In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is presented as a “man of realities,” and can be read as a literary representation of the (disturbing) modern trend of adoring and serving facts, empirical data and objective foundationalism.
“Now, what I want is, facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them . . . Stick to facts Sir!”
This fetishistic passion for facts is one of the grave conceptions we have inherited from the Enlightenment, and is intimately related to the idea of the inevitability of “progressive thought,” which entailed, as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the liberation of men from fear, together with the “dissolution of myths” and the “substitution of knowledge for fancy.” Prior to this moment of liberation, argued a few decades ago Water J. Ong, the “value in the object” and the “praise elicited by the object” were to be “viewed as a whole.” The unavoidable path of epistemic redemption leading to the enlightenment of the mind worked against the need to blur the distinction between an “exterior objective world” and the “interior personal world,” projecting onto contextual objects a “personal” or “animistic glow.” The disenchantment of the world entailed the extirpation of this animism. And in an inanimate world, all that matters is things and, more so, facts.
Hans Georg Gadamer wrote that this distinction between words and facts or words and things is actually rather more complex than we’d like it to be. Between the words and the object there is, as Gadamer puts it, a mutual belonging:
Language is not just one of man’s possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that man has a world at all. For man the world exists as a world in a way that no other being in the world experiences. But this world is linguistic in nature… Language has no independent life apart from the world that comes to language within in. Not only is the world ‘world’ only insofar as it comes into language, but language, too, has its real being only in the fact that the world is represented in it.
Language is not a purely mimetic or symbolic representation of reality, but is, rather, the way in which we, as human beings, experience what we call “The Real.”
So what exactly does Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel invite us to do in the second to last Mishna of the first chapter in Pirkei Avot?
Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.
Are we to tackle “the real” quietly, exit the halls of study of academia or yeshivot with the detached posture of one who sees things in their non-linguistic and objective “thingness”? And why is study not the essential thing for a human being, but rather deeds? Why do words, or better the excessive verbose nature of some individuals, lead them, in the words of this Mishna, necessarily to “sin”?
It appears to me that the silence Shimon wraps his own conscience in is one that trembles with overwhelming fertility of meaning, a silence that separates man from the world. The action Shimon ultimately sees man performing is one that is enveloped in the thick layers of verbal understanding which the lonely man of faith, that solitary individual portrayed by Rav Yosef Dov HaLevy Soloveitchick, is constantly intent in weaving around himself.
The role of the man of faith, whose religious experience is fraught with inner conflicts and incongruities, who oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God, and who is torn asunder by the heightened contrast between self-appreciation and abnegation, has been a difficult one since the times of Abraham and Moses. It would be pre-sumptuous of me to attempt to convert the passional antinomic faith-experience into a eudaemonic-harmonious one, while the Biblical knights of faith lived heroically with this very tragic and paradoxical experience.
All I want is to follow the advice given by Elihu the son of Berachel of old who said, “I will speak that I may find relief;” for there is a redemptive quality for an agitated mind in the spoken word and a tormented soul finds peace in confessing.
Words are experience. Language is the tentacle humans feel the world with. But words can lead astray, and so can actions. Ecclesiastes presents this paradox with textual elegance and precision:
(5:2) Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few. (5:3) For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
Folly is when we are lost in the infinite whirlpool of verbal creations, in the never-ending networks of semantic signification – dreams are the illusion that actions will lead us anywhere, the misunderstanding that doing is the sole true path to redemption.
A paradox? Certainly. All we can do is do and speak, act and write, love and sing, touch the world and trace the firmament with the fine lines of verbal eros. And above all that, we are to show some humility… and compassion. For the alternative is live short, brutish and nasty lives of dreamlike folly. Silence.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.