by China Miéville.
Once there had been the subterranean language with the underground forces. If speech at all then it was the spaces between words, and the echoes the words left, or what might be really meant under the surface.
Ann Quin, ‘The Unmapped Country’
The problem with Marxism is Marxists. Having
discovered this world system, they are persuaded
they have acquired a hammer-lock on infallibility.
Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust
A week has rarely been so long a time in politics: these are not just terrible but terribly strange times. Events deemed impossible by erudite observers, including on the left, refuse to cease to occur. Any model presuming the possibility of political certainty is a liability. The breakdown of old algorithms occasions epistemological crisis: hence liberalism’s panicked lachrymosity, the outrage of denied entitlement, conspiracism and self-righteousness. For the radical Left, the best response to the times is to replace protest-too-much business-as-usual with the perspicacity of failure. Where we can fill gaps in our understanding, we must; but perhaps we should start with the suspicion that we can’t. Political humility demands not new certainties for old, but a new, less certain way.
With such humility should come grief appropriate to the epoch. ‘Don’t mourn,’ goes the Left injunction, ‘organise.’ A bullying disavowal. How can we organise except through mourning? And in these loud days, shaking as they do with the blare of capitalism’s death drive, how could anyone consider the subtle buried tongue Quin describes and not count it among that for which we mourn?
But it is not in fact dead. It was, rather, always-already quiet and interred. Here at least our elegy is for what abides. On our submerged, resistant, tunnelling way, with those underground forces, we might encounter the subterranean language, hear it deeper than our ears, open our mouths to find it within. We might speak it to mourn it.
Knowing and Its Discontents
The higher one ascends,
the less one understands.
St John of the Cross
Recruitment is persuasion. Not for nothing have radicals focused on making sense of the world, offering explanation not only, per Lenin, ‘patient, systematic, and persistent’, but better than that of reaction or the status quo. The task remains indispensable.
But we can be too quick off the mark to explain all, as if ‘speaking truth to power’ makes that power quail. As if truth will indeed set you free. At its most degraded, this is an elitist, hectoring, paranoid politics, its epigones of epiphany committed to revolt through the reveal (‘If only people knew’, and ‘Wake up, sheeple!’). As if people aren’t awake, and the problem not more one of power than one of ignorance. As if, too, we are not all still sleepwalking.
Of quite different kind are those austere Marxist heirs of the ‘Radical Enlightenment’ outlined by Jonathan Israel and others. Their analyses can be subtle, insightful, politically vital. Still, the grundnorm, the ‘first principle’ of the worldview, according to its articulate advocates Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim, is ‘Rationalism’. This is hardly wrong, but it is partial and inadequate: what it neglects, to quote Antoine Lilti (in Asad Haider’s translation), are ‘the subterfuges of coherence’. The political subject and the totality of which she is function are constituted in and by contradictions and surpluses, the unconscious, the unsayable. They are not supererogatory to reality: to the contrary. Nor can they be so to those who strive to change it.
In a 2016 article, Fluss and Frim insist that ‘the universe is essentially knowable and … all limits to knowledge are merely provisional’, echong the words of the Communist Party’s Herbert Apthekar in 1970: ‘[a]ffirming that phenomena are – by their nature, if not (yet) by the extent of human knowledge – subject to explication confirms the materialist base of this outlook’. This model, its advocates insist, is a prerequisite for action: thus, Fluss and Frim see their worldview as ‘wholly necessary to develop a coherent emancipatory program’; and Apthekar his materialism-of-total-explicability as implying ‘the insistence that philosophy’s task is not merely to comprehend but to change the world’.
What can be explained should indeed be, and politics will follow. But explication is not activism’s only engine. Nor will the most epochal patience necessarily domesticate all recalcitrant inexplicability. Apthekar’s ‘yet’ pitches for the Promethean and achieves the merely plaintive. For such putatively emancipatory disenchantment, for which all limits to knowledge are ‘provisional’, the more we know, the less we don’t know. ‘[E]verything’, says Richard Seymour, in critique of this position, ‘is in principle calculable, intelligible … If we haven’t yet worked out the explanation for something, there is no doubt that we could. All surprises are preemptively accounted for.’
But the capacity to be surprised is a condition for analysis, let alone for a habitable Left. It was a physicist, John Wheeler, who famously and eloquently put a counter-case to such zero-sum epistemology: ‘We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.’ The metaphor enriches Marx’s fleeting observation in The Poverty of Philosophy that reason, ‘having only incomplete vision, encounters at every step new problems to be solved’. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. The more of which we can speak, the more of which we cannot.
From such metaphysics an effective leftism can and must be built. There is a beyond-words, a politics of the unsayable. This is not an admission, as of failure, but a declaration. A proud humility.
The less certain way we need is urgent, radical iteration of the docta ignoranta, an approach to thinking outlined by the fifteenth-century mystic Nicholas of Cusa, of ‘learned’ or ‘knowing ignorance’. Lack must be part of how we see the world, how we act in it, how we speak and change it. ‘What kind of philosopher’, we might demand, with Benjamin Fondane, ‘is he who does not accept that freedom begins where knowledge ends?’ In The Infinite Contradiction, Etienne Balibar develops such intuition, of a certain ‘incompleteness … proper to philosophical texts’; just as, years earlier in ‘The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism’, he saw the ‘fruitful incompleteness of Marx’s work’ as ‘the necessary effect of its scientific character’. As socialist understanding grows, so grows that negative space. Nor is this only a case of close reading for lacunae: for Balibar, ‘to incomplete’ is an active verb. ‘Marx’, he writes, ‘incompleted Capital (and toiled all his life to incomplete it)’.
One might go even further and assert that the nature of a great philosophy is not only to incomplete itself, but to incomplete others … And if it is true that the regulating idea of ‘system’ is fundamentally a modern version of the old imago mundi, the meaning of all these aporetic undertakings is, if not to ‘transform,’ probably to incomplete the world, or the representation of the world as ‘a world’.
It is in such vein that ‘totality thinking’, as Kevin Floyd has it, ‘is a rigorously negative practice’, not assertion of closure but an undoing of capitalism’s own totalising atomism. The radical activist hope is that it is in the very incompletion of the world Balibar describes that, at least in part and potential, its transformation inheres. Contra those attempts to derive emancipatory action from certainty, we might do so from its lack.
