the only noises they knew to express the misery of the Western Roman empire. Since there was no economic literature these was no vocabulary suitable to their misery, so they had to use the vocabulary given them by the Church; and they screamed nonsense about the sacraments because they very sensibly recognized that the Western Roman Empire was going to die, and so were they.
- Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
I’ve been reading and re-reading bits of Black Lamb; little points of the book stick with me in a way nothing else ever has. This section in particular stuck with me the moment I read it because the line “they were making the only noises they knew” so closely parallels John Campbell’s “I am making the loudest sound I know how to make" that we’ve all collectively announced as the screaming of an idiot.
There is no Church in 2014, so there is no source for a common language to even begin to convey what is we are trying to say to each other. Slavoj Zizek has a popular and particularly relevant line here; “We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” I thought of this all again today when I was watching a woman thoughtlessly staring at a TV reporting on more ‘senseless violence’. How strange is it that all violence nowadays is ‘senseless’? People used to have motives, but police call it senseless, witnesses tell us “you just can’t make sense of things like this when they happen” in the following news reports. I am of the impression that many judges now weigh defendant opportunities for testimony/defence where the opportunity to speak to an audience might be giving that person what they wanted all along. How strange some might be willing to commit murder to just be heard — maybe even really heard, and not a small disturbance in everyone else’s lives to be dismissed, or a Facebook status update to scroll past *wink, wink*. (I could go off here: this otherness is very well ingrained in western culture; no one has ever wanted a genuine response to the question ‘How are you?’, and the common response seen nowadays to anyone in trouble is that ‘you ought to see a therapist’, that to bother one another with troubles is rather inconvenient and rather something to be administered as a capitalist transaction, not a moment for genuine interaction. I for a few years was catastrophically worried my unwillingness to disclose my personal troubles to friends for advice had been a uniquely emotionally and socially stunting choice, but had come to eventually realize this is very much par for course nowadays.)
"They screamed nonsense about the sacraments because they very sensibly recognized that the Western Roman Empire was going to die, and so were they.”
What are we trying to say?