What’s in a Word?


Isaac Levitan, Above Eternal Peace, 1894

by Tabish Khair

At the core of Anton Chekov’s short story, ‘The Requiem’, there is a tussle over a word. Mass is just over in the small village church of Verhny Zaprudy. Andrey Andreyitch, a shopkeeper and an old inhabitant of the village, is angrily summoned by Father Gregory, still standing in his vestments by a door. He thrusts a small note at Andrey, demanding, “Was it you asked for prayers for the rest of Mariya’s soul?” In that small note is written, in big, “staggering” letters, “For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.” Andrey readily acknowledges that he had sent the note.

Father Gregory is livid. It turns out that, unlike what the reader might have suspected, Father Gregory is not angry at being asked to pray for a ‘harlot.’ He is angry because Mariya is Andrey Andreyitch’s daughter. How dare you write such a note, he asks? Andrey fails to understand. For him, his daughter, who had become a well-known actress in Moscow, is a harlot in Biblical terms.

While using the word, harlot, Andrey is nevertheless praying sincerely for his dead daughter: “But you know, the Lord in his mercy… forgave this very thing… forgave a harlot…,” he stutters in response. Father Gregory, on the other hand, is angry because he feels that Andrey is judging his dead daughter, while God has already forgiven her. He sees Andrey’s use of the word as a “sin,” an act of over-subtlety. Father Gregory hectors Andrey, makes him do the penance of ten bows, and organises a requiem in Mariya’s memory. Andrey goes back to the pews and thinks of his last meeting with his daughter, a small girl he had not even noticed growing up into a young woman, so busy was he working as a lackey for the rich. It is these rich people that, out of boredom, had taken the pretty and intelligent young girl in hand, and brought her up with lady-like graces, which had finally enabled her success as an actress.

Andrey thinks of how, three years before her death, Mariya had come to see him, her father. Andrey had hardly recognised her. A graceful young lady, she talked cleverly, “as though from a book,” and dressed elegantly. Just before leaving, she had asked her father to accompany her for a walk along the river. There she had spoken enthusiastically about the natural beauty of the riverside, while Andrey had remarked that the space was simply being wasted, not understanding his daughter’s enthusiasm. Mariya had burst into tears, and “she had cried and cried, drawing her breath greedily with her whole chest, as though she felt she had not a long time left to breathe.”

As the singing continues in the village church, Andrey shakes his head “like a horse that has been bitten,” to stifle painful memories. Then he prays for his daughter: “Be mindful, O Lord, of Thy departed servant, the harlot Mariya, and forgive her sins, voluntary or involuntary…” He does not notice the “unseemly” word drop from his lips, for no exhortation from Father Gregory can drive out what is firmly embedded in his conscience. The short story ends with a beautiful description, slow, sad and alive, of coils of smoke (“like a child’s curls”) drifting up from censor across a slanting patch of sunlight.

I hesitate to theorise about this story, just as I hesitate to theorise about any good work of literature. I hesitate to bring in over-crusted terms, like ‘perspective,’ ‘generation’ or ‘class,’ though in due course we all have to. I feel like I am doing violence to the story if I even say, for instance, that the story is about the differences between Andrey and Father Gregory, and between Andrey and Mariya, both unsurmountable, both containing a degree of care and, in the case of the relationship between father and daughter, genuine love. One of the reasons why I feel any statement like this does violence to the story is that the story itself never puts it in words. Actually, the words in and of the story can be misleading: can a father who calls his daughter a ‘harlot’ actually love her?

But it is exactly, I would argue, because Chekov does not put this and other matters in words that we encounter them with a force that leaves us stunned. And in this context, it is not insignificant that the story hinges around a note, which contains a word, harlot, that obviously carries the same and different meanings for Andrey and Father Gregory.

It is not as if both of them do not understand the dictionary meaning of the word harlot; they do. Yet  even the dictionary meaning of harlot, which they share, is not sufficient; the word has different associations for them; they relate differently to the person that the word has been attached to. In this sense, they are like readers – not only do they approach the ‘primary’ text from different perspectives, they also approach it with different experiences of the world and other texts. As Charles E. Bressler puts it, “Our response to any text, then […] is largely a conditioned or socially constructed one; that is, how we arrive at meaning in fiction is in part determined by our past experience.”