Even for Lenin, often simplistically dismissed as a top-down authoritarian, a healthy movement, he wrote in 1906, needed ‘the widest possible discussion’, for ‘every member of the Party to take a conscious and critical stand’. ‘Only through such discussions’, he said, ‘… can the real public opinion of our Party be formed.’ The at-least-stated aspiration across the Left, across countless organisational forms, has been for politics to be generated collectively. Too often this has meant exercises in authoritarian bad faith. For all that, there have been kernels of thinking beyond individual insight, glimmers of collective analysis. To participate in the construction of such can be a remarkable experience.
But in the drive to reach a political line, what has been missing is the importance of its aporia. Deploying provocative psychoanalytic terms, Dany Nobus and Malcolm Quinn see this, ‘the dimension of not-knowing’, as that on which ‘every epistemic discourse is based’: thus the necessity for ‘regimes of knowledge’ to be ‘in dialectical relationships with non-knowledge, blindness, ignorance and stupidity’. One does not, after all, always have to know what one thinks to know what one does not; nor need one have an alternative in mind, or even know precisely with what one disagrees, in order to criticise any given position. Knowing that and what one does not know is hardly unimportant. Beyond the mistranslated and misleading bumper-sticker bromide of Socrates-via-Plato (‘The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing’), the nature of epistemology is such that this humility should not merely be reminder, nor starting point: at a certain level, we must consider, as does Franz Rosenzweig in his strange masterpiece The Star of Redemption, ‘[i]gnorance as the end result of our knowledge’. And a mass, democratic docta ignoranta will be more effective than will that of any one person. Uncertainties, aporia, scepticisms and the shifting incompleteness to which they lead – the negative space of thought – should constitute collective politics alongside affirmations and suggestions.
A habitable Left must build not only on collective knowledge, but collective ignorance.
The Negative Way
Oh, what a blessed madness, sisters!
St Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
Struggling through what Roland Boer calls their ‘difficult and tempestuous love affair’, Marxism and theology ‘always return to renew their engagement’. The imbrication goes deep. As Benjamin put it of his own (particularly vividly inflected) work, it is ‘related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it’ – if sometimes smeared and unclear. On alienation and its overcoming, on utopia, on rupture in history, on grace and revolution, on comradeship, on political myth, on hope and mourning, theology offers resources of hermeneutic and critique to even the theism-suspicious radical.
Positive theology speaks claims about the divine – that God is Father, love, beauty, good. This, the via positiva, the positive way, is called cataphatic, from the Greek for ‘affirmation’.
It has an other. This is the discourse of the limits of words, of what is not and cannot be said. Its name comes from the Greek term meaning ‘negation’ or ‘denial’. It is called apophasis.
The docta ignoranta is one form of the apophatic method of negative theology. According to this via negativa, God is ineffable, so far beyond quotidian language as to be incommunicable. All that can ultimately be said, in the negative way, is what the telos of its concern is not – ‘not known, not spoken, not named’. Thus a great apophatic writer in what is now Syria, fifteen hundred years ago, describes God. The monk we know as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite goes on with a hypnotic litany of what God is not – soul, intellect, logos, number, greatness, smallness, eternity, time, knowledge, and more. It is to such a God that he prays to be led to ‘the mysteries of God’s Word’ – ‘in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence’.
The apophatic canon is vast, rich in such beauty, in astonishing mystical formulations. It has iterations and cognates in the ‘non-thinking’ of Zen, the neti neti (neither this nor that) of Hinduism. In the Abrahamic faiths, here is Gregory of Nyssa on God’s ‘luminous darkness’, or the ‘deep, but dazzling darkness’ of Henry Vaughan; here the ‘annihilated I’ of Marguerite Porete; here St John of the Cross is harrowed in his dark night. Here is Ibn al-Arabi, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart (perhaps the key figure in revived interest in apophatic discourse), Moses de Léon, Junayd of Baghdad, Teresa of Avila, John Scotus Eriugena, Hadewijch the Beguine, Jacob Boehme, Moses Maimonodes. It is a lineage stretching back to Moses, Ezekiel, the Neoplatonist pagan philosopher Plotinus.
It is crisis that gives it birth. At moments of the breakdown of religious nostrums, ‘[t]he passion of belief that had previously been invested’ in ‘traditional discourses’, writes the philosopher William Franke in On What Cannot Be Said, ‘looked beyond to what they did not and could not say’. Apophatic reflections emerge
when confidence in established discourses crumbles, when the authoritative voice of orthodoxies and their official affirmation – and even affirmative, assertive discourse per se – begin to ring hollow.
Apophasis extends into and after the twentieth century, through Modernism, of the theological and beyond it, in the work of Rosenzweig, Buber, Scholem, Weil, Kafka, Beckett and countless more. In this latter cultural context was ‘a sense’, Brother John-Bede Pauley writes, quoting Susan Sontag, ‘that silence is not so much terrifying as it is a kind of non-theist via negativa that frees the artist “from servile bondage to the world.”’
To such artistic avant-garde examples of ‘non-theist apophasis’ we can add a radical political avant-garde. As for theology, so for socialist (a)theologies. In these days of political nadir and the hollow ring of orthodoxies is a moment for reflection, for what the radical theologian Catherine Keller, in her scintillating Cloud of the Impossible, calls an ‘activist apophasis’.
As out of the debris of cataphatic catechisms we salvage theories in undimmed commitment to emancipation, this is the time for a Marxist apophasis, and an apophatic Marxism.
Contradictions, metaphors, paradoxes, oxymorons, neologisms, oracularity, negations and negations thereof, are key strategies in the via negativa’s efforts to express the inexpressible. But for all such strange, evasive, elliptical methods, ‘the very oddity and ambiguity of the language’, apophasis ‘certainly does not lead’, for the philosopher Hilary Armstrong, ‘to complete ignorance’. That contradiction can clarify should not be controversial to anyone who has been informed that all that is solid melts into air, that all that is holy is profaned. Indeed for Keller ‘the speech that unspeaks itself’ is engaged in an ‘intensively philosophical operation’. Because these linguistic operations are not fleeings-from but strainings-for knowledge (‘Ah, but to reach muteness,’ Clarice Lispector has her protagonist marvel in The Gospel According to G.H., ‘what a great effort of voice.’) and we cannot do without them. To get at what he calls such ‘interventionist, socially poised ambiguity’, Richard Seymour deploys Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s words for the poetics of J.H. Prynne: ‘tendentious obscurity’. Fail as they must, at their best – there is more and less effective, rigorous, provocative, fecund apophasis – such tendentious obscure techniques might fail better.
