Sunday, July 8, 2012

fiat lux

In the beginning there were no words.  In the beginning was the sound.

-- Toni Morrison, Beloved*

One of my daughters, before she acquired language, babbled articulately.  She understood what I said to her, and answered me with music rather than words.  She lived in a world of advanced degrees and literature, of long sentences that rose and fell, that wandered to conclusion through an epic of dependent and subordinate clauses; so when she answered, she did so with rise and fall, development and recapitulation.

One could have an adult conversation with this toddler.  One didn't have to baby-talk.  She had found the advanced music.  We could discuss the menu, or the day's schedule, or the state of the world.

Then she said her first words.  The music was gone.  And I learned to talk baby-talk with her.  She had grown up, and I was an infant again.

She didn't know that she deprived me of music.  She didn't know she had upset the balance, because it was my balance she disturbed, not her own.  She had moved on, into her future.  If she had not moved on, there would have been something wrong.  It wasn't her job to stay on a balance: it was her job to grow up.

A late book of scripture says that the world begins in words, and a much older story says that those words were fiat lux.  But life does not begin with words, nor does the story.  Even a fundamentalist has to admit that there was something before creation.  "The earth was formless and empty:" therefore there was an earth before creation.  "Darkness was over the surface of the deep:" therefore there was a "deep."  "The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters:"** therefore there were waters before creation.  The elements were there, but had not been named.  Naming things changes them.  When you get a new name, the name creates you and inaugurates you into new life.

My daughter's childhood shows that there is sound before there are words to name it.  She answered the sounds she heard, without words.  She spoke articulately, because the sounds to which she responded were articulated.

Confusing creation with naming is a visual prejudice.  A baby first encounters light at the moment of birth.  Therefore we think that light begins life.  But we all lived before birth and without light.  We lived then ante fiat, in a world of sound.

By sound I don't mean just the selections of Mozart or Sid Vicious that some parents blast at the womb.  Nor do I mean the incidental noise, the sound of subway trains or thunderstorms or lullabies.  These hardly count at all in comparison to the concert of body sounds, rhythm of breath and blood, melody of alimentation, the journey of substance through mother's body.

At the moment when we first received the light, we lost the mothering sound.  We were destined for a world made of words, and alienation of the music was its price.  We are suddenly blinking in the light but out of sound in a first silence, startling and wrong.  We fill the silence with our first cry, and the sound of that grief reassures our parents that we have arrived in their world.  Subjects and predicates and the links between them: that's adult life.  Rhythm, melody and harmony: that's what we give up to grow up.  And it hurts.

It hurts, and we cope with grief through faith, prayer and art.  The Creator told us to pursue happiness, but we're never happy unless the head and the heart know their way to each other.  We approach silence fearfully, because it arouses that first silence, so appallingly empty, so eloquent of what has suddenly withdrawn.  We might  stumble on it in a temple, on a stage, in a lover's arms or in the embrace of a sonnet.  We are tempted to defile the silence with our chatter, but if we choose instead to listen and to wait, we have a chance to hear the music that is no longer there, the music that precedes words, the articulate babble that preceded our baby-talk.  The singer, the poet, the prophet try to show the rest of us through their own articulate babble what that bursting silence was like.

What's the point of articulate babble?  Your shrink might say it models integration of your character.  It's a way of being in one moment both your grown-up self of subjects and predicates, and your unborn self of rises and falls, loudness and softness, rhythm and harmony.  Why would you want that?  If you don't know I can't tell you; but you'll grieve, and not know why.

*(New York: New American Library, 1987), p. 259.

**Genesis 1:2 (NIV)

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