But the matter is more complex than that. For instance, it is significant that Chekov employs a word, ‘harlot,’ whose meaning is largely clear and clearly shared by both Andrey and Father Gregory. In the context of the story, it is not an ‘ambiguous’ word. It is not its meaning which is in question but its significance.

Let us pause and look at words again. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We know that this is the first line of the Gospel of John in the Douay–Rheims, King James and other versions of the Bible. This is a line that has spawned reams of interpretation, and my version is inevitably just one of them; I have no metaphysics in mind. For me, the word is just the smallest unit of ‘meaning’ known to humankind. This might be controverted by those who would point out, rightly, that things can hold ‘meaning’ even when they are not expressed in words. For me, what they actually mean is that things can hold significance even when their meaning is not communicable. Significance, even though it is defined as a synonym of ‘meaning’ in dictionaries, comes from a different source: sign. A sign is not a meaning but a gesture or a mark to convey a meaning. The Latin ‘signum’ stands for mark or token. Meaning, on the other hand, comes from ‘mean,’ which stresses understanding and communication: “have in mind, intend, import.” Its source word in Old English and Old Saxon (mênian) stood for “intend” and “make known.” In other words, something can have significance without it being communicable, and something that is not communicable cannot be ‘intended’ or ‘made known.’ If this appears to be a quibble, then let me rephrase my initial definition: the word is the smallest unit of verbal meaning. But, as Chekov shows, the significance of the meaning of a word can vary from person to person, position to position.

If the ‘word’ is seen as the smallest unit of verbal meaning, then the notion that the word was with God and that the word was God is a recognition of the fact that literature and God began as Siamese twins. The unuttered utterance – the word with God – is seen as the source of creation: when God speaks it into being. Although,  this uttering of the word is also literature. All religions have versions of this, and they subsequently insist on the fact that their revealed or sacred texts are the best of literature. (Here, I am avoiding, in this essay, the matter of all known languages being, from an objective perspective, human constructs, and hence the ‘revelations’ of God being, at best inevitably, a matter of translation, with all the dangers attendant on translation.)

But what happens to the ‘word’ once it has been uttered, once it is no longer with God, once it is no longer God? Note that the following problems crop up even if we do not dismiss the existence of God – and, obviously, they are also there when we do.

The ‘word,’ so to say, has entered the realm of humans, and (for the religious) it needs to be protected from human contamination. In different ways, early religions have resisted the profane proliferation of their sacred texts. This is not confined to just the trinity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with their ‘revealed’ and written literatures. Brahminical Hinduism even resisted the writing down of the earliest sacred texts, preferring the method of oral transmission from ‘pure’ Brahmin to ‘pure’ Brahmin. It needed the anti-Brahminical revolutions of Buddhism and Jainism – largely artisanal and ‘middle’ class/caste movements in their early years – to institute the written text as a mode of transmission. This was probably not just because of their ‘artisanal’ and ‘merchant’ following (which implies some secular literacy and writing) and their suspicion of Brahminism, but also because their adherents were initially spread thinly over a large expanse and did not have the institutional network of Brahminical Hinduism. In any case, even though they predate them by centuries in oral forms, major Brahminical Hindu texts are to be found only after the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. It appears that Brahminical texts started being written down – and not transmitted orally – after the example and challenge of Buddhist and Jain texts, and even then the Brahminical preference for oral transmission continued for centuries, as embodied in the stress on ‘shuddh uccharan’ etc.

However, let’s face it: the overlap between literature and God slowly thins out as the ‘word’ of God is crafted by not just the mouths of men, for mouths are more easily controlled, but also by their hands and eyes: the ability of the written word to escape imprisonment is legendary. Though  it is not just imprisonment that the written word can escape. It can escape control – control over meanings. This is not a new point: much of M.M. Bakhtin’s relevance to the study of the novel rests on and develops from it. Or, as the speaker in Tony Harrison’s great elegy puts it, after seeing ‘United’ (signifying a soccer team) sprayed on his parents’ gravestone in Leeds by a skinhead “pissed on beer”:

This pen’s all I have of magic wand.
I know this world’s so torn but want no other
except for Dad who’d hoped from ‘the Beyond’
a better life than this one with my mother.