Armstrong describes a paradigmatic apophatician as ‘“running around and pointing” … making signs in a queer oscillating way which may help his and others’ awareness’. Strategy by ‘running around and pointing’ is familiar to socialists, and so long as the running and pointing are as rigorous as they can be, to describe them thus is not censure. Nor is Armstrong alone in understanding that ‘[s]ymbols and poetic ways of speaking (as long as they are agreed to be inadequate) may therefore perfectly properly play a part in … discourse’. For Rudolf Otto, in his breathtaking The Idea of the Holy, the numinous is that of which ‘the tongue can only stammer brokenly’, that it ‘can neither proclaim in speech nor conceive in thought’. Thus ‘[o]nly from afar, by metaphors and analogies, do we come to apprehend what it is in itself, and even so’ – that crucial caveat again – ‘our notion is but inadequate and confused.’ We can speak of God, says John Scotus Eriugena, the ninth-century mystic, ‘solummodo traslative’ – only by metaphor. Which is as inextricable from politics- as from god-talk, and as they are from apophasis. And to deploy metaphor is to act: it ‘is not, and never has been, a mere literary term,’ insists Mary Ruefle. ‘It is an event.’ Hence Marx’s metaphors. No mere aesthetic filigree – with which of course there is nothing wrong – his evocation of that table that ‘stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas’ expresses the evasive reality of commodity fetishism more precisely than any factual depiction of commodified wood. Nor is this an epiphenomenonal, let alone a suspect, method. Even so judiciously precise a Marxist as David Harvey says of ‘the metaphors to which we necessarily appeal’ that ‘[w]e cannot do without them, but we should proceed with caution and select with care’. Metaphors could not be, as he says, ‘dangerous’, have political effects, were they not in part constitutive of social knowledge.
All this imprecision – and such methods are inherently imprecise – must raise the hackles of those, including Marxists, aligned with what Keller calls ‘the current neon spectrum of certainty of modern factualism’. Without scientific exactitude, comes the objection, the world can be neither interpreted nor changed. The approach here allows that the opposite might be true. That there is to the social world something surplus to any reductive literalism, and that thus the supple deployment of apophatic techniques – because each usage must be ruthlessly evaluated – allows for greater precision. That, to secularise Michael Sells’ term, and bringing Ruefle’s point to mind, with such techniques are performed a ‘meaning event’.
A performance needs an audience, and the nuanced reception of such a meaning event demands its own methods and sensitivities. An apophatic receptivity might discern and learn from gaps, lacks and limits even in texts that may appear whole. And an activist, radically suspicious apophasis, of reception and transmission, could be a step towards a critical theory of political intuition.
With intuition we can abruptly – ‘suddenly’, exaiphnes, says Pseudo-Dionysius – perceive in a mass of disparate phenomena lines of force, relations, underlying totality – whether understood in visionary religious or materialist terms – beyond cataphatic reflection. What is so apprehended Jean-Luc Marion calls the ‘saturated phenomenon’, so-called because ‘its excess can neither be divided nor adequately put together again’, and it ‘could not be measured in terms of its parts, since the saturating intuition surpasses limitlessly the sum of the parts’. ‘By intuition,’ then, as Emily Dickinson has it, ‘Mightiest Things / Assert themselves – and not by terms –’.
Her last clause is no afterthought. As a moment of visionary faith, the Byzantine hermit Gregory Palamas describes intuition ‘neither as a sensation nor as an intellection, for neither is the activity of the intelligence a sensation, nor that of the senses an intellection’. Considering it so, as what Otto calls a ‘mode of knowing’, that partakes of, but is irreducible to, the intellectual, makes a certain sense of surprising convergences in discussions of religious intuition by Otto and of political intuition by Gramsci.
Otto describes an ‘absorbed submission’, by which a mind
becomes capable … of experiencing ‘intuitions’ and ‘feelings’ of something that is, as it were, a sheer overplus, in addition to empirical reality. … And these [intuitions], in turn, assume shape in definite statements and propositions, capable of a certain groping formulation, which are not without analogy with theoretic propositions, but are to be clearly distinguished from them by their free and merely felt, not reasoned, character.
[p]olitical intuition does not occur in the artist, but in the leader, and by intuition one must understand not ‘cognition pertaining to individuals’ but the rapidity of connecting among themselves apparently disparate facts, of conceiving the means appropriate to the end in order to find the interests at stake, and of arousing human feelings and channelling them toward a determinate actions.
In Palamas, as for mysticism in general, such vision is direct experience of union with the divine. Translated beyond theism, this connection with the real has cognates in socialist stress on concrete activism as key not only to action but to knowledge. At its worst, this can be the tedious, performative anti-intellectualism of the prolier-than-thou (‘I learnt more about dialectics from one afternoon on the picket line than from wasting my time in the library’); at its best, however, it is a return to Goethe’s point, approvingly quoted by Lenin, that ‘[t]heory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life’. Here the space of revolutionary intuition is, though not reducible to, one of revolutionary praxis.
This, of course, is wide open to abuse and self-deception. But what Otto and Gramsci are discussing are those intuitions of a type distinct from any other gaining of knowledge, and with which everyone is familiar: those, Otto says, which ‘limited and inadequate … are none the less indisputably true’. For Gramsci, secularising what is in Otto proto-ecstatic knowingness, such ‘free and felt’ formulations of totality must be deployed to political ends. If activism does so follow, Keller is vindicated: unsaying ‘performs its negations for the sake of the most positive relations possible’.
Any apophatic Marxism will, as Franke’s historical diagnosis of apophasis makes clear, be a symptom of ‘periods of crisis’. Strive, however, and it need not be merely that, let alone a morbid one. It might also be adaptation.
