You Know That Old Saying

Dramatis personae: my self (today presented as only two).  The actors: Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy era), with hair tied back in a bun, wearing glasses and business attire, holding a notepad in such a way that she looks like a stereotypical therapist; John Lithgow (Third Rock era).  Lithgow plays the POV, or ‘narrator’ or (if you like) ‘the real me’ (“can you see?”).  Setting: a park bench in some sort of ‘public’ space.  We are outside, and it is very cold, but neither of us gives any indication that we notice.

The “therapist” speaks first.  “You say that you’re disappointed.  Can you be any more specific?”

“I’m not sure if I can.  It seems like a series of specific disappointments if I think very hard about it.  But I think I’m lacking perspective right now.  More often, it feels like a general disappointment in anything that one might SAY.  It’s like a disappointment in how impossible SAYING seems to be right now.”

“The lack of perspective is why we’re having this conversation, of course.  When you use that word, ‘SAYING,’ are you implying a distinction between saying and just thinking?”

“No, that’s part of the problem.  Thinking IS a kind of saying, as far as I can tell.  And before you ask, I’ll clarify that I take saying to be a kind of DOING.  So I’m not simply distinguishing saying from doing, either.”

“Huh.  So…  Is there anything that is not saying?”

[several seconds of silence]

“Of course there is.  Here’s another disappointment:  It can’t be said, and that’s so maddeningly cliché!.  I’d like this to go somewhere, and that goes nowhere.”

“’Nowhere’ seems too strong, I suspect, but…”   My interlocutor places a finger against her cheek, pondering.  I lose track of how much time passes before she speaks again.  “This is about what you usually think of as ‘belief,’ right?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Specifically religious belief?”‘

“I don’t think there’s such a specific thing as religion.  And yet I do.  I’m unsure whether or not I believe in ‘belief.’  And yet I clearly do.  When someone actually suggests that what we call ‘religion’ has NOTHING to do with belief, I know that this just has to be wrong.  That is, I know it in my gut or my heart or wherever, not in my head.”

“Ah.  One of your disappointments is about who suggested this to you most recently, correct?”

I nod.  “Having done a quick read of Bruno Latour’s book, Rejoicing, Or the Torments of Religious Speech,[1] my strong impression is that this is his message there. As is always the case when I’m first reading something, I’m far from confident that I understand well what I’m reading.  But he seems to be so freaking MODERN in his insistence that religious speech ‘conveys no information.’  And this, after all his provocative insistence on hybrids, and on us ‘never having been modern.’”

“Why would you be especially disappointed that Latour writes this way?”

“Because he otherwise seems to understand so well how stupid it is to see the notion of something being ‘socially constructed’ as entailing that it is ‘just pretend’ (as I’ve put it elsewhere).”

“So you’re afraid that Latour’s book is treating religion as ‘just pretend’?”

“That’s well put.  I’m afraid.  It’s not so much that I’m convinced or persuaded.  I’m afraid.”

“This is clearly not a fear about exactly what Latour is saying.  It is a fear that you might be….  Let’s see, how to put it?”

Another longish silence before I speak again. “I think perhaps it’s a fear that I have to give a finalized account of what ‘saying’ is, in order to be able to say anything.”

She smiles.  “But you also know – in your gut, as you said before – that this can’t be right?”

I nod again.  “That’s what I would say today, if it were possible for me to say anything.”

Her smile tightens a bit.  “You clearly are saying it, you know.  Even the possibility that you might eventually unsay it does not change this.”

I sigh again.  “You’re right, of course.  But today that’s not enough.”

Now her look is serious, but not harsh.  “That it is not enough is why we will go on, no?”

“I suppose so.”

I notice that we are both weeping, and (for now) nothing more is said.


[1] Polity, 2013.

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