Though I don’t believe in afterlife at all
and know it’s cheating, it’s hard not to make
a sort of furtive prayer from this skin’s scrawl,
his UNITED means ‘in Heaven’ for their sake,

an accident of meaning to redeem
an act intended as mere desecration
and make the thoughtless spraying of his team
apply to higher things, and to the nation.

(Harrison, V)

Of course, this ‘accident of meaning’ in Harrison’s poem is possible only because the UNITED has been written down, as M. M. Bakhtin would have immediately noted. Andrey and Father Gregory have an even more complicated (mis)understanding (over) of the word ‘harlot’, whose meaning is known to both . Once again, it is a written word. It is this gap that the written word introduces that enables the reader to go beyond the “intention” of the author, a matter that Roland Barthes would make much more of. However,  let us return, for the time being, to what we were tracing: the Siamese twin existence of literature and God in early history – or, even, prehistory – and the rise of that surgeon, Dr Writing. Or should it be Professor Grammatology?

Most people in the Western world are familiar with the history of the English Bible. As the common version goes, John Wycliffe, an Oxford theologian and professor, produced the first hand-written English-language Bible manuscripts in the 1380s. With the help of his assistants and supporters, he made various copies of these manuscripts, translated out of the Latin Vulgate, which was the only source text available to Wycliffe. This so infuriated the Pope that, 44 years after Wycliffe’s death, he ordered the professor’s bones to be exhumed, crushed, and scattered in a river. The Pope was not just angry at divergences in teaching; he was upset at the very act of translating the Bible out of Latin and into a spoken language. Hence, when John Hus, one of Wycliffe’s most loyal followers, was burned at the stake in 1415, Wycliffe’s translated Bibles were used as kindling for the fire.

One aspect of this story – not by any means confined to the Christian tradition – pertains to the relationship of God to literature. As Benedict Andersen points out in Imagined Communities, languages like Latin (or Arabic in the case of Islam, and Sanskrit in the case of Brahminical Hinduism) were not just equivalent systems of differential signs; they were considered divine languages. In other words, the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Gita etc. were texts revealed in a special – sacred – language; translation, no matter how accurate, would distort the words of God.

If we put this conflict in the terms of our thesis, we can posit it as a debate between whether God creates literature, or literature (of a certain sort) creates God. The untranslatability of the Bible (and similar sacred texts) is predicated on the priority of God: while God is expressed in the sacred literature, he precedes and exceeds the text. Translations of sacred texts do not deny this relationship (Wycliffe was, in his own ways, just as devout as the Pope), but they insert a human agency that functions a bit like the ghost of doubt. If sacred texts can be translated into another language, with the inevitable differences in nuance if not significance, then in the case of that translated text, surely, God has been demoted. The shadow of human effort always falls between the original and its translation.

Actually, it falls between the ‘revelation’ and its ‘reception’ too, as  any language, even a ‘divine’ one, ceases to simply be a divine language in human mouths. This problem, though, is easier to evade – in a manner similar to how iconoclastic religions, like Islam, can abolish representations (idols) of God as being human, but nevertheless need human attributes, or attributes that can only be understood in the human context, to talk about God (hence, for instance, the 99 ‘names’ of Allah in Islam, each of which is also a human definition or attribute). The evasion of the issue of translation once a ‘divine’ language is heard and spoken by humans becomes difficult to practice once the ‘divine’ language is also translated into another ‘human’ language. Now, the text, as translation, comes before God’s intention, agency and words. This is a logical doubt, and hence stronger than an intentional one: it was by no means the intention of Wycliffe or his followers to question the primacy of God. No one, in the Christian world, really did so until the 18th century of Rousseau, and very few have actually done so since then, including today, despite sometimes considering themselves to be atheists.