This is perhaps an obscure project, but it is not a new one. Nearly twenty years ago, theologian Denys Turner persuasively insisted that it was ‘not mere whimsicality’ to examine ‘that point of intersection between the negativity of the mystic and the negativity of Marx’. But even for so subtle a theorist, any intersection between apophatic and Marxist traditions more systematic than ‘a fleeting moment’ was pre-disowned. Mooting the project in a discussion of Liberation Theology, Turner immediately insisted that Marxism and negative theology ‘possess no common direction of thought and I have implied none’, that ‘nothing follows from what I have argued in support of some synthesis or other, still less any identity, between a negative theology on the one hand and Marxism on the other: nothing remotely so fanciful.’ Certainly, the temptation of facile analogising must be resisted. But deliberately or not, Turner protests too much. In their coincidences and/but other-occluding totalities, we might consider these traditions the results of distinct cuts from similar matter. In fact, that there are to them aspects of ‘common direction’ is barely controversial. Discussing Turner’s own work, for example, theologian Cyril O’Regan describes the ‘homology between apophatic practice as it concerns Christian discourse and Marx’s view of ideology’ as ‘fairly transparent’. To construct a more-than-whimsically apophatic Marxism, for which the religious via negativa is at least productive provocation and/or partial foundation, is to side with Turner against Turner.
A more systematic engagement than is possible here would worry at, unpick, uncover and construct a constellation, overt and occult, of various such homologies and relations, convergences, elective affinities between the negative way and Marxism. There exists a shadow library on the topic, a para-cannon of statements brief, book-length, offhand, meticulous, antique and modern, fleeting and systematic. Here we find the radical priest Kenneth Leech on ‘Dark night and Revolution’, on St John and Marx; here Nikolai Berdyaev; Bloch; much Benjamin. Perhaps most prominent are Adorno and Horkheimer: the work of the former has, in the words of James Gordon Finlayson, ‘often been compared to negative theology’; which tradition Rudolf J. Siebert links, too, to Horkheimer’s ‘longing for the totally other’. The claims of the subtle ‘Marxismologist’ Leszek Kołakowski, that the negative-theological dialectics of Eriugena were central to Hegel’s development of the form, and thus to Marx’s, should attract our attention. More generally, in fact, the apophatic traditions of dialectics and of negation bear comparison with Marxism’s own. Theorists such as Benjamin Noys and Artemy Magun have begun such latter work, placing negative theologies in a genealogy of revolutionary negativity tout court.
It is not as if politicised apophatic techniques have not long been available, and deserving of attention. The silence, say, of political antinomianism. ‘I will not legitimate their issues by responding’ says the enfant terrible of French letters Édouard Louis, of the fascist Front National. ‘Silence has to be a part of our progress. We have to put silence at the centre of politics today. Stop responding to the questions, stop letting them control the language, the debate, the agenda.’ An apophatic rebuke to any social-democratic utopianism of ‘dialogism’, of communicative rationality, of jaw-jaw, of the word.
July 1917, Petrograd. The mood tense and militant. There was popular hunger for action, even insurgency. The Bolshevik leadership were more cautious. They prepared an appeal for the front page of their paper Pravda, pleading for readers not to come onto the streets. But with scant hours to go, late at night, they realised that Petrograd’s masses would not heed their injunction: the next day would bring great demonstrations. Ignored, disobeyed, the words would be an embarrassment. But there was neither time nor focus to replace it, nor any certainty of what the party line should be. The offending piece was simply cut.
Thus on 4 July 1917, when Pravda hit the streets, its front page was a masterpiece of unintended activist apophasis, rich in what Catherine Robson has said of poetry is the ‘aura of unmarked space’. In the centre of the page was a white, textless hole.
From our vantage point in history, and whatever one’s view of the ‘necessity’ or otherwise of ‘the party’ for a socialist project, that silence evokes more loudly than any words humility appropriate to the twists of politics. That it was unplanned, a surrender of tactic-less comrades, does not undermine its status as apophatic Marxist declaration nonpareil . What more appropriate text could there be to inaugurate our docta ignoranta than the wordless declaration of the July Days?
It is from scraps and practices, then, from hints and intuitions, that we might construct an apophatic Marxism, certain of the indispensability of silence, and of the limits of certainty.
The Limits of the Limits of Language
Since, in particular, Derrida’s confession in Sauf le Nom that he did not trust any text ‘that is not in some way contaminated by negative theology’, contemporary intellectual culture remains, as Franke says, ‘saturated’ with it. (As does artistic work too: ‘[n]ow everybody in creation mistrusts language,’ the poet Mark Doty observes wryly, ‘and half the poems we read make a nod toward the unsayable’.) No wonder the radical might raise a suspicious eyebrow at this most hip(ster) of theological adjectives, ‘apophatic’.
But so it is that the distinction between symptom of the times and adaptation to it is key. It is established that a convergence between Marxism and the via negativa now should be unsurprising: that does not mean it cannot illuminate the radical project in new ways, nor offer distinct resources. Nor does an apophatic Marxism preclude deploying other Marxist modes (‘classical’ Marxism, Cohen’s Gothic Marxism, Fanon’s ‘stretched’ Marxism, salvage-Marxism, etcetera). After all, there is little reason to suppose that some putatively pure, ‘mere’ Marxism should be any healthier. A strictly cataphatic Marxism is, at best, in denial. A Marxism afraid of silence is a Marxism afraid of the declaratory. It is afraid of politics. It is afraid of the human, and of that fear that it perceives in itself.
And it is afraid, too, of the vatic and exhortatory. Apophatic Marxism might be not only more curious and rigorous, but more subtle and effective in its interventions than any silenceless Marxism. Apophasis may not be sufficient, but it is necessary.
Necessary too is a Marxism that goes as far as words can. Cataphasis could not be replaced, nor ‘supplemented’, by a Marxism of the unsayable: rather, they should be inextricable. In Marxism, as in any discourse, ‘silence’, to quote Mark C. Taylor from his strange and beautiful Mystic Bones, ‘can be heard only through the words that destroy it.’ In this, too, theology has its lessons. ‘Think not that affirmations and denials are opposed’, said Pseudo-Dionysius. Charles Williams, in Descent of the Dove, suggests that positive and negative ways ‘co-inhere’, that ‘each was to be the key to the other’. In that apophatic Marxism’s incompletenesses are not merely other but surplus, its political objects of attention more than we can say, it converges with the approach of John Scotus Eriugena, for whom ‘the ineffable Nature … is called super essential, more-than-truth, more-than-wisdom’. Such a doctrine of negation through affirmation, Franke says, comprehends ‘apophatic and cataphatic theology, together’, in what Deirdre Carabine calls ‘hyperphatic’ theology. Ultimately, then, what may be most effective is hyperphatic Marxism.
It is as part of a move towards that goal, given historic attention to and focus on Marxism’s via positiva, that here is counter-emphasised the apophatic, the negative.
Apophases, of course, are hardly panacea. They have their snares. We must ask, ‘Which apophasis? For what ends?’
In, for example, the via negativa of Ernesto Laclau, the ‘post-Marxist’ political theorist (and, in ‘On the Names of God’, commentator on Meister Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius), that there are limits to sayability is not in doubt. But there are political implications to seeing antagonism not only, in his words with Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, as ‘the failure of difference’ of which language is a system, and hence ‘the disruption of language’, but as ‘the limits of every objectivity’. Antagonism, ‘far from being an objective relation’ but ‘a relation wherein the limits of every objectivity are shown’, is thus ‘strictly speaking … not internal but external’ to society, ‘the limits of society, the latter’s impossibility of fully constituting itself’. Artemy Magun’s careful unpicking of these and other dense formulations are beyond us here, but he is convincing that in this model, these external antagonisms ‘are gaps symbolised through empty signifiers’ rather than – or as well as – fantasies and images that ‘present a real ground for a victory’ over the enemy. Ultimately those antagonisms are, then, a limit-point ‘preferred’, in Magun’s words, ‘to their resolutions’. ‘[T]he only historical horizon of Laclau and Mouffe’s teaching is democracy’: they ‘cannot envision any movement that would destroy the present state of things’. This is apophatic reformism, of a wan kind.
And there are worse viae negativae. In his delightful ‘Trumpophasis: On What Cannot Be Said’, Patrick Blanchfield sees in the President’s extraordinary elliptical speech patterns (‘There’s something going on…’, ‘You know why’, and so on) ‘the contradictions and insinuations of Trump’s apophasis’ deployed not towards the ‘stillness and awe’ of the mystics of love, but ‘to generate fetid speculation, slander, and libel’. Their surplus is not a trace of sublime but a ‘sickly residue’. Nor is it hard, given its long flirtation with mysticism, to imagine or discern seeds of full-blown apophatic fascism. For Gillian Rose, criticising ‘Holocaust Piety’ for which the event’s ineffableness demands ‘silence’, ‘the argument for the overcoming of representation, in its aesthetic, philosophical and political versions, converges with the inner tendency of fascism itself’.
The wager here is that such convergences are not inevitable, that there are counter-tendencies, a negative that cleaves towards liberation. And, further, that apophasis is intrinsic to Marxism and its politics, nothing to disavow or fear, but crucial to understand.
The Famous Positive: Beyond Capitalism
The wasteland that is Goodness No foot has trod.
Created understanding Never enters there.
Anon (Meister Eckhart?), ‘The Granum Sinapis’
Marx, famously, did not describe in any detail the free, classless future for which he strove. In a preface to Capital, he announced himself disinclined to detain himself ‘writing recipes … for the cook-shops of the future’, mocking those who criticised him on this point (‘imagine!’).
That there are fragments of hopes and predictions in his writings is not in doubt, as the work of Peter Hudis and Bertell Ollman, among others, makes clear. What results is intriguing and partial. Ollman’s claim, however, that ‘Marx’s objection to discussing communist society was more of a strategic than of a principled sort’ misses a key point.
When in The German Ideology, Marx insists that communism is not ‘an ideal to which reality will have to conform itself’ but ‘the real movement which abolishes the present condition’, it is precisely the immanence of a radical alterity that precludes its being spoken. Whatever Marx may at times have thought, or thought he thought, was possible, whatever passing glimmers of vision one might glean from him, it is no surprise that he never, despite Engels’ pleas, wrote ‘the famous Positive, what you “really” want’. Because ‘[w]hat we have here’, as Colin O’Connell astutely puts it in ‘Marxism and the Logic of Futural Discourse’, ‘is an image of the future primarily based on the via negativa.’
How could it be otherwise? Social totality is fractured and fractious, but as David McLellan says, ‘[i]f all ideas were a product of contemporary social reality’ – and they are – ‘then a detailed projection of those ideas into a distant future was bound to result in idealism – ideas that were completely imaginary since they lacked an empirical referent.’ It is not that no notions can be entertained, as the rich traditions of utopianism attest: it is to insist that whatever their undoubted uses, as dreamwork, provocation, thought experiment or myth, and no matter how things ultimately turn out, such projection cannot, properly, be rigorous predictions. Our thinking is a function of our reality: the beyond, definitionally, is unthinkable. To try to describe it can lead, as the Neoplatonist philosopher Damascius says, only to ‘vain rhapsodies’.
This is acutely so for so very yearned-for an immanence, a redemption. Nicholas of Cusa called God possest, a fusion of possibility and being that Keller renders ‘possi-being’, and the parallels with a post-capitalism we deserve, Bloch’s ‘genuine, concretely-mediated and processually-open’ utopia, are hard to ignore. God ‘is a good so great that he cannot be thought or understood’, writes Angela of Foligno in the thirteenth century: ‘[s]o great was the joy’ of God’s presence, for the nineteenth-century African-American visionary Jarena Lee, ‘that it is past description’. This is the encounter in apophasis with fullness, justice, redemption.
There are those for whom such apophatic Marxist eschatology is dereliction. On the left, some insist that blueprints for a realistic alternative, the more precise the better, will be the most effective mobiliser. And on the right, the absence thereof is grounds for scorn. ‘Get rid of capitalism’, the naughties banner read, ‘and replace it with something nicer’, and critics assailed that apophatic slogan. The economist John Kay derided its ‘incoherence’, and Timothy Garton Ash wagged a finger at activists ‘much better at pointing out the failings of global capitalism than they are at suggesting systemic alternatives’.
But such sneers redound on the sneerers. It is their imaginations that are impoverished, blind not only (in the case of anti-socialists) to the necessity of a better future, but to its sheer otherness. The request that capitalism be replaced with ‘something nicer’ should be criticised – for its tweeness, its mannered, unthreatening cuteness in place of the fire and salt the moment demands. Its apophasis, however, is by far its best element.
Such unsaying is not evasion but respect, taking seriously the scale of potential, of alterity necessary and possible beyond capitalism, escaping ‘realistic’, articulable, reformist visions truncated by the real, actually-existing hope. It is thus, to appropriate from the eschatology of the theologian Jurgen Moltmann, a hope against hope. Its horizon, like that he recalls from his youth, ‘is a boundary which does not confine but rather invites one to go beyond’.
It is in such unsaying, rather than in anxious left assurance that the world can be said, that true radical Prometheanism inheres.
