Tuesday, June 5, 2012

the book and the container for the thing contained

 the book in the picture is probably as famous as any except perhaps the gutenberg bible: the book of kells. it is famously and profusely illustrated, but it is also itself an illustration of the power of meda, and the difficulty of co-existence of the two great powers of symbolic speech and the written word. far more decisive than such 'decisions' as the council of whitby--there were after all those monks who did not accept osway's decision and left his little kingdom; even i today in an act that is mostly symbolic, and a small nuisance, continue 'celtic tonsure'--were the written copies of the gospels and psalter they carried with them.

the book of kells is a beautiful but typical attempt of an old medium--traditional celtic, or insular, symbolic carving--to contain the new medium--the written word.  but as mr. mcluhan so insistantly told us half a century ago, the medium is the message.  whatever may have been particular about 'celtic christianity' was doomed when monks could read the psalms instead of memorizing them.

i like this post-modern icon of st. chad for a number of reasons, two of which are his celtic tonsure and his empty hands. there is still (again) the possibility of the word being spoken, and of the spoken word being understood as symbol of the word made flesh about whom john had spoken in the beginning of his gospel, the particular favourite of the celtic church. (for an interesting discussion of the ambivalent term logos in holy scripture, see umberto eco, semiotics and the philosophy of language (bloomington, 1984), pp. 147-153.) wilfred'sbooks even more than the support of rome meant that such an understanding of the word as symbol would not long survive.

the more widely accepted understanding of the word would be seen in this icon, with a more normal depiction of chad, with his teacher st. aidan. my patron has been given a proper roman tonsure and a book.  aidan's tonsure remains--unless he was simply bald--and he holds the required book. the book would remain central to the western church for the next millenia and a half.  not that the book wasn't important to the eastern (orthodox) church and the church of the east.  but partly at least because of the continuation of the oral tradition in the syrian church, and if mcluhan is correct, the shortage of papyrus in the byzantine church, as well as the differences between latin and greek and syriac with it's daughter languages, the book in the west became close to being the object of worship, the thing which itself was holy.  of course.  it was the medium. it was the message.  in the byzantine liturgy the gospel book is kissed and censed at its reading, but it is the open book, the words it contains.  the ultimate western veneration of the book can be seen in dozens of protestant chapels, where the closed 'holy bible' is reserved, as it were, on the central altar.  and throughout much of the united states, at least, and those parts of canada i've visited, there are 'bible churches.'

all of this seems distressingly distant from the understanding that the letter kills, while the spirit gives life, a thought floating through my mind as i write this on tuesday in the octave of pentecost.

what has all of this to do with the new creation of my paschal koan?  perhaps not much, except that it helps me to recognize the differences between a world-view in which the creator is identical with the creation, one in which the creator is imminant in the creation, and one in which the creator takes on the stuff of the creation and becomes part of it without becoming less its creator.