But the incision had been made, intentionally or not. It was also made in different yet similar ways in other cultures too: for instance, among the Falsifa and then the radical Sufis in the context of Islam; among religions/sects like Buddhism, Jainism and later the radical Bhakti singers in the context of Brahminical Hinduism (citations needed). Over the years, this imperceptible incision would widen, as the Pope feared, though in other terms. ‘God’ would continue to express himself through literature, but increasingly literature would be used to express ‘God’: Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-shikwa provide obvious aspects of this. This develops in different ways over the centuries: For instance, Gauri Viswanathan’s convincing argument that the institutionalised teaching of English literature – as against the classics etc. – began in the colonies as a compromise between Christian proselytising and secular administrative pragmatism. So much more was to  come, inevitably. If God needed to be ‘justified’ in literature, as Milton thought, literature could also critique, deny and even replace God. William Blake felt that the devout Milton was unknowingly of the devil’s party, and for Blake it was a point in the blind bard’s favour. Bertrand Russell argued in a literary essay that he was not a Christian. However,  does the refutation of God necessarily do away with God, even in literature? One is reminded of the ‘God-shaped hole’ that Salman Rushdie mentions in one of his novels, and that many readers have filled with literature itself. (This, again, is a matter that needs to be examined in detail, but it cannot be in this essay.)

However, in this essay, we can conclude by highlighting the trajectory of literature and God (or, if you wish, religious thought): how, having started off as conjoined twins, the two were gradually separated. The contention over the ‘spiritual’ and other meanings – or rather, significance – of the word, ‘harlot’ in Chekov’s story is also a reflection of this: Father Gregory’s understanding and Andrey’s reading of the same word vary partly also because of the separation of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular,’ though this is not an opposition in their case. This separation was and is not always complete – various kinds of religious literature continued to be written, and continues to be written. Moreover, the secular remains informed by the religious. This is not new either. Even literature that did not set out to be religious in an institutional manner was informed by the notion of the divine. For example, following a basically Protestant suspicion of the institution of the Roman Catholic church, many Romantic poets and thinkers of the 18th century substituted the church with ‘nature.’ William Wordsworth, among others, highlighted this connection very often. His poem, ‘It is a Beauteous Evening,’ starts with a description of the evening, reminds the reader of the act of worship in a church in the very second line (“The holy time is quiet as a Nun”), evokes the “the mighty Being” that is “awake” and “eternal,” moves on to the innocent child who is naturally immersed in the place, and ends with: “God being with thee when we know it not.” The Romantic slippage from God in the church to ‘God’ in Nature is an example that does not even need elaboration. More ordinarily, when I moved to Denmark, I was amused by how many Danish (Protestant) families who would not attend church would religiously go for a family walk in ‘nature’ on Sundays.

In short, the trajectory of literature is intertwined with and also strains against the career of God: it comes into existence as divine utterance or divinely inspired utterance, passes into various kinds of inspired utterances that, though ostensibly secular, are still informed by something like the divine spirit – be it Nature or the imagination – and also, inevitably, develops into an alternative kind of (human) utterance about the world and human realities. God can hardly come into existence – and definitely not as institutionalised religion (for mystical options are always personal and subjective) – without words, organised words, written words, literature. Yet literature, once it comes into existence and moves away from the divine utterance, takes over the concerns of religion too: words and the visible world, as well as all that might elude words and exist beyond the visible world. Some friction is inevitable. There needs to be space for this friction to be uttered, expressed, discussed and recorded. Finally, it is in this necessary space that all versions of fascism – political or religious – are resisted.


About the Author

Born and educated up to his Masters in Bihar, India, Tabish Khair is a novelist, poet and critic. Winner of the All India Poetry Prize, his novels have been shortlisted for the Encore Prize, Man Asian, the DSC Prize for South Asia and other prestigious awards in six countries and translated into seven languages. His study, The New Xenophobia, was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Prize in India. His most recent novel is Night of Happiness (Picador, 2018). Having worked as a staff reporter for The Times of India in Delhi, Khair obtained a PhD from Copenhagen University and now teaches at Aarhus University, Denmark, where he also did a DPhil. He has been awarded fellowships at Delhi, Cambridge, Hong Kong, Leeds, and York.

Frontpage image: Isaac Levitan, Church in Plyos, 1888


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