Chernyshevsky, in his seminal 1863 novel What Is To Be Done?, wrote the revolution itself not with words but with extended ellipsis. Two rows of dots. An evasion of the censor, certainly, this was also an apophatic revolutionism.
In her rich history of ellipsis, Anne Toner calls the sign a ‘visible symbol of agitated narrative’, and in Chernyshevsky’s dots is indeed urgency, rage and hope. A paradox of ellipsis is that it is a normal part of everyday speech – evolving, writes Toner, to become ‘increasingly identified as a feature of ordinary language’ – and yet that it is out of such quotidian silence, particularly for Modernism, that ellipsis marks out ‘the gulfs between the old and the new’, ‘unrealised dimensions’ – a sublime.
What holds for the beyond, a post-capitalism of emancipation, holds too for the wrench by which it might be reached. Apophasis of communism means apophasis of revolution. The break with the social lie must contain surplus beyond expression, to be utter enough a rupture.
In this the socialist revolution is, crucially, distinct from those that come before. The specifics of the relationship of the working class – untidy, heterogeneous, raced, gendered, queered, clamorous – to this transformative unsayable is beyond us here: that it has a particular agency with regard to it, for reasons neither moralist nor voluntarist but structural, remains key. Earlier revolutions reconfigure societies but do not sweep class or exploitation away. Thus, Marx writes of the revolutions of the nineteenth century, for a liberalism which at its noblest is faithful to ideologies of equality and liberty that are precluded by the very structures they legitimate, ‘the phrase went beyond the content’. For the socialist revolution, by contrast, he says in breathtaking apophasis, ‘the content goes beyond the form’.
Here is a red via negativa, for which the unsayable entwines the apocalyptic veil-rending of the world with the utopian horizon glimpsed through the rip; and the ripping itself, the messianic interruption, with the everyday from which it is emergent – the revolution being close, immanent even if not imminent. In extremis, as Creston Davis puts it of Joan of Arc, ‘revolution and revelation are embodied within the horizon of an individual’. Even absent such heightened moments, there are always politics to ecstasies and visions, with their Sehnsucht, their cessations of suffering, their plenitudes.
If, the eighteenth-century radical Thomas Spence agonised in The End of Oppression, people ‘could but thus become honest and wise enough to cut off at once the resources of the enemy, they might soon get rid of Oppression. But it is a pity they do not perceive the immediate and inexpressible blessings that would infallably result from such a Revolution’. The revolution, like its blessings, is inexpressible, and yet, tantalisingly, it is on the tip of the tongue. Such proximity, that the void out of which the rupture could emerge is the everyday world, superpositions hope and anguish. An expression of which is the lament.
Because no more than one should refuse to mourn can one not yearn. It is, says Keller, ‘a craving for ecstatic relation that after all produces the world’. And for such politics, lamenting and libidinal – the psychic landscape of the erotic and of love is a scree of ‘more than words can say’ – the beyond-words is key. Yearning, what Keller calls ‘hope whose spine is lament’, Sehnsucht, for a fullness, pleroma, redemption and justice we sense but can’t articulate, is inextricable from the apophatic and radical imaginations. ‘Eros is the engine of apophasis’, writes Charles Stang, on whom Keller draws, ‘a yearning that stretches language to the point that it breaks’; and so, as we shall see, reconfigures the atomised subject too – ‘stretches the lover to the point that he splits’.
Out of anxiety at such yearning, such melancholic urgency, arises that bullying ‘cruel optimism’ of a Left pretending to a certainty of certainty, afraid of grief, suspicious of ecstasy.
The Damnation of Language
For the mystery of iniquity doth already work …
2 Thessalonians 2:7
Marx was a contributor to the rich history of what William Clare Roberts calls ‘socialist infernalism’ – a ‘flexible myth’, a ‘history of socialists comparing modern society to a “social Hell”’. The Fourierist Victor Considérant coined the latter term in 1843, comparing the torments of the everyday to ‘the cruelest conceptions of the myths of antiquity’. So it is that in this tradition, the depredations of capitalism find analogies in familiar harrowing descriptions of fire and blood and darkness and noise and despair in the religious literature on Hell.
But beyond such descriptiveness, there is a less common, more contested and esoteric, but no less important tradition regarding the inferno: that it, like paradise, surpasses words. That, as the Anglo-Saxon scholar Tim Flight puts it, ‘[l]ike the souls of the damned, language perishes in hell’. A via negativa of the pit.
‘Why will you not be afraid of the fiery torments, long ago given to the evil demons,’ demands the Anglo-Latin poem De die iudicii, ‘which surpass the senses and words of all men?’ For Flight this is to say that ‘no one can ever encompass hell with words’. Though Otto’s focus is overwhelmingly on the numinosity of God, in one somewhat uncomfortable footnote, he allows that from a systematic approach to the numinous, this bleaker apophasis follows.
The rationalism of the myth of the ‘fallen angel’ does not render satisfactorily the horror of Satan and of the ‘depths of Satan’ (Rev. ii. 24) and the ‘mystery of iniquity’ (2 Thess. ii. 7). It is a horror that is in some sort numinous, and we might designate the object of it as the negatively numinous.
At the cross-fertilisation of these currents arises a socialist infernalist mysticism, an apophasis of the social Hell.
Catastrophe can render us speechless, can hide beyond words. Trauma, says the psychoanalyst Annie Rogers, ‘can become mixed up with something that is unthinkable, and therefore unsayable’.
All horrors are not equal. There are irreducible specificities to shattering experiences and their unsayablenesses. It does not imply a spurious democracy of trauma to parse the social system, of which individual brutalities are functions and excrescences, as itself undergirded by savage violence, with trauma its horizon. So it is that, in a sensitive discussion of ‘experiences that resist language’, Junot Diaz describes as recalcitrant to words particular ‘brutal experiences’ and ‘the perennial horrors of human life’. There is, he says, ‘a reason why we find it so difficult to speak of these things’.
