In Which I Discuss: The “Fallenness” of Language, How “Fallenness” Is Not Jewish, And What This Says About The “Judeo-Christian Tradition”

January 16, 2009

Paul Dean, reviewing Geoffrey Hill’s critical writings in December’s TNC:

“If language is fallen, yet can be God-bearing, has it been redeemed, and if so, how? Was language, too, saved on Cavalry? (That is not a flippant question.)”

Though I’m not exactly of authority to hazard a response to that question in its particular form, I’ll do it anyway: If language is fallen, I wouldn’t place the fall in connection with Original Sin (as Hill, apparently, does) or, more specifically, with “the serpent’s use of specious argument to win Eve over” (as Dean does). Babel, rather, seems the proper setting for its (literal) Fall: the Fall involved punishment, but language was not punished until after Babel, when it was made imperfect and scattered out of a unity.

Of course, I have trouble with what I’ve just been saying, mostly because language of “the Fall” and “fallenness” isn’t something I’m perfectly comfortable with. They are, to my ears, inextricably linked with the idea of Original Sin-and therefore, like it, not Jewish terms. I understand them, of course, and have developed an aesthetic appreciation of the concept – I have to if I intend to live within the Western literary tradition (and have to if I intend to appreciate so many of the works on any meaningful scale). But to truly believe the language, one needs (I think) a Christian sensibility.

My preference is to couch discussion of post-Edenic existence in terms of loss, not fall. Between that and a (more Jewish) belief in an inherent imperfection in man (a state caused by not being divine, or The Divine, rather than resulting from a Fall), there’s enough common ground that I can read (for example, since his book is on my desk as I’m writing) Peter Lawler and sense that we agree on the present state of man’s fallibility and imperfection, while disagreeing on how he got there and where he’s going from there/how he’s getting out of it.

So I would say that language is less Fallen than humanly imperfect; that its fall from the peaks of Babel represents not a Fall but a brokenness — a loss, if you will, of wholeness.

And if we’re going to talk about the merits of the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” or, more specifically, a Judeo-Christian political tradition, it stands to point out that the two traditions define the origins (and therefore the particular nature) of man’s imperfection differently. Such differing opinions regarding the meaning of the expulsion from Eden and the validity of Original Sin/whether we are specifically fallen, are not negligible, and any common conservative politics (as opposed to worldview or disposition), or (more aptly?) dialogue of conservative politics in/for a shared arena, can’t be established without some sort of contingent superstructure built (precariously?) above it – though that structure may merely be acknowledgement of this difference.

(I suppose you could argue that a similar endeavor is required for non-religious conservatives; though I wonder whether background in the Christian/Jewish/other tradition wouldn’t play an important role here – possibly so much so that merely being a non-religious conservative from the Christian tradition would provide more common ground – on this single matter – than if one were religious but coming from the Jewish tradition.)

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