And indeed, in the struggle to express not only individual-level catastrophes but the nature of a system of exploitation, oppression and its sadisms, which is that everyday void established as inextricable from the focus of the red negative way, again and again we reach the limits of words. In the canon of left literature, the sheer enormities of oppression, racism, imperialism, war, are repeatedly described as ‘unspeakable’ (by Eugene Debs, by Lenin, by Gramsci, by countless others). More than a throwaway term, this adverts to something particular about the nature of capitalism and of its depravities. This is not without dangers, as Gillian Rose’s suspicion of ‘Holocaust piety’ makes clear. But piety is about what should not be spoken, rather than what cannot: it is sacralisation, rather than an always-already-failing linguistic striving in, and for the limning of, social hell. And if it is the most extreme social barbarities – slavery, the middle passage, the holocaust – that have in particular repeatedly been seen to exceed words, they are horizons, not pathologies, of the supra-representable system of capitalism itself.
The point is not that one should not speak of the abyss – we should be voluble about it, unflinchingly pile up the details of evil, as does the Engels of The Conditions of the Working Class in England, as does the poet of De die iudicii. But, too, there will always be a bad beyond words. Thus the rubble of language in Etel Adnan’s searing post-colonial threnody The Arab Apocalypse, wherein ‘tongues will turn into tongues of fire’, people ‘threw … language to the garbage’, and the typography, the script of the poem itself is interrupted by desperate, opaque new ideograms. To the lived experience of the oppressed is an inexpressible worseness.
The beyond-representable is, in fact, central to the very engine of the inexpressible system, capital accumulation. According to the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich, capitalism is ‘demonic’, by which category he sublates a certain mythic ‘Satanic’ (from which it is not entirely nor entirely convincingly distinguished) with the system’s structural dynamism itself: thus ‘[d]emonry is the form-destroying eruption of the creative basis of things.’ Tillich draws on Plotinus, whose vision Hilary Armstrong glosses as of the ‘evil infinity of formlessness and indefinite multiplicity’. There is a startling echo of this in Terry Eagleton, who argues in The Ideology of the Aesthetic not only that there is ‘a “bad” sublime for Marx’ as well as a ‘good’, but that it lies ‘in the restless, overweening movement of capitalism itself, its relentless dissolution of forms’. Thus it is that the Catholic Marxist Eagleton and the Frankfurt School Protestant Tillich draw together, in Hell. According to Eagleton:
Money for Marx is a kind of monstrous sublimity, an infinitely spawning signifier which has severed all relation with the real, a fantastical idealism which blots out specific value as surely as those more conventional figures of sublimity – the raging ocean, the mountain crags – engulf all particular identities in their unbounded excess. The sublime, for Marx as for Kant, is Das Unform, the formless or monstrous.
In the opening sentence of Capital, Marx has it (quoting himself) that ‘[t]he wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an “immense collection of commodities”’. It is regularly pointed out that the adjective, ungeheuer, loses something in the usual translation as ‘immense’, specifically implying as it does a sense of the monstrous. But we can go further: Otto is exactly right that ‘“the monstrous” is just the “mysterious” in a gross form’. In fact, his own gloss of ‘ungeheuer’ is ‘in a word, the numinous’. It is, then, not only with largeness and monstrousness that Capital opens, but with numinosity. With, in Otto’s description thereof, ‘mystery, awefulness, uncanny’. As numinous, its subject is ‘fearful’, ‘dauntingly “other” and incomprehensible’.
In this logic, in this abstraction and bad infinite and the concrete barbarisms that rise from it is a limit to cataphasis. ‘The oppression of workers is not mysterious or inscrutable’, insist Fluss and Frim, and thereby they obscure even as they illuminate. Because ‘mystery’ is polysemic, and though it is certainly not opaque, as lived social reality there is always something more to that oppression than can be said. There is a mystery of iniquity.
Communism is unsayable: capitalism is unspeakable.
Everything Is Connected to Everything Else
Marxist convergence with the negative theology of Hell, as well as of Heaven, is not Manichean: it is apophatic precisely in that it abjures any secularised symmetry of Good and Evil, for social totality.
In Thomas Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable, ‘[o]ne of the awful facts of our age is the evidence that it is stricken indeed, stricken to the very core of its being by the presence of the Unspeakable’. It is the Unspeakable, after all, ‘out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience’. But Merton also insists that ours is ‘an unspeakable father’. There is, here, a palpable ambivalence to the Unspeakable: it is no wonder he declares it an ‘eschatological image’, with all the yearning, the pregnancy of rupture that implies.
Translating into Marxian terms, to quote that unrepentant dialectical totaliser Fredric Jameson, a phenomenon can refuse ‘the static habit of conventional ethical logic – the exclusivity of good and bad, of the negative and positive valences’, and it ‘incites us to probe more deeply into the structure of the phenomenon itself in order to touch the dialectic at its core’. So it is that the possible and inexpressible futures, utopian and other, are functions of our terrible and inexpressible present. As are we, too, functions of the dialectical unsayable totality that encompasses them, and us. As such, apophasis is at the heart not only of our social reality but of our agency.
‘The abyss’, says An Yountae, in The Decolonial Abyss, discussing colonialism and slavery, ‘conveys the unspeakable: both the unspeakable pain of the colonial wound and the unspeakable state of the self who lives in the suspended present, awaiting for the unforeseeable future to unfold’. Awaiting and in struggle: to the extent that, as political subjects, we resist, it is in part with language. That language ties us in symbols – without which we cannot do, and/but which our politics demand we understand will fail, too. Symbols are, and must be, exceeded.
A Marvellous Alienation: Apophasis after Ellipsis
What of a beyond-sayable beyond the beyond-sayable rupture?
In 1962, in ‘Alienated Man’, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale, wrestling with Marxism, questions ‘a more or less explicit conviction that the discomfort, the inner void, the impossibility of expressing oneself … is nothing more than the product of a form of maladjustment’. In the model, it is ‘alienation’ (a word that, he justly warns, can mean many things – ‘too many, in fact’) that stops up the mouth. Insisting that it not be read as quiescence before injustice, Montale nonetheless issues a caveat to the Marxist.
There is nothing to prove that in a well-organised society … and in a world that is less brutal and (apparently) less egotistical than the present, the individual is going to be liberated from the feeling of anguish and … the inability to communicate.
Now Montale, after all, is a poet of the inexpressible, for whom, Clodagh Brook says, ‘beyond the limits of words’ may be salvation, ‘an unknown future’. For him, at the conclusion of the poem ‘La primavera hitleriana’ (‘Hitlerian Spring’), no less than for Chernyshevsky, it is in the ellipsis that political redemption might come:
a dawn that tomorrow for all
might break, white but without
those dreadful wings, on the dry riverbeds of the south…
Even pre-redemption, in the fallen now, for Montale ‘silence’, says Brook, ‘intermittently brings revelation’ – in and of a world that will not be said, because (to bring Gramscian/Otto-ian intuition to mind), ‘[t]otalities are outside the range of language’. His caution that a post-alienated world may still be one of anguish, inexpressible, contains an anguish that this may not be the case, that redemption might mean the unsayable’s end. In the warning is a hidden hope that the warning is unnecessary, the ineffable tenacious.
We can’t know, of course, and no such fears should be any reason – as Montale himself makes clear – to make peace with power.
But even allowing Montale’s linkage of the inexpressible with ‘alienation’, in one of its ‘too many’ meanings a way is pointed to a continuing ineffable beyond social anguish. It is in a wrench of rupture that for the thirteenth-century mystic Henry Suso the soul ‘enters a secret namelessness, a marvellous alienation’.
The most hopeful response of an apophatic Marxism to Montale, and the most rigorous, is not to insist that communism would indeed eradicate the inexpressible and that that would be a good thing, but to ask – it can only be a question – whether the overturning of capitalism might diminish anguish, yes, but expand the part of the unsayable in social life, precisely through its raising up of the human?
This might be the passage from a situation of generalised alienation to one of generalised marvellous alienation.
For Fluss and Frim, in their 2017 piece ‘Dialectical Enlightenment’, ‘[i]nsisting that people decide – and that there is indeed a right answer – is not blackmail. Either we accept an intelligible universe or reject it; either we affirm a common humanity or deny it; either we see social revolution as necessary or remain blind to this fact’. ‘Intelligibility’, comprehensibility and sayableness, to which they repeatedly return, is here inextricable from radical action. It is ‘a strain of thought’, they say, ‘that proceeds from an intelligible world to the full emancipation of humanity’.
Such doggedly cataphatic Marxism has the great advantage of clarity. But this model displays the ‘static habit’ of logic Jameson chides. There is more to rationality than rationalism versus irrationalism, let alone than in the model whereby, beyond the limits of the former, that dangerous obverse thrives. If the unsayable is a rebuke to the reductive one, it does not follow that it is a function of the obscurantist other.
Rudolf Otto’s study is (adding emphasis) subtitled ‘An inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine’ – and, we can add, the ineffable more generally – ‘and its relation to the rational’. In his foreword to the English edition, he insists that in focusing on the ‘non-rational’, or what he also felicitously calls the ‘supra-rational’, he does not ‘thereby want to promote in any way the tendency of our time towards an extravagant and fantastic “irrationalism”, but rather to join issue with it in its morbid form’. Far from being soft on the irrational, he calls it ‘a favourite theme of all who are too lazy to think or too ready to evade the arduous duty of clarifying their ideas and grounding their convictions on a basis of coherent thought’. The non- or supra-rational, then, is his heuristic to make ‘a serious attempt to analyse all the more exactly the feeling which remains where the concept fails’.
That phenomenon occurs. It deserves investigation. And though it will not be fully explained, it is dereliction, per binaristic rationalism, to explain it away.
Even instrumentally, such efforts at left disenchantment – at, as Fluss and Frim tellingly put it, displacing ‘the mystery and spirituality that defined the medieval period’ – are hardly more motivating than a socialism that takes spirituality – mystery – seriously. ‘The capacity for enchantment,’ as Seymour beautifully puts it, ‘hard-won in a bitter world, is a more plausible alibi of justice.’
Is said by some to be a bourgeois luxury, which shows
A strange misunderstanding both of soul and bourgeoisie.
David Gascoyne, ‘A Vagrant’
To predict or hope that the numinous would disappear beyond capitalism, in a plenitudinous communism, is a faith position. That it would at the very least be utterly transformed, psychically and socially, is hardly in doubt. But even in conditions whereby the last scrap of theistic belief has ended – which eventuality, notwithstanding any bullish left faith in the Withering Away of religion, is also perfectly moot – it does not follow that the psychic surplus, the beyond, the unsayable, will become sayable. No such prediction is rigorously argued, and nor is it prima facie desirable.
It is no less likely that, say, the fully-flowered human will be vastly more capable of being moved, more affected by and sensitive to the sublime – the view from a cliff, a work of art, by moments that would barely register to us, with our oppression-occluded senses, as aesthetic at all – than is the alienated human. And it is no less likely that she will be no more able to encompass the entirety of such phenomena in words.
The obfuscatory, oppressive unspeakable must and will be swept away: the liberatory, enriching unsayable may – should – flower.
Such distinct elements of ‘mystery’ and ‘mysticism’, conflated by Continuity Radical Enlightenment, Keller elegantly and vitally disentangles. The rupture, she insists, must be ‘an emancipation of mystery from mystification’.
Hesychastic Coda: For a Communism of Silence
Every last body on this earth has a particular notion of paradise.
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
The Left has long insisted against the canards about drab grey conformity that socialism will be carnivalesque. Colourful, noisy. As a time of reconstruction, contestation and debate, the early days of combined and uneven redemption, it is indeed impossible to imagine it as other than full of sound. Beyond that?
There is – of what is there not? – a political theology to silence. Silentium. 2 Esdras 7:30: Come the messianic moment, ‘the world shall be turned back to primeval silence’.
We cannot avoid political myths, for impeccably apophatic reasons – ‘[s]peaking the language of myth’, Roland Boer puts it of Christian communism, ‘since we fall short of the language appropriate to what has not yet been experienced or what may be known’. Myth, of course, is dangerous and unavoidable, reaction and radical inspiration, sometimes at once. Cautiously, we cannot not deploy it.
Capitalism is catastrophe, exhausting, brutal, quite unrelenting, it just will not give us a minute, and it is too fucking loud. How could there not be those of us for whom the myth that keeps us striving, in full knowledge that we can’t know what will be, in fact whatever, however clamorous, the desperately needed thereafter might be, the yearning that drives us to deploy the insights of words and of the silences therein and beyond, is for the quiet of the deep, of stone, a chorus all speaking that silent underground language, an ultimate abstraction, silence beyond the silent silence as the Gnostics had it, but all heresies aside, for silentium, just to take a breath and hear nothing, for silence itself. Stop, listen. Selah.
China Miéville is a founding editor of Salvage. He is the author of various works of fiction and non-fiction, including The City & the City and London’s Overthrow. His latest book is This Census Taker. He is currently collaborating with Robert Knox on the forthcoming Against International